Foreign Cinema: A Beacon of Brunch in San Francisco

With the hustle and bustle of holiday season behind, I have a rekindled enthusiasm to discover my new playground in San Francisco. This past weekend, the city beckoned me to drop in and experience her brunch scene. Deciding to go was the easy part. Determining where to go was the challenge.

A simple Google search for “brunch in San Francisco” will generate a laundry list of local and national sources claiming to know the “15 hottest brunch restaurants”, “10 best brunches”, and “top ten brunches” in the city. Yelp has over 1,000 entries for brunch in San Francisco, and OpenTable has close to 200 restaurants available for brunch reservations at any given time. Further investigation of this holy meal for Bay Area urbanites uncovered that it’s not uncommon for people to stand in line for an hour and a half just to snag a table at their favorite spot.

Help! How’s a girl to choose?

Amid the hunt, one restaurant continued to top any list or review I read. In the heart of the Mission District, Foreign Cinema appeared to be a brunch institution for San Franciscans. Top that with a table reservation at 1pm, and boom! Let the mimosas flow and the bacon sizzle.

For starters, we had the pear-cranberry pop tart.

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I had the baguette French toast with apples, candied pecans and maple tangerine butter.

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Stewart had the croque madame.

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And I enjoyed a plate of slow-cooked brown sugar bacon. No, really. With the exception of one slice, I pretty much demolished this single handedly.

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Overall rating of Foreign Cinema = A+

The restaurant was beautiful, the service was most attentive, and the food was delicious.

Brunch, aside, you can bet I’ll be back here for dinner and a movie. As the restaurant’s name implies, foreign and independent films are screened in their outdoor courtyard each night beginning at dusk. And my favorite Wes Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom, is currently playing.

Keeping in line with Foreign Cinema’s theme, here’s Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de L’amour” from Moonrise Kingdom‘s soundtrack.

Passion for Crêpes

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I was feeling très français this weekend. Actually on Friday I felt like shooting myself in the foot after two consecutive days at the DMV. But I finally have my California driver’s license and car registered! Upon leaving that beautiful cinder block of a building, I drove straight to the mall for a little retail therapy. I don’t think it needs further justification since I mentioned spending two days at the DMV. But what puzzles me is how I walked away from shopping with a crêpe pan from Williams-Sonoma and not a single article of clothing. I guess when it gets down to it, I’d rather feed my belly than clothe my back.

Having said that, these dainty French pancakes were on the weekend menu at my house! Dessert crêpes (or crêpes sucrées) are generally pictured with a mound of whipped cream and some variation of fruit compote or a spread of Nutella and bananas oozing from the center. My mom would cook them most mornings when we lived in Brussels, making them a childhood favorite. She would coat the center in brown sugar and roll them into breakfast burritos. For us American kids in Europe, I suppose a crêpe sprinkled with brown sugar was the closest thing to flap jacks and maple syrup. And it’s still my favorite way to enjoy a crêpe today.

Up until yesterday, I didn’t know the first thing about mastering this festive dessert. I was in need of both a batter recipe and a teacher. When it comes to educating Americans about French cooking, Julia Child wrote the book. I appreciate how she guides you through each dish – from prepping the ingredients to serving suggestions. So when my Type A personality flairs up, Julia is there to give me step- by-step instructions with ample detail. Thus, I made her my guardian angel in the kitchen and got to work.

The first step was getting my skillet nice and hot, using a pastry brush to coat the pan with cooking oil. I initially misinterpreted Julia’s direction on using 2-3 tablespoons of cooking oil. Clearly she meant to use that amount over the entire course of making these crêpes, as you grease your skillet in between each one. Because when I ladled my first portion of batter over 2 tablespoons of hot oil, my crêpe looked more like a funnel cake. Once I backed off and lightly oiled the pan, my second crêpe yelled “Bonjour, Paris!”

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For the size of my skillet (a French crêpe pan), ¼ cup of batter was all I needed to produce a single pancake. You could also use an American skillet or an omelet pan. Depending, you may need to increase/decrease your batter portions. The key thing to note here is that you have about 2-3 seconds to run a thin layer of batter all over the bottom of the pan before returning it to heat for another 60 seconds. It’s all in the wrist as you tilt the skillet in a circular motion. After a few tries, you find your rhythm and get into the groove.

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Once it’s time to turn the crêpe, Julia says you can use your spatula or grasp the edges nearest your fingers and sweep them up and over into the pan. I used a handy dandy spatula because my fingers couldn’t take the heat. She also says you could toss the crêpe over by a “flip of the pan”. Maybe next time I’ll try to be an acrobat over the stove flame. But yesterday I just wanted to focus on creating a pancake worthy of being called a crêpe.  

