4 Simple Tips for Saving Money on Disneyland Souvenirs (and a Quick DIY Project!)

Buttons – By now many of you know that free buttons can be obtained from character meals, and ones that commemorate special events can be requested for free from City Hall in Disneyland and the Chamber of Commerce at Disney’s California Adventure. But what should you do with them when you get home? More than likely you’ll throw those big buttons in a drawer and never use them again. Don’t waste them! Make them into usable magnets!

First, put a little muscle into it and pull the pin off the back of the button. It’s very lightweight bendable tin so you don’t even really need a tool for it, but feel free to use some pliers or something if you need to. Then grab some single magnets (make sure they’re thicker than the button) and a glue gun from the craft store, and glue the magnet to the back of the button. Let dry and…voila!

Animation Academy – Not only is the Animation Academy in Disney’s California Adventure a great place to learn how to draw one of your favorite Disney characters (and a nice escape from the chaos of the park), but the finished product can make a great free memento of your time at Disneyland. My sketch of “Angry Donald” wearing Mickey Ears turned out so well, we decided to frame it and put it on the wall. Just make sure you bring a rubber band with you to the park so you can roll it up and bring the drawing home safely without ruining it.

Target – The Target store two miles away from the Disneyland Resort (12100 Harbor Blvd. in Garden Grove) is the perfect place to hit up before heading to the parks. Stock up on easy to carry snacks for your trip and bottles of water, as well as zippered sandwich bags. I don’t know why but I always have some in my backpack. They’re great for leftover food, wet clothes (post Splash Mountain or Grizzly River Run), or whatever else happens.

But besides the basic necessities, this Target has a very large selection of authentic Disney licensed merchandise! It’s spread out in a few places around the store, but most of it can be spotted as you enter and also in the clothing section near checkout. Pickup t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, water bottles, hoodies, magnets, keychains, lanyards, stuffed Disney character toys, and a whole bunch of other knick knacks for souvenirs or as gifts. They’re a fraction of what you would pay inside the park for similar merchandise. However, most items sold at the parks are Disney Parks exclusive merchandise, so don’t expect to find the exact same items at Target. Also note that the pins they sell are not tradeable Disney Parks labelled pins, but are still real licenced Disney merchandise and can still make a great souvenir.

Disney Store – It pays to go to an actual Disney Store, or www.disneystore.com, before your trip to purchase items such as autograph books for characters to sign, stuffed toy characters, or authentic Disney Parks clothing since they have frequent promotions and sales that the Disney Parks stores won’t. Granted, your selection isn’t as vast as it is inside the parks, but it’s still great. And on some occasions I’ve seen the exact same item regularly priced at the park, but on sale at the Disney Store’s online site.

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12 Tips, Tricks, & Secret Hacks to Know Before You Go to Disneyland Resort

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Sleeping Beauty Castle (photo credit: VirgoBlue)

We just came back from another truly magical trip to Disneyland. But before we headed there for the first time with the kids, I did EXTENSIVE research by reading expert blogs, watching YouTube videos, and talking to friends who have survived their trip with little ones (kids under 10), and lived to talk about it.

Now that we’ve been to a Disney Park three times and have learned to really maximize our time there, I wanted to share some fun tips, tricks, and secret hacks with you to make your trip even more magical. Besides, there’s more than just rides to the most magical place on earth!

THE BEST TIME TO GO – People always ask about when the crowds are lightest or when the best time of year to go to Disneyland would be. Unfortunately, crowds are just a part of life these days at the parks, and ever increasing. The best way to gauge how bad the crowds will be would be to check the annual pass calendar on the official Disneyland website. If SoCal annual passholders are blocked on the days you want to visit, you’ll usually have less crowds. Also check if any events like marathons, Grad Nites, Dapper Days, or the D23 Expo are occurring when you’re thinking about going. You can also check the nearby Anaheim Convention Center’s calendar, since large conventions can also effect park attendance.

CHECK THE WEBSITE & DOWNLOAD THE APP – Use the website and/or Disneyland app to check park hours (which can vary greatly day to day), the day’s parade and fireworks showtimes (so you can plan accordingly), and also to check which rides are closed for refurbishment. I’ve heard so many instances of people being heartbroken because they didn’t realize their favorite ride was closed for refurbishment until they got there. Now, rides breakdown and can be shutdown temporarily and may not be reflected in real-time on the website. The app, however, is updated more frequently and is a fabulous tool for checking wait times for rides. It’s indispensable for when you’re at the park!

