GF Note: For those unfamiliar with my blog, I do not have any dietary reason that I need to eat gluten-free. I choose to bake gluten-free within my home because I have an interest in all the other types of grains and flours that have been used by cultures for centuries. Why is America so wheat focused? I figure I can get gluten filled products everywhere else outside my home. 

The September 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mandy of “What the Fruitcake?!” Mandy challenged everyone to make Decorated Sugar Cookies based on recipes from Peggy Porschen and The Joy of Baking.

I made these gluten-free as I continue to try to bake that way more. I was a little worried that the cookies might come out too crumbly to stand up to the decorating, but there was no problem.

This was my first time really decorating to this extent with royal icing. I think my only problem was that I didn't get it thin enough to 'flood' properly to get a nice smooth finish - they appear a little lumpy. But overall I was pleased with the results. I'm not an icing fan, so after I got the cookies above decorated I did the rest with much less icing, with the cookie showing through a lot more.

Basic Sugar Cookies: (note that italicized comments are from Mandy)

½ cup + 6 Tbsp Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
3 cups + 3 Tbsp All Purpose / Plain Flour or Gluten-free blend
3/4 t xanthan gum (only needed for GF version)
1 cup Caster Sugar / Superfine Sugar
1 Large Egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp Vanilla Extract / Or seeds from 1 vanilla bean

• Cream together the butter, sugar and any flavourings you’re using. Beat until just becoming
creamy in texture.
Tip: Don’t over mix otherwise you’ll incorporate too much air and the cookies will spread during
baking, losing their shape.

• Beat in the egg until well combined, make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add the sifted flour and mix on low until a non sticky dough forms.
Tip: I don’t have a stand mixer so I find it easier to switch to dough hooks at this stage to avoid
flour flying everywhere.

• Knead into a ball and divide into 2 or 3 pieces.
• Roll out each portion between parchment paper to a thickness of about 5mm/1/5 inch (0.2 inch)
• Refrigerate for a minimum of 30mins.
Tip: Recipes commonly just wrap the whole ball of dough in clingwrap and then refrigerate it for an
hour or overnight, but by rolling the dough between parchment, this shortens the chilling time and
then it’s also been rolled out while still soft making it easier and quicker.

• Once chilled, peel off parchment and place dough on a lightly floured surface.
• Cut out shapes with cookie cutters or a sharp knife.
• Arrange shapes on parchment lined baking sheets and refrigerate for another 30mins to an hour.
Tip: It’s very important you chill them again otherwise they’ll spread while baking.
• Re-roll scraps and follow the above process until all scraps are used up.
• Preheat oven to 180°C (160°C Fan Assisted) / 350°F / Gas Mark 4.
• Bake until golden around the edges, about 8-15mins depending on the size of the cookies.
Tip: Bake same sized cookies together otherwise mixing smaller with larger cookies could result in
some cookies being baked before others are done.

Tip: Rotate baking sheets half way through baking if your oven bakes unevenly.
• Leave to cool on cooling racks.
• Once completely cooled, decorate as desired.
Tip: If wrapped in tinfoil/cling wrap or kept in airtight containers in a cool place, un-decorated
cookies can last up to a month.

Royal Icing:
2½ - 3 cups Icing / Confectioner’s / Powdered Sugar, unsifted
2 Large Egg Whites
2 tsp Lemon Juice
1 tsp Almond Extract, optional

• Beat egg whites with lemon juice until combined.
Tip: It’s important that the bowls/spoons/spatulas and beaters you use are thoroughly cleaned and
grease free.

• Sift the icing sugar to remove lumps and add it to the egg whites.
Tip: I’ve listed 2 amounts of icing sugar, the lesser amount is good for a flooding consistency, and the larger amount is for outlining, but you can add even more for a much thicker consistency good for writing. If you add too much icing sugar or would like to make a thinner consistency, add very small amounts of water, a few drops at a time, until you reach the consistency you need.
• Beat on low until combined and smooth.
• Use immediately or keep in an airtight container.
Tip: Royal Icing starts to harden as soon as it’s in contact with air so make sure to cover containers with plastic wrap while not in use.

