DIY California Rolls


I’ve decided to feature my children’s favorite meals this week, starting with my daughter’s.  She has always had a fairly sophisticated palate, choosing an aged Asiago over American, a hard crusty Italian bread over Wonderbread, chorizo before a hot dog, and freshly steamed hard shell crabs over fish sticks.  So what does this little foodie say is her favorite meal?  California rolls.  Ok, I know California rolls are to sushi lovers what beefaroni is to pasta gourmets, but she’s seven.  And I serve it family style, meaning everyone makes their own, which she adores.  I offered to make the real deal for her birthday, rolling and cutting into the traditional individual pieces.  Nope – not interested.  She wanted to make her own, as she always has done.

Serendipitously, this also happens to be a no-cook dinner (other than the rice, which I don’t even count as cooking since I have a rice cooker).  You do have to season the cooked rice, and the only other “cooking” is the miso soup, which I usually serve with California rolls.  You can buy the dry soup packets and just add boiling water.  I make my miso soup with miso paste, water, tofu and a garnish of scallions – it takes all of 3 minutes.  Once you cut up the cucumbers, imitation crab meat, avocados and nori, dinner is ready! 


Make your own California rolls

(serves 4)

2-3 ripe avocados

8 oz. imitation crab meat sticks (about 10)

1 English (seedless) cucumber

8 sheets of nori

2 C. seasoned sushi rice

soy sauce for dipping

prepared wasabi for soy sauce


Cut avocados and cucumbers into strips about 3 inches long, 1/4 inch wide.  Shred or cut crab meat into about 3 pieces per stick, also about 1/4 inch wide.  Using scissors, cut nori sheets into quarters.  Place each ingredient (avocado, cucumber, crab meat, nori, and rice) onto its own plate.  Everyone takes their own nori, puts a bit of rice, one piece of cucumber, crab and avocado on it.  Roll it up and dip in wasabi soy sauce.


Seasoned Sushi Rice

2 – 2 1/2 C. cooked Japanese or Korean rice

3 Tbs. rice vinegar

2 Tbs. sugar

1 tsp. salt

Once the rice is cooked, let cool slightly.  Mix in rice vinegar, sugar and salt.  Mix well and serve in California rolls immediately.


Fish Tacos

April 27, 2008

My husband and I recently had our cholesterol levels checked and while mine was a healthy 169, his was just beyond the normal range (as in one over the cut-off).   Consequently, he’s been interrogating me on the fat content of our meals, requesting fish and other foods that will lower his cholesterol levels, and shunning anything that could raise it.  It seems we will be on a cheese and red meat hiatus for the coming months.  I decided to make grilled fish tacos for dinner since it pretty much covers all the bases:  low in fat, high in omega-3 fatty acids, fresh and delicious.


 Just what the doctor ordered:  grilled fish tacos


Fish Tacos with Mango Salsa

(serves 4)

1 – 1 1/2  lb. white fish fillets (I used striped bass, but any firm flaky white fish will do like talapia, mahi mahi, halibut, red snapper, etc.)

3 Tbs. canola oil

1 Tbs. chili powder

juice of 2 limes

1 chopped jalepeño, seeds and veins removed

1/4 C. cilantro, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

8 tortillas (I used wheat, but corn also works well)


Whisk all ingredients (except fish and tortillas) in a shallow bowl.  Add fillets and marinate in the refigerator for at least half an hour.  (This tastes best grilled, but can also be broiled in the oven or pan grilled.)  Take fillets and place on hot grill.  Cover and cook for 4 minutes or so.  Turn over and cook for another minute.  Remove and let stand for a few minutes.  Grill tortillas for about 30 seconds on each side.  Flake with fork and serve on warm tortillas and top with mango salsa.


Mango Salsa

2 ripe mangos, diced

1/4 C. finely chopped red onions

1/4 C. chopped cilantro

1 finely chopped jalepeño (optional)

juice of 1/2 a lime

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate.  Serve on fish tacos or with chips.  Or both.

I took my camera along on our walk to school yesterday morning.  The weather could not have been more glorious this week – in the seventies and bright sunshine all day.  While most of these flowering trees and bushes will peak in the next week, I’m happy to have captured this brief moment in my and my neighbor’s gardens.


Our lilac bush is by our kitchen window and the heavenly scent drifts in on those warm spring days.


Is there anything prettier than flowering Kwanzan cherry trees in the spring?


Weigela “Midnight Wine” is simply stunning with its deep red leaves and delicate pinkish-white flowers.


Our neighbor’s Viburnum “Nannyberry” bush soaks up the sun.


Our mesclun mix is coming along well.  It’ll soon be time to thin these out, much to our guinea pigs’ delight. 


The oregano from our herb garden multiplies with very little encouragment.  You need to cut it back occassionally or it can take over your herb garden.

