Stumped on what to get your food-centric friends this holiday season? Here's some ideas:

1. Every year around the holidays, I have to watch A Christmas Story. I laugh my head off every time I see Flick's tongue gets stuck on the frozen pole, when Ralphie comes down the stairs in the hideous bunny outfit from his aunt and of course the scene with Ralphie's dad and the leg lamp-  "FRAGILE (FRA-GEE-LAY). It must be Italian!"  I love that scene so much Mr. S. got me a teeny tiny version of the leg lamp (that lights up) as a stocking stuffer last year. Anyhow when I saw these cookie cutters, I had to jump up and down in glee. Available at Amazon

2. An assortment of chocolates or macarons from Ginger Elizabeth is always appreciated.

3. A dwarf Meyer lemon tree. Mr.S. bought me one this fall and it's doing great. We're keeping ours outdoors on his patio but they grow just as well indoors. Pick one up along with a pretty pot at Green Acres Nursery.

4. I love this enamelware bake set from the MoMA Store. Super versatile and durable. It's made by a British company (Falcon) that's been around since the 1920's.


5. Super adorable bicycle mugs from Fishs Eddy make a great stocking stuffer.
6. Wylie Howell Corn Whiskey is made from California organic, whole grain sweet corn. Single pass, pot still. Supposedly, it is named for Kentucky-born Wylie Howell who became a distiller during Prohibition to support his family. He was later convicted and jailed for shooting a sheriff in a dispute over illegal liquor. The whiskey is now produced by Howell''s grandson Greg Jones. Tastes good and comes in a cute jug to boot!
7. Engraved rolling pins in either solid cherry or maple wood from Richwood Creations. They can be found on Etsy, although when in stock ScoutMob has them cheaper.
8. "Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes," by Maryellen Burns and Keith Burns. Available in paperback at Time Tested Books and Amazon.
9. Coffee snob? Get them a bag or two of their favorite beans from Temple Coffee and a Bialetti Moka pot or a Chemex. It's a gift that will perk them up for months to come.
 Photo Source Unknown
10. For a local, seasonal gift give a gift box of the Japanese delicacy- hoshigaki. Made right here in Granite Bay at Otow Orchard.
"Massaged, hand-dried persimmon made by an ancient method of peeling the unripe persimmon then massaging it for 4-6 weeks as it ripens and dries. The end product is like a dried date with a light dusting of naturally formed white fructose."


I've been home from my trip for a week now and my suitcase is STILL sprawled on my living room floor and I've been picking things out of it as needed like a vulture picks at a carcass. Ugh! I don't know why, but unpacking feels like such a chore. Not that packing a suitcase is more fun but at least it has the added aspect that you're packing to go somewhere, an impending travel adventure.

On a related you know what your packing style is? I never gave it much thought until I started dating Mr.S. He starts packing for trips a few days before the trip and packs A LOT. Me? I tend to pack light and the night before (or sometimes even the morning of) a trip. Guess who tends to forget things more often? You got it--him. I think my packing style drives him crazy, but what can he do? And yes, he also is the type that has to immediately (and I mean immediately) unpack his luggage the minute we get home. As soon as we hit the door, he's throwing dirty shirts in the laundry, returning the toothbrushes to their upright position in the bathroom mug and the suitcases are emptied and put away before my butt can hit the sofa.

(photo source: unknown)

Anyhow, if your significant other is like mine, let him sort out and put away the clothing, toiletries and travel souvenirs; while he's doing that, hit the kitchen and make this barley risotto for the two of you. It tastes amazing and is the perfect comfort food for a cold winter's night. My friend, Michelle, ordered a similar dish at a Midtown restaurant (Tuli's) about a month ago and gave me a taste. Inspired by it's many mingling layers of delicious flavors, I looked around for the recipe and stumbled about this version in Yotam Ottolenghi's book, Jerusalem. Be sure not to skip making the feta with caraway seeds- it really add an amazing dimension of flavor to the dish. I had never used caraway seeds in a dish before and was surprised at how aromatic and tasty they are- kind of a nutty, anise-like taste. The barley risotto itself has a nice chewy texture and a deep tomato flavor. This scrumptious dish works great as a main course or as a side dish and is an easy meal to prepare for vegetarian friends. Although barley risotto is definitely less temperamental to prepare than traditional risotto, remember to still stir often so that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot.