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The second side of the crêpe only takes about 30 seconds to lightly brown. Then you’re ready to slide the crêpes onto a rack to cool for a few minutes before stacking them on a plate.

I kept my stack of crêpes warm in the oven (about 200 degrees and covered with tin foil) until all were made and it was time to eat. You can make crêpes in advance and reheat them as needed. Julia notes that they freeze beautifully. Since I only had a few left over, I stored mine in the refrigerator and am enjoying them over the next few days.

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Below are the crêpe batter recipe and an abbreviated set of instructions. If you’d like to learn more about making these French pancakes, I highly recommend purchasing a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

If I could create a soundtrack that depicts past strolls through Paris, Hot Club of Detroit’s “Passion” would be the first song on that list. Sounds of the accordion and jazz guitar have me daydreaming about French cafés, crêpes and culture all day long.

Julia Child’s Crêpe Batter

Ingredients:
1 cup of cold milk
1 cup of cold water
4 eggs
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups of flour
4 Tbs melted butter

Directions: Put the liquids, eggs and salt into the blender. Add the flour and then the butter. Cover and blend at high speed for 60 seconds. Make sure all flour that may have stuck to the sides of the blender is incorporated into the mix. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To Make the Crêpes
*You will need an iron skillet or crêpe pan, 2-3 Tbs cooking oil, and a ladle or measuring cup to hold ¼ cup of batter (or 3-4 Tbs).

  1. Over medium-high heat, brush the skillet lightly with cooking oil and wait until the pan is just beginning to smoke.
  2. Immediately remove the skillet from heat, holding the handle of the pan in your right hand. With your left hand, pour ¼ cup of batter into the middle of the pan. Tilt the pan in all directions to run a thin film of batter across the entire bottom. This entire process should only take 2-3 seconds.
  3. Return pan to heat for 60 seconds, and then jerk the pan back and forth to loosen up the crêpe. It’s time to flip sides. Using a spatula, sweep the crêpe up and over again into the pan (in a reverse circle). Let this side lightly brown for about 30 seconds. Note from Julia Child: This second side is rarely more than a spotty brown, and is always kept as the underneath aspect of the crêpe.
  4. Once the crêpe is finished cooking, slide it onto a rack to cool for several minutes. Then stack them on a plate (or keep warm in the over) until they’re ready to serve.
  5. Bon Appétit!

Cranberry-Apple-Pumpkin Bundt Cake

Happy Fall Ya’ll!

I finally succumbed to the power of the pumpkin. And this is the culprit.

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It was that simple. No flipping through the pages to see if the recipes inside were worth buying the entire magazine; they are by the way. No minute pondering whether or not I really needed another food magazine; one can never have enough. All it took was that pretty little picture of a cranberry-apple-pumpkin bundt cake, and Southern Living’s publication was as good as sold.

Fall is probably my favorite season, which makes me every retail marketer’s favorite consumer from September to November. I’m talking to you Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and Starbucks. Slap a turkey on any dishware, and I’ll want a set of four. I’m also perfectly happy making my own pot of coffee in the morning. But when it comes to a pumpkin spice latte, I’ll wait in line with the rest of the caffeine addicts. I do know where to draw the line, however. I do not purchase Christmas decorations (or gifts) before we’ve even had a chance to celebrate Halloween. Let’s show some respect for the candy companies and All Hallow’s Eve, shall we?

Aside from my love of big orange pumpkins and turkey paraphernalia, this time of year gives me a hankering for cranberries, apples, pecans, sweaters and riding boots. And that’s the beauty of this cake. It fulfills all of my favorite fall cravings in one slice of dessert, minus the apparel. Did I mention it makes the entire house smell like pumpkin bread and baked cinnamon apples?

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The appeal of this cake is also in its visual presentation with mounds of fruit and nuts baked right in the middle. Once the first piece is cut, you see a beautiful contrast of color, texture and flavor. Prior to baking this cake, the only thing I knew how to stuff was a gift bag with tissue paper. And even though my layer of filling wasn’t perfectly centered, I’m just happy that I baked this bundt right! The outcome is a dessert that will have you and your guests oohing and aahing over fall’s sweet harvest.

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I would also recommend that you don’t omit the maple glaze for the sake of saving yourself a few calories. It’s not worth it. The maple syrup adds an extra element of taste. I just tell myself that pumpkin is a fruit, so this dessert is technically healthy.

