SPICED BROWN SUGAR CARROT BREAD

As much as I would love to start out each day with a couple of cheesy scrambled eggs, salty bacon and a nice big piece of toast, the reality is that I wait until the absolute last minute to get out of bed and shower each morning, thus leaving me with no time to ever really cook anything of substance.  Sadly, my late-to-rise routine usually results in me dashing out the door each morning with a hastily toasted bagel in one hand and my computer in the other.  Of course, I love a good cream cheese slathered bagel, but sometimes I’m looking for something a bit sweeter to start my day with that still fits within the hand-held morning model.  While donuts and pancakes can be far too sweet for a quick breakfast and since cereal isn’t meant to be taken on the go, I’ve found that a nice thick slice of moist quick bread is the best compromise.

The mix of spices and ginger make this quick bread exceptionally delicious and the perfect way to use leftover carrots you probably have wilting away in your crisper. With a small, even crumb and dark, caramelized exterior, this bread is best with a pad of butter and your morning coffee. It may not satisfy the urge for a savory, cheese and egg-laden breakfast, but I doubt anyone will be complaining.

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SPINACH-GORGONZOLA PASTA

I should start by saying that this dish is rich — certainly not for those still trying to stick to their New Years resolution.  While cream sauced pasta might always be an off-limit item for calorie counters, it’s the Gorgonzola, ricotta and Parmesan cheese that makes this dish especially decadent and delicious.  It’s this same indulgent quality that has people lined up around the block at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, a neighborhood fixture in a small beach town called Capitola, a few miles south of Santa Cruz in Northern California.

I visited Gayle’s for the first time in college on an adventure to find a solid, quality meal and a break from the less-than inspiring food of the dining hall.  Craving something comforting more than anything, I felt right at home in front of their massive rotisserie and deli case packed with roasted chickens, slow barbecued ribs, potato salad and sandwiches.  The place was bustling with business and food was flying out the door but nothing seemed to be selling faster than the humble looking spinach-gorgonzola pasta.  As I remember it, not one customer left without ordering some.  So, like any smart food explorer, I did as the locals did and took some to-go.  After a few bites, it was obvious what all fuss was about.

Having moved away from Santa Cruz, I’m no longer able to take part in what became a near-weekly trip to Gayle’s for some of their signature pasta.  So feeling especially deprived of late, I searched for the restaurant online and was lucky enough to find that they’ve been giving out the recipe to their customers for years.  After making the dish at home this past weekend, I’m happy to report that it’s as soul-satisfying as I remember it.

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BAGEL DOGS

Like baked barbecue pork buns, bagel dogs held a special place in my heart growing up. When hunger pangs struck after a long day at school, these bagel wrapped beauties were one of my favorite go-to snacks.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a town with a small bagel shop that was making them from scratch each morning.  More than anything, I was lucky enough to have a father who enjoyed them as much as I did, so there were always a few in the fridge.  In college, I’d take a dozen back to school with me and they’d easily disappear in a couple days time.  I only had three roommates!

It wasn’t until recently, when I learned of that same bagel shop’s demise that I finally felt motivated to try making them myself at home.  After a couple of so-so attempts and oddly shaped dogs, I finally found a recipe and technique that yields outstanding results – better in many ways than the ones of my youth.  Sure, the process of making bagel dogs from scratch might seem a little daunting and unnecessary considering the availability of frozen varieties at almost every grocery store, but believe me when I say, there is no substitute for the real thing.

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CREMA MEXICANA

Listen, there’s nothing wrong with sour cream out of a tub, but man can that stuff ever be thick.  That’s why I love crema — the rich, delicately sour, slightly thickened cream used in Mexican cooking.  Just look at how that stuff drizzles!  I like to think of it as a thinner version of crème fraîche. Unlike sour cream, crema Mexicana won’t break or separate when heated, making it ideal for stirring into warm sauces.  Sure there are a few good brands out there, but making it yourself at home couldn’t be any simpler.  All you need is some heavy cream, a cultured dairy product like buttermilk or yogurt and some culinary cajónes.  That’s right, in order to get this stuff to the right consistency you’re gonna have to leave it out on your counter overnight…unrefrigerated.  But don’t worry, considering the resilience of the ultra-pasteurized heavy whipping cream sold in most supermarkets, it’s gonna take a lot more than a night on your counter to spoil.  I too was a bit worried the first time I made it, but trust me, this recipe works like a charm.  The finished crema is complex, nutty and has a beautiful pourable texture, perfect for spooning on tacos, enchiladas or even a simple baked potato.  Or, do what I do and drizzle it on a plate of loaded, cheesy nachos — it certainly beats a thick glob of cold sour cream.

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TACOS DE BARBACOA

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I’m pretty accustomed to eating some damn good Mexican food.  As a true fan of the cuisine, I consider myself blessed to live within minutes of the birthplace of the original Mission-style burrito.  So, with some of the best taquerías in the entire state literally moments from my apartment, it’s with great embarrassment that I am here to say I enjoy eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill every once in a while.  Don’t get me wrong, I would NEVER pass up a burrito from one of my favorite joints here in town, but when I find myself craving some good barbacoa, I always know where I can find some.

Even though we have a taquería on every corner here in San Francisco serving mounds of carnitas, al pastor, chile verde and carne asada, very few in fact offer a version of this dish.  Good barbacoa is succulent beef that is slow-simmered in a spicy broth flavored with tangy lime juice, smoky chipotle chiles and plenty of garlic until it’s practically falling apart.  Seasoned with just the right amount of herbs, vinegar and salt, Chipotle’s come pretty darn close to some of the best I’ve ever eaten.  So, cobbled together from a few imposter recipes and knock-offs floating around the internet, along with some good, old-fashioned cooking know-how, I am here to offer my rendition of the barbacoa I’ve come to love from this massive chain restaurant .  I typically have them throw the stuff in a burrito at the restaurant, but here I serve it in authentic Mexican fashion, mounded up on a griddled tortilla and topped with diced white onion, plenty of cilantro and a lime wedge for squeezing over the top.  Pass some good bottled hot sauce or some avocado-tomatillo salsa for another great accompaniment or whip up a batch of cochinita pibil or chile-braised pork and throw a taco party.

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