If You’re Going to San Francisco… The First Two Months in California

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I’ve been in California for two months now. It seems like a long and a short time all at once–so much has happened, and yet it happened so fast, that to think that it’s already been two months and I’m a few weeks short of my birthday is very strange. How could it possibly be October already? There’s a lot of ground to cover since my last post.

Two months ago, when I arrived in LAX with two bags, sometime past midnight, exhausted, H and her dad, S, greeted me, and he asked, “So, is this it? No more apartment in Brooklyn, just you and these two bags?” I nodded. Just me and my two bags with the necessities–clothes, knives, digital scale, pastry cutter, and percolator. (I know what’s important.) It’s still kind of crazy to think everything I really needed could fit two suitcases.

The first week was quiet. I slept, adjusted to the timezone, went to Santa Barbara to drink wine and see H on her last day of work; later in the week we went to the beach, ate gelato, and talked about our road trip. At the end of my first week, we drove down to San Diego for the day. We went to the wildlife park and sweated it out alongside the animals, then rewarded ourselves with a trip to a brewery. And another brewery.

A few days later, we left on our official road trip, starting in Yosemite. Two days before leaving, we lucked out and were able to reserve a campsite in the center of Yosemite Valley. It is easily the most beautiful place I have ever been. At one point, H wisely remarked, “This is awesome. Not in the way people usually use the word, but rather, ‘I am in awe’ awesome.” We were awe-struck. On one day, we hiked something like six miles and climbed 2000 feet. It was a challenge, but we had the most wonderful views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, and the domed mountains of Yosemite. I haven’t felt so in awe of and connected with nature in a long time.

After Yosemite, we drove to San Francisco and spent a few days there with H’s cousin in the Sunset. My previous trips to SF had only included the tourist-y areas, so it was exciting to see something different. One morning, we made a trek out to Ocean Beach for biscuit sandwiches; the sandwiches were great, but what really struck me was that hey, there’s a beach in SF! Although I’ve always known SF is surrounded by water, it never occurred to me that at the west end of the city would be a sandy beach full of surfers–I always assumed it would be more piers. (Like Manhattan.) How cool would it be to work by the beach? H suggested maybe working at the biscuit place, but I wasn’t sure that was the answer. Still, I was taken with the neighborhood.

From SF, we went toward the East Bay, where we stayed across the hills for a few days with H’s aunt, uncle, and cousins. By the time we left the East Bay and drove back down to Santa Barbara, I was starting to feel sick–after fighting off whatever it was for so long, through hiking and wandering and allergy-inducing cats where we were staying, it finally hit me with full force when we arrived back in Santa Barbara. Thankfully, H’s parents, S and L, came up the next morning and were able to take me back toward LA in the evening, where I proceeded to go into barely functional mode through Labor Day.

Once I was better, H had only a week left at home before leaving to study abroad at graduate school. S and L had decided to throw her a big party, so S and I immediately got to planning the menu. We originally were thinking of simple brunch fare, but once H mentioned that she wanted her grandmother’s potato salad, we launched off into a Russian-inspired menu. (I’d been looking for an excuse to make piroshkis anyway!) Between the party that Sunday, and another family party we went to on Saturday evening, S and I cooked for three days straight, essentially. It was a magnificent party and feast. Not only that, but between making the shopping list, breaking down what had to be done on each day, finding ingredients at the local farmers’ markets, and cooking, I was reminded of what I enjoy so much about cooking in the first place.

The least Russian part of the feast (but one of the most delicious): Strawberry and stone-fruit skillet clafouti

Least Russian (but one of the most delicious) parts of the feast: Strawberry and stone-fruit clafouti

When the party was over, I helped H pack, and off she went on September 9th. At that point I’d been out in California for a month. I started to “get to work” the next day, scrolling through housing ads, figuring I should find a place to stay so that I could start interviewing up north. I started putting together a list of places I might want to work and drafting a potential new resume for myself. And then, somewhere in the midst of the search, I looked through my daily Good Food Jobs email, and saw something that caught my eye: a coffee roaster in SF looking for a pastry chef/kitchen manager. It was named after a neighborhood in Belfast where one of the owners grew up, and they made Irish soda bread, among other things. Responsibilities included going to the farmers’ market, and perks included all the coffee you can drink and music on vintage speakers, so you could rock out while baking at 5am. I laughed. Did someone write this posting just for me? So I shot off a resume and a ridiculously enthusiastic couple of sentences.