I am wishing there was some way to write the grunts from Tim the Toolman Taylor on the old show Home Improvement. The way he grunted when he wanted to be all manly. Those grunts are appropriate for Primal - a carnivore feast that was held in Napa this weekend. It's touted as, “Celebrating Fire Cooking, Meat and the Art of Butchering”.

I scored some last minute tickets and was thrilled because I knew I would be in for a feast. There were several wineries serving up wine to go with all the meats, ranging from rabbit to cow. Throughout the day there were also butchering demonstrations “honoring the art of the butcher while promoting responsible farms and local agriculture through fire cooking.”

Here you see Kari Underly from Chicago cutting out the flank steak from a hind quarter of beef. She had just won the award as Best Butcher in the country.

Behind the prep tables it looked like a primitive, tribal sacrificial landscape. It was a crucifixion ground with rabbits, goats, pigs, cow, and chickens stretched out and being smoked and roasted over open fires.

There was lots of butchering.

What you see dangling off the beef carcass is the kidneys. I asked why the kidneys had not been removed with all the other organs and was told that it was because the organs are all contained in a sac that drops out of the body cavity, but the kidneys are imbedded in the fat layer and so they remain. Then you see the pig's head has been totally uncovered. I learned recently that you take the head and strip it of the jowls and skin, cut off the ears and tongue, and then roll them all up with a lot of spices to make a pig's head porchetta.

As Underly cut, she explained the difference between prime, choice, and select grades of meat. At first a lot of the grading was subjective because it was all do to the training and opinion of each inspector. But now it’s all scientific with the use of scopes that electronically measure marbling, etc. Prime cut has the most marbling. Select is the leanest. Choice is in between. So it depends on if you want a lean cut or not.

Different stations served the food.

Bacon tasting; beef sliders; lamb tostadas; steak tartar

After just a couple of hours we were absolutely stuffed with meat. It was an Atkin's diet lover's dream. Really, there wasn’t much else unless it was an accompaniment to a dish.  The event still had hours to go and the carcasses that we had seen being butchered were still cooking. A second wave of food was still to come, but we just couldn’t see eating even more meat. Besides, they didn’t have any non-alcoholic drinks for me and not much seating. If I get the opportunity to go again in the future, I’ll be sure to bring my own chair and beverages so that I can stay for the entire thing.

100 Days. As of September 23rd there were only 100 days left in 2010. In those 100 days fall the holidays when many of us will enjoy fine feasts with family and friends. But for many people, especially in this economic downturn, there are many days of hunger and not so much feasting.

The River City Food Bank is one of the organizations in the area that tries to help those under dire circumstances. I must admit my ignorance since I had only been familiar with and volunteered at the Sacramento Food Bank. Even though I had heard of some of River City's events, I hadn't been conscious of the difference.

River City Food Bank (RCFB) was founded in 1968. It is open daily to provide food to those below the poverty line - often families. They will provide a family three days worth of nutritional food once a month. When they have the funds they can also help in terms of shelter. They might provide rent assistance or provide a couple of days in a motel. They can also help with preventing the shutting off of utilities. Unfortunately, this all depends on their coffers, which apparently are empty right now. My friend called for the rental/utility help recently and the recording said they had no funds available.

The event I went to on Thursday was the kickoff for the 100 Days of Food, an effort to collect food and funds to fill the coffers for the stressful holidays. The effort’s goal is to reach 100,000 pounds of food. It took place on the top floor of Sutter Hospital’s garage with great views above the treetops of the city. Food was donated by Panda Express and Chipotle.

There were a couple of displays about what the RCFB does, but what caught my eye was a cooking demonstration by Chef James Lyon. He was making a vegetarian chili using ingredients that are found at and handed out from the food bank. The food bank supplies nutritional foods and also provides recipes using the ingredients they hand out. There are nutritional classes offered as well. Certainly it is better than just handing out junk food for the sake of handing out food.

