Seeking happiness and joy for the holidays

Locket my Mormor (maternal grandmother in Swedish) gave me when I turned 16.

Locket my Mormor (maternal grandmother in Swedish) gave me when I turned 16.

Happiness should be the one thing always present during the holiday season — after all how times do you hear the word ‘joy’ uttered in December?

Unfortunately, it’s not always effortless to be happy this time of year — there’s so much to do, so much stress and so many expectations that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. My job is particularly crazy in the winter. If people seem neurotic about their Thanksgiving dinner, imagine being responsible for the meat for hundreds of Christmas Eve and New Years Eve dinners. Some of the chefs I know could out-diva Mariah Carey and her requests for rooms full of white kittens.

So this year my co-workers and I came up with a brilliant idea — a happiness advent calendar. Each day one participant brings a small gift to the other 14 participants. It’s been awesome. I’ve come into work every morning to find treats on my desk, amongst them a peppermint Rice Krispie treat, a seasonal beer and a camel turd. There was a platter of apple slices with a jar of caramel sauce, a homemade lollipop and even a taco bar.

Peppermint Krispie Treat & Hot Cocoa

Peppermint Krispie Treat & Hot Cocoa

Let me tell you — it’s a mood lifter that I desperately needed this year, as my grandmother, one of the people I was closest to my whole life, passed away on Dec. 3rd, just nine days before her 96th birthday.

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Cooking like Keller, Part Two: Scallops with Braised Endive

Seared Kodiak scallops with citrus-braised endive

Seared Kodiak scallops with citrus-braised endive

The second installment of “A Very Thomas Keller Thanksgiving”

Our dinner at the French Laundry wasn’t the first dining experience my husband and I had at a Thomas Keller restaurant.

We hadn’t been married more than a year when we spent a spontaneous three-day weekend in Vegas. The trip was a blast — we saw a Cirque du Soleil show, had a fancy dinner at Mario Batali’s B&B Ristorante and even took a rather hilarious gondola ride through the Venetian hotel. You’ll notice the one thing we didn’t do — gamble.

Neither of us is really into casinos and the only chips we put down were the two free ones we got from the front desk when we checked in. The trip — like our lives — focused on food, ending in a fantastically elegant meal at Bouchon a few hours before we left town.

That meal would end up being our downfall.

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Cooking like Keller, Part One: Oysters & Pearls

Thomas Keller's Oysters and Pearls, French Laundry Cookbook

A Very Thomas Keller Thanksgiving, Course 1: Oysters and Pearls, French Laundry Cookbook

My husband and I like to make lists.

But instead of “things to do” or “places to go,” most of our lists revolve around food that we’ve already eaten. One list is the fullest we’ve ever been. For me, hands down, the winner is after our meal at the (now defunct) Incanto in San Francisco. I was so stuffed I almost cried when the kitchen sent us a complimentary dessert and champagne at the end of the meal. It felt more like a punishment than a gift.

We also talk about the longest meals we’ve had (the Herb Farm is definitely up there – so much food!) and, of course, the best things we have eaten. This list is constantly changing but for both of us the ultimate winner is the same — the Oysters & Pearls from our dinner at the French Laundry back in 2011.

This is one of Chef Thomas Keller’s most iconic dishes. The base is a custard made with small pearl tapioca, cream and oyster trimmings. The mixture is baked in individual ramekins and then topped with a gently poached fresh oyster, a silky butter sauce, a scoopful of caviar and a dusting of chives.

It’s perfection.

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Stray Cat Strut: The Kitten Chronicles

Teeny tiny bundle of trouble

Teeny tiny bundle of trouble

Kitties are my weakness — maybe even more so than beer and foie gras. At house parties I am the person on the floor making friends with the host’s cats. In my neighborhood, I’m the house that stray cats flock to, knowing they will get food and pets (if they allow it).

When I started this blog, I had three cats each of whom got their own introductory post. I lost the oldest one, Friday, a few months later. Since then I’ve had only two, tuxedos Lucifer and Gus Gus, both strays that my husband and I took in after finding them on the streets. Even though they are years apart in age, they have clearly come to love each other like brothers.

cute kitties

Gus Gus giving Lucifer a bath.

