Icing on the Cake

by Caroline

The World Series is over, our team won, and our black and orange meals won’t be baseball-related anymore — though they’re so seasonal, I’m sure they’ll continue.

But today, after a long and fabulous day at the Giants’ ticker tape parade, we didn’t have it in us to cook anything. We opted for dinner out at one of our favorite local places. The menu changes with the seasons (tonight I had a great lasagna with kale, roasted squash and hazelnuts) but retains enough standards that the boys — not the most adventurous eaters — can always count on their favorite salads and pasta. And we can always count on sharing a piece of ginger cake with pumpkin ice cream for dessert. It’s so good we don’t order the excellent chocolate cake. It’s so good the boys hold spoons ready to dig in the minute they see the waiter approach with our order. It’s so good I practically had to bribe the boys with extra bites so I could take a picture before it was devoured:

It’s so good the newspaper printed the recipe not too long ago, so luckily you don’t have to live in my neighborhood, or even my city, to enjoy this cake; here you go. Enjoy.

Giveaway! Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid

by Caroline

I love food and cooking, love raising and feeding my kids, love to write. Sometimes, as in this blog, those interests intersect and I get to write about the food I feed my kids. Sometimes, almost even better, I get to read about someone else doing all of that. This is one of the many pleasures of Melanie Rehak’s new memoir, Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

A few years before her first son, Jules, was born, Rehak began to read more about food and food production – she read Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and Wendell Berry – and the more she read the more she wanted to learn, first hand, about the food she bought and cooked each day. That growing interest , coupled – at the birth of her child – with a growing person for whom she was (with her husband) responsible for feeding, brought her curiosity to a head:

“What really happened…was the unavoidable collision of two worlds of information—parenting and eating. To begin with, there, in the form of my baby son, was an actual person for whom I wanted to leave the planet in decent condition. That goal was no longer just a noble abstraction. Then there was the amazing fact that I had before me in a highchair someone who had literally never tasted anything, whose body had yet to be tainted by MSG in bad Chinese take-out, or clogged by palm oil ‘butter’ on movie theater popcorn, or compromised by pesticide residue. I was unprepared for both the sheer weirdness of this – was it possible that I actually knew a person who had never eaten chocolate?—and the huge responsibility I felt to get it right. . . .Some part of me resented the fact that something that should have been a pure pleasure, teaching a person to eat, was now so complicated. ”

Oh, Melanie, I hear you.

Now, some of us would spend more time at the library or bookstore, reading everything we could get a hold of about food, nutrition, parenting. Others might just throw their hands up in confusion and defeat, and continue feeding their kids the way, for better or worse, they were fed themselves. Some of us join CSAs, buy local, visit farms. But most of us don’t make the decision Rehak did, which was to volunteer to cook at a local restaurant, Brooklyn’s applewood (yes, applewood, “the lower case a,” Rehak writes, “being a choice the owners hoped would convey plenty in contrast to the sharp, aggressive point of the capital A they had foregone.” A small point, but to me, unfortunately, it never looked like a proper name no matter how many times I read it in this book, and always like a typo). She decides the best way to learn about food is to make it herself, in a small, family-run restaurant whose generous and amazingly accommodating owners, David and Laura Shea (the parents of two young children themselves) buy their restaurant’s meat and produce from small local farms. She also visits those food producers –a cheesemaker, a farmer, a fisherman, a food distributor – riding along in their tractors and trucks and seasick-inducing boats, not just taking notes, but hauling and picking and cleaning – to get a better understanding of the exhausting labor behind writing the restaurant’s menu each night. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes tour, and Rehak’s prose brings these individuals vividly to life.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is offering ten free copies of Eating for Beginners to Learning to Eat readers. Just leave a comment below saying why’d you be interested in reading the book; the first ten to comment get a book!

Edited to add: For any of you on Goodreads, Melanie Rehak is participating in a Q&A there for the next couple weeks, so click on over to contribute!

A Bad-Good Day

by Caroline

When my friend Ursula moved to Portugal for a year and said she had room for us all to come stay, I started looking into airfares. When she started posting pictures of Portuguese pastry on her website, I booked the tickets. She wrote me about her favorite pastry shop in Lisbon, and said we could stop in on our way home from the airport.

