Holy moly, we're almost at the end of 2013! Can you believe it? This year went by so fast! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. I spent Xmas with Mr.S.'s family. They do a big Christmas dinner at Mr.S.'s, everyone brings a few dishes and his parents make a delicious ham. This year I was in charge of lemon bars, sausage balls and green bean casserole (that last dish wasn't by my choice, it was requested). I was excited about making the sausage balls. I found the recipe last year in a magazine while at the hospital. It was a recipe submitted by the Voltaggio brothers (of Top Chef fame) for a Thanksgiving issue. It sounded intriguing so I took a photo with my phone and looked it up online later on. The recipe is quite easy to make (just a handful of ingredients), can be prepared ahead of time (just pop them in the oven right before guests arrive) and perfect for a holiday party finger food. I found that the sausage balls taste great when paired with a dipping sauce (honey-mustard, sweet chili, or even an aioli goes great with these). Also, the leftovers are fantastic when used in an egg strata the next day (just sub in the sausage balls for the bread and cook as usual). I threw in some leftover ham and cheese from the previous night's dinner when I made ours. Mr.S . and Kidlet #1 loved the sausage ball-strata.

Holiday Sausage Balls (adapted from Redbook Magazine)


3 cups Bisquick pancake mix
1 lb. bulk country or breakfast sausage (not in casing, crumbled)
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage

fresh out of the oven


1. Heat oven to 400°F.

2. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper so that the sausage balls don't stick.

3. Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a large stand mixer. Use the paddle attachment and mix everything thoroughly.

4. Use your hands to form 1 1/2 inch balls and place on the parchment paper. Make sure the sausage balls are spaced out evenly.

5. Bake for about 20 minutes until they are puffed and a golden brown.  Transfer to a wire rack or platter and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. Serve warm with your favorite dipping sauce.


For those of you that have fruit trees going into overdrive currently- whether it be citrus, persimmons, kiwis, etc., please think of donating your extras to those in need. The Sacramento Food Bank accepts fresh produce donations in addition to the traditional canned or dry goods.

They are open :
Monday through Friday 8am-4:30pm, Wednesday 8am-7pm.

3333 Third Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95817
(916) 456-1980


2600 Fair Oaks Blvd. Suite 103, Sacramento, CA 95864. (916) 974-7467

I love the Temple Coffee by my cottage (the S Street location) but every once in awhile I'll stop by the one on Fair Oaks Blvd. when I'm out and about in Mr.S.'s neighborhood. This week while frantically running errands, I stopped at the F.O. location to pick up a cup of joe to go. As I walked towards the coffee shop,  I noticed a cute scooter parked in front of a new business called Villa Sicilia. Turns out it's a small shop dedicated to olive oil. Perfecto! I thought maybe I'd pop in and see if there were any cool Christmas goodies I could pick up as gifts. Most of my friends cook and I know a good olive oil is always appreciated.

Vroom! Vroom! ☺

The interior of the shop was quite nice. The left wall was equipped with several stainless steel tasting dispensers of olive oils and balsamic vinegars where you could pour yourself a sample to taste and smell. Each dispenser is labeled with the flavor and a brief description of the product. There was a variety of flavors; the ones that caught my eye were Ginger-Honey, Wild Mushroom and Sage, and Black Truffle. Mmm! There were also several fruit (such as apricot, lemon, peach) infused olive oils and vinegars. Once you found an oil or vinegar flavor you liked you could take the pre-poured bottle to the counter and the sales assistant would shrink wrap a seal on the top of the bottle for you. They can make gift baskets for you too if you ask. On the right side, the shop carried a smattering of imported pasta, jams and decorative serving plates. There were also a few jars of tasty sounding condiments like Calabrian hot pepper paste and pistachio butter. I also heard that Villa Sicilia may in the near future be carrying some cool Italian craft beers and wines.