Parlor Tricks

April 24, 2008

Will Smith wows his future employer with his ability to solve a Rubik’s Cube.


My son received a Rubik’s Cube for Easter and I spent the better part of the day fiddling with it.  Back in the 7th grade, I could solve one side and that was pretty much the upper limit of my spatial manipulation skills.  I was chagrined to discover I hadn’t progressed much past that point.  I suppose my renewed interest in the perverse puzzle stems from my recent viewing of The Pursuit of Happyness in which Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) solves the cube in a suspenseful taxi ride to his prospective employer’s house.  The employer is so impressed he gives Gardner his proverbial foot in the door (Gardner eventually made millions at Bear Stearns – good thing he got out while the going was good).  

Nowadays, the Rubik’s Cube comes with the solution in the package.  The problem,  however, is that it’s written in Cyrillic (or something very similar to it) and I simply could not decipher the cryptic abbreviations.  So for all my diligent manipulations, the Cube sat forlornly for weeks with only a few sides solved. 

The other day, I decided to google how to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  I just needed someone to show me what  Ri – F – Ti – R – B looked like, and as expected, there were plenty of videos on the web of young men sitting in front of their computers flipping and turning their Cubes at dizzying speeds.  As fascinating as it was watching the twenty-ninth Youtube video of compugeek solving it in under 30 seconds, I just wanted to learn how to solve it myself.  I like this video series since it’s pretty straightforward, he doesn’t move too quickly, and you only have to memorize five patterns (or algorithms). 

And so I did finally learn to solve the Rubik’s Cube.   In breakneck speeds of just under four minutes. Maybe if I put some WD-40 on it, I might be able to shave off a few seconds…

On a sidenote, I had taken the solved Cube and made this pattern to show the kids:



I later decided I needed some more practice and I tossed it to my son and told him to go mess it up.  I came back, and it looked like this:



He’s four.  Does this count as the essay portion of the early admission application to MIT?


Matzoh Ball Soup

April 21, 2008

In honor of Passover, I thought I’d make a nice big pot of matzoh ball soup today.  Matzoh ball soup is very similar to chicken and dumplings and both work wonders on the common cold and the winter doldrums.  It’s mid-spring here which is still perfect weather for matzoh ball soup.  My son is a chicken soup lover and he especially loves large matzoh balls floating in a savory broth. 

Matzoh ball soup is usually an all-day meal, starting in the morning to make the broth.  I set it aside until about 5pm when I make the matzoh balls and usually have dinner on the table by 6:30.  If you like a light and fluffy matzoh ball, you’ll love this recipe.  The seltzer water is key.  Well, that and the chicken fat.


New York Penicillin

Matzoh Ball Soup

1 whole chicken, cut up

4 quarts water

5 carrots

6 stalks of celery

3 onions

1 bunch of flat leaf parsley

2 bay leaves

5-7 whole peppercorns

salt and pepper to taste

 Put cut up chicken, half of the parsley, 2 carrots, 3 stalks of celery, 2 of the onions, peppercorns and bay leaf in a large stock pot.  You do not need to peel the vegetables, although you should cut the carrots and celery in half to fit in the pot.  Bring to a boil then put on low.  Cover and simmer for about 2-3 hours.

Take out the chicken and let cool.  Drain the broth, straining and discarding the vegetables.  Set the broth aside. 

Skim as much of the fat as possible and place in the refrigerator to solidify (you’ll need the chicken fat for the matzoh balls).  Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones, discarding the skin and bones.  (This is usually too much chicken for one pot of soup.  I usually take half of the chicken and save it for some sort of chicken recipe like casseroles, salad, enchiladas, etc.)

Make matzoh balls about 1-1/2 hours before you plan to eat.  Once you have the matzoh balls boiling, put the chicken broth on medium heat and cut up the remaining 3 carrots, 3 stalks of celery, and onion.  Add to broth along with a bay leaf and simmer for half an hour.  In the last 5 minutes, add the chicken and remaining chopped parsley.  Season with salt and fresh ground pepper.

Matzoh Balls

4 eggs

1/4 C. seltzer water

3 Tbs. chicken fat

1 C. matzoh meal (you can buy the matzoh cracker and zap it in the food processor or buy pre-zapped matzoh meal)

salt and pepper to taste

Beat eggs lightly in a medium bowl.  Add seltzer and semi-solidified chicken fat (you can substitute oil or melted butter), mixing well.  Add matzoh meal and mix until combined. 

Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.   Once cold, put a pot of water to boil.  Wet hands with cold water and form small balls about 1 1/4″ in diameter.  

Drop matzoh balls in boiling water and cook for half an hour. 

Take out with a slotted spoon and transfer straight to the simmering pot of chicken soup and simmer for about 10-15 more minutes.


