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A confession:

I, Jessica, lover of all things seafood, defender of raw oysters, cult follower of everything clam, have never liked mussels.

Sure, I’d order the occasional restaurant bowl, but it was less for the moules, more for the frites. The problem with mussels (not “muscles” friends – I’ve seen that written frequently, which warrants this important PSA) is that if they’re one microsecond past their peak of freshness, they become just plain wretched.

Which is how I’ve eaten them on too many occasions. Even at high-end restaurants where mussels should be held to higher standards. Sometimes a whole bowl is tainted, but most often it’s the one long-dead mussel bomb in an otherwise fresh bowl that can ruin the whole experience.

But it just so happens that on a balmy afternoon in October, we visited The Ivy in LA and my feeling about mussels was about to change.

Let’s backtrack a few days so that I can fill you in on how we found ourselves there.

Rodney and I had just started our second year of school at Berkeley and had thrown a legendary party to break in the new apartment. Reams of students and new acquaintances had poured themselves into our tiny space and we’d stayed up late into the night drinking and chatting.

On nights like these, you often end up with a string of new best friends; some of whom you never see again. Some of whom you do.

Our friend Teddy fell into the second category. Introduced through Rodney’s good friend from college, we immediately hit it off, demanded that he come to our upcoming wedding in Mexico, and promised to visit him in LA.

I was excited for our drive from San Francisco to LA. Rodney and I mapped out our trip, planning to take the scenic route down Highway 1.

Our weekend finally upon us, we took off, hip hop filling the air, and steered our way down through Carmel and the Santa Barbara wine country. We even decided to camp out overnight and I got to use my latest purchase: a thin piece of fabric that was marketed as “the world’s smallest sleeping bag”. Translation: world’s coldest sleep-deprivation chamber.

As dinnertime neared on the second day of our drive, we pulled into a gas station in Calabasas, California. From there, Rodney called Teddy and told him that we’d be arriving at his place in 30 minutes. We were in great spirits. Rodney pumped gas; he spoke with another friend or two while he topped up the tank. I strolled around and craned my neck, hoping to catch sight of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey.

And then it dawned on Rodney that with all of the sunshine and good times, he’d missed a crucial detail and filled his tank with diesel.

This, I might add, was no ordinary tank. We were driving our Chevy Tahoe, affectionately known as “the beast”.

For the record, if this ever happens to you, cancel your plans for the next few hours because you’ll be spending them on your back, laboriously siphoning expensive fuel out of your vehicle drop by drop.

We arrived at Teddy’s house at 11PM. The dinner that he’d prepared had long gone cold. Not the best way to christen a friendship. So we did what any good houseguest would do and attacked his wine supply.

The next day, sheepish and hungover, we were in the mood for grub and desperately wanted to give Teddy some space.

Teddy steered us in the direction of The Ivy, which at that point was popular with the movie execs. We somehow finagled a table and nestled into our patio chairs. Once again I craned my neck in search of celebrities, which, in LA, is akin to spotting monkeys at the zoo but with less giddy pointing.

I can’t remember whether we saw anyone of interest; but I do remember my lunch: New Zealand green mussels in a green curry sauce.

When you can recall the exact details of a lunch that you ate 15 years prior, you know that it was good. The green-shelled mussels were impossibly fresh, and the coconut-based curry sauce was spicy, but not overpowering.

I think about these mussels often. I’ve dreamt about recreating them at home. New Zealand green mussel though, are hard to find. I’ve never seen them since – neither on restaurant menu nor in grocery store display.

The good news is that standard black mussels are easy to find. Making it easy for you to recreate this recipe in the comfort of your own home. It’s a glimmer our lunch at The Ivy, minus the guilt and shame. Plus it has the added benefit of some pickled shallots for added flavor. Triple win.

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The yin and yang of food blogging: let’s talk about yin first. Meeting loads of new people who are hugely passionate about food; pushing myself creatively to make better, more interesting, dare I say – more sophisticated – food…and perhaps most exciting, expensing a portion of my grocery bills. The yins are too plentiful to count.

The big fat whopping yang? My dependence on cookbooks took a backseat to this newfound creativity. Over time, my colossal cookbook collection has become an historic relic, more useful now as a work of art than a primary source of comfort and inspiration.

I still love cookbooks. I still collect them and tear into them eagerly as soon as they arrive from Amazon.

But after the initial reading, which from outer space might look more like a minute-long shark attack on an unsuspecting minnow, I put them aside on my worn oak nightstand. And there, they rest, collecting dust, waiting for a better time; a distraction-free moment when I can dedicate my full attention to reading the introduction, earmarking favorite recipes, and jotting down shopping lists.

My “to read” pile now reaches higher than my lampshade.

This time that I can never seem to find? I should probably admit to myself, right here and now, that it ain’t coming any time soon. At least not until my youngest is in middle school and can move herself independently from point A to point B. At which point my oldest will be in high school, and I’ll be up late worrying about boyfriends and missed curfews. Free time is looking bleak for at least another decade.

For now, I sneak 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there, to sit back and relax with a cookbook. It’s not the leisurely page-at-a-time perusal that I lust for, but it’s enough to spark the teensiest bit of inspiration.

Which is how we’ve landed on hummus today.

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We’re talking squash again this week. Two weeks in a row, I hope this isn’t a fireable offense. What can I say, I’m passionate about squash. As if last week’s post didn’t convince you…

We stayed in New York this weekend since we had a few activities planned. One of which was the highly-anticipated feedfeed Market Day at the Union Square Greenmarket.

I first linked up with feedfeed on Instagram where they’re building a strong community of like-minded people who love to cook. Their website is growing, and is quickly becoming a go-to source for inspiration on a broad range of topics, from pies and soups to pancakes and smoothies. As the website evolves and becomes more searchable, its curated content will surely rival some of the biggest food websites today. I’m just happy to be a part of it all – as both observer and occasional contributor.