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Fall makes me giddy with thoughts of cooler temperatures, pumpkin patches and the upcoming holiday season. When it comes to music, nothings makes me quite as giddy as a 80s pop song. That’s why I love Haim – three sisters from Los Angeles whose music channels a modern version of Wilson Phillips, Bananrama, or The Bangles. Their song “Falling” is currently on my iTunes playlist in repeat mode.

 

Cranberry-Apple-Pumpkin Bundt Cake

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1 1/2 cups peeled and diced Granny Smith apples $
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted $
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped sweetened dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened $
  • 4 large eggs $
  • 1 (15-oz.) can pumpkin $
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Bake pecans in a single layer in a shallow pan 6 to 8 minutes or until toasted, stirring halfway through. Cool 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325°.
  2. Toss diced apples in 2 Tbsp. melted butter to coat in a medium bowl; add cranberries, next 2 ingredients, and toasted pecans, and toss until well blended.
  3. Beat granulated sugar and 1 cup butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition. Add pumpkin and vanilla; beat just until blended.
  4. Stir together 3 cups flour and next 3 ingredients. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture, beating at low speed just until blended after each addition. Spoon half of batter into a greased and floured 10-inch (12-cup) Bundt pan. Spoon apple mixture over batter, leaving a 1/2-inch border around outer edge. Spoon remaining batter over apple mixture.
  5. Bake at 325° for 1 hour and 10 minutes to 1 hour and 20 minutes or until a long wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes. Remove from pan to wire rack; cool completely (about 2 hours).
  6. Prepare Maple Glaze; immediately spoon onto cooled cake.

Maple Glaze 

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons butter $
  • 1 tablespoon milk $
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup powdered sugar

Preparation

  1. Bring maple syrup, butter, and milk to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly; boil, stirring constantly, 2 minutes. Remove from heat; whisk in vanilla. Gradually whisk in powdered sugar until smooth; stir gently 3 to 5 minutes or until mixture begins to thicken and cool slightly. Use immediately.

Hot Chicken Gives Me the Feelin’

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Yesterday I drug my cast iron skillet out from the cabinet’s top shelf and placed it on the stove with both excitement and doubt. I’ve not always had the best of luck when it comes to the frying pan, and I wasn’t convinced this chicken wouldn’t end up in the category of “homemade dinners gone wrong”. But no matter the outcome, I couldn’t resist the chance to create my favorite piece of fried meat – Nashville’s hot chicken. (Re: Best of Nashville).

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I had only lived in California a few weeks when The Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition featured an article on fried chicken. Josh Ozersky wrote about the regional and cultural variations of this trending dish, and wouldn’t you know Nashville brought it on home with Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and Husk making the list of “11 Great American Fried Chicken Restaurants”. But the best surprise was getting to the end of the article and seeing that Ozersky had reverse-engineered the recipe for Prince’s hot chicken and put it in writing! Be still my heart. Although, little did my heart know I was about to clog its arteries with ample amounts of grease and spice. And for a taste of being back home in Music City, it was totally worth it.

I did my grocery shopping on Saturday, knowing that the chicken would need to sit overnight in a bath of buttermilk and spices. In the land of farm fresh markets, leave it to this Southern girl to be the one in the check-out line with a basket full of lard, canola oil, white bread, buttermilk and hot sauce. That’s right, California. This is what Sunday supper looks like when it comes to soul food.

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The next day I was ready to for things to heat up in the kitchen. I dredged my chicken in the flour, filled that skillet with oil, said a quick Hail Mary and asked my husband to put Chinese takeout on speed dial…just in case.

I don’t know if it was the spirit of André Prince Jeffries or the culinary genius of Josh Ozersky, but the fried chicken guardian angels were looking over me! My chicken turned out a dark, golden brown. And that crispy, fried skin was perfect.

But the pièce de résistance is the hot spice-and-lard paste. This is liquid gold in transforming ordinary fried chicken into hot chicken. Just be careful you don’t inhale too deep when spooning the mixture over the dish. Pretty sure I singed a few nose hairs. Now all that was standing between me and my fried chicken was plating it alongside mac and cheese and baked beans.

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In the words of James Brown, “I got the feelin’” I was back in Nashville the second that first bite of cayenne infused chicken hit my lips. Ozersky nailed the complexity of flavors and the layers of heat that take me back to eating a 2-piece dark plate on the front porch of Hattie B’s with a Yazoo brew in hand.

