The Dinner Journal

I am not the most sentimental person but this recent post from my friend Simran’s blog A Little Yumminess definitely caught my attention. I love the idea of impromptu, collective journaling of our family’s daily dramas. I love that it’s informal, and unfussy. I imagine that the minimal effort yield super sweet results.

Would any of you give this a try at home? I think we will.

Collecting Memories Around the Dinner Table

March 23, 2011 by Simran S. & Stacie D.

Because family dinners are about so much more than eating, one of the things we’ve been doing lately is jotting down a little note or doodle from the day while we’re sitting together at the table. During the rush of the week it’s one of the only times when we’re all together and have the chance to talk and catch up.

This is sort of a lazy person’s journal, but in this case one for the whole family. Our version is simple, a bowl (an excuse to use one of the fancy Waterford crystal bowls we got many moons ago as a wedding gift) filled with index cards and pens. It’s a permanent fixture on our dining room table and as we eat and talk we pass around a blank card and write a little something about what we ate, our favorite part of the day, things we want to do, a piece of trivia, or just a silly story or doodle. Luca makes sure we never forget to “do our card” and he loves to ask us to pull one out at random and read what we wrote during previous dinners.

Life seems to move at the speed of light most of the time so it’s nice to capture some of those tiny minuscule moments. Even if we’re stressed and the food is less than great, it also reminds me that this is my favorite part of the day.

Pizza at Home

I used to think I hated pizza. The thin limp/lifeless/Domino’s versions I typically encountered in my teen and childhood years really were awful. Then I was introduced to deep dish via Zachary’s in Berkeley and everything shifted. Fast forward fifteen years and a full explosion of fabulous Neopolitan-style, crispy thin crust creations all over San Francisco. Guess what? I love pizza! So as typical when I love a food, I eventually embark on the process of learning how to recreate it home. I tried various recipes; I took a class; I lowered my expectations. And voila – I learned that pizza at home is actually a simple 30-minute meal, provided you make the dough in advance.

Before we proceed to instructions, I wanted to share a few things I’ve come to terms with in order to make the most successful and enjoyable pizza at home:

1) A home oven – even the “prosumer”  variety – can never match the high temperatures of wood-burning ovens so unless you have a real pizza oven at your disposal, crust expectations have to be adjusted. But the pizza will still be delicious.

2) Flour matters.  To some extent. I’ve played with a variety of flours at this point – the superfine “00” flour favored by pizzerias, soft whole wheat, bread flour, etc. The combo below is what I’ve finally settled on but I’m not averse to using what’s on hand in a pinch, and encourage you to experiment as well.

3) Because the pizza will bake at a lower temperature in  your home oven, it is far easier to use fresh mozzarella that is not packed in water or if using fresh that is packed in water, you need to drain it thoroughly to avoid a liquidity pool in the middle of an otherwise lovely pizza. Any dry cheese – Gruyere, soft goat,  provolone, etc, will work great.

4) When in doubt or low on time, store-bought dough  is a good option (Trader Joe’s dough comes to mind). That said, I usually struggle to roll the store-made dough – no matter how much I warm it up or how much flour I add, the damn thing bounces back upon stretching. Which is why I ended up learning to make my own dough in the first place – it’s a breeze to roll out.

Pizza Dough

Inspired by The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook

Active time: 10-15 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yields dough for 2 8-10″ pizzas and freezes beautifully if you don’t use both

1. PROOF 3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast in 1 cup of very warm water: 100-110° water to yeast along with a teaspoon of sugar. Stir gently several times and allow yeast to develop for five minutes. If you see foaming or bubbling at the top, your yeast is alive and ready to use. If you see no activity after 10 minutes, this yeast is no longer viable.

2. ADD 3 cups of flour to a mixing bowl: my favorite combo is 1 c. all-purpose, 1 c. whole wheat flour + 1 c. cake or pastry flour. Use a soft wheat flour here, it will work best. Add 2 tsp. of kosher salt (about 1 tsp. with other salts). Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in yeast mixture.

3. Gradually MIX flour and liquid together, stirring with a wooden spoon at first, then with your hands.

4. When the mixture is ragged and pulls cleanly away from the bowl, turn in out on a lightly floured board to knead OR leave in bowl if using a  stand mixer.

5. KNEAD dough for about 6-8 minutes by hand or 2-3 minutes using a dough hook in a stand mixer on a low setting. The dough is ready when it is light and elastic, like a baby’s bottom, apparently.