Yotam Ottolenghi's Barley Risotto with Marinated Feta (you can find the original recipe in his book, Jerusalem)
makes 4 servings


1 cup pearl barley
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 stalks celery, diced
2 small shallots, diced
4 cloves of garlic, diced
4 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 bay leaf
4 strips of lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
1  14-oz can chopped tomatoes (I used Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes)
1 1/4 cups of passata (I used Pomi's strained pureed tomatoes instead)
scant 3 cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
10.5 oz  feta, crumbled
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
salt, to taste

1. In a mesh strainer, rinse the barley and leave it to drain.

2. In a large pot, melt the butter and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the celery, shallots and garlic. Cook over a low heat for about 5 minutes, until softened. Then add the barley, thyme sprigs, smoked paprika, bay leaf, lemon peel, chile flakes, chopped tomatoes, pureed tomatoes, stock and salt. Stir to combine.

3. Bring the mixture to a nice boil, then reduce the heat and allow the mixture to simmer for about 45 minutes (uncovered). Stir frequently to prevent the barley from sticking to the bottom.

4. While your barley risotto is cooking, toast your caraway seeds in a small, dry pan until they start to impart a toasty, nutty smell. Remove from heat immediately. Place in a bowl (or with a mortar and pestle set) and gently crush the seeds.

5. In a medium sized bowl, combine your toasted caraway seeds, crumbled feta and remaining (4 tablespoons) olive oil. Mix to combine.

6. When the barley is soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed, remove the pot from the heat. Divide your barley portions into bowls and top with marinated feta and a sprinkle of fresh oregano.

8611 Hauser Court, Lenexa, KS 66215. (913) 541-1900.

Wow! I feel like I haven't posted forever. Sorry for the lack of posts but I was away for ten days visiting my folks in Kansas City, MO- home of the Kansas City Chiefs, finger lickin' BBQ and some notable jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Count Basie. I had a lovely time. My mom's doing really well post-chemo (her hair's even starting to grow back) and my dad and I had fun hanging out, grabbing coffee and watching TV. KC itself is a bit mellow for my taste (I didn't grow up there) but it's always nice to see my parents. Usually when I go to visit- it's freezing, there's snow and ice on the roads, and insanely strong winds are blowing...but this time, the weather was actually pretty mild. After ten days though, I was clicking my heels together and chanting, "There's no place like home. There's no place like home." I guess I'm just a California girl at heart- I missed Mr.S., my cottage and Pepper pup.

Anyhow, on my last trip to KC (in February), my dad took me to this fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant located in Lenexa called KC Grill and Kabob. They offer a superb lunch buffet with the best baba ganoush I've ever had.  The dip was the perfect blend of creaminess, smokiness and combo of spices. The baba ganoush was so good that I begged my pop to take me there again. If you're ever in the Kansas City area, hit this place up for lunch. It's located in the corner of a small shopping center next to a Japanese restaurant, off W 87th Street Parkway. The restaurant has a nice homey atmosphere, lots of interesting Middle Eastern photos on the walls and comfy booths along the perimeter. The owner is a friendly Iranian gentleman named Hamid Tafreshi and he looks just like the genie from Aladdin (minus the blue skin and Robin Williams voice).
The lunch buffet is set up in the middle of the room. It's not huge but there's a nice variety of dishes. Once you're seated, the waitress will take your drink order and bring you a basket of naan; after that, you're on your own. There's usually a soup of the day (during our recent visit it was lentil) and a few different kinds of salad. I loaded my plate with hummus, baba ganoush, crispy falafel, tangy pickled veggies, kabab koobideh, a delicious cucumber-yogurt sauce, basmati rice with currants, saffron rice, lamb, and shirazi salad. I ended up going back for seconds- another heaping helping of baba ganoush (I couldn't get enough of their version), a mound of dill rice, a taste of the potato salad with chicken, and some more kabab. There were a number of other dishes on the buffet line including tandoori chicken, some sort of stew, a curry, a jalapeno-cilantro chutney, large chunks of roasted veggies and some braised greens. On my return trip to the buffet, Mr. Tafreshi pointed out a dark dip that he described as being a "spicy Iranian baba ganoush" and suggested that I sample some. I tried it and really liked it. It had a totally different flavor profile from the regular baba ganoush- much spicier and mintier. At the end of our meal, we were offered some Persian ice cream that sounded incredibly enticing (rose, saffron and pistachio flavor) but I was so stuffed that I couldn't bear the thought of eating one more bite. I did notice though that the restaurant also offered baklava, rice pudding and cream puffs on their dessert menu.
I'm so glad we paid KC Grill and Kabob another visit. Everything I had there was fresh and flavorful. The service was spot-on, the buffet price was reasonable and the owner was very welcoming. (I love that he takes the time to ask guests if they've enjoyed their meals.) I seriously can't wait to patronize this small business again and binge on that incredible baba ganoush.