While I adore my “gruesome twosome,” I admit over the past few months I have been dreaming of kittens. I’ve put off seriously looking to adopt because I guess in my heart I believe taking in a stray is the best thing to do. I also believe (since they’ve always managed to before) that the right stray will find me.

And — almost like magic — two days before Thanksgiving an abandoned kitten needing a home practically dropped in my lap. Well, literally, she was dropped at my company’s farm out in rural Oregon. I won’t spend much time talking about how callous a person must be to dump two kittens barely a month old in a box in the middle of winter…I’ll focus on the good part.

The kitten and her adorable brother, both deemed healthy by a vet, were brought to the office and immediately cuddled and fawned over by the whole staff. I laid claim to the girl kitty, a teeny tiny tortoiseshell, who the vet said weighed just over a pound. Her brother was taken home by one of my co-workers so the story really is a happy one.

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{Boozy} Peppermint Mocha Jello Shots: Because nothing says happy holidays like alcohol

Peppermint Mocha Jello Shots

While some people get excited every fall for the debut of the heralded Pumpkin Spice Latte, I am the girl patiently waiting for the inevitable return of the peppermint mocha. While I know it’s available year-round, for me this minty treat is best savored slowly while strolling down a street in the winter, checking out Christmas lights and window shopping.

Most of the year I drink straight-up black coffee so when December rolls around my first sip of the peppermint mocha is pure chocolatey, sugary bliss. This year I decided to take that deliciousness and turn it into a Jello shot.

Because, well, why not?

I’ll admit I was a little concerned about the basic idea of gelatinous chocolate, or gelatinous coffee for that matter. Usually when I think Jello, I think fruit so this was a bit of a stretch for me.

After doing some Google researched, I made my first batch using coffee, hot cocoa mix, a blend of alcohol and a touch of coffee syrup (have you tried this stuff? It’s like crack!).

Jello shot mise en place

Jello shot mise en place

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What have I been doing and how is it almost December?

Um...what the hell happened to autumn?

Um…what the hell happened to autumn?

Basically this is my apology in case you’ve noticed I’ve been a bit behind in the world of WordPress. Life has been so hectic it’s kept me from reading and writing as much as I would have liked these past four weeks.

One of the reasons for the madness is because a month ago I decided to embark on the “Whole 30.” If you’re unfamiliar with the program it’s essentially a thirty day eating plan/elimination diet that helps participants rethink their food choices, overcome cravings, heal their digestive track and eat 100% clean for thirty days. (I don’t want to bore you too much with specifics so if you want to read more about the Whole 30, click here.)

Basically from Oct. 23 through Saturday, Nov. 22, I abstained from all sugars (natural or otherwise), grains (even whole grains), legumes (except green beans and peas), alcohol and dairy. That sounds like an overwhelming list of “can’t have’s” but I did eat plenty of meat, seafood, eggs and vegetables with a limited amount of fruits, nuts and seeds added in for good measure.

For someone who eats lots of grains and is known to indulge in a few pints of delicious beer, I was very worried I wasn’t going to complete the challenge. In fact, I vowed not to mention my mission on this blog until it was over — just in case I threw in the towel. Not very confident sounding, I know, but hey, I’m realistic. I work in the food industry, my husband cooks everything with cream, butter and cheese, and the holiday stress level at work usually has me and my co-workers doing mid-morning shots by now.

But I made it and it feels really good to say that. I do eat fairly well in general so my cravings weren’t too bad and I didn’t suffer a lot of the detox pains that many people do the first week. What made it difficult for me was the struggle of time. On this program you have to make every meal — there is no convenience eating on days when you’re feeling overwhelmed. No English muffins for breakfast or ramen for dinner. Instead I would make huge batches of soft-boiled eggs, curries and roasted vegetables just so I wouldn’t be caught hungry and off-guard.

I could talk on and on about the results from the program and how I feel about it (and maybe I will in another post) but this was just to let you know what’s been monopolizing my time lately. I love to cook and I relish time in the kitchen, but I am really  happy to be able to heat up a frozen burrito after a late night at work!

But don’t think I ate in misery for thirty days. Check out all the good things I scarfed down:

A typical Whole 30 breakfast: eggs, kale and sweet potatoes

A typical Whole 30 breakfast: eggs, kale and sweet potatoes

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