I was introduced to Eileen Thomas, Executive Director, who gave a speech thanking the volunteers and donors. She said that when the economy took a dive, the number of people seeking help from the RCFB increased by fifty percent. Even though the economy is supposedly improving, they are not seeing that number decrease. It is not news that all charities are having a difficult time collecting funds, which only makes the need so much greater. Thomas held up empty shopping bags and challenged everyone to fill up one or more bags. This year they have teamed up with Goodwill so that food can be dropped off at any of the numerous Goodwill donation centers around the area.

I have my empty bag and plan on filling it soon and dropping it down the street at my nearest Goodwill. I hope you will join me in doing the same.
My dad sent me this email and video. I thought it was appropriate for my foodie blog, so I'm sharing it with all of you. 

When I was in Junior High, one of my classmates had a kitchen oil fire. He had been trying to make some french fries and the oil in the pan caught on fire. I'm not sure if he tried to douse the fire or move the pan, either way, he ended up with third degree burns all over his arms. He probably still has the scars.

This text and video explains why you do NOT want to try to douse an oil fire. It provides a simple solution for stopping the fire using only a wet dishcloth.

At the Fire Fighting Training school they would demonstrate this with a 
 deep fat fryer set on the fire field. An instructor would don a fire suit 
 and using an 8 oz cup at the end of a 10-foot pole to toss water onto the 
 grease fire. 
 The results got the attention of the students. The water, being heavier 
 than oil, sinks to the bottom where it instantly becomes superheated. 
 The explosive force of the steam blows the burning oil up and out. On the  open field, it became a thirty foot high fireball that resembled a nuclear  blast. 

 Inside the confines of a kitchen, the fire ball hits the ceiling and fills 
 the entire room. Also, do not throw sugar or flour on a grease fire. One 
 cup of either creates the explosive force of two sticks of dynamite. 

If you saw my post last week for Microwave Peanut Brittle, you know that I had a bit of mess on my hands. I tried to double the recipe and had a mess of sticky, caramel goo overflowing in my microwave. This mishap created a side problem - my candy did not reach brittle stage. So here I had a double batch of bacon peanut caramel instead of brittle.

What to do? After all, this was still edible stuff and shouldn't be just tossed out. A double batch as well. No way was I gonna toss this failed attempt. The problem was I had this stretchy, sticky, ropey mess. It was soft and pliable. In the end I decided to take small bits and dip them in chocolate. I ended up with lovely chocolate candies.

Because it was a mess in the microwave and I can't give you a precise timing to use that way, we are going to go back to the old fashioned stove-top method and use a candy thermometer. Basically my concoction had reached soft ball stage versus hard ball stage and for that we should use the thermometer.

Chocolate Bacon Peanut Clusters

     4 slices of bacon
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. light corn syrup
1 c. unsalted peanuts, skins removed
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda
1 lb of dark chocolate

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Grease the foil with butter. Set aside.

Fry the bacon in a skillet until it is crispy. Remove and dry on paper towels. Reserve one tablespoon of bacon grease for later. Take crispy bacon and chop it into very small pieces.

Combine sugar, corn syrup, and peanuts in a medium, nonstick pot. Cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally. When thermometer reaches 240 degrees, remove from heat and immediately mix in bacon, bacon grease, vanilla, and baking soda.  Pour candy mixture onto foil. Let cool completely.
Cut candy into small pieces. Put back into frig until you are ready to dip in the chocolate.

Break chocolate into small pieces and microwave for 1 minute. Stir. Microwave for another 30-60 seconds or until all the chocolate is melted.

Dip candy bits into chocolate and set onto parchment paper to cool. Enjoy!


Today my BFF and I made a fantastic pizza.

I went to the farmers market and picked up some of the last figs of the season as well as some fresh goat cheese. We pureed the figs and used them as the sauce. Then we topped it with prosciutto, camelized onions, and the crumbled goat cheese. After it came out of the oven, we drizzled it with balsamic vinegar. Delicioso!

Last night I was a guest of Poor Girl Kimberly to see Anthony Bourdain. I had told her earlier in the evening that I wasn't going to bother with a Bourdain post because I figured other food bloggers would get around to it, including her (which I'll link here). But then Bourdain started talking about some of his travels and food experiences and it made me reflect on my own. So this is not a post about his talk last night as much as the thoughts that came to mind as he was talking.