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Paradise Pier at Disney’s California Adventure (Photo Credit: VirgoBlue)

FORGET THE PARK HOPPER (IF YOU HAVE KIDS UNDER 10) – You may think it’s a great idea to hop between parks whenever you want, but the truth is, most times the Park Hopper ticket becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit. With all there is to do at each park, by late afternoon you’ll realize you didn’t even hit up the other park yet. You’ll trek over there simply because you feel like you have to in order to utilize the Park Hopper ticket you bought, while realizing you didn’t do everything you wanted to back at the park you started at. Plus, extra walking after an already long day for the kids is always a recipe for disaster. You’ll enjoy your time more if you tackle one park a day, AND save money.

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Peter Pan’s Flight (Photo Credit: VirgoBlue)

RIDE PETER PAN FIRST – In my opinion, no other ride represents the magic that Walt Disney had envisioned when he created Disneyland better than Peter Pan’s Flight in Fantasyland. The ride has been around since the day the park opened, so you’d think the lines would die down by now! No such luck. If you have any plans to ride Peter Pan’s Flight with a less than 25 minute wait in line, you need to head to the park when it opens and make it the first thing you do when you get there. It’s typical to see a 40-60 minute wait in the cramped, outdoor line just 30 minutes after park opening. Yikes!

CELEBRATING SOMETHING? – If you’ve ever wondered where folks get those buttons that say “Happy Birthday,” “Happily Ever After,” “First Visit,” or “I’m Celebrating…,” head to City Hall as you enter Disneyland or the Chamber of Commerce, both on the left as you enter the parks. There, you can tell a cast member what you’re celebrating and that you would like a free button. But what’s even better is if you have a little tike with you, you can ask if any Disney characters are available for a special birthday phone call. Our little one was celebrating her 5th birthday and was almost in shock when the cast member said that Goofy was on the phone waiting to speak with her!

BRING SNACKS & NEVER PAY FOR WATER – Feel free to bring snacks to the park. It’s totally allowed. In fact, if you have kids under 10, it’s almost mandatory. Everyone gets bored and cranky while standing in line for a meal or a ride. (Then splurge for a Dole Whip or a churro later!) But if you have an empty water bottle and want to save money or just want to cut down on the sugary drinks, there are water stations at many restaurants, including Rancho del Zocalo in Adventureland, the Village Haus in Fantasyland, and French Market in New Orleans Square. And you can always ask for a cup of water at many fast casual or sit down restaurants (Plaza Inn) if you don’t want to buy a beverage.

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Radiator Springs at Dusk at Disney’s California Adventure (photo credit: VirgoBlue)

GO WHEN THE PARK OPENS…AND THEN TAKE A NAP! – If you have younger kids, the excitement of being at Disneyland Resort can be just plain exhausting. So to best maximize your time at the park and avoid long lines that only increase throughout the day, go to the park as soon as it opens. Be sure to check the Disneyland website a few days before you go to check the parks’ hours for the days you plan to go. Then, when foot traffic gets a little nuts at the parks between about 2-5 pm, feel free to go back to the hotel and take a nap, hit the pool, or just veg out for a couple hours. Head back later and everyone will be in a better mood!

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A map of the Jungle Cruise! (Photo Credit: VirgoBlue)

GET A MAP AT THE JUNGLE CRUISE – This one is a lesser known secret for Disneyland fans, and it’s so cool! When you get off the Jungle Cruise, ask a cast member at the ride if they have any maps. If they do, you’ll be rewarded with an awesome free souvenir… Love it!

YOU’RE WAITING IN THE WRONG DOLE WHIP LINE! – Don’t let that intimidatingly long line along the exterior of the Tiki Room Lounge fool you. I know a lot of people have aborted their plans to get that deliciously famous Dole Whip (a frozen pineapple flavored non-dairy treat) after seeing that line. But don’t abort! Instead, just step through the Tiki Room gates and swing a quick right. You’ll see an alternate line for the Dole Whip counter. The line isn’t reserved for Tiki Room patrons and is no different than the impossibly long one on the other side of the wall. It’s just usually shorter and quicker!

ASK (NICELY) FOR SOME MAGIC – My oldest kid is a big fan of magic. So a trip to the Houdini’s Magic Shop on Main Street is mandatory. But did you know that when you say the magic word “please” to a cast member at the shop, they will show you a magic trick? Now that’s magic!