I tried not to think much more about it. The next day I had a wonderful and wine-filled lunch with S at his friends’ artist loft in downtown LA, and I had such a good time that I thought, “Hey, I could totally hang out in SoCal for a bit. This place is pretty cool.” So, of course, I got an email from the coffee shop on Friday, asking me to come in for an interview on Monday! Initially I freaked out a little–where would I stay? How would I get there?–until S calmly told me to take H’s car, drive up, and stay with her aunt and uncle in what I like to call the “Far East Bay.”

Leaving the Far East Bay for my sublet in SF!

Leaving the Far East Bay for my sublet in SF!

Up I went. I packed for about four days, figuring I’d be back, even if they hired me. Then came the interview. It was easily the coolest interview I’ve ever had. They set up a table outside, brought out a few warmed up slices of bread and butter, brought me a cappuccino, and we talked about the job and everything we had in common–New York, Ireland, working in and being disillusioned by publishing–who’d have thought! They asked me to come back and trail in a couple days, but it was already clear, this was happening. I walked the couple blocks down to the beach afterward, sat in the sand, and thought about how a month ago, I didn’t even know this neighborhood and beach were here, and now I might work here.

I spent the next day trying to figure out housing, when up popped a one-month sublet through someone I knew that knew someone. I got the sublet, went to the trail the next day, and it was a done deal–they asked me to begin training the following day. So much for packing for four days!

It has now been about four weeks since the day I drove up here. S sent me one of my suitcases, which arrived last Monday, so I finally have more than four-days-worth of clothes! It’s been an amazing and exhausting whirlwind. I know that I’ve never worked such long days, and I hope that I’m able to increase efficiency and cut back on overtime now that I’m running the kitchen. I’m working with wonderful people, though, so the long hours aren’t so bad.

And speaking of wonderful people–that is what I have been most taken by since arriving here. I have met wonderful, kind people who have taken care of me pretty much every step of the way so far. It has been amazing. S and L took such good care of me in SoCal, and they’re even bringing the rest of my stuff up when they come up to visit in another week. When they sent me up north, their family continued to take wonderful care of me for the two-and-a-half weeks before my sublet started. They fed me, took me to an A’s game, gave me some extra clothes, a place to sleep–I mean, wow. They even lent me a bike to take into the city with me. And when my bike had problems the other morning, one of the owners of my now-workplace checked it out, then took it over to the bike shop for me, where she got the guys to do the work for half the price. Just wow.

I can’t be anything but amazed, grateful, and humbled by the way that the universe–in the form of family, of people–has taken care of me since I arrived. I came out here not really knowing anything about what I would do, where I would go, or how I would get there. I had a small starting point–fly to LAX, do a road trip with H–but to sit here and look back at all that came from there is a beautiful thing. And I’m not done! This is just the beginning of a new chapter.

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Enjoying a beautiful sunny day at Ocean Beach.

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Summer and new adventure: Away to CA

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Biking along Pennsylvania corn fields; a beautiful summer. Photo credit: Kate W.

I haven’t gone “a-whey” in some time, but I’m about to go off again—tonight actually. So even though it’s been quite a while since I last wrote, this is one of those times that seems perfectly suited for a post. I’ve had a lot of time for self-reflection in the last couple months, and I want to share a little of that here.

From the time I started this blog over two years ago, until now, the question I grapple with the most would have to be, “How do I want to live my life?”

A few months ago, just before the sun was up in Brooklyn, I was biking to the bakery and thinking about life—because what else is there to do when you’re riding in those quiet morning hours? As I was zigzagging around morning-delivery trucks and flying through red lights, I started thinking about fear. Maybe because if you’re going to bike in New York, you need to be pretty fearless, but also because I could feel my life was arriving at a crossroad.

I could keep going the way I’d been going—I could stay in New York, where I was doing quite well and pretty comfortable—or I could turn around and go off in a completely different direction. Toward California, perhaps?

When I went to California for the first time, five years ago, I fell in love with the place. I was convinced that I’d move there as soon as I finished college—and why not? But as so often happens in life, things—or should I say, love—got in the way, I got sidetracked, and I didn’t leave the East Coast. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad that I lived in the New York area for the last four years, but it wasn’t the original plan.