Bourdain first started talking about the dumbing down of the Food Network. This is something that I definitely agree with. Real chefs like Emeril have disappeared in favor of “let’s take some nobody home chef and turn them into a star”. Or the few real chefs that do remain (Florence and Flay) have been relegated to TV personality hosts because of their pretty boy looks. I say switch it up. But Florence and Flay back to teaching cooking and get the newly discovered home chef to host The Great Food Truck Race, etc.

It’s a shame that America and it’s fast food diet wants to cook like Sandra Lee. Shortcut cooking. It’s something that we even teach via Pampered Chef. Take packaged goods, like cake mix, and then doctor it up to make a different finished product. A favorite Pampered Chef saying, “Homemade no longer means made from scratch, it just means it was made in the home.” The thing is, real cooking of healthy, flavorful food can still take as few as five ingredients and 20 minutes. Wouldn’t it be better to teach basic cooking skills. Thank goodness there are a few shows such as Five Ingredient Fix.

Bourdain then continued by talking about his travels over the last ten years and his advice on traveling. It really boiled down to the same things my father taught me as I traveled the world growing up - stay out of tourist hotels, travel around by car, immerse yourself in the culture, be respectful of the culture and the people.

Example 1: Dress appropriately for the culture. I grew up in the Middle East and so I learned early that you covered your shoulders and to below the knees. In Arabia there were times when a Western woman’s legs would be spray painted if she they were not properly covered. Now some anti-Islamic ignoramus out there would say some idiotic thing about this. But the fact is, it’s their country, respect their culture! Even here in America, if you enter a Jewish synagogue, you should be respectful of your attire there as well. And don’t think it’s limited to Jews or Muslims. In some Catholic countries you are being disrespectful wearing hot pants and tank tops when entering a cathedral. Actually, I really believe it gets down to an underlying social problem in America - the “it’s all about me” selfish attitude of people. Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about the bigger, global community.

Example 2 is what Bourdain called “take one for the team”. This story is about my Filipina mother. As any No Reservations viewer knows, Filipinos eat fertilized duck eggs called Balut. That means there is an embryonic chick partially formed in the duck egg when it is boiled and then eaten. It’s considered an aphrodisiac. My dad says that grandfather’s house in Manila was near a brothel and at night the balut sellers would start selling their wares out on the street. What you might not know is that there is an even worse form of balut, where it’s actually left to get a little rotten (or you could say fermented if you prefer) for a few days. Anyway, this isn’t about balut so much as it is about my Filipino mom being used to eating all sorts of weird foods. Filipinos eat a lot of blood too. And during World War II my mom even had to eat insects to survive. Suffice it to say, my dad would say that my mom would eat anything.

My parents were invited to some Arabian dinner. At these events for Westerners they would sometimes allow the Western wives to eat with the men. These Arab feasts always include a roasted whole goat served atop a platter of rice. The eyeball is the delicacy that is reserved for the guest of honor. On this night my dad was offered the eyeball. He deflected the honor by saying mom would eat it in his place, since she would eat anything. Mom took it for the team. Go, mom!

At an early age I was faced with the culinary courtesy of trying what was offered. It was the early 70’s and I was probably about 7 or 8 at the time. We had gone on a campout with other Americans in the middle of the Arabian dessert in search of Qasuma diamonds. These were polished quartz stones that looked like poor man’s diamonds. My dad took my brother and I out in the car and we went off on our own one day and came across some Bedouin camel herders out in the middle of nowhere. All Arabs are very hospitable, especially the Bedouin. After all, if you travel across barrenness for days without crossing another human being, when you do you want to converse and share food and drink. We were invited to share coffee with them even though my dad doesn’t drink coffee. They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Arabic. Being small children, one of the men ran out to a camel and milked it for us. We, of course, had no interest in drinking fresh camel’s milk. But dad made it clear that we had to at least fake it  - and so we did.