Hot chicken, you give me a feelin’ that makes me want to shimmy across the floor like the Godfather of Soul. And you pack just as much soul and spice in your little leg as James Brown has in his.  

To get the recipe for Prince’s-Style Hot Chicken and read the full article, click here.

 

 

 

Strawberry Cake Is a Girl’s Best Friend

“Pink is my signature color.”
 – Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias

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Yesterday I stared at a container of fresh strawberries sitting on my counter. They were a beautiful bright red and sugary sweet. I also wasn’t eating them fast enough and feared they would go to waste if I didn’t do something soon. So I started running through some dessert options: strawberry shortcake, strawberry pie, mixed berry parfaits. None sounded appealing. Then it hit me. I wanted to make my first strawberry cake! I’ve yet to run across a slice of strawberry cake that I didn’t like, and I wanted to try my hand at baking one.

At first, the Google search for strawberry cake recipes was a little all over the place. Martha Stewart’s recipe was literally a cake with halved strawberries baked into it. Then there were the strawberry cheesecake options or recipes that called for strawberry gelatin or boxed cake mix.

Where were my wholesome, made from scratch recipes? I like sweet, but not so sweet that it’s going to rot your teeth. And I want the signature pink color of a strawberry cake, but not so pink that it looks like it was sprayed with Pepto-Bismol.

That’s where Deb Perelman and Smitten Kitchen came to the rescue. I’ve always wanted to try a Smitten Kitchen recipe. And with the name “pink lady cake”, Deb Perelman had me from hello. What about this cake doesn’t already have my name written all over it?

After raiding the grocery’s dairy isle for butter, cream cheese and eggs, I quickly returned home to let the baking commence.

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I followed Smitten Kitchen’s recipe as is. Why mess with a good thing, right? However, I will tell you a few tips I picked up along the way. You may or may not already know these things, but as a self-taught cook/baker, it’s a constant learning process.

Tip #1 – Cake flour
Fear not it your grocery store doesn’t have cake flour in stock. Neither did mine, and pastry flour isn’t the same thing. Luckily, I came across Joy the Baker’s instructions on how to create cake flour using all-purpose flour and corn starch – two items I already had at home. After some sifting, sifting and more sifting, I finally had cake flour and could get to work.

Tip #2 – Buttering pans and parchment paper
The recipe’s instructions said to butter three 9-inch round or 8-inch square cake pans. Then you line it with parchment or wax paper and butter the paper. I went with the round cake pans since that’s what I own. And here’s the deal. Only the bottom of a round pan needs to be lined. The sides of the cake can be easily released by running a knife between the cake and the pan. But the bottom has a tendency to stick or break if it’s not lined with parchment or wax paper. You should have seen me try to line the entire cake pan. Not one of my finest moments; now will it be the last.

Tip #3 – How to keep yourself from eating the entire cake
I don’t actually know the answer to this question. Any suggestions?

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Smitten Kitchen’s pink lady cake is everything a dessert should be: beautiful to look at, fills the room with the aroma of baked goods, and irresistible to eat. The cream cheese frosting was just the right amount of icing and sweetness – complimentary to the strawberry flavor and not overpowering. The cake layers melt in your mouth (dare I use the word moist), and I love when I get a small bite of a strawberry seed. The taste alone makes this cake a winner, and I can’t help but feel my inner princess come out when I look at those light pink layers.

A show stopping strawberry cake deserves an equally famous show tune. Only Ms. Monroe in that iconic hot pink gown singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” can do it justice. Granted, the original version of Marilyn’s performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a classic. But this Swing Cats remix kicks up the sassy factor a few notches.

Click here for Smitten Kitchen’s Pink Lady Cake recipe [Strawberry Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Filling]

Happy at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market

Look at this face. This is my happy face. It’s also the face I make after two glasses of sparkling rosé. Regardless, my mouth was either all smiles or wide open in awe of the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market this past Saturday in San Francisco.

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Overwhelming is the first word that comes to mind when I think of this smorgasbord of farm fresh produce, meats and artisan foods. I was like a kid in a candy store. Everything I laid eyes on needed to be touched, tasted and ultimately taken home.  But I’ll give myself some credit (and dignity). I did not bring reusable grocery bags to the market so that I left only with what I could carry in my own two hands…including my husband’s two hands.

But first, a girl’s got to eat. She needs her strength for all that shopping. And my breakfast from Il Cane Rosso was just the ticket. I devoured their frittata with smoke bacon, onions, red peppers and spinach. So yummy! The hubby got their olive oil fried egg sandwich. He maintains his breakfast selection was better than mine. But since he never offered me a bite of his sandwich, I think the winner for best breakfast choice defaults to me. Plus, check out the view from our table!