Overall, my impression of Villa Sicilia was that it was a cute store with reasonable prices (the smaller bottles run about $8) and a varied selection. It's a nice addition to the Arden-Arcade shopping scene (which has always been a bit lackluster) and would be a great place to pick up a gift for a foodie friend or a last minute hostess gift. My only issue with the establishment was that the sales staff seemed especially enthusiastic to help the 45+ crowd (most likely because they think they'll spend more) but ignored other customers. I was in the small shop for over 25 minutes and not once was I greeted, asked if I needed any assistance or even given a smile until I went up to the counter to pay for my purchase (and the store wasn't that busy). The owner (I believe it was the owner--a brunette with long, dark, curly hair. She seemed to be running the show.) practically jumped on the patrons that came in after me but I was left to wander about on my own. I even made several passes around the shop to see if she would say anything, but...nothing.  I finally went and stood at the counter and waited to ask the cashier my question and it turned out she was new and had to ask the owner. The owner answered my inquiry but seemed slightly irked that she had to stop her fawning on another customer to answer a question about a product that I was interested in buying. The whole situation left me feeling a bit awkward and annoyed. It also reminded me of something from a job I worked at years ago. I worked for Raley's Corporate Office in their Shopping Services division. One of the big things we would evaluate the store employees on was a concept called the "5 Foot Rule." If a customer was within five feet of you, you needed to acknowledge them verbally somehow. It really personalizes the service and makes the customer feel welcome. As a small business, Villa Sicilia should embrace this concept. Considering there are plenty of companies to buy olive oil from in the area (Bariani, Lucero, Big Paw and Coldani; not to mention, there's another boutique olive oil store in town- The Chefs' Olive Mix in Old Sac); I would hope they would look into remedying the situation and extend friendly welcomes to all customers in the future whether they look like your typical specialty olive oil buying clientele or not.
New Year's is right around the corner and with it comes the tradition of making New Year's resolutions. Well good news, if one of your resolutions is to learn a new skill-- check out the Chinese Dumpling Making Workshops at UC Davis' Confucius Institute. My friend Mary tipped me off about this new program which had it's grand opening not too long ago in September 2013. The Institute is a partnership between UC Davis; Jiangnan University, one of China’s top research universities in food science and technology; and Hanban, part of the Chinese Ministry of Education. The institute offers free workshops to the community on the art of tea ceremonies, tea tasting, and dumpling making. If you're interested, the Confucius Institute is currently taking registrations for it's 2014 dumpling making workshops. At the workshop, you'll get a lesson on the history and culture of the Chinese dumpling before practicing dumpling wrapper-rolling and stuffing with a meat and vegetable filling. The workshop is hands-on and participants will be cooking and eating their dumplings.
Photo Source: Craftbag Designs

Registration (the January dates are currently full, but there is space open currently for Feb 21, Mar 7, Mar 21) :

Only a week into December and it's freezing! (Ok, by California standards) I hope despite the chilly weather, you've been able to get out and enjoy yourselves. Post-Thanksgiving, Mr.S and I took Kidlet #1 to the San Francisco International Auto Show at the Moscone Center. (Thanks for the tickets Grace and Lawrence!) Kidlet #1 loves sports cars, so he and his dad were gawking at all the cool rides and talking a bunch of auto gibberish that I couldn't comprehend. (I'm used to this, as they engage in the same car nerd talk when we watch Top Gear or Fast 'n Loud.) I'm not that into car shows but I did have a nice time perusing all the new vehicles (the modified street vehicles were my favorite) and afterwards we went to Japantown, where I stocked up on Japanese sundries and snacks at Nijiya Market and Ichiban Kan. Mr.S and Kidlet #1 were also very patient while I spent an inordinate amount of time perusing the aisles of kitchen gadgets at Daiso. As a trade-off, I didn't grouse when they begged to grab dinner at Fisherman's Wharf.

Here's a few photos from the car show:

 BLOX Racing- S2000

Nissan GTR R35 Titanium Premium Launch

Modified cars w/ hardwood floors in their trunks

Porsche 911, 50 Yrs Edition

Lexus LFA

Audi R8 V10

Ferrari 458 Italia

 Ferrari Testarossa

The "James Bond" Car, 1965 Aston Martin DB5 Coupe

For some reason the SF trip spurred a cookie baking kick in me (maybe it was all the cute baking stuff at Daiso?) and I baked a TON of cookies the following week in the cottage's kitchen. Additionally, I chose to break in a cute tea towel  that a friend gave me as a birthday gift earlier this year. The tea towel is screen printed with a short poem by William Carlos Williams called, "This is Just to Say." I love plums and seeing that poem made me crave some juicy, ripe summer plums. Unfortunately, it's December so I was a bit SOL; however, I remembered that I had made a big batch of delicious rosemary plum jam this summer. I gave a lot of it away but I had a few jars still squirreled away in the cupboard. So in addition to the various other cookies I made, I also whipped up some fresh thumbprint cookies with homemade rosemary plum jam. Mmmm!