Now, years later, it occurred to me that I’m not being held back by anything at this point. I’m lucky enough not to have any financial ball-and-chains, to not be on a completely set career path, to not have kids or a husband—or even a serious boyfriend for that matter. Fear, I thought to myself while biking, is the only thing that could possibly hold me back.

And at the core of everything, it seems to me that fear of the unknown is what ultimately holds so many people back, that drives so many decisions that I see people my age making. (Not that anyone wants to admit this, I think.) Why pick the unknown when you can pick the thing that you know, that is comfortable? The thing that makes sense, that moves you along the socially acceptable continuum of college-career-marriage-kids? I can see why people make these choices, and I would never say that it’s wrong to make those kinds of decisions, because—

What the hell happens to you if you don’t do those things, anyway? If you simply fly across the country with a few bags and no solid plan for what happens next?

The truth is I don’t know the answer. I don’t have the blueprint. I could be scared, and there have been times in recent years when the lack of a plan has scared me, but I’ve chosen not to let fear overtake me. Because I can accept not knowing, and I can’t accept not adventuring. I like the lack of a blueprint. For me, venturing out into the world and not allowing fear to hold me back—that’s how I want to live.

Of course, I have to mention that I’m lucky enough to have close friends and family on the East Coast who support my [lack of] plan, and I got to enjoy a summer in Pennsylvania surrounded by the kind of love you can only get from the people who have known you for your entire life. And I’m very lucky that I have very supportive friends (practically family) waiting for me on the West Coast, who have taught me the two phrases that have become my recent mantras: No plans, no problem. The universe will provide.

I think so. I know so. And away I go, again.

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Alternative snack-age: Baked carrot and ‘snip chips

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I’m sure I don’t need to explain why no one should be eating potato chips or other pre-packaged, fake orange, chip-like snacks. But if you’re in the mood for a salty, crispy snack, what’s a good alternative? Lately, my answer has been simple: roasted carrot and parsnip chips.

Not only are they a great way to up your veggie intake for the day, but they’re also cheaper. I can buy a bag of organic carrots for less than a dollar, and parsnips aren’t much more. And each bag covers me for two to three snack-times, which is definitely more bang-for-my-buck than I would get if I went out and bought a bag of organic root vegetable chips (five to six dollars for a small bag at Whole Foods—no joke!).

The process is simple. Surely you can do this with other root vegetables, though carrots and ‘snips are my favorite at the moment.

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One serving is two to three veggies—carrots, ‘snips, or whatever else you fancy.

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.

2. Slice veggies at a bias, no more than ¼” thick. Drizzle with oil (I use sunflower seed), sprinkle with salt, and toss. Spread on a nonstick baking sheet.

3. Bake for 20-25 minutes; take the tray out once or twice during baking to flip the slices. Some pieces will be browner than others. The chips are done when most of them are brown around the edges and crispy. Some may be less crispy than others—you can cook the softer ones longer, but personally I don’t mind them. Sprinkle with more salt to serve, if needed.

Serve immediately. I don’t know about storage because I’ve never needed to—it’s easy to make these disappear in one sitting!

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Learning to make cake that won’t make you crash: Vegan, GF, Soy-Free Cake Class

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Last Monday, I attended a cake-baking class at the National Gourmet Institute. NGI is all about making health-supportive food, so this wasn’t your average cake class: the cakes were vegan (dairy and egg-free), gluten-free, soy-free, and refined-sugar free. Initially when I signed up, I thought the recipes would be free of one thing or another, but each cake was free of everything!

Our chef instructor, Hideyo Yamada, who was both knowledgeable and fun.

Our chef instructor, Hideyo Yamada, was both knowledgeable and fun.

We made the cakes with ingredients like “eggs” made from flax meal, coconut oil, almond milk, maple syrup, guar gum, and alternative flours including garbanzo, coconut, tapioca, and quinoa. Each of us had a different recipe to complete, so I made a hazelnut cake with orange frosting and candied orange peel. No food coloring was used. My orange color and flavor came from orange juice concentrate; my neighbor made her icing with a raspberry powder.

 The icing was probably the weirdest part. In order to make it, we mixed up some ingredients with agar powder, refrigerated it until it became a gelatinous, silly-putty-like rectangle, and then ran that through the food processor until it developed the consistency of icing. Nothing like a buttercream but still tasty. Piping this kind of icing was extra difficult—although admittedly cake decorating is not my forte to begin with. 