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One word of advice for future market visitors: Go early. The farmer’s market is open from 8am-2pm on Saturdays. And with the daily visitors at the Ferry Plaza, you can get into quite the traffic jam by noon.

We finished breakfast around 10am and decided to survey the outdoor market. As I rounded the street corner to observe the scene, I was hit with the intoxicating scent of lavender. Beautiful bouquets of lavender wrapped in purple tissue paper were within reach. Now that pretty purple plant permeates my living room. Was it an impulse buy? Absolutely. But I’m not mad about it.

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Moving on, I was simply awestruck at the variety of food at this market. An entire section was devoted to seafood. There were vendors that sold smoked fish and others that featured raw oysters and fresh crab. One farmer displayed a bounty of leafy greens, and another specialized in all varieties of mushrooms. I saw fish heads, pork belly and bone marrow. I dare you to look up any recipe and not be able to find all of those ingredients at this farmer’s market. That is of course unless your recipe calls for something such as marshmallow fluff.

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After surveying the market, I wasn’t ready to part ways with this heavenly place quite yet, so I decided to postpone purchases and make my way back inside. Walking past Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, you couldn’t help but notice their dark wood wine bar and the oodles of people sipping back glasses of champagne while watching the shoppers stroll by. And that’s where I found my next stop. See the above mentioned happy face. Luckily I was able to grab the last bottle they had of Oliver Larochette’s Brut, so I can bring back that happy face this weekend over brunch.

After wine, we grabbed a latte courtesy of Blue Bottle Coffee and set out to shop. Sunday was the finale of Breaking Bad, and the last thing I wanted to do was cook. So I decided to purchase items for a fruit and cheese spread. That way we could eat in style while watching how Walter White finally came to his demise.

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Special thanks to all the vendors at the Ferry Plaza and farmers that made me and my tummy happy: Cowgirl Creamery, Boccalone Salumeria, Acme Bread Company, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Il Cane Rosso.

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Pharrell Williams knows the sounds of happiness, and his song “Happy” is the soundtrack to my experience at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. Queue music.

Home Cooking in California

Getting settled into the new house is a work in progress. After two weekends of unpacking, it’s starting to look more like a home and less of a war zone between corrugated boxes and packing paper. Moving into a new place takes patience and persistence – neither of which are my strengths. I’d prefer to be one of those celebrities that pay people to furnish and decorate their new home before moving into it. Nevertheless, I’ll get there.

Of course the first room in the house to be unpacked and organized was the kitchen. Forget the bedroom. I can pull my clothes out of boxes for weeks. This girl’s priorities are finding a home for her baking sheets, cooking utensils and drink ware. Once my prized possessions were cleaned and tucked away into their new cubby holes, it was time to make our first home cooked meal in California.

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One meal in particular possesses a universal feeling of comfort; which is why I chose to make  chicken noodle soup. Roasted chicken and egg noodles make this a hearty dish while the vegetables and broth give off a feeling of nourishment and warmth. The best part about this recipe is that you’ll ladle it into soup bowls within 30 minutes. And after a full day of unpacking boxes, I was looking for comfort food without slaving away in the kitchen.

While the house and I are still getting to know each other, I’m also getting to know my neighbors. They don’t talk much, but we share the same sized appetite.

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Granted these creatures aren’t living in my backyard, but if you ever want to go cow tipping I know places within walking distance.

On the opposite side of Chick-fil-A’s mascots are the mountains.

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So basically I’m somewhere in between the likes of The Sound of Music and The Pioneer Woman. With all this natural beauty surrounding me, I see a plethora of farmers markets and hiking trails in my future. However, I’d say the most exciting aspect of my new home is having access to the best of city life and rural recreation. On any given weekend, I can ski the slopes of Lake Tahoe or strut the sidewalks of San Francisco. Side note: I don’t know how to ski. But there’s a first time for everything!

California is now the sixth place I’ve called home. It’s also the one farthest away from family and friends.  As if I couldn’t love The Head and The Heart any more than I already do, their song “Rivers and Roads” speaks right to those body parts.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 cup of medium diced celery
1 cup of medium diced carrots
3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
2 quarts of chicken stock
2 cups of wide egg noodles
2-3 cups of shredded chicken (Note: I buy a roasted chicken from the market)
1/4 cup of fresh chopped parsley (optional)

Directions:
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add celery, carrots, salt and pepper. Cook for 10-12 minutes until softened. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the noodles. Cook noodles for 10 minutes, then add the chicken and parsley to heat through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

The Good Life in California

My first two weekends as a Californian are best expressed through photos, as no matter of eloquence could do it justice. Saturdays and Sundays were occupied by sailboats and grape vines. Granted the days in between were spent living like a college student while sleeping on an air mattress and eating frozen pizzas, waiting for our furniture to arrive from Nashville. But I like to pretend the entire two weeks in residency limbo were spent like this.