Pan fried mandoo with Korean dipping sauce



Some of my fondest memories of childhood involve a kitchenful of women, all sitting around the table making mandoo, gossiping and laughing.  My mother, grandmother, aunts and female cousins would gather together in the kitchen, making short work of a big bowl of dumpling filling.   Mandoo, Korean dumplings (also called pot stickers and gyoza) is rather labor-intensive and is best when made with a lot of hands (and a lot of love).  Today at age seven, my daughter is now eager to help in the kitchen and join the tradition. 

I’ve modified this recipe to a manageable amount – I usually make about 150 at a time and either freeze or give away the extras.  (The photos do show a larger amount than the recipe calls for.)  This is a very basic, traditional recipe, although I have modified it many ways over the years.  Take out the meat, double the tofu and bean sprouts and add some shredded carrots to make it vegetarian.  Or, use ground turkey instead of beef and pork for a more heart-healthy version.  My favorite variation is adding chopped kim-chi – yum!

Mandoo – Korean dumplings

8 oz. bean sprouts, coarsely chopped

6 oz. ground beef

6 oz. ground pork

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1-2 tsp. minced ginger

1 block of tofu

4 scallions, chopped

1 egg

1 Tbs. sesame seed oil

1 tsp. salt

pepper to taste

50 gyoza or Chinese dumpling skins (available in the frozen section of Asian grocery stores and some über-hip suburban grocery stores)

1 beaten egg for wash

 Boil chopped bean sprouts for about 3 minutes – do not over cook.  Place cooked bean sprouts, meat, minced garlic, ginger and onions, tofu and scallions in a cheesecloth. 

 Squeeze the dickens out of it.  (For those with weak upper body strength – you can place a heavy pot filled with water on top of the cheesecloth-wrap and let the moisture ooze out for a half hour or so). 

 Add sesame seed oil, egg, salt, and pepper.  Combine well, making sure to break down the tofu into little bits.

 This size package contains approximately 50 skins.  Make sure to defrost fully.

Lightly beat one egg in small bowl, adding a tiny bit of water.  Dip you finger in the egg wash and moisten the entire outer edge of the dumpling skin.  Then take a heaping teaspoon of the filling and place it in the center of the dumpling.

Make sure to NOT over-stuff!

 Fold dumpling in half.

 And pinch close tightly.

 Repeat 50 times.  My daughter made the bottom right ones – ignore the filling coming out the edges.


Ok, from here you have several options.  You can 1.) steam them right now and eat them (healthiest option), 2.) steam them right now, then pan fry them (the tastiest option),  3.)  put them in beef broth and make mandoo soup, 4.) steam them now, then freeze them to fry at a later time, 5.) simultaneously fry/steam them, or 6.)  drop these babies in the deep fryer (easiest but least healthy option).

If you opt for the time-saver #5 option, you need to coat a heavy frying pan with oil and place on medium high.  Add raw dumplings and fry for a few minutes, then turn and fry for a couple minutes more.  Turn up heat to high and carefully add enough water to cover the bottom of the pan about 1/4″.  Cover tightly and steam for about 4-5 minutes, lowering to medium-low once the water boils, making sure not to burn.

I like to steam them separately then pan fry them, mainly because I have the mother of all steamers.  Check out my double-decker steamer (the bottom layer is covered):

 Always place a wet paper towel on a metal steamer (not necessary on bamboo).  Otherwise, the dumplings will stick and rip when you try to take them out.  You do not want to over steam – the edges will get very dried out.  It should only take about 4-5 minutes to cook.  Look for the dumplings to puff up and after you take off the lid, it will sink back down and cling to the bumpy meat mixture. 

Pan fry the dumplings in oil and serve with Korean-style dipping sauce.  You can place the fried dumplings in an over-safe dish, cover in foil and warm in oven until ready to serve.  If you bring this to a party, expect them to disappear within five minutes (maybe less). 



Korean Dipping Sauce

1/3 C. soy sauce

1 minced garlic clove

2 scallions, finely chopped

1-2 tsp. sesame seed oil

dash of Korean red pepper powder (kochu garu) or cayenne pepper

dash of crushed toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Mix all ingredients well and serve with mandoo, scallion pancakes, or anything that tastes good dipped in soy sauce!

What took me so long?

April 15, 2008

If you are like me, there are a few things that you’ve either consciously or unconsciously resisted because that darn contrarian gene in your DNA that rises up and refuses to be ignored.  Or perhaps you were blithely living your life until something suddenly come into such sharp focus, not unlike those annoying Magic Eye posters from the 90s, that you once you see it, you can’t imagine your life without it. 