6. Coat another mixing bowl with a light layer of olive oil. Set dough in the oiled bowl. Turn it to coat with oil, cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a 60-70° room to RISE for 1.5-2 hours.

7. Once the dough has doubled in volume, turn it back onto the floured board, punch it down and knead briefly just to knock out air holes.


Active time: 5-10 minutes

Cooking time: 5-8 minutes

1. If using a pizza stone, set it in a cold oven and PREHEAT oven to 550° for at least 30 minutes. If you have a convection setting, turn that on too. Anything that brings up the heat in the oven will result in a tastier pizza. Otherwise, just preheat oven to 550°.

2. DIVIDE the dough you just made into two even balls using a knife or pastry cutter.

3. Pat ball of dough into a thick circle then ROLL using a rolling-pin to about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.

4. Generously SPRINKLE the pizza peel with coarse flour or cornmeal to ensure that pizza slides easily onto the pizza stone. Transfer dough onto the peel or if not using a peel, onto a lightly oiled baking sheet.

5. Finally, the fun part! TOP with various toppings and slide into the oven.I like to also “paint” the pizza edge with olive oil and sprinkle gently with salt.

6. BAKE for 5-7 minutes, until the crust is blistered brown and the toppings bubbling.

7. DRIZZLE the top with olive oil once it comes out of the oven and serve.

I tend to make one simple “cheese” pizza Margherita and a more complex one with greens if I’m making two. It used to be that the kids would squarely stick with the Margherita. But last time, both tried and approved of the “adult” option much to my delight. My favorite pizza combos include:

  • mozzarella, basil, oregano
  • mixture of grated cheeses (Asiago, provolone, mozzarella, etc).with mushrooms and a good salami
  • any pizza topped with slices of capocollo cured meat
  • greens sautéed with garlic and topped with either fresh goat cheese or shredded Gruyere. Not only is this a great way to use up leftover veggies, it is simply delicious.
  • Any of the above with capers, olives or artichoke hearts

What are your pizza favorites?

My cooking shortcuts

Getting a good dinner on the table by 6PM or so every night sometimes feels like an Iron Chef – level challenge. Most days, I rise to the occasion without breaking too much of sweat. And then there are those moments when 5PM hits and the kids are begging me for appetizers when I desperately need to be making dinner and I have NO idea what to cook. That is exactly when my patience runs thin and everything breaks down.

So over time, I’ve come up with a small arsenal of shortcuts to make my cooking life more enjoyable, and I thought I’d share. PLEASE feel free to add yours to the list – I can’t wait to see what great ideas you have up your sleeve!

The Top Five

1. Plan meals ahead. This is not a radical concept and has  been recommended by countless others, but you see, I loathe to plan meals, I much prefer to fly by the seat of my pants so to speak. Yet time and time again, the failure of my spontaneity has won me over to the more organized approach. Take a few minutes to poll the family about their dinner preferences for the upcoming week on Saturday morning, when everyone is in a happy, beginning-of-the-weekend mood. Or take it upon yourself. Either way, if you have a general plan you’ll feel much better equipped – actually buying necessary ingredients in advance is a bonus but not crucial. Its the ideas that count in my book!

2) Deal with garlic in advance. It always seems to take forever to peel and chop garlic when you can least afford to spend the time yet I love love love cooking with it and seem to need it frequently. Now, admittedly, I’m not a garlic press person and if you are, ignore this. But the rest of us, here’s my tip: peel and store cloves from 1-2 heads of garlic (however you are likely to use in 5-7 days time) and store in a glass or stainless steel container in the refrigerator. Chopping will seem like a breeze when you eliminate the peeling step.

3) Prep your “mirepoix.” Mirepoix is French for the crucial combination of diced carrots, celery and onions that form the basis for so many soups, stews, braises, etc. Store 1-2 cups of diced celery and carrots in one bag, and the same of onion in a glass container – they will be on hand for whatever you are cooking in the next 3-4 days.

4) The frozen food section. I do occasionally rely on store-bought frozen food items (see below for a case in point). But I prefer to create our own frozen food section in the fridge. I’ll freeze pizza dough, leftover soups and stews, ground beef and small steaks, sausages, fruit, butter, etc. Our freezer is unimpressive in size yet when I properly use the space, I’m always impressed with what I’ve got on hand. Ice cream is also a very important addition to this list, by the way.