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Three days after our one-way flight to San Francisco, my husband snagged us two seats to go sailing around the San Francisco Bay. A fraternity brother of his is getting his sailing license; and we had the good fortune (and timing) to join. Our only instructions were to bring our favorite 6-pack of beer and snacks for a picnic on the boat. What part of this doesn’t sound like paradise?

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Captain Patrick took us around the bay for five hours! We saw Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, and Angel Island.

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Now I’m convinced I should get my sailing license because you practically had to carry me off the boat in order to leave. I even took in views from the bow as we made our way back to the pier.  

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To top off an already exciting adventure, the Louis Vuitton Cup finals took place that afternoon.

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The following weekend marked our five year wedding anniversary and Labor Day. To celebrate, ideas were tossed around overnight trips to San Francisco and Tahoe. Coincidentally my cousin and his girlfriend were going to be in town, and they invited us to spend Sunday with them in Napa. At this point, I’m thinking life can’t get any better. First sailing and now wine country!

Saturday morning we drove into the city, and did a lot of this:

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Sunday morning we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge into Napa Valley and did more of this:

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The first stop on Sunday was Mum Napa. The best days always begin with a little bubbly, and Mum Napa was a great start. The tour was complete with videos on how they make sparkling wine, and then they end your tour here.

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Every day of life should look like this! I don’t know if I wanted to smile or vomit at the sight of two couples enjoying a private party on the estate grounds below. All four of them looked like they came from East Hampton, and the two guys were casually playing catch. Who are these people, and why am I not frolicking in a sun dress next to them?

Next up was V Sattui. This place is now known to me as cheese and charcuterie heaven. Forgoing a tour at this winery, we selected an assortment of foods from their marketplace and enjoyed lunch on the picnic grounds.

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Feast your eyes on what my stomach feasted on for lunch.    

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You know the expression “save the best for last”? Well, that’s exactly what we did in ending our trip with a tour and tasting at Pine Ridge Vineyards. Sampling the various grapes off the vine, I can’t tell you which one was Pinot vs Cabernet. It all tastes like grape to me. But when it comes to the final fermented product, I know what I like. And Pine Ridge produces some excellent red wines. Sadly, I had to practice a little self restraint on that final tasting lest my title as designated driver be revoked.

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Songs connect us all through music and lyrics. That’s why I chose Kanye West’s “Good Life” to represent my first two weekends in California. He may be singing about Ferraris and poppin’ champagne on a plane, but it’s all relative. His Cristal is my Mum Napa; and his yacht is my free seat on a friend’s rented sailboat.

Life is good.

Best of Nashville

Three weeks ago I packed up the past two years of my life and put them on a moving truck headed to California. As excited as I was for a new adventure out west, Nashville sure made it difficult to leave. Naturally before moving out of town, you create a bucket list of things you have to do prior to parting ways. But my bucket list didn’t consist of the Country Music Hall of Fame or learning how to line dance at the Wild Horse Saloon. Instead I decided to bid adieu to Nashville the only way I knew how. My list was made up of all the bars and restaurants I had to visit one last time. I guess you could say I’m an emotional eater.

Nashville is an exciting to place to be right now. And a big part of that excitement is due to a booming food scene. It would be impossible to list every farm-to-table restaurant, local coffee shop, and burger joint that I deem worthy of the “Goodbye Nashville” bucket list. So I had to go with my gut (literally) and chose a top ten.

Coincidentally, Nashville Scene magazine is about to wrap up their “Best of Nashville” 2013 readers poll. This survey lets the locals vote on the city’s crème de la crème in a variety of categories. But, let’s be honest. The food and drink category is the only one worth mentioning. It’s this poll that dubs the city’s best brewhouse, best chef, and best breakfast each year.

So in the spirit of the “Best of Nashville” contest, I decided to compile my top ten favorite places to eat and drink around town. I think they represent the best of Nashville and certainly the best places I went to during my final four days in Music City.

Note: this list is in no particular order of favoritism.