After Bourdain finished his entertaining talk, he opened it up to Q&A. I was amazed at the groupies. After all, Bourdain admits himself that he’s not an exceptional, star chef. He became famous for his book, Kitchen Confidential, that exposed restaurant secrets. A world of opportunity opened up to him, aided by the fact that he has a fun, snaky, tell-it-like-it-is attitude. So to see people just gushing like silly schoolgirls just amazed me. And the fact that some people hit the mic just to say silly stuff to him for the sake of being able to say they talked to him…   To each his own. I’m sure I looked just as silly when I met Russell Crowe this year. Michelle and I admit that we were jumping up and down squealing like schoolgirls after we got our picture with him. (And in Michelle’s case, she wasn’t even a Crowe fan.)

As I said, this post wasn’t so much about Bourdain as it was about the thoughts and memories he triggered for me while I listened. In the end it was an entertaining evening that only reminded me that I have to give thanks to my dad. It’s daddy that made us travel by rental cars through countries and stay at the cheapest hotels and B&B’s. (Keep in mind that B&B’s in other countries are just spare rooms in a person’s farmhouse and not luxury accomodations like they are here.) Yes, we saw the typical tourist attractions of cathedrals and castles, but we also went off the beaten path as much as possible. It’s because of this type of travel that my interest is in down and dirty travel where I am immersed in a culture as much as possible.

Bourdain has the dream job. Thanks to daddy, I have the same appreciation for travel and food.

Viks Chaat Corner on Urbanspoon

Repost from 9/08 to include new location info. 

I really am naive when it comes to Indian cuisine. Suddenly I have an Indian roomie, Veena, and the golden opportunity for education. Veena rooms with me during the week and then returns to her home in Concord for the weekend. This weekend I went to her place and she shared her world with me. This entry will be about our visit to Vik's Chaat in Berkeley.

Chaat refers to Indian street food. When the sun goes down, the people come out and stroll the streets socializing. All along the streets are vendor carts selling all kinds of street snacks. Before or after a show or movie, people will stop for bites to eat.

Vik's Chaat is located in a warehouse down by the waterfront of Berkeley. Before Veena came to the U.S. she worked as a receptionist at a five-star hotel in Bombay/Mumbai. One of her coworkers, the head of catering, also came to the States and he's the one who started Vik's. Veena tells me that at first he only occupied a small corner of his brother's Indian grocery and sold the chaat only on weekends. As his counter became more and more popular, he took up more space and opened more hours. Eventually he had to move his operation next door. More and more growth and then he had to annex another section of the warehouse. This gentleman died suddenly of a stroke while only in his 40's. The family continued the chaat business and since it keeps growing, they've now bought a warehouse two blocks down. They will be moving to that new location in April 2009. Now at new location.

Sure enough, there is a constant line at Vik's and one must be vigilant in snagging a table as it is vacated (still). The warehouse truly is a bare bones operation. The new location is much nicer and larger. It's been updated with a computerized order system and the pick-up counter split up depending on the type of  food ordered. But hey, low overhead keeps low prices, although Veena has seen the price of plates rise from $2 up to $4.75 $6.75 now.

I left our meal in Veena's hands and she selected three puris and I chose our one non-veg item.

First to come up was my non-veg lamb baida roti. Roti is a griddle-cooked whole wheat flour bread. This was filled with spiced ground lamb with onions and cilantro. It is served with a yogurt/mint chutney. Served piping hot, it was delicious. The crisp griddled outside, soft doughy bread, and then the fine, spiced meat.

Our puris came out together. These are all sold cold. Puris are small whole wheat chips that are fried into crispy, hollow puffs. This one is the sev puri with potatoes, onions, cilantro, mint, tamarind and garlic chutney. The sev is the orange shreds you see on top. It is very fine, like shredded cheese, but Veena says it's actually close to a pasta, like orzo. This was an explosion of flavors and textures all in one bite.

This picture shows dahi batata puri on the left and pani puri on the left. The first was puris stuffed with potatoes and garbanzos and covered with spices, yogurt, and tamarind chutney. Although it had similar ingredients, this combination was a different experience from the sev puri, but just as delicious.

The pani puri is Veena's favorite. She was raving about it and trying to explain it to me at my house and I just didn't get it. She was talking about being given a small, crispy puff that you filled with stuff and then poured in this liquid before you ate it. Huh?? And that the street vendors hand each person one at a time around the circle of his cart. Well here we were to experience it. You see the plain empty puff above with the fixins next to it.

