Beware of Pine Nuts, All You Pesto Lovers!

Last Friday, while preparing a quick snack, I decided to break open a bag of Trader Joe’s Pine Nuts. I tossed a few into my palm and devoured them. Then a handful. Then another. They tasted great, I couldn’t get enough.

Fast forward two days to Sunday evening, when out of the blue, I developed a terribly bitter taste in my mouth, rendering all food unpalatable. Great for a dieting purposes I suppose, but food lover that I am, the situation was totally unacceptable. Not to mention entirely mysterious. Where could this have come from?

I waited a day or so before succumbing to a complete freak out. Fearing the worst after eating a lot of homemade jam over the weekend, I immediately suspected botulism. Luckily, “bitter taste in mouth” is NOT a symptom of that dreaded disease. But what I quickly discovered is that I do have a case of “pine mouth,” apparently a relatively new but increasingly common problem associated with the consumption of Asian pine nuts.

Pine Mouth is a huge bummer, though doesn’t seem to have a real health impact. It does cause that telltale bitter taste, especially when consuming sweeter foods. It takes a good 1-2 weeks to entirely disappear. And doesn’t make cooking much fun. I was ready to toss everything I made into the compost because I had no sense of how it really tasted.

The US Food and Drug Administration is researching the matter but in the meantime, the best way to avoid pine mouth is to steer clear of any pinenuts that come from China, Korea or Russia (as is typical for pine nuts sold at Trader Joe’s and Costco apparently). For reference, these tend to be more conical in shape, in contrast to the European pine nuts that are slender and elliptical – and most importantly, do not appear to be implicated in this problem.

For more information, see here:

Surviving Back to School Step 1: A Family Meal Calendar

While it has been great fun posting about my baking endeavors and lazy summer meals, reality struck with a vengeance right around last Monday! This happened to be the first day of third grade for Ava, as well as the last day of “lazy” camp mornings for us. Despite my best intentions for the opposite, I found myself totally unprepared, perhaps because I haven’t yet adjusted to having to function at full throttle in the middle of August. Which to most people outside of San Francisco is considered the height of summer.

By morning #3, it was apparent that our usual patterns we’re failing. The “what do you want for breakfast today?” under duress left us frantic (duress in this case equals having to be out the door by 7:40 at the latest to make it to school on time) . Lunch went great for a few days, then we became the recipients of the nearly full lunch bag and “hangry” late afternoon tantrums.

Given all of this, I came up with a new approach that will hopefully set us on the right track: a food calendar. In its simplest version, it looks like this:

The plan was to pick a consistent breakfast idea for every Monday, Tuesday, etc of each week, so that everyone was on board in terms of cooking and eating expectations.  And while we were busy planning breakfasts, why not plan lunches too? It also seemed like an excellent way to engage the kids in the food planning process so that when they complained (as they surely will) about having oatmeal on Tuesday, for example, we would be prepared to remind them – gently and with the utmost patience of course  –  that it was their choice in the first place. I expect that monthly revisions at the outset, but that will still be a great improvement over daily scrambling (and I don’t mean eggs).

Witness the completed plan. We are very proud.

A Perfect Package: Fish “En Papillote”

A dear friend made a blog request the other week for fish. Innocent enough, right? Yet I instantly felt paralyzed. For not one, but two reasons.

The first is easy: fish is definitely not my strong suit in the kitchen. I’ve been known to buy gorgeous fillets of salmon and halibut only to overcook/undercook/generally destroy said fish in myriad and creative ways. I did not have that magic touch, which turned out to be fine because the kids rarely clamored for a fish dinner. Until recently. But more on that in a minute.

The second reason for my hesitation is more challenging to explain. As a passionate environmentalist and public health advocate, I am acutely aware of the slow but steady destruction of our oceans, evidenced by the continuing decline of fish stocks among other factors. Couple this with the fact that many fish we eat, while so healthy and delicious, also happen to be seriously contaminated with industrial pollutants like mercury, led me to stop eating fish altogether in recent years. Lucky for us, several incredible environmental organizations have created handy guides that provide recommendations on how to make fish choices that are best for the oceans AND best for our health.

With the explanations out of the way, we’ll come back to kids clamoring for fish. Recently, Ava asked about a dinner I made years ago, one that she summarily rejected if memory serves me. It was halibut “en papillote,” and her excitement caused me to set my hesitation aside and give fish another try. We discovered in the process that everything IS better gift wrapped. These lovely little packages of perfectly steamed fish are now a favorite family meal. You can use any white, flaky fish you like (ideally, from a sustainable source). Add any combo of aromatics and vegetables you prefer and/or have on hand. Right now, we are into a caper-olive version with sliced onion and lemon. I can’t wait to try an Asian-inspired combo with sliced ginger/lemongrass/scallions/soy sauce/sesame oil.