My thumbprint cookies have always been a crowd favorite - they're the perfect blend of savory and sweet. The trick is - I use Alice Water's sweet tart dough recipe paired with one of my own jams...strawberry balsamic, ginger peach, blackberry lime, etc. The rosemary plum is my favorite though. Plus it's super easy to make- I use a standard recipe for plum jam and just add in some fresh rosemary.

Rosemary-Plum Jam


3 lbs. fresh plums
a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary
7 1/2 cups of granulated sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 pouch liquid pectin


1. Wash your fruit, cut in half, twist and remove pit. Chop. Place in food processor.

2. Wash rosemary. Remove needles from stem. Discard stem. Chop. Place chopped needles in with plums.

3. Give the processor a good pulse/chop or two. You want the processor to crush the fruit mixture (but not puree it). Alternately, if you're not too fussy - you can chop the plums finely with a kitchen knife and call it a day. It'll cook down.

5. Pour rosemary-plum mixture into a large heavy bottomed pot.  Add lemon juice then sugar. Place on high heat and bring to a full rolling boil boil. Stir constantly while the softened fruit and sugar meld.

6. When it gets to be a full rolling boil (rolling boil-= boiling so hard it can't be stirred down, it keeps bubbling), add the pectin in quickly. Keep stirring the entire time.

7.  Return to full rolling boil for exactly 1 minute. Check to see if the jam has set. If it has, remove it from the heat. Skim off any foam.

8. Ladle the jam (while it's still hot) into hot, sterilized half-pint jars. Leave a 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe the rims, secure the lids and finger tighten the rings. Then follow the procedure for processing in a hot water bath.

PS This jam is also amazing when paired with roast pork.

How to sterilize jars and lids
How to hot water bath/can your jam
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.! ]

October 31: Mother Bear POP. A pop up collaboration between (Michael Thiemann's soon to open vegan/vegetarian restaurant) Mother and Golden Bear. For tickets: Golden Bear

November 2: Bike Dog Brewing Grand Opening. Details: Bike Dog

November 4: The salmon ladder at Nimbus Fish Hatchery reopens. Take the kiddos to learn about the spawning process. Learn more at: Yubanet

November 7: Captain Frank Ruhstaller's 167th Birthday Celebration and Release Party. Beer, food and old-fashioned carnival games. At the Beatnik Studio. For the scoop: Ruhstaller

November 7: Whole Foods Caviar Tasting and Pairing. Must be 21 or older. Further info and registration: Whole Foods Sac

November 8: Berryessa Gap presents the Pike Place Fish Guys for a meet and greet. There will be live music, local wine and fresh fish tacos. For more info: Yolo CVB

November 8: An Evening with Michael Pollan at the Veterans Memorial auditorium, Grass Valley. For tickets and more info: Center For The Arts

November 17: Twin Peaks Orchard presents "A Taste of Autumn" Harvest Festival, 11am-3pm. U-pick mandarins, tractor orchard tour, demos, vendors, and food.  Check out: Twin Peaks Orchard

November 22-24: 20th Annual Mountain Mandarin Festival in Auburn, CA. More info: Mandarin Festival

November 25: Guest Chef Night at Old Ironsides. 49ers vs. Redskins, free music and $5 dinner. For the deets: Old Ironsides

November 28: 20th Annual Run to Feed the Hungry. 10k Run and 5k Run/Walk. Help raise funds for the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services. Additional info: Run to Feed the Hungry

January 8: "The Naked Chef", Jamie  Oliver, will be rolling into town. As part of his food revolution, his Big Rig crew will be in Sac for a month offering "Learn to Teach" classes to area chefs and "Learn to Cook" classes for food lovers of all ages. For more info: Sactown Magazine

❖ So as much as I cook, I've never entered a recipe contest before...until now! I entered the Mushroom, Lamb and Farro Soup I made this weekend in Marx Foods Shrooms for Soup Challenge. The contest just went live (it goes through until 11:59pm PST Thursday 10/31), so if you could take a peek and vote that would be great. And if you vote for moi, that would even better! :) ❖


Here's the link:

There's some days when I have a ton of energy and feel like this:

And there's other days when it takes all my energy just to get out of bed and brush my teeth:

When it's the latter, I like to cook simple recipes that require minimal effort. Like the Spicy Thai Red Curry Mussels dish I made last week. Just throw a couple of things in a pot and slice up some crusty peasant bread. 20 minutes tops and you're good to go. And do these taste good? You bet your sweet bippy they do!

