Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tollhouse with a Twist

So a funny thing happened as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day... I actually found something utterly and totally interesting! (I jest - I LOVE Twitter and find amazing, funny, insightful, creative, inspirational and helpful tidbits there all the time.) But this one post completely caught my eye. In less than 140 characters, it spelled out how to take a Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie recipe and turn it on its head. Coincidentally, I was actually in the market for a good cookie recipe, so I thought I'd give the tweeter's idea a try (sorry - I can't even find the tweet now to give proper credit!).

At any rate, the twist: use half semi-sweet chips and half dark chocolate chips, and then add potato chips to the batter as well. Potato chips? What the....? But the idea intrigued me. Could this simple twist on a classic recipe turn out a cookie creation that had that sweet/salty combination that I so very much love? I had to try it.

So I made the recipe according to the Twitter instructions - meaning, I winged it. I followed the Tollhouse recipe on the back of the chocolate chip package, and dutifully swapped half of the semi-sweet chips for Ghirardelli dark chocolate nibs. But when it got to the potato chip portion... where to start? The tweet did specify that the potato chips should be crushed into dime-sized pieces, but that was about it (140 characters only go so far....). How much to add? Did I want ridged chips or just plain old plain chips? I made the executive decision: plain original Lays potato chips, in a quantity that I eyeballed, but just seemed about right - I'm guessing about 1 to 1-1/2 cups of crushed potato chips. Then I threw in chopped walnuts for good measure. It made for a very chunky dough - really tough to stir - but the elbow grease is totally worth it.

The end result: quite possibly one of the best chocolate chip cookies you'll ever make. The dark chocolate addition - excellent as I suspected. As for the potato chips, they did add a saltiness, although it was subtle. What they really imparted, however, was texture and structure. You know how Tollhouse cookies usually fall flat? Not these. They held a nice, round-ish shape, and remained moist. The potato chips also added a nearly-imperceptible crunch... here was a bit more body than in your average cookie. And no one - I mean no one - was the wiser. I took my platter of cookies to a meeting, and they disappeared in a heartbeat, with everyone remarking just how delicious they were. Not a single soul said "Hey - is that a potato chip in my cookie?" (They really did almost just disappear when the cookies were baked.)

So, dear readers, I have no recipe for you ... just a concept that I know works. Try it out, and let me know if your experiment is as successful as mine!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Giving Thanks

As we're about to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, I have so much for which to be grateful. My list could go on and on and on. But that would be boring. So I'm just going to focus this post on one person for whom I am thankful each and every day, and who just doesn't hear it from me enough. That person is my mom.

If you think that I'm a well-rounded, talented person (why thank you!) - you need to get a load of my mom. I get most of my best traits from her, I suspect (no disrespect to dad!), and I love her more than I could ever express. I just had the pleasure of spending some quality time with her - she came for a five-day visit and spoiled me rotten. As is our usual, we covered a lot of ground while she was here. She's been the one to teach me to love the backroads, to enjoy getting lost, and to delight in discovering new things. So that's just what we did.

The following is a photo journey of our recent time together, as it pertains to the theme of this blog - namely yumminess shared in the company of the ones we love. (I'm sticking to mainly images because I found out that dear mom doesn't actually READ this blog... just looks at the "pretty pictures" - hmph!) At any rate, enjoy the view, and if you're lucky enough, go give your mom a heart-felt squeeze. Happy Thanksgiving!

Adventures with Mom, November 2010

We hit the road. Took the road less traveled....
Why don't I live HERE?? I mean, get a load of that tire swing!

We enjoyed some great meals out...
Sol Food in San Rafael was at the top of my list of places to take mom for a killer lunch. I love love love this totally funky Peurto Rican cuisine hot spot. Despite being a bright green hole-in-the-wall, it's certainly not an undiscovered locale (just ask the Food Network). The Ensalada Con Pollo (baked chicken salad) and Tostones Con Mojo (Fried smashed green plantains with garlic and olive oil) keep me coming back for more.