Preparation time: 10 minutes

Total time: 25-30 minutes

Serves 4

Preheat oven to 425°. Gently cut 1-1.5 pounds of fish fillets into four equal pieces. Tear off 4 sheets of parchment paper – about 12-14 inches long depending on size of fish. Arrange your toppings, which could include salt and pepper; oil (olive oil, sesame oil, walnut oil, whatever works for the flavor profile you are choosing); soy sauce; chili flakes; chopped herbs; lemon slices; onion/scallion/shallot slices; olives; capers; roasted red peppers; the list goes on and on!

Place fish in the center of parchment paper, in line with the shorter direction of the paper. Generously sprinkle fish with salt (or soy sauce) and pepper, and drizzle with oil of your choice. Add toppings to the fish – this is a great time to include your kids into the cooking experience. After all, when’s the last time they got to decorate dinner?

Bring parchment paper ends edge to edge, with the fish and toppings in the middle. Work your way down in small folds until the fish is snug underneath the paper. The outer edges will still be open at this point so fold each down into a triangle like you would wrapping paper, then work your way in toward the center. Those edges probably won’t stay folded perfectly but it will work. (As an aside, there are other, probably prettier ways to create the folded packet – I urge you to share them if you try any out!).

Folder packet, ready to bake

Transfer packets onto a baking sheet and place in the 425° oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on thickness. Serve alongside a whole grain, roasted potatoes and vegetables, a salad, anything works. Do be careful opening the packets – they are filled with steam so this part is NOT for little hands.

Baked and ready to serve

The final photo, ready to eat!

Quick and Easy Whole Grain Yogurt Pancakes

My husband and I are in a food preparation sharing rhythm these days that leaves me in charge of dinner most nights while he covers breakfast. Breakfast is not usually a fancy affair in our house, but we do favor doing a hot meal in the mornings, and tend to make something different each day of the week. Don’t ask me how we got into this “what do you want for breakfast today” mess because I often find myself envying friends who make the same dishes every morning and avoid the paralysis of choice, 4 and 8-year old style.But we are where we are.

The other detail to this fine tale is that my husband travels quite a bit, which means I am not home free in the breakfast department by any stretch. Yet in recent months, he’s been away less than usual. So when I found myself up at 7AM on a recent Monday morning facing two hungry kids, very little time to spare, and totally out of my routine, I knew something had to be done.

That something involved figuring out a simple pancake recipe that both girls would eat. You see, Talia is essentially on a self-imposed Atkins diet but doesn’t like eggs, so breakfast is generally a bit of a nightmare for us/her. And I’m not a huge fan of doughy pancakes, from a texture standpoint and because Ava generally has a better day with a protein-packed breakfast. All of this context, coupled with the general realization that we never have buttermilk in the house on a regular basis, inspired this recipe.Whole grains, yogurt, eggs, it’s a lovely combo in one lacey, golden package. Most importantly for busy families, you can set up the batter in no time the night before, and use it straight from the fridge to make super quick and delicious pancakes even on a weekday morning.

Try it out. Tell me what you think. And most of all, enjoy!


Serves 4 (it doubles beautifully for more servings)

Heat 12″/large skillet or griddle on medium high heat. Preheat oven to 200° if you need to keep the finished pancakes warm.

In the meantime, gently combine in a bowl the following ingredients:

  1. 1/3 cup whole wheat flour (this is a good time to use a coarser whole wheat flour if you have any on hand)
  2. 1/3 cup fine cornmeal
  3. 1/4 tsp, kosher salt
  4. 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  5. 1 tsp. baking powder
  6. 2 tsp. sugar
  7. 1 cup plain yogurt (preferably full fat) or vanilla, maple, etc.
  8. 1 beaten egg
  9. 2 tbsp. melted butter
  10. orange zest, lemon zest, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla as desired, or not

Melt a bit of butter into pan (enough to cover the bottom but not so much that it pools). Ladle 1/4 cup or just less of batter per pancake. A 12″ pan should hold 4.

Flip when you see bubbles forming on top, when the edges are set and when the bottom is golden and lacy (you’ll need to peek to figure that out). These are fairly delicate pancakes on account of the low flour content so be gentle when you flip. I found using a slotted spatula to be an excellent tool for the task, if you happen to have one around. (Frankly, I could throw out all other spatulas and just use this one for all tasks, it’s that good).

Serve alongside an egg and/or with your favorite toppings. Our favorite these days is with yogurt and maple syrup on top.