Now I happen to think that all food is stories, but the story behind Pasteis de Belem is a particularly good one, involving nuns and a secret recipe over two hundred years old.

There was no way I was missing a trip to this bakery. But our flight arrived too late in the afternoon to go out for what’s really a morning pastry snack, and besides, there was a medieval fair to attend. We kept the pastry shop high on the to-do list and went to bed.

Not many hours later, Ben appeared at the side of my bed. Before I could even think to curse the jet lag which I assumed had woken him, his face startled me wide awake. He was grimacing in pain, sweaty, crying. He clutched his left side and moaned as he crawled in next to me. I thought at first that he’d gotten sick from his candy apple dinner the night before, but he insisted it wasn’t his stomach, but a spot lower down, on the left. I flashed to countless readings of Madeleine and Tony googled “appendicitis,” which confirmed everything we were witnessing. I woke Ursula, and her husband drove us into Lisbon, quiet in the pre-dawn hours, to visit the pediatric ER.

And this is where the story suddenly improves. Not just because the walls of the ER were painted with a space theme that delighted my child, and not because the wonderful doctor addressed herself, in perfect English, directly to Ben as she examined him carefully, but because somehow his symptoms all disappeared. Two hours later, instead of sitting by a hospital bed while Ben recovered from an appendectomy, we were sitting in the just-opened, nearly empty Pasteis de Belem, enjoying a sleepy but amazingly delicious breakfast:

The pastry is like a cross between phyllo and pie crust, incredibly light, buttery and flakey, while the egg custard filling is light and not very sweet; the pasteis are served with shakers of cinnamon and powdered sugar (if you get the pastry to go, you’re given perfect little packets of the toppings). They look a little burned on top from being run under a broiler, which just caramelizes the sugar in the filling and gives the pastry topping an unexpected extra crunch. We ate plates full at the bakery, took more home to the rest of the family, and then resumed our vacation, just so grateful that we could.

after the ER

Picadillo, Let me count the ways…

by Lisa

Over labor day weekend, I flew to Los Angeles to visit my friend, Melissa Clark,  the novelist (not the food writer). You can read her book about a girl impregnated by a lazy sperm or catch up with her on her blog.  Melissa is one of those friends you thank the world for every day.  She has kept me sane over many years, and as her blog attests, she is apparently connected to everything in the best way.  Every time I see her, no matter in what city or state, she’s always finding fun things to do, great places to eat, and amazing people to hang out with.  She’s also the one who connected me to my husband.   And on this, long-awaited, much-needed  trip, she not only re-connected me to myself, but connected me to picadillo, a classic Cuban dish of highly spiced, savory-sweet ground beef, with which I fell immediately, irrevocably in love.

Now, this is a little strange, because Melissa is a vegetarian. But she lives on the beach, in Marina del Rey (please don’t stalk her) and we walked to Venice for breakfast at a Cuban inspired restaurant, where I had Huevos con Picadillo.  Aside from the fact that we had a lingering, adult breakfast (imagine…), in the sun, on the Saturday of a long weekend, the picadillo was like nothing I had ever tasted before. It doesn’t look like much on the plate, but the flavors are rich and complex.

When I came home, I scoured the internet for recipes, emailed my friend Richard Fleming who wrote an amazing book about walking across Cuba. If anyone had an authentic picadillo recipe, it would be him. But alas, he did not (which is not, I promise you, a reason not to read his book, you should.)

Rich did write to me that regarding Cuban black beans, in the “Oriente, in the Santiago region, they are made “more flavorful” by the addition of a tablespoon or so of sugar near the end of cooking…”  I used this bit of information to adapt one of the many recipes I  found to come up with one that approximated what I had eaten in Los Angeles.  Almost all recipes call for raisins, but my husband hates raisins, so to add some sweetness, I used ketchup.  This also seemed in line with Rich’s advice to add sugar, and answered the complaint aimed at several recipes that called for the apparently inauthentic tomato paste.