We enjoyed a terribly mediocre meal out....
I say "enjoyed" because the company was stellar and sometimes that's all you need. But I'm sad to say that my mom treated Ran and me to a dinner out at the much-touted Bottega in Yountville, and we all walked away mostly disappointed. We should have stopped at starter courses and wine - those were by far the best components of the meal. Between the three of us, we ordered the soup of the day (butternut squash with toasted hazelnuts), the Brussels sprouts salad (shaved sprouts, seived egg, hazelnuts and a perfect light lemon-based dressing), and the cheese pudding (a savory Pecorino flan of sorts served with braised rapini and crostini). All were delicious. I loved the way the wines were presented. Instead of wines by the glass, they offered wines by the glass and a half, and they came in petit carafes to the table. It's the perfect amount of wine for me over the course of the meal, and the wine list truly was impressive. The only thing that tainted the starting course was the constant - and I mean constant - inquiries from the service staff to clear our half-eaten plates. I love attentive staff, but for the fourth time, yes! We're going to finish that plate. Sheesh!

Unfortunately, the good part of the meal nose-dived into the not-so-good part of the meal for our entrees. I got the rabbit, and although the meat itself was perfectly cooked, it was served with a sauce that was so overwhelmingly powered by vinegar, that it was almost off-putting. The acidity hit your nose far before the fork got to your tongue. Mom got the "Angry Prawns" - nothing special there, not even worth four more words. And Ran - on my pleading - got the daily pork special. I mean if you heard the server describe a slow-roasted herb-stuffed pork loin wrapped in pork belly with crispy skin, served with brown-butter sauteed apples over creamy polenta, wouldn't you order it too? Let's just say it was far better in theory than in reality. Ick. So - bummer. A big, expensive strikeout. Sorry mom.

We enjoyed some great meals in...
It was the opening week of Dungeness crab season... we had to do it.

We baked...
Two different kinds of cookies. You heard me right - yes, I baked (I had mom there to hold my hand, after all!). You'll be hearing about these two cookie creations soon (Tollhouse with a twist, and Cornmeal Ginger Shortbread).

We fed ourselves spiritually....
Mom was such a sport, and joined me for a candlelight Yoga class followed by an organic/biodynamic wine tasting, paired with raw foods. The evening was all about "focusing on mindfulness and gratitude for the Thanksgiving Holidays" - basically bringing awareness of how we're feeding our body and soul, and focusing on treating ourselves well. Mom did great in the Yoga class, declined the wine tasting, and pretty much dismissed the raw foods. Too hippie, I get it. :) But I, of course, loved the foods we tried (there was chocolate mousse made from avocados for God's sake!), and I discovered a wine brand that I now adore just on sheer principle: Aum Cellars. The wine I ended up liking most was the 2008 Howell Mountain Cabernet, and not just because the front label is stunning. The wine is crafted with love and attention, and the winemaker, Peter Hoffmann (on hand to pour for the event), writes on the back label: "Never surrender the opportunity to participate in the forming of the future." I need to print that out in 60 point font and plaster it in my surroundings. Namaste.

We drove all the way to Healdsburg just so mom could get her favorite cream soda (made by the Bear Republic Brewing Company)...

...and discovered that Healdsburg's Downtown Bakery & Creamery sells all of its various pastry doughs to go! It might just turn me into a semi-homemade baker yet - what a find!

We visited farm stands...
We stopped in at the organic Green String Farm in Petaluma (their promise of kale turned out to be false... but made for good wandering and pictures!).

And while I was in a meeting at the nearby Solano Community College, mom discovered THE find of the entire week: Larry's Produce. She picked me up with stories of produce flowing out of Larry's not in shopping carts, but wheelbarrows, and prices that would simply blow my head clean off. And she was right - this place, a seasonal farm stand in Fairfield (part of the Suisun Valley Harvest Trail) - was utterly fantastic. Indescribable. And freaking CHEAP. Despite already having loaded up on Thanksgiving groceries, I loaded up a wheelbarrow of my own anyway. I just couldn't resist. Sigh.

And then she was gone....
Mom departed town, but left goodies in her wake: a huge Thanksgiving gift tin loaded with Made-in-Utah products. I miss her already, but I'm feeling the love from home!

Love you, mom. Thanks for the tasty memories.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Winters, CA: I think I'm in love....

That's it. I'm moving to Winters, California. Winters, California... here I come!

Ok ok.. that may have been said in haste (I'm not moving anywhere), but man... I recently discovered this quaint little town and I am SO tempted to give small(er) town living a try. (Instead, I'm putting the squeeze on my mom to pack her bags and relocate there... mom - have you called the realtor yet?).