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But it was fun to get back into a kitchen-classroom and learn something new. I can’t imagine making a completely-free-of-everything cake on a regular basis, but I’m sure I could use some of the concepts to make desserts that are free of one or two things. I must say, though, that of all the cake I’ve ever eaten, this made me feel the least terrible. I pretty much ate cake for dinner, but I never experienced a sugar rush or crash (because there was no sugar)—in fact, I felt good and full. The next day I ate a huge piece of cake for lunch and was able to go running afterward—not to mention I was full until dinner! So maybe there’s something to this health-supportive dessert idea after all. Not that we should eat “cake” for dinner all the time… but maybe sometimes. Why not!

Sampling dinner: caramel banana cake, green tea azuki cake, hazelnut cake.

My oh-so-sexy half-eaten cake dinner: caramel banana cake with double mango frosting, green tea azuki cake with matcha brandy frosting, and hazelnut cake with orange frosting.

 

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Subzero weather means it’s chili time: Tips & Basics for Making a Big Pot of Chili

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It has been unbelievably cold in New York. I always forget exactly how cold it gets here until I start wearing long johns under my pants every day, and then remember that I did the same thing the year before, and the year before that… And I go into hibernation mode, leaving the house only when absolutely necessary.

Full-scale hibernation mode also means that I cook giant pots of food and eat the leftovers for days, that way I don’t have to leave the house or pay for delivery. Last week when the first blast of arctic air came in (it’s here again this week—hooray), I immediately started craving chili and cornbread. I can’t explain why, since this isn’t a winter staple from my childhood or anything, but something about cold weather says hot chili with a side of cornbread.

Now, I know that some people feel very strongly about how their chili “should be”; some have secret family recipes and the like, so quick disclaimer: I am not one of those people. I’m a simple girl. What I like about chili is that, at a basic level, it’s super easy to make, it tastes good, and it will last you for days. So I want break down how I made my chili in a way that I’m hoping will help you pick out a few things from the store, throw your stock pot on the stove, and go for it.

Tips:

  • For the canned ingredients, I recommend finding low-sodium so that you can season to taste (not to mention the higher sodium stuff isn’t great for you). Organic is always good, too, if you can find it!
  • I found that the 1:1:1 pound ratio of meat to beans to tomatoes worked well and yielded 4-6 servings. If you’re feeding more people, use this ratio to guide how much more meat, beans, and tomatoes you’ll need.
  • If you want a chili with heat, use the jalapeños and hot sauce. If you don’t, I think some Worchester sauce could be really great, though I didn’t use it for mine.
  • The measurements of the spices are approximate. Go easy at first and add more as necessary—taste, taste, taste. Trust your palate to guide you.

The basic ingredients:

1 large onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 jalapeño peppers, finely chopped (optional)
1 pound of ground meat (turkey, beef, pork, etc.)
1 16-ounce can of red kidney beans (or preferred bean)
1 16-ounce can of diced red tomatoes, with their juices
4-5 medium carrots, sliced about ½” thick (optional—other root vegetables could be nice here too)
1-2 tablespoons hot sauce (optional)
2-3 tablespoons chili powder
1-2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2-3 teaspoons ground ginger
salt & pepper to taste
a few tablespoons of oil (preferably sunflower or grapeseed)

How to cook it:

1. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and jalapeños. Cook until the onions are translucent and the garlic is golden.

2. Add the meat and cook until browned. Use a wooden spoon to stir and occasionally scrape the bottom of the pot if the meat is sticking.

3. Add the beans, tomatoes, and carrots (if using). If needed, add a little bit water so that the beans, meat, and veg are completely covered by liquid. Stir in hot sauce (if using), spices, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then cover with a lid and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes, checking the flavor occasionally and adding spices when needed. The chili is done when the carrots are cooked through or simply when you are satisfied with the flavor.

Serving:

Cornbread is a classic and wonderful accompaniment. If you preheat the oven before starting the chili, it’s fairly easy to whip up a quick cornbread while you are waiting for the chili to cook. Keep the chili simmering while you wait for the cornbread to finish baking, and you should be able to serve them at the same time. If your chili is hot and spicy, a cornbread with a slightly sweet side is a great choice. I used a maple cornbread recipe from King Arthur Flour, which you can find here.

Stay warm out there! Unless you’re somewhere like California, in which case you’re already warm enough, and I am incredibly jealous.

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