I love Sundays! They always feel so lazy and decadent after a busy Friday and Saturday. Last night, Mr.S. and I had a date night and went to the Crest to see my all-time favorite comedian, Margaret Cho. I've seen her a ton of times over the years (going as far back as when she used to headline at the Punchline) and last night she didn't disappoint. She even played the guitar and sang a hilarious song called, "Fat P*ssy." Mr.S. had never seen her live before and he thoroughly enjoyed her show.

Afterwards, we grabbed a late night bite at Broderick (man, that place never disappoints!) and went to bed pretty late. So when this morning rolled around, I was tired and didn't want to get out of bed or change from my PJs. I stayed in them until almost 11am. Can you say L-A-Z-Y? ☺ I did eventually get dressed because I was meeting a friend at Old Soul at 40 Acres for some coffee and a bite. Grabbing good coffee always motivates me to get off my bum.

Anyhow since I was tired and staying at the cottage tonight, I wanted to make something super simple (I hate doing dishes). I originally found this recipe on a food blog (the name eludes me at the moment) but that blogger had adapted it from a Martha Stewart recipe. I've made the Martha version several times since I stumbled upon it, changing bits and pieces here and there as I went along to accommodate my own personal taste. I've finally reached a point where I'm done tinkering with it. It's a great quick meal for those nights you're dining solo and want to be able to make something on auto-pilot. I have also made this dish for Mr.S. (who at times can be a finicky eater) and he really likes it. What's also great about this dish is that you can pair it with quinoa, brown rice, farro or even noodles. You can also add additional veggies to make it more nutritious- I've added onions, red bell pepper, scallions, carrots and even steamed broccoli to the mix depending on my mood. It's a very versatile dish. (I may even make it for the kidlets soon and just leave out the red pepper.)

Spicy Cashew Chicken


1.5 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breast tenders, cut into 1-inch bite-sized cubes (boneless, skinless chicken thighs work well too)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons of peanut oil
6 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
1-inch piece of peeled ginger, grated
1/2 to 1 tsp of red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons of unseasoned rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons of hoisin
1 tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons of brown sugar (optional)
1/2 cup chicken stock (or water)
a couple of light shakes of Chinese black vinegar (available at most Asian grocery stores)
1/2 cup sugar snap peas
salt and pepper, to taste
3/4 cup of roasted cashews (you can roast themselves if you wish, just buy unsalted raw cashews to do so)
couple of shakes of toasted sesame oil


1. In a bowl, toss chicken cubes with cornstarch and a pinch or two of fresh ground pepper. Make sure the bits are evenly coated. (Alternate method: You can  put the cornstarch and pepper in a Ziploc bag, add the chicken and shake it up.) The cornstarch coating will make your chicken tender and keep it moist.

2. In a large non-stick skillet or wok over medium-high heat , heat up your oil until it's really hot. Toss in your chicken, stirring occasionally so that all sides of the chicken cubes get cooked. (Don't crowd the pieces, you want it to sear evenly.) When done, remove chicken and set aside in a bowl.

3. In the same skillet you were using, add the garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes. Stir and cook for about 1-2 minutes. Then add back in the cooked chicken.

4. Add the rice wine vinegar, hoisin, soy sauce, brown sugar, chicken stock and few shakes of Chinese black vinegar. Stir everything together so that the flavors can meld. Bring to a nice simmer and let the ingredients cook together for 2-3 minutes. Add in your sugar snap peas. Taste the sauce, add some salt and pepper if you wish.

5. Toss in the roasted cashews. Give the dishes a shake or two of sesame oil. Mix everything well.

6. Serve hot over your favorite side- rice, quinoa, farro, noodles, etc..
I'd like to send a thank you out to everyone who voted for me in Marx Food's Shrooms for Soup Challenge. I won!  ☺


1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena, CA 94754.
(707) 963-4444

Have you ever heard the expression "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach"? Well I think it can definitely apply to women too. Just two weeks ago was my birthday and Mr.S. advised me that he was taking me out to celebrate...but that the destination was a surprise. I initially figured it was somewhere local like The Kitchen, Mulvaney's or Formoli' know the usual suspects, but then my ears perked up when he advised me that we would have to leave Sacramento by 5:30 because it was a bit of a drive. This bit of news excited me and I quickly determined that the restaurant location must be in Tahoe, San Francisco or Napa since we weren't staying overnight. Well, I hit pay dirt on the third was Napa, or St. Helena to be exact. Mr.S. had booked us a table at Tra Vigne. Before I launch into my big long description of our night, I want to point out two things:

1) If you want to take your date/significant other/spouse/whatever on a romantic evening out-- go here. It's worth the drive and your date will love you.
2) I didn't take any photos of the food because a) it was too dark out on the patio b) I was on a romantic date, guys! C'mon!