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1. Husk
Waiting for Chef Sean Brock’s Husk to open was like watching Nashville’s foodies await the birth of their culinary baby. I know I wasn’t the only one frequently stalking the web site and Brock’s Twitter handle for progress updates on the house in Rutledge Hill. Soon after opening, Husk quickly became a favorite lunch spot of mine. Seating on the lower level of the house has beautiful views of the restaurant’s garden and lots of natural light beaming through floor-to-ceiling windows. Although Husk’s menu varies daily, you must try the cheeseburger, shrimp and grits, as well as the biscuits and gravy if they’re featured. I want an entire boat load of that gravy and a lifetime supply of biscuits. Brock’s interpretation of shrimp and grits is also very good. And we all know I love me some shrimp and grits, like all South Carolina girls should. Not to mention I day dreamed about Husk’s cheeseburger for several days after that beef patty first hit my lips.

 

 

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2. Barista Parlor
Barista Parlor should be the Mecca for all coffee lovers. I can’t legitimately call this place a coffee house or a café. It’s too cool for that. With a vintage Americana vibe, this parlor is a renovated transmission shop tucked behind Porter Road Butcher in East Nashville. Inside hipster baristas, clad in leather and canvas aprons designed by Emil Erwin, work among coffee siphons and espresso machines to serve you the best cup of java in town. Not to mention, the breakfast menu and pastries are worth writing home about. How do I secure a full-time job where I can work remote from Barista Parlor every day? It’s my happy place.

 

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3. Five Points Pizza
There are a handful of restaurants in Nashville that make a great pizza. But there is only one pizza parlor that has my heart. If my apartment wasn’t on the opposite side of town, I would have eaten at Five Points Pizza at least twice a week. Dave’s Pie is my favorite. Thin slices of Prosciutto di Parma, fresh basil and pecorino romano cheese decorate the top of this savory pizza pie. The garlic knots are another menu item I can’t resist, but beware. You may forget to leave enough room for the main event!

 

 

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4. Hattie B’s
People usually ask me what food is unique to Nashville. Memphis has BBQ, Cincinnati has Skyline chili, and Chicago has deep dish pizza; but what about Music City? To answer that question, you need to pay a visit to Hattie B’s chicken shack. Hot chicken takes the fried bird to a whole new level…of hotness. Essentially you take buttermilk fried chicken and punch it in the face with a dredge of spices like paprika and cayenne. It is totally irresistible, and Hattie B’s will customize the level of hotness to your liking. If you’re like me and actually want to enjoy the meal while experiencing a slight heat factor, go with the mild or medium level. For the more adventurous (or plain stupid) folks, you can take it all the way up to “Damn hot”. Yes, that’s literally an option. Better have a fire extinguisher handy. Check out the latest feature on hot chicken in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal.  

 

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5. Burger Up
Burger Up is what happens when talented chefs work with local farmers and ranchers to glorify the all-American meal – cheeseburger and fries. But don’t mistake this 12 South restaurant for any ole burger joint. While casual, Burger Up has an air of sophistication with its shabby chic décor.  And don’t expect anything less than scrumdiliumptious when it comes to their beef patties and potatoes. The triple L classic burger is easily on the “best burger I ever ate” list; and the truffle fries might as well be considered a drug because they are addicting.    

 

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6. Local Taco
Nestled in Sylvan Park, Local Taco is the perfect place to dine al fresco and feel a part of the community. It’s quaint, casual and low cost. Who wouldn’t want a tasty taco for less than $3 or a selection of three fresh salsas and chips for $5?

 

 

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7. City House
When it comes to Nashville’s food scene, City House was my first love. Upon being seated at the bar, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the fresh pastas, pizzas and fish being prepared before me. My senses kicked into overdrive, and my appetite craved everything on the menu. For starters, my husband and I each had a few cocktails accompanied by two appetizers: house cured salami and parm along with the assorted olives and taralli. For the main course, we ordered two pizzas: the margarita and the house made belly ham. As if this isn’t enough of a feast for two people, we needed dessert (two desserts to be exact). We ordered the almond ricotta pound cake and the biscuit and peaches. Finally, two cups of espresso topped off the meal. I’d like to say only my first meal at City House was a gluttonous affair. However, it seemed to be a recurring event.   

If you decide to go to City House and prefer the cliff notes version of my meal, order the belly ham pizza and any of their desserts. You won’t be disappointed.