Spicy Thai Red Curry Mussels


2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 big shallot, minced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1 stalk lemongrass,  trimmed, bruised and finely chopped
1 tablespoon of grated fresh ginger (I use a microplane)      
1 small Thai Bird chile, seeded and minced
1  (13.5 oz.) can of unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon Thai fish sauce
2 tablespoons red Thai curry paste (nam pla)
2 lbs. fresh mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
zest of 1 small lemon
2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup cilantro leaves (stems removed)
1 loaf of crusty peasant bread or a baguette


1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add the shallot, garlic, lemongrass, ginger and chile. Cook until the ingredients become soft, about 3-4 minutes.

2. Add the coconut milk, fish sauce and red curry paste. Stir well, you want to make sure that red curry paste mixes into the coconut milk.

3. Bring to a boil, then add in your mussels. Cover. Steam for about 5 minutes or until mussels are opened. I usually give it one good stir during this time so that the top mussels get to the bottom and vice versa.

4. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to remove mussels from pot. Place in a bowl to the side. Throw away any mussels that don't open.

5. Add your zest, lemon juice and cilantro leaves. Let it simmer for a minute or two.

6. Place your mussels in two shallow bowls and ladle the spicy curry broth over it. Serve hot and with several slices of crusty bread for dipping.

* Don't know how to clean and de-beard mussels? Click here for an easy how-to: How to clean and de-beard mussels

* If you'd like a broth that's a bit on the sweeter side, you can add a tablespoon of white or brown sugar.

If you follow my blog or have gone out to eat with me, you know I'm a die hard mushroom lover. I could eat them every day. Not only do mushrooms taste phenomenal, but they're low in calories, help lower cholesterol and are fat-free. Additionally, they are full of nutrients such as- B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid), minerals (selenium, copper and potassium), and beta-glucans. Mushrooms are also an excellent source of Vitamin D. So when Marx Foods asked if I would like to participate in their "Shrooms for Soup Recipe Challenge," I just knew I had to enter. The premise of the challenge was simple. Marx Foods, a popular gourmet food purveyor, sends each contestant 3 kinds of dried mushrooms (matsutake, porcini and black trumpet). Each contestant needs to use at least one of the mushrooms in an original recipe. Then there will be a public poll...easy-peasy. (I'll let you know when it's up, so you can check it out.)

(dried shrooms clockwise, from top left: porcini, black trumpet, matsutake)
For my soup recipe, I opted to utilize the dried black trumpet and the dried porcini mushrooms. Black trumpets (also called the Trumpet of Death and the Horn of Plenty) have a bit of a ghoulish grey-black appearance, in fact they look like they could belong in an Edward Gorey illustration; however, they have a rich, buttery taste that makes them perfect for soups and risotto. The porcinis on the other hand offer up a meaty texture, an intense woodsy flavor and a wonderful earthy aroma. I thought these two mushrooms would compliment each other nicely and pair great with some chewy farro and freshly ground lamb. I've been trying to watch my weight lately so I decided to stay away from using cream or milk and instead I used a nice hearty homemade beef broth as a base and tucked in some shio-koji for added umami.

(Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies)

I know the list of ingredients seems a bit lengthy but most of the items are probably already in your cupboard and fridge. There's minimal prep work involved in this recipe...most of the "labor" is just letting the ingredients simmer.  Your end result? An exquisite, savory soup packed with robust flavor. The perfect meal for a chilly, autumn (or winter) evening.