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Pete’s Dragon at the Main Street Electrical Parade (photo credit: VirgoBlue)

CATCH THE LATER PARADE – This tip came directly from a cast member! If there are two scheduled evening parade times at Disneyland park and you think your little ones can stay up just a little later than usual (take that nap!), then it’s worth it to stay and catch the last parade of the night. While the first parade is going on, hit the rides since lines will be a little less crazy. Then, while folks file out of the park or return to their regularly scheduled waiting in lines, you can comfortably find a primo seat on Main Street, Town Square, or near Small World (the three locations I’d personally recommend for best parade viewing). But remember you won’t be seeing the fireworks show again. There’s only one fireworks show a day and it’s usually right after the first parade of the night ends.

HAVE A MEAL WITH CHARACTER(S) – The first time I went to Disneyland with one of my kids we made the horrible mistake of being lured by the thrill of meeting Mickey and Minnie. We ended up waiting for almost an hour in the blazing hot sun. We wasted so much time! Never again. Now, I book at least one character meal a trip so we can enjoy a nice meal and have the characters come to us! Most of them have at least 4-5 characters show up at each seating. Characters and prices will vary, and online or phone reservations are always advised. Please note not all meal times at these establishments are character meals, as noted below.

There are five character meal restaurants at the Disneyland Resort:

GOOFY’S KITCHEN at the Disneyland Hotel (Goofy is guaranteed, but Minnie, Pluto, Chip and Dale are frequent visitors) – Breakfast and dinner buffet character service only.

MICKEY’S SURF’S UP at the PCH Grill in the Paradise Pier Hotel (Mickey is guaranteed, but Minnie, Daisy, Pluto, and Stitch are frequent visitors) – Breakfast buffet character service only.

ARIEL’S GROTTO at Disney’s California Adventure park (Ariel is guaranteed, and three to four other princesses show up) – This is the only Disney Princess dining experience at the Resort. Breakfast and lunch character service only.

BREAKFAST WITH MINNIE AND FRIENDS at the Plaza Inn in Disneyland park (Minnie is guaranteed and Pluto is a frequent visitor. The other two to three characters vary greatly and are sometimes quite rarely spotted at the park, such as Pinocchio or Max!) – Breakfast character service only.

CHIP ‘N DALE CRITTER BREAKFAST at the Storytellers Cafe in the Grand Californian Hotel (Chip ‘n Dale are guaranteed, but other characters are almost always woodland creatures like Meeko from Pocahontas) – Breakfast character service only.

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“it’s a small world” (photo credit: VirgoBlue)

If you have any other tips, feel free to leave me a comment. And like they say at the parks, “Have a magical day!”

 

Cremini Mushroom & Leek Soup

The soup in question.

The soup in question.

I had a lovely lunch recently at a newish restaurant in San Carlos called Johnston’s Salt Box that consisted of a phenomenal Green Curry Steak Sandwich and a light yet hearty Mushroom Leek Soup.

After all the traveling I’ve done in the last few weeks, that soup was just what I needed. It was earthy yet fresh and felt comforting yet new. It’s rare to find mushroom soups that aren’t filled with cream. My husband and I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to dissect the soup, including its nuances.

I think we came pretty damn close. Served with some crusty fresh bread and sweet cream butter, this was the best post-travel supper to both make AND eat.

Cremini Mushroom & Leek Soup
12 oz. sliced cremini mushrooms
2 leeks (light green and white parts only), cleaned and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 cups chicken stock
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
Zest of 1/2 a lemon, grated
1 Tbsp. butter
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Heat 2 Tbs. olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven until it shimmers. Sauté carrots for about 3 mins. Add in mushrooms and a pinch of salt to draw out their moisture, and sauté another 7 mins. Until softened but not soggy. Empty the mixture into a bowl and set aside.

Melt the butter in the same Dutch oven over medium high heat and add the leeks, along with a pinch of salt and pepper. Sauté until softened, about 5 mins. Add back the mushroom/carrot mixture along with any juices, the dried thyme, the chicken stock, and 1/4 tsp. salt. Bring up to a boil and simmer for 20 mins.

Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon zest. Season additionally to taste if necessary. Pour in a nice dash (about 1-2 Tbs.) of good extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately with some fresh bread. Serves 4-6.

Hottest Food Trends from the 2014 Winter Fancy Food Show

The Winter Fancy Food Show is known as the food industry’s most happening trade show, where new food trends are introduced months before they clog supermarket shelves. At this year’s event, for example, there was no shortage of bacon-infused snacks, gluten-free products, and Sriracha-flavored everything—all trends from past years that have now gone mainstream.

Here are eight different food products from this year’s show that are sure to be coming to a supermarket near you—and soon!