OK. So you take a puff and you poke a hole into the top of it. Next you take some of the potato and garbanzo and you stuff it into the puri. Now top it with a spoonful of tamarind chutney. Last, take spoonfuls of the spicy mint water and pour that in as well. Now eat. An odd method of assembly and messy if your puri has a hole in it. But still tasty. After finishing the puri Veena poured the chutney into the mint water and drank that down. She was a happy camper.

We were stuffed at this point and so I got a couple of sweets to go. The desserts are not made here but are supplied by a specialty bakery.

Our four dishes came to $20 and filled the two of us. A great deal of good, authentic chaat. Just be prepared for the frugal setup and go for the real reason - the food.
Microwave bacon peanut brittle

When I was at IFBC in Seattle last month we were treated to bacon peanut brittle. This would not be something new to the bacon lovers out there. After all, our world is slowly being taken over by baconnaise, bacon lip balm, etc. We even came across bacon martinis and bacon bloody marys when we were at brunch. But for me the idea of bacon in peanut brittle was something new and yet, oh-so right.

My problem is that when I'm bored, I bake - or  make something generally not healthy, but satisfying to my sweet tooth. So here I was thinking about that bacon brittle. My version is a tweak to the microwave versions out on the internet.

Important! Do not try to make double batches! It will boil over and make a sticky, gooey mess in your microwave. Believe me. I know.

Bacon amount can vary depending on your bacon addiction.

Bacon Peanut Brittle

     4 slices of bacon
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. light corn syrup
1 c. unsalted peanuts, skins removed
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Grease the foil with butter. Set aside.

Fry the bacon in a skillet until it is crispy. Remove and dry on paper towels. Reserve one tablespoon of bacon grease for later. Take crispy bacon and chop it into very small pieces.

Combine sugar, corn syrup, and peanuts in 2-quart microwave glass mixing bowl. Microwave on HIGH for 8 minutes, stirring after 4 minutes. Add bacon, vanilla, baking soda, and bacon grease. At this point it will foam up, but stir thoroughly and put back in microwave. Microwave on HIGH 2 minutes. Brittle should be tan in color. Quickly spread on buttered baking sheet as thinly as possible. Let cool. Break into pieces.



I was lucky enough to attend a special event at The Citizen Hotel today called Meet Your Maker. Chef Michael Tuohy of the Grange is famous for being a locavore and into sustainability. Here was an event to showcase the suppliers who provide all the wonderful meats, seafoods, produce, etc.

Watanabe tomatoes

Represented were Riverdog Farm, Del Rio Botanicals, Watanabe Farm, North Valley Farm, Capay Organics, Vierra Farm, Katz & Co., Port Seafood, Del Monte Meats, Niman Ranches, Produce Express, Matchbook Winery, Tito's Vodka, and Woodford Reserve Bourbon.

Port Seafood oysters

It took place on the 7th floor terrace, a lovely tented space overlooking Caesar Chavez Park. A lovely touch was that they used biodegradable, sustainable cutlery and dishware made from potato starch and palm leaves.

Vierra Farm frying squash blossoms
I was able to talk to several of the suppliers and learn about their different goods. I was happy to see my friend Heidi Watanabe there. I did a Pampered Chef show for her about 10 years ago and I always buy my heirloom tomatoes from her at the farmers market. I also talked to gentlemen from Niman Ranch, Del Monte Meats, and Port Seafood.

It didn't hurt that there was some good food to nibble on too. I had to have a fried squash blossom from Vierra Farm since Chef Tuohy buys his blossoms every week on the Follow the Chef tours.

All in all a very nice event.
Back in January I had made some gluten-free graham crackers for the Daring Bakers' Challenge. (Recipe here.) They came out really well and yet I only needed very little of them. I threw the rest of them into the freezer thinking they would someday become a cheesecake crust.