 

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8. Rolf and Daughters
Just go! If the feature in September’s Southern Living wasn’t convincing enough, perhaps the fact that Bon Appétit named Rolf and Daughters the #3 best new restaurant in America will do the trick. This restaurant is more than deserving of the title because the pasta here will blow your mind. I’m still trying to figure out how they can make a dish look so pretty, seem so simple, and yet is this explosion of flavor in every bite. It’s a good thing those bowls aren’t bottomless, because I very well would eat the squid ink canestri and heritage pork ragu until the button pops off my jeans.

9. Fat Bottom
A sunny Saturday, a cold brew in hand, and a patio chair with my name on it are the holy trinity of a perfect summer afternoon. Throw in a selection of micro brews with names like Black Betty and Ginger, and Fat Bottom Brewery has my attention. The number of local breweries popping up in Nashville over the last few years is thrilling, and they’re all noteworthy. Fat Bottom just happens to have the best beer garden for your bottom. Cornhole sets, a covered patio, and a respectable menu will entertain you at this brewery for hours. It’s also family friendly. So let the little ones play while you enjoy a pint.

10. 3 Crow Bar
I love 3 Crow Bar. It doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – a neighborhood watering hole with 2-for-1 specials, a spacious back patio and the best seats in East Nashville to people watch. The Homer Simpson beer quotes on the wall add an endearing quality: “I would kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet beer.” 

The beat for my best of Nashville eats can only be sung by an equally great Music City artist. Nikki Lane reminds me of a cross between Loretta Lynne and Zooey Deschanel; and I’m digging her retro rock ‘n’ roll sound and country twang.   It represents that “it” factor that makes Nashville so infectious. 

Brunch in Chicago

Summertime is when the locals fall in love with Chicago all over again.  Having endured a frigid winter, the first sign of sun and 70 degree weather brings everyone out of hibernation. Swimsuits line the beaches along Lake Shore, boats cruise down the Chicago River, and restaurants open their patio seating. Fortunately, I got to enjoy summer in the city this past weekend. My husband had to travel to Chicago on business, so I tagged along and went to Chicago for pleasure.

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Having spent my college years in the Windy City, there are few touristy things I haven’t done. But there is one in particular. The ledges off of Willis Tower (Sears Tower as I still call it) were built two years after I left. And as I stepped off the El, and found myself in front of the world’s eighth-tallest building, I knew what I had to do.

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That’s not a green screen behind me, people. That is me (petrified) standing in a glass box – 103 floors up in the air! There may be a smile on my face. But my hands were clenched in prayer, and I was two seconds away from yelling at the woman that offered to take my photo to “hurry the hell up before I faint”. I’m generally not one who is fearful of heights. But when I can see what lies beneath me from 1,353 feet off the ground, I know there’s a one way ticket to see Jesus with my name on it should the bottom fall out from under me.  After a failed first attempt, I finally mustered up the courage to walk back onto the ledge and capture my Kodak moment. Say “cheese”!

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It’s a good thing I didn’t eat before that adventure because I surely would have left my breakfast on the Skydeck floor of Willis Tower. On that note, let’s talk about eating: my favorite pastime.

My trips to Chicago are inevitably planned around meals and booze. And I see my friends based on their availability to join me for said meals and booze: breakfast, lunch, cocktail hour, dinner, after dinner drinks, and fourth meal. All of these are applicable dining opportunities while on vacation. But my favorite is brunch. Brunch lets you eat a burger and fries at 10am, or you can have pancakes at noon. Did you want some cocktails with that? Brunch doesn’t care. You’re welcome to all the Bloody Marys and mimosas your hung-over stomach can handle.

Upon the recommendation of my best friend of more than 20 years, we met at my new favorite brunch spot – a quaint Wicker Park establishment called Lokal. Here are the top three reasons I loved Lokal:

  • Bottomless mimosas for $7. Lokal understands that bottomless and mimosas should spend all eternity together because they are a lush’s match made in heaven.

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  • Pork belly and eggs. The belly of a pig is one of my favorite pieces of meat, and Lokal’s does not disappoint. Served with two poached eggs and roasted potatoes.

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  • Nutella Frites. Here’s the deal. I met Hollis (best friend of 20 years) in elementary school when we lived in Belgium. If there are two things these American girls growing up in Europe know, it is frites and nutella. Lokal’s version is basically nutella filled French toast, topped with fresh whipped cream and berries. As Hollis put it, it tastes like a fluffy funnel cake. And who doesn’t love funnel cake?

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Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart…and stomach. It’s the city where I made the best of friends and met the love of my life. It’s the town that introduced me to deep dish pizza and day drinking. And it’s the place that I will always come back to for the best of both friends and food.

Here to share some of that sentiment is the Parlour’s “I Dream of Chicago”.