I was finally able to meet the founders of feedfeed – Julie and Dan Resnick – in person this weekend. Their Market Day event at the farmer’s market brought together a number of chefs, nutritionists, stylists and food bloggers and it was fun to chat with everyone about the changing food landscape.

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Social media and social platforms such as feedfeed are no doubt improving the way that food is cooked at home. Restaurant-quality food is making its way into home kitchens as home cooks become more innovative and experimental.

My food has changed immensely since I’ve become part of a community who cooks and then shares the output online. I’ve become more confident, and have started to take risks with my cooking. I’ve become intrigued by unique flavors and textures, influenced in large part by the global accounts that I follow – from home cooks in the Middle East to UK-based naturopaths, and minimalist-minded Scandinavian food stylists. Like a sponge, I’ve soaked it all in, eyes wide open.

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Mondays are usually reserved for CSA posts, but out of town last week and with a failed attempt at arranging an alternative pick-up, I was left with no vegetable share.

Which was a blessing in disguise because, especially on weeks that involve travel, my share gives me cold sweats when I get back to a mound of vegetables only to pick up another mound a few days later. So I luxuriated in a week free of obligations, even ordered pepperoni pizza one night, and made the best of it. I was happily reunited with my Week #12 box on Saturday, so friends, you will be seeing a new CSA post in all of its glory up on the site next week.

Until then, let’s talk grains…

One of my first posts on the blog was about sad desk lunches and my efforts to end them. Sadly, I experienced my last desk lunch only weeks after I wrote the post, after deciding that an office environment was no longer for me. Or “happily” I should say, because it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I can’t put a price on the family time I’ve gained, and the happiness I’ve found from building a career on my own terms.  That being said, splurging on prescription sunglasses owns a close second place on the best-decisions-list because, well…vision is important too.

One of the best meals to make for portability (aka the desk job) is a grain salad. I make these salads with increasing frequency as the weather starts to chill because they’re a perfect vessel for whatever vegetables that you have on hand – light and summery to use up the last remaining crops from August, or rich and hearty for all of the beautiful squash and root vegetables that are about to hit the markets.

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All good things must come to an end.

It was a great month to test out Vegan eating. I was inspired, I learned, I tried all kinds of new foods and new preparations.

But in the end, Vegan eating just isn’t for me.

I never intended for my Vegan cleanse to be a diet or help me lose weight. Initially it was a response to my overindulgent holiday consumption. A way to jumpstart my body back into its usually healthy rhythms. But I’d always secretly wanted to test it out – to see if I’d feel healthier and have more energy. To find out whether I could cure my occasional insomnia.

But here’s what ultimately happened: I felt like I was missing something. I felt out of balance and not completely myself. Despite the guacamole and French fries, I felt like I was on a diet, and not a particularly healthy one.

This was the most eye opening lesson about my Vegan cleanse: yes, you can be Paleo, Vegan, Dairy Free or Gluten Free, but don’t expect those diets to be inherently healthy. You still need to make smart food choices.

Before my cleanse, I had a vivid impression that my month of Vegan eating would transport me to a fruit and vegetable fantasyland; a land where food choices are made wisely, automatically, and temptation is minimized.

Fruits and vegetables certainly live in this place, but on your journey you’ll encounter white breads, heavy oils, tortilla chips, candy and alcohol. And you might find yourself reaching for these items more often than you’d like.

While I had the purest intentions as I set out on my cleanse, I realized that given my busy schedule, convenience is a huge driver of choice. And I’m not talking about McDonald’s. I’m talking about cracking two eggs into a pan, making some toast, and in less than 5 minutes, a hearty breakfast or lunch is ready.

For a snack, cheese on whole grain crackers, yogurt, or a few slices of salami once did the trick. This month, I tended to reach for fruit or vegetables, hummus, or avocado. I quickly tired of hummus and avocado, and found that fruit or vegetables alone didn’t satiate. I’m sure that far more Vegan-friendly snack options exist, but this, in the end, is what I ate. These are the foods that felt the most intuitive. The easiest, the fastest, the types of food that are closest to what my former self would have eaten.

Eating Vegan also meant that I had to think more about meal planning. And the more I thought about food, the more I ate.

Having come from a diet-heavy period in my 20s, I now realize that the reason they failed was because they took too much work and conscious planning. I was always thinking about food, getting hungrier by the minute.

Food shouldn’t feel like work. Poring over ingredients and food choices is work. Combing through cookbooks and weeding out recipes that call for cheese or meat: work. Heading to the grocery store knowing that I can’t buy half the items stocked: work.

Let me be clear – it wasn’t work in the negative sense of the word, often it was fun work. But work that made my diet feel less natural and made me eat more? That just didn’t compute.

Maybe if I’d given it a chance, eating a Vegan diet would have started to feel more intuitive. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Barring holiday over indulgences, I have a fairly healthy diet. I eat plenty of salads, lean proteins, and don’t go overboard on sweets. I avoid preservatives like the plague, I favor homemade versions of store bought staples, and I’ve done enough cooking to know that it’s actually faster to make dinner at home than order takeout.

And now comes my gut-wrenching confession: because I wasn’t feeling as clean and renewed as I’d hoped, I started to cheat.

It all started with some eggs. Fresh from the farm, each egg a different size and a different color. The outside of the eggs smudged with a trace of dirt. I saw them at the store and knew that I needed them. Even if it meant keeping them in my fridge untouched for the remaining week of my cleanse.

But my craving for the eggs took over. I had conversations in my head, I weighed pros and cons. In the end, 10 minutes after I arrived home with my groceries, I gave in. I poached an egg and inhaled it with a slice of toast.

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