The first night I served the picadillo, the kids stared at it with a ho-hum sort of chagrin.  Then they tasted it. Now, picadillo is one of those dinners that commands universal adoration.  I love it because it has introduced new flavors to our table.  I love it because it is fast, fast, fast to make.  I’ve had trouble getting through the week without making it…

If you prechop the ingredients, you can get from stove to table in under 15 minutes. (Especially if you have your kids set that table for you. )  Also, because we treat the meat more like a delicious side dish/accompaniment and less like the center of the meal (even though it really is the reason to sit down at the table) we can get at least a meal and a half out of a pound of meat.  We eat it with tortillas, rice, black beans, or under fried eggs…

I don’t know how authentic my version is, nor what part of Cuba it might represent, but I can vouch that it will not disappoint.



  • Olive oil
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 medium onion
  • 6-8 garlic cloves
  • 1 small tomato
  • 1/2 cup pimento stuffed olives
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a mini-food processor, finely chop the onions and garlic. Set aside.  Then finely chop the olives, capers, and tomato.


You can do this ahead of time and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook. While many recipes will leave the olives whole, the dish I first had was of uniform texture...

In a saucepan cook onion, garlic, and bay leaves over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent.  Add the ground beef and stir, breaking up clumps with a fork.


Okay, there are 3 bay leaves here….experiment

When the meat is cooked through, add the white wine and let simmer down, then add the olives, capers, ketchup, cumin and pepper and simmer until the picadillo thickens.


Discard the bay leaves and serve warm.

I cannot seem to do justice to the food styling on this one…a pile of ground beef looks like, well…so you will just have to take my word. Just try it.  If you eat meat, you will count the ways, too.

Shaking Beef

By Lisa

Before I was married, before San Francisco’s  Mission district became gentrified and way too hip for me, The Slanted Door on Valencia was someplace I went for lunch.  Lunch was affordable back then–even for a grad student of modest means, and you could get in without a reservation.  I absolutely knew how good I had it.

It was there that I fell in love with Shaking Beef, which my husband & I have since eaten in several restaurants, including one in Paris on our honeymoon. So I was thrilled a few years ago to find this adaptation of Charles Phan’s recipe in the New York Times.  It’s become a family favorite and I’ve made it for family dinners as well as for company. Everyone loves it. The kids beg for it if I haven’t made it in a while.  There’s something about the family-style platter and big bowls of rice and greens that accompany it that make the meal always feel festive.

We haven’t taken the kids to the restaurant yet, but we tempt them often with stories about how good it is, and one day, we’ll go together. Until then, we have a little bit of Vietnam in our own home.


**I should note, that I rarely use filet to make this. It’s just too expensive. But I have had terrific results with skirt steak.  Just don’t over cook it. If I don’t have red leaf lettuce, I’ve successfully substituted Romaine. And I portion equal amounts of salt and pepper into little dipping bowls, and pass lime wedges at the table so each diner can mix his own dipping sauce. This is a lot more fun for the kids. It also looks pretty.**


Adapted from Charles Phan

Time: 20 minutes, plus 2 hours’ marinating

  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds beef tenderloin (filet mignon), trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 5 tablespoons neutral oil, like corn or canola
  • 1/4 cup rice-wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup rice or white wine
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 red onion, peeled and sliced thin
  • 3 scallions, trimmed and cut in 1-inch lengths
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 bunches watercress, washed and dried, or 1 head red leaf lettuce, washed, dried and separated into leaves
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges.

1. Marinate meat with garlic, half the sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and 1 tablespoon oil for about 2 hours. (Refrigerate if your kitchen is very warm.) Meanwhile, combine vinegar, remaining sugar, wine, soy sauce and fish sauce. Taste, and add salt and pepper if necessary. Mix about 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.

2. Divide the meat into 2 portions, and do the same with the onion and scallions. Put a wok or a large skillet over maximum heat, and add about 2 tablespoons oil. When the oil smokes, add the meat in one layer. Let it sit until a brown crust forms, and turn to brown the other side. Browning should take less than 5 minutes. Add half the onion and half the scallions, and cook, stirring, about 30 seconds. Add about half the vinegar mixture, and shake pan to release the beef, stirring if necessary. Add half the butter, and shake pan until butter melts. Remove meat, and repeat.

3. Serve beef over watercress or lettuce leaves, passing salt and pepper mixture and lime wedges at the table.