1.  organic milk– This one really has me scratching my head when I considered how long I went without even trying it.  The combination of the cost, the relative difficulty buying it (hard to believe since even the Asian grocery store sells organic milk, but even 3-4 years ago, it was fairly rare) and the attitude of “hey, I drank milk from cows that were full of  antibiotics and growth hormones and I turned out ok.”  Organic milk tastes so creamy and sweet that I would never return to that bland, thin white liquid they pass off as regular milk, no matter how expensive (although I pay only a little bit more for organic milk now – see #5).    

2.  Bare Escentual makeup– Ok, I admit it – I deliberately avoided this one for a long time.  It just seemed very cult-like to me – the infomercials, the fanatical Bare Escentual wearers who were tripping over themselves to get me to try it, the fact that it was a powder and it was supposed to be made of minerals?  Sounded like Amway or Melaleuca to me.  Meh.  I’ll stick to my Lancome, thanks. 

Then a few months ago, I had an hour to kill at the mall and decided I needed a new lipgloss.   I walked into Sephora a Saul and walked out a Paul, clutching my new Bare Escentuals starter kit, having seen the light thanks to a great makeover demonstration.  The one bit of advice I’ll impart to those over 30 and want to try Bare Escentuals – moisturizer is your friend!


Try the Rare Minerals Night Revival Treatment – your skin really will be brighter!

3. Ebay– On the internet, it seems like everyone shops and sells on Ebay and inclusion of this topic seems oddly superfluous.  But in my sphere of friends and acquaintances, the vast majority have never even been on Ebay.  I was one of those people, only creating an account a couple of years ago to buy ostrich plumes for my children’s Halloween costumes.  But then I quickly discovered that you really can find almost anything on Ebay.  So to my friend wondering what to do about her scuffed hot pink heels – try searching for pink shoe polish on Ebay.  Personalized party invitations for Piper’s 5th birthday bash?  Ebay.  Magazine subscriptions for dirt cheap?  Ebay.  A grilled cheese sandwichwith an image of the Virgin Mary on it?  Ebay.

4.  Uggs– It just seemed so silly to me – Jessica Simpson or Linsday Lohan, sporting her Uggs while wearing shorts.  Umm, aren’t Uggs lined in toasty-warm sheepskin, perfect for sub-zero temperatures?  Chalk those boots to the don’ts of 2003.  Several years pass and now our 13 year old baby-sitter is wearing them, which is exactly why I wouldn’t buy them for myself.  But this past Christmas, Santa brings me a pair of my very own and then I discover what everyone else has figured out:  Uggs are lined in toasty-warm sheepskin, perfect for sub-zero temperatures.  Say goodbye to cold feet forever!   Disclaimer:  these will be put away once then temperature rises above 50 degrees.  If only everyone else could be so sensible.

Thanks, Santa.

5.  grocery budgeting– I was always one of those shoppers for whom grocery shopping was an experience, meandering through the aisles of Wegman’s, smelling the fresh basil, sampling the soft-ripening cheeses, and mentally planning my weekly menus on the fly based on what I was in the mood for and what may or may not be on sale.  I never had a food budget – I bought what I wanted, when I wanted it. 

Back in January, I decided to take a cold hard look at our grocery spending and I was shocked when I added up the grocery debits from the past few months.  We were spending well over $800 on just groceries for our little family of four.  The problem was not just buying rib eye steaks, it was forgetting about that bunch of broccoli rabe at the bottom of the crisper that had to be thrown away.   Even if you don’t keep up on the worldwide food shortages, you can’t help but to notice the dramatic price increases in staples such as flour, sugar, eggs and milk in just the past year.  It was time to take control of the waste and create an honest-to-goodness food budget. 

Within two months, I managed to slash my grocery spending in half while simultaneously the increasing our pantry inventory.  This was accomplished several ways:

  • I came up with a realistic amount that I was going to spend each week and when I hit that amount, I stopped buying.  Simple as that. 
  • To help me accomplish this goal, I stopped using my debit card at the grocery store.  Do you remember your mom counting out her grocery money in those bank envelopes?  Yup – go old school.  Take out the cash each week (or bi-weekly) and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to stick to your budget when you are using cold hard cash.
  • Plan your weekly menu and shopping lists using the grocery circulars that come in your mail, buying what’s on sale.  You’ll start to notice there are certain things that go on sale regularly, like cereal and meat.  Also, having a menu eliminates the problem of forgotten produce and meats rotting in your refrigerator.
  • Clipping coupons in the Sunday paper.  And don’t throw away the ones you don’t use – be open to trying new brands that you can combine sale prices with coupons.  It’s amazing how good a box of cereal tastes when it’s free!
  • If you want to go hard core, join forums like Hot Coupon World and  It does take a while to get oriented, but you can find printable coupons and specific shopping strategies.   You’d be surprised at what kind of coupons are out there – coupons for organic milk, for example (see #1).