Brussels sprouts

Brussels Sprouts

Move over kale chips. Everyone is taking one of the most polarizing dinner table veggies and turning them into flavorful, crispy chips and snacks. I’ll admit, I’ve always hated Brussel sprouts. But after trying some of these snacks, I think I can be converted.

artisan popsicles

Artisan Popsicles

Combinations like hibiscus mint and watermelon agave are nothing like your childhood Otter Pops. Inspired by Latin American paletas, which are basically fresh fruit popsicles, the folks at GoodPops decided it was time to bring that concept to mainstream America, using high-quality ingredients and inventive flavor combinations. After tasting them myself, I think they’re making a good case for it.

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Mocktails

If you’re like me and can’t drink alcohol for whatever reason (it’s a cruel fate, what can I say), you always feel like you’re s**t outta luck at cocktail parties and other gatherings. Not if the company Sociale has its way. Sociale makes virgin versions of the cosmopolitan, mojito, margarita, and martinis that taste like the real thing. These bottled mocktails are quality, all-natural drinks that taste like a great cocktail should.

almond water

Almond Water

Almond milk + coconut water = almond water! Almond water has the clean, refreshing finish of coconut water, with the subtle flavor of almonds. It’s not cloyingly sweet or overpoweringly filled with vanilla essence. The recipe from the brand Victoria’s Kitchen is from the owner’s French grandmother. It’s floral and light, and the branding looks like something out of an old-timey apothecary. I was ready to take a case home with me.

hummus

Hummus…Minus the Chickpeas

Fava beans, lentils, carrots, edamame, white beans, and black beans all took turns as the main ingredient in a variety of new hummus dips. Surprisingly, they were all quite good with subtle yet distinctive flavor differences compared with the original chickpea version. They also tout a bunch of different health benefits (the fava bean and edamame versions, in particular). The fava bean hummus from FavaLife and wasabi edamame version from Eat Well Enjoy Life were my personal favorites.

Cookie chips

Cookie Chips

Cinnamon sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and decadent brownies are some of America’s favorite sweet treats. But several companies have decided what’s really been missing is a certain amount of crunch. Enter cookie and brownie chips. With a variety of different names, depending on the maker, they all combine the light crispy crunch of a chip with the sweetness of a brownie or a cookie. Snackers with a major sweet tooth can now rejoice.

half-ppped popcorn

Half-Popped Popcorn

Hate the unpopped kernels of popcorn at the bottom of the bag? Well, the folks who make Pop’d Kerns apparently decided to do something about it. It’s not fully popped popcorn, nor is it an inedible unpopped kernel. It’s basically a popcorn kernel that’s half-popped. It’s got more heft and crunch than regular popcorn, but still has that familiar flavor. Think of it as a cross between popcorn and Corn Nuts.

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Tea for Dessert

Now you can have your dessert, and drink it too. Apparently it’s not enough to enjoy a piece of chocolate with your afternoon tea anymore. Popular tea makers have now infused cupcake, Bundt cake, and even chocolate flavors into their teas. Thankfully, none of them are overly sweet or obnoxiously flavored, though tea purists are sure to turn their noses up at this trend.

Nora Ephron Might’ve Eaten Here

I never knew author, screenwriter, director Nora Ephron, but she was everything I wished I could be when I grew up: funny, sharp, smart, fashionable, definitive but not high-maintenance (there’s a difference). Known best for her films “When Harry Met Sally”, “You’ve Got Mail”, “Julie & Julia” and “Heartburn”, she knew the art of storytelling, how to write the wittiest of prose, had a true passion for food, and loved people. She seemed so cool and confident, yet warm and welcoming at the same time.

Nora passed away this past June. So when I visited New York City recently, I wanted to somehow pay tribute to her. Since her love of food was well documented, I went to a few places that reminded me of either her or her stories. And no, I didn’t make a trip to Katz’s Deli (http://katzsdelicatessen.com), which was famously featured in my favorite film, “When Harry Met Sally”. Nora surely wouldn’t want me to be that predictable.

Photo by Monique Maestas-Gower

Potatoes Anna at Minetta Tavern

In reference to Minetta Tavern, Nora once said to New York Times journalist, Frank Bruni, “You ordered the steak, right?…Excellent! Now we can talk about the potatoes.”

If you’ve ever read her novel “Heartburn”, you’ll know her affinity for the spud, claiming that it’s the perfect comfort food for wallowing your sorrows in.

The potato sides have been known to upstage the beef dishes at this famous New York institution. This wasn’t lost on Ms. Ephron. She’s raved about the New York Strip Steak, but I’m almost sure she’s expressed her love for their famous Potatoes Anna at one point. One bite of those delicate, buttery potatoes, baked until golden brown on top and perfectly crisp, and I was blown away. It’s like having a potato casserole with crisp potato chips on top. She was totally right. They’re not to be missed.