We arrived at Tra Vigne around 7pm, a bit earlier than our reservation, the hostess didn't bat an eye. She was cheery and polite and told us they had reserved an extra nice table for us for our special occasion and asked if we would mind waiting a few minutes. No problem. We headed to the bar and tried to grab a drink but it was three deep at the bar and there was nowhere to sit so we meandered back to the parlor and sat down. Shortly after, we were called up. The hostess advised that she had a nice two-top by the window or we could have a table on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. We went for the outdoor table since it was a nice night (and the restaurant had thoughtfully put heat lamps out). The view from our table was beautiful, we could see the thousands of twinkle lights illuminating the courtyard, hear the trickle of their small water fountain and watch the hustle and bustle of the patrons dining below us. Our waiter, Joshua, came by shortly after we sat down and took our drink orders. There a lot of terrific sounding cocktails on their menu and a lengthy wine list but I decided to go classic. I ordered Tra Vigne's Manhattan. It was made with one of my favorite bourbons (Buffalo Trace) and absolutely delectable. For our appetizer, Mr.S. wanted the Mozzarella Cheese Al Minuto and I wanted the Arancini Alla Bolognese. We couldn't decide, so we got both and I'm glad we did, both were delicious! The mozzarella is handmade the minute it's ordered, mixed with a house olive oil made in the Napa Valley, then sliced table side (while it's still warm) and placed on bruschetta. It's fantastic. If you love fresh cheese, this is a must try! The arancini were piping hot, crispy risotto balls stuffed with warm, gooey cheese and served with a rich slow-cooked pork sugo, spicy tomato sauce. Amaze-balls is what they should call them. They were like a savory flavor bomb. I could have eaten another plate of them by myself.

Now I'm going to interject here to say that I'm glad Mr.S. and I are not indecisive orderers because our waiter was not very helpful, nor did he seem knowledgeable about the menu. I'll even dare say-  he wasn't friendly. He was a bit snooty and seemed much more engrossed in the table of boozy old people behind us. Whatever, it's Napa. I didn't get too riled up because we had- Oscar. I'm not quite sure what Oscar's title was- server's assistant, bus boy, expediter? It didn't matter because we considered him a dining rockstar. He was super personable, funny, and excited to tell us about the various menu offerings. He really knew how to take a regular dining experience and bump it up to world class service. (He even gave me an ingenious cooking tip that I'm now dying to try out.) Now don't get me wrong, he wasn't chatting our ear off or anything...Oscar knew how to balance how much to talk with us so that we felt welcome and how much so that it didn't horn in on our romantic evening out. Tra Vigne should clone him. I'm serious, he's top notch.

Ok, back to the food. For dinner, Mr.S. opted for the braised beef short ribs served with a creamy three-cheese polenta, natural jus and a horseradish gremolata. He gave me a bite and it was positively heavenly. The ribs were cooked to a tender perfection and had this wonderful subtle smoky taste that made you crave more. Wow! I ordered the wood oven roasted whole fish, which that night was branzino. Now I make a mean branzino at home (both grilled and roasted) but having a wood fire oven that goes to 600 degrees? Well son, that kicks your fish dish up to a whole other level. The skin had this amazing all over char that you just can't get in a home oven or grill...and the fish itself (which Oscar deboned for me) was tender and moist. I really enjoyed the dish, although I could have done without the accompanying grilled radicchio and mache salad. I'm not much for bitter greens. I would have preferred some roasted vegetables instead like carrots, Brussels sprouts, or even perhaps their duck fat potatoes. Duck fat potatoes, they go with everything...anyone who'd turn down a side of those is just plumb crazy. Now I want to just take a quick minute to point out that the portion-sizes at Tra Vigne are perfect...generous without being gluttonous and not piddly where you'd have to pick up something to eat on the way home.

You'd think after a feast like that, we'd skip dessert. No way! For dessert, the kind folks at Tra Vigne sent a butterscotch panna cotta out. This bit of bliss had sea salt caramel and crème fraiche mixed in it. Yes, there was a mini dessert orgasm at our table (picture Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally"). But the best part of the dish were the incredible rosemary-hazelnut cookies that accompanied the panna cotta. I think they are hands down one of the best cookies I've ever nibbled on. Now if all that wasn't enough, we also ordered a cannoli. Sweet ricotta cheese, chocolate bits and toasted pistachios...Sweet Baby Jesus, it was good!

It truly was a fantastic night. Scrumptious food, outstanding drinks, a romantic al fresco setting in the heart of the wine country and of course--- delightful company. In my book that's the perfect way to celebrate a birthday and from the content sighs I heard coming from the diners around us, I'm sure we were not the only ones impressed with the magic of Tra Vigne.

[ Thank you, Mr.S.! ]