Anyhow... Winters. I've had the opportunity to explore this hidden-in-plain-sight gem a couple of times in the last few weeks. Once, when Ran took me on a weekend getaway and we stayed in a cabin nearby, and a second time when I dragged my visiting mom back over the river and through the woods to explore her future retirement community. It's a mere 35 miles from my home here in Napa, but obscured from view by the strip mall sprawl of Vacaville along I-80.

I really did fall in love with this place on first look. Not only is the town itself cute as a button, laid out around a small town square (complete with white gazebo and town clock - straight out of a movie), but it's obviously family-friendly (I counted no fewer than four parks with playgrounds and ball fields), VERY affordable (the realty listings nearly made me cry), and surprisingly diverse (in my two trips, I've seen people of all colors and persuasions). It's also surrounded by stunning acre upon acre of meticulously groomed farms, orchards and vineyards, and is within a stone's throw of a variety of outdoor recreation (cycling, whitewater rafting, boating, fishing, hiking...). All of that is well and good, but what does my budding love affair with Winters have to do with this blog? It's the food, of course!

I had the chance to talk to loads of locals - some new to town, some long-timers - and everyone agrees: there is not a bad place to eat in Winters. Along the main drag, Railroad Avenue, you'll find everything from a cyclist-clogged coffee shop to a trendy tapas bar. There's the requisite small-town diner with the line out the door for its hearty breakfasts; a candy shop and soda fountain; a steakhouse complete with taxidermy animal heads mounted on the wall and portion sizes of beef to match... and likely much more. There's also two - soon to be three - wine tasting rooms within a two-block radius, one of which is also home to the Winters Cheese Company.

I was there on a Saturday night, and I tell you - the place was hopping. Putah Creek Cafe was churning out blistery thin-crust pizzas from its wood-burning pizza oven on the street corner; Cody's Restaurant was grilling tri-tip and chicken on the sidewalk a half a block down the street; the Turkovich Family Winery tasting room was open late and bursting at the seams with a young, hip crowd; the Opera House was gearing up for a night of live music, and The Buckhorn Steakhouse was packed with a 45 minute wait to get a table. People were out, the scene was lively, people were laughing and talking to each other, friends and strangers alike... it was awesome.

Winters will not remain a secret for long. Indeed, the very week following my initial weekend trip, the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the town in its weekly Street Date feature (I gasped when I opened up the paper, and there was "my" Winters, its charm exposed for all to see!). So, I suggest you get on out there to take a look around and enjoy all that Winters has to offer before the tour buses start descending. If you can't get there, here's a photo tour - go ahead, live vicariously!

Scenes from around and about town...

The Buckhorn Steakhouse - big flavors, big portions. Their website has a great list of 20 reasons to visit Winters - make sure to check it out!

Putah Creek Cafe - the quintessential small town diner. Bakery cases overflowing with house-made goodies, counter space for when you can't score a hard-to land booth, and good, good food. My mom opted for breakfast for her mid-day meal (the thick-cut applewood smoked bacon was amazing); I went for the homemade pezole. It was an excellent choice.

Putah Creek Cafe fires up its wood-burning pizza oven in the afternoon and keeps it going well into the evening. Fresh, piping hot pizza, right there on the street corner.

One of the tasting rooms in town, Turkovich Family Wines. The room is casual and elegant, and stays open late on weekends to take advantage of the people out and about. the buzz is lively, and you'll find all of Winters newest young residents bellied up to the bar, with out of town guests in tow (and in awe). In addition to their lineup of wines, they also pour and sell a champagne imported from Argentina (the winemaker's father-in-law is the Argentine winemaker).

The Winters Cheese Company shares a tasting room with Turkovich Family Wines. As it should - the cheesemaker and the winemaker are brothers. Seems as though the whole family is involved in the shop - there's mom behind the cash register, and a cousin behind the bar. I bought loads of cheese, but I should have bought the shirt too!

The other tasting room in town, Berryessa Gap Vineyards.

Breakfast at Cody's - nothing fancy, but pancakes to order and the chef knew pretty much everyone by name. Those that she didn't know by name, she came out personally to greet, as she was carrying a customer's baby on her hip - giving the babe's mom a chance to eat her meal kid-free.

...and later in the day, Cody's was grilling up a storm for the dinner crowd.

Rootstock, a brand new gift shop and soon-to-be tasting room in Winters. When the tasting room is up and running it will represent three different Yolo County wineries.

Views from along Putah Creek, the river that runs through the center of Winters.