5) Trader Joe’s potstickers. When in doubt, I bust these out. Pan-fried with sticky brown rice and green vegetables for a quick dinner, potsticker soup if you have chicken broth around, these work great for lunch or dinner (or breakfast, if you are Talia). I’m pretty sure I’ve been eating these on a regular basis since my early college years. And they still manage to satisfy.

What would you add to the list?

Split Pea Soup with Potatoes

The girls and I got caught in a most torrential rain storm this morning, leaving all of us soaked despite what felt like substantial rain gear. They demanded lunch as soon as we stepped into the house, despite it being 11:15AM and me still not being adequately caffeinated to face the day ahead. I fended them off for a while as I dug through the fridge trying to come up with a low-key lunch option. And then I remembered the split pea soup in the freezer! My tendency with soup is to make enough for 20 even though our household maxes out at 4. And its been worse since I bought a huge Le Creuset dutch oven a month ago.

I usually regret this approach when I’m cooking because it does take longer to cook large portions. But I’m always grateful to have a full freezer of good food so the initial investment does pay off.

We love making split pea soup with potatoes – they add a wonderful texture to the soup and make it an even heartier meal. My version is vegetarian, so I rely on lots of oregano and bay leaf to create flavor. A friend turned me on to using smoked salt recently as a way of faking the smoky ham aroma (though you do see crispy pancetta bits on top of this one, just happened to have it on hand). Years ago, Ava and I started making cornbread muffins alongside split pea soup. They make a wonderful accompaniment and only take about 20 minutes to make (including baking time) if you use a mix.


Adapted from Parker’s Split Pea Soup, Barefoot Contessa

Serve 8-12

Prep time: 10-15 minutes

Cooking time: 1.5-2 hours

  • 1 cup chopped yellow onions or leeks
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 3-4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup medium-diced carrots
  • 1 cup medium-diced celery
  • 4-6 small-medium sized potatoes (fingerling, red young potatoes, yukon gold, etc)., in chunks
  • 1 pound or 2 cups dried split green peas
  • 8 cups water

In large soup pot, saute the onions and garlic with the olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper over medium heat until the onions are translucent, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the carrots and celery then saute for 5 more minutes.

Add bay leaves, potatoes,  split peas, and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer 1.5-2 hours or until all the peas are soft. Stir frequently to keep the solids from burning on the bottom. Taste for salt and pepper – this would  be a good time to add smoked salt if you like. Serve hot with cornbread. And don’t forget to freeze some for a rainy day!

Another option: Mushroom Bolognese

I just spotted this Mushroom Bolognese recipe on Chowhound and was  inspired to share. I’m a huge mushroom lover, and though I haven’t tried making this yet, I can see how they can hold their own in terms of flavor and texture compared to the meaty traditional bolognese I posted earlier.

Give it a try  and let me know how it turns out. And I promise to do the same.

Bhavna and Patrick, this one’s for you!


Courtesy of and Yasmin Le Sauce

Total: 60 minutes

Active: 25 minutes

Makes: 6-8 servings

  • 1 medium white onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 tbs extra virgin olive oil, separated
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 lb crimini mushrooms, trimmed
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 dried red chili, crushed
  • 1 tsp dried marjoram
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tbs tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 c madeira wine
  • 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1L (about 4 c) tomato puree
  • Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)
  1. In a food processor, pulse the onion, carrot and celery together into small pieces.
  2. Add 2 tbs of oil to a large pot and heat over medium-high heat. Transfer onion, carrot and celery mixture to the pot. Add 1/4 tsp of salt, stir and sauté for about 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, add 1/3 of the mushrooms to the food processor and pulse coarsely. Add another 1/3 of the mushrooms to the chopped mushrooms and pulse again. Add the last 1/3 and pulse until roughly chopped. The first batch will be almost pureed and the last should be mostly large pieces.
  4. Transfer the mushrooms to the pot and add 1/2 tsp of salt and 1/4 tsp of pepper. Stir and sauté for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the liquid from the mushrooms evaporates.
  5. Add the remaining tbs of oil, the garlic, chili, marjoram and thyme, and stir. Cook for 3 minutes.
  6. Add the tomato paste and sugar, stir and cook for 2 more minutes.
  7. Add the madeira wine and red wine vinegar and stir. Cook for one minute to allow some of the alcohol in the wine to cook off.
  8. Add the pureed tomatoes and the remaining 1/2 tsp of salt, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes.
  9. To serve, ladle some sauce over cooked linguine or parpadelle and mix to coat the noodles well. Serve pasta onto individual plates and add a little sauce to the top of each. Drizzle with olive oil and/or shaved parmesan, if desired.