Mushroom, Lamb and Farro Soup


1/2 oz. dried black trumpet mushrooms

1/2 oz. dried porcini mushrooms

1.5 tablespoons of olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

3/4 lb. ground lamb

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 yellow onion, diced

1 lb. crimini mushrooms, sliced

3 tablespoons very dry sherry

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons herbes de Provence

6 cups beef broth

2 tablespoons shio-koji

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup quick cook farro (I used Trader Joe's 10 Minute farro)

sea salt and fresh ground pepper


1. In a medium sized bowl, place the dried mushrooms. Cover with 2.5 cups of hot water. Then cover the bowl with a plate and let soak for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, use a slotted spoon to remove the mushrooms, rinse the mushrooms under running water, dice them up and then place in a small bowl.  Use a coffee filter or fine mesh strainer to strain the remaining mushroom liquid of any grit. Set aside 2 cups of the liquid for later use.

2. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed stockpot or large dutch oven over medium heat until it begins to shimmer. Add garlic and cook for about 1 minute, until garlic becomes fragrant. Add ground lamb. Sauté until meat is almost cooked through.

3. Add carrots, onions and crimini mushrooms.  Cook for 7-10 minutes, until vegetables are tender.

4. Add the dried mushrooms and the 2 cups of reserved mushroom broth. Add the sherry, red wine vinegar and herbes de Provence. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Allow to cook for 10 minutes.

5. Add stock, shio-koji and bay leaf. Allow soup to simmer for another 20 minutes.

6. Add farro, simmer for 15-20 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper.

7. Serve hot. Garnish with a pinch of chopped Italian parsley (optional).

* Disclosure: I was not compensated for this post other than receiving the dried mushrooms from Marx Foods. All opinions are completely my own.


6401 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95831. (916) 391-7990.

If there ever was a restaurant that needed a Gordon Ramsay-type intervention, it would be Pocket Bistro. On a recent Sunday morning, I met up with a friend and her two adorable, well-behaved children for a brunch there. What followed was one of the more crappier dining experiences of 2013 for me. This wasn't a restaurant I planned to review, but after the sub par food and the even worse service we experienced, well, I just can't keep my mouth shut.

We arrived at The Pocket Bistro around 11:30 expecting a bustling eatery but what we encountered was more akin to a dimly-lit Ghost Town. That should have tipped us off right away, but we stayed anyway. Bad move. After standing awkwardly in the doorway for about 5 minutes while the waitress did everything in her power not to make eye contact or acknowledge us, the bartender in the next room came over, gave us a friendly greeting and seated us. There was only two other tables occupied in the dining room (a solo diner and a two-top), yet service was slower than molasses in January. We had to flag down our waitress to order. My friend ordered a sandwich, I went with an omelet and we got a grilled cheese for the kiddos to share. Not a complicated order at all. The only modification made was that I asked for no cheese on my omelet because I'm lactose intolerant. In a near empty restaurant, it took over 30 minutes to get our orders once they were placed. It was ridiculous. Honestly, I was amazed that my friend's kidlets remained so well-behaved as most children would have been kicking up a fuss with a wait like that.  When we got our food, my omelet was slathered with melted cheese and my English muffin was MIA. I pointed this out to the waitress, to which she gave me a look like I had two-heads, mumbled something about having told the kitchen no cheese and then walked off with my plate. About 15 minutes later, she returned with the same omelet with the cheese scraped off, now cold, and still no English muffin. (But there were jam/jelly packets and butter on my plate, go figure. Guess it was for my invisible English muffin?) To put it bluntly, the omelet set before me looked a bit like something that had been regurgitated. My friend and I looked at each other like, "WTF?" At this point, I stuck a fork in the cold omelet because I wasn't going to drag out this craptastic brunch any longer then we needed to. The omelet tasted as unappetizing as it looked. It was rubbery, dense, overcooked and looked like it had been stuffed with kitchen scraps. The accompanying potatoes had a hint of garlic flavoring, but they too were cold and tasted like they had been cooked in too much oil (they were not crispy, more like greasy and gloppy). Serving slop like this on a plate and calling it brunch should be a crime. Honestly, we would have been better off hitting up a Denny's.

As soon as we got our bill, we paid and got the heck out of Dodge. We didn't want to hang out at this place any longer than necessary, it was putting a damper on our Sunday. I did notice though that as we left, the bistro was just as empty as when we arrived...and now we knew why. Pocket Bistro failed to deliver on anything resembling a decent meal. Since life's too short to eat bad food or to put up with substandard service, I will be avoiding this place in the future.