Marshmallows have been on my cooking to-do list for quite some time. They seem like something that would be really difficult and actually they aren't that complicated. They have also been on my mind a lot because I had some S'Mores at Off the Grid and they've come up in conversations with friends. It was one of those crazy 'Aha moments' when I realized that, "Gee. I already have homemade graham crackers in the freezer. I just need to make marshmallows."

There are plenty of marshmallow recipes out there, so I just used the one from Joy of Baking’s site. I chose to make mine coconut flavored since I thought that would be pretty tasty in a S'More.

One of the things I kept reading was that it was best to make them in a stand mixer. I only have a hand mixer. This may have made a difference. What I had were really soft marshmallows.

Making my S'Mores, then, was a bit difficult in the traditional sense. My marshmallows were too soft to skewer and roast over a flame. Then my unfrozen grahams were a bit on the limp side. I already knew I wanted a chocolate ganache instead of pieces of chocolate.  What did I end up with?

Try #1 was a S'More fondue. I put a marshmallow on a plate, nuked it in the microwave for about 20 seconds to melt it, and then put some chocolate over it. I then proceeded to dip the grahams in it. Still tastes good, but not really the desired effect.

For Try #2 I took my thawed grahams and tossed them in a 250 degree oven for 15 minutes to crisp them back up. That worked great. This time I used two forks to roast a marshmallow over my stove flame. Seeing as that they were really soft to begin with, it melted very quickly and I placed it on top of the graham. Top that with some ganache, another bit of graham, and we have a plated S'More. Again, yummy and more to what I had in mind.

What I’ve learned today is that I need to make another go at marshmallows. I need them to be firmer and I’m not sure what I need to change that. Anyone have suggestions? In the meantime, I’ll be happily eating my not so perfect batch.

Marias Mexican Tacos on Urbanspoon

When you visit another town you will likely choose a) a familiar place, like a chain restaurant, b) some place you've read or heard about, or c) someplace that looks inviting and safe. That means that often you will never discover a local's hangout unless they take you there. It's not often that I just stumble into a totally unfamiliar restaurant. It's a shame, but that's often how it is.

Today I got taken to just such a local's hangout in Auburn. Maria's Mexican Tacos sits right off of I-80 on Bowman Road. It's right next door to the Auburn bowling alley. It's a very non-descript building. It has a sign, but nothing really entices you to try it out. It also appears to be a full-service restaurant when you might just be in the mood for more of a drive-thru – cheap and quick.

Upon entering, you’ll be surprised to see that it’s more of a counter order setup. There’s a register next to a couple of deli service counters. The menu is posted above on the wall and behind you are small grocery shelves with Mexican candies and snacks and coolers of American and Mexican soft drinks. In the center there is a small chips and salsa serving area and the rest of the room is bordered by an abundance of booths.

There is the usual Mexican fare on the menu: tacos, burritos, quesadillas. The choices for meat are pretty much the norm: chicken, beef, carnitas. The only more traditional meat is the barbacoa, which my friend was unfamiliar with. I explained that it was BBQ pork. It might be a case of they post the meats they have available. Their website says they have cabeza (head) and lengua (tongue), but they weren’t listed on the wall menu today.

It was a bit of a wait for our food. We helped ourselves to chips, which are bagged and not homemade, and the salsa. The salsa was a milled red one, mild to medium. Don’t expect chunks or anything spectacular. My friend knew to ask for hot sauce and came back with a small cup of a spicy tomatillo salsa. I prefer tomatillo and this one did have a kick to it. My friend chose to mix the red and green together to make his own mixture.

The food came out and was looking good. His burrito was one of those that is so big that you really need to eat it with a knife and fork rather than trying to battle it by hand. My quesadilla was an extra large tortilla folded to a half circle cut into four wedges. It was piping hot and the deep red barbacoa was oozing out the sides. There was no scrimping on the meat. I was extremely happy with mine and couldn’t finish it. I’ve still got some in my frig for later. The barbacoa itself was well spiced, although a little too salty. The carnitas burrito was also super satisfying with lots of fillings and melty cheese.

So here’s a local’s find that is worth a try if you catch yourself up in Auburn or on your way down the hill. Convenient off the freeway with good fare.

Note: Chips and salsa are free for in-house dining but extra for take-out.