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I’ve been sitting here for the last 30 minutes, staring at my computer screen, wondering what to write. For the record, you’re more likely to spot Sasquatch than see me struggling for words. I usually have what amounts to some kind of brain purge syndrome where my posts fly from brain to fingertip in a matter of minutes, leaving me depleted, hungry, and questioning what country I’m in. 

Speaking of countries, the topic today is Greece. And the reason that I’m so confounded is that Greece should bring back memories galore. After all, I’ve been there not once, not twice, but thrice. I’m not liking that word, but I’m sticking with it. It’s like a combination of “throw” and “rice”. Which is what I did once in Greece. At a wedding. So maybe I’m getting somewhere with this Greek business after all.

Our visit to Greece was the first major trip that Rodney and I took as a couple back in 2001. We returned several years later to  re-visit Mykonos and Santoroni and tack on a few more islands (Rhodes, Corfu, Crete). We even did the completely optional/somewhat frightening several-day visit to Athens. Generally speaking, I should have Greek memories, and lots of them.

The problem with Greece – and perhaps it’s less of a “problem” than a “challenge”, is that much of your waking time is spent drinking Mythos (daytime) and Ouzo (nighttime). So what I do remember from our visits is patchy.

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There I am, bawling my way through the last few pages of War and Peace on Ornos beach. (My copy, for the record, is still buried there, unless the department of sanitation scooped my treasure out of the sand and hauled it off to the dump.)

There again you’ll spot us buying strappy leather sandals in a street market in Rhodes. I should say ME not WE; Don’t ask Rodney how he feels about man sandals. Or Tevas. Or short haircuts on women, which he thinks that women tell each other are “really cute” but men strongly do not prefer. (By the way, we argue about this point constantly; maybe I’ll cut my hair short one day just for spite.)

Oh look! Now we’re easing our way along busy roads on a moped in Santorini. On a mission to find the one winery on the island. Not an adventure for the faint of heart or anyone over the age of 25. Mum, I survived, please don’t worry about this anymore.

I do, however, have strong memories of the food. Whether we were sitting down to a fancy dinner in the heart of the Old Town in Mykonos, or beachside at a little taverna, I recall a freshness and simplicity that still influences my cooking today.

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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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I’ve been re-reading my copy of Jennifer Tyler Lee’s “The 52 New Foods Challenge” cookbook and finding inspiration from other cooks who’ve created recipes based on her list of 52 new Foods that kids should be trying. 

If you haven’t read my post about Jennifer’s book, you learn more about her book here. Like many people at this time of year, I’ve thrown myself into all things seasonal. We’ve been drinking wintry cocktails and using the rolling pin to smash peppermint candy canes to top our hot chocolate. We’ve lugged home a tree, and decorated it with a pound of tinsel. Holidays are a full contact sport in our household. Though I have yet to bake anything since my big Christmas cake effort in November, my food has been holiday-spirited nonetheless.

Pomegranates are one of my kids’ favorite fruits although they’re still getting used to the tiny seeds. I had my own experience with new foods, so I understand their trepidation. You may recall that my stepfather gently encouraged me to eat the rind on my Brie cheese, or else – or so I was told – I would be the laughingstock of all of Paris. I learned to eat rind, our summer visit to France was a success (minus the traffic accidents. Plural.) And I came away with an understanding that foods sometimes require a little warm-up period.

Without any harsh consequences playing on their young, impressionable psyches, my kids are slowly learning to eat their pomegranate seeds without spitting out the, er, seed. They love the flavor, the juice, and the vibrant red streaks that cover their hands and get under their nails. I can’t resist pomegranate seeds either – that color! That flavor, they’re positively luminescent. So, I tend to use them abundantly during the holidays. Like gemstones, pomegranate seeds make everything a little more festive.

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After my last read through the “52 New Foods Challenge” cookbook, I was excited about cooking for my kids using a mix of familiar flavors, with a few new ones. My kids are becoming more adventurous with food, and it was high time they were introduced to ingredients like garlic and soy sauce.

The ribs were a hit, and I felt confident that I could push their buttons a little further with a new recipe. Yes, we’d have some familiar foods in the form of pomegranates and steak. But I’d also introduce some new ingredients. New to them, and with one in particular – new*ish to me.

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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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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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