Gray’s Papaya: Hotdog w/House Mustard

Nora once said in an interview with Charlie Rose that she would want her last meal to be a hotdog from Nate ‘n Al’s in Beverly Hills with a little Gulden’s mustard: nothing fancy. And though I’m not in Beverly Hills, we can certain give Gray’s, arguably New York’s most famous hotdog, a shot. Plus, the Upper West Side location I visited was the one supposedly featured in her film, “You’ve Got Mail”.

I ordered my dogs with nothing fancy: just the house mustard (which tastes like a good Dijon). It didn’t need anything else since the dog itself was the star, here. Though the bun tasted suspiciously like one you’d find at the supermarket, the link had great flavor. The casing, indeed, had that perfect snap that’s been much hyped. But it was the charred flavor that stood out and made it taste like no other hotdog I’d ever had before, and that’s a good thing. Though the “Recession Special” of two hotdogs and a drink for $5 is a great deal, they were smaller than I’d expected.

Jacques Torres Chocolate: Chocolate Chip Cookie

“I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie, and my heart does a little dance.” – Excerpt from the novel Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Everyone will have an opinion about where you can find the best chocolate chip cookie, but I figured I couldn’t go wrong with what many consider the “expert” on chocolate, Jacques Torres. This celebrity chef’s chocolate chip cookie is world-renowned, and for good reason. It’s a huge disk of a cookie that’s bigger than an infant’s head. The chips are flat and wide and somehow melt so perfectly into the dough while baking, that they create ribbons of chocolate inside the cookie, distributing that rich chocolate flavor in every bite. The chocolate itself had a lot of depth with hints of vanilla and cherry, with a great balance of bitter and sweet. The cookie dough itself was no slouch with the rich taste of butter and vanilla coming through, as well. Nora would surely have approved.

“When you are actually going to have your last meal, you’ll either be too sick to have it or you aren’t gonna know it’s your last meal and you could squander it on something like a tuna melt and that would be ironic. So it’s important … I feel it’s important to have that last meal today, tomorrow, soon.” – Nora Ephron

So though I never knew you Nora, and have no way of knowing for sure if this list would’ve met your approval, I’d like to think that the mere search for some of the best eats in the city you loved so much would’ve made you smile. It certainly did me.

Minetta Tavern on Urbanspoon

Gray's Papaya  on Urbanspoon

Jacques Torres Chocolate on Urbanspoon

Aida Mollenkamp’s “Keys to the Kitchen”

Keys to the Kitchen by Aida Mollenkamp

Photo by VirgoBlue

Aida Mollenkamp, former editor of CHOW and star of both the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, wants to provide the home cook with a go-to kitchen resource. That is why she wrote her new book “Keys to the Kitchen.” Marketed as a cookbook, it’s much more than that. In the book, she breaks cooking down to one simple equation:

Quality Ingredients (The Set-Up) + Kitchen Skills (The How-To) + Technique (The Recipes) + Cooking Method (The Riff) = GOOD FOOD

With hundreds of recipes and more cooking techniques than you ever knew you needed, “Keys to the Kitchen” could almost serve as a cooking class textbook. But of course, Aida makes it much more exciting than that. She’s encouraging home cooks to be more adventurous in the kitchen and not to be afraid to try new techniques and tastes. By providing some basic principles to purchasing, preparing and cooking food creatively she promotes the development of an adventurous approach to eating.

With the book coming out this month and a possible new show on the horizon, she’s hard to catch up with, but fortunately she carved out some time to talk about her new book and share some key tips with Bay Area Bites.

What is it about food that still excites you?
AM: I stay excited because everyday presents an opportunity for a new food adventure. Whether it’s something as simple as buying an ingredient you’ve never used before, cooking a dish for the first time, or traveling somewhere and eating a new flavor, there’s always something out there.

What are your 5 best tips for being more adventurous in the kitchen?

    AM:

  1. Follow flavors you like
    Don’t think of your favorite recipe merely as one dish but rather as layers and layers of flavors. With that mentality, taste and dissect the details at your next dinner. Who knows? You may think you dislike a spice or ingredient only to realize it’s in a lot of the foods you love.
  2. Travel through your taste buds
    Many a food lover pines for the chance to eat fresh fried samosas in the streets of India or shop firsthand at renowned food markets, like Mexico City’s La Merced, but few of us can afford that reality. Instead, live vicariously through their food — though you won’t have souvenirs, you’ll rack up plenty of food memories.
  3. Buy something new every time you shop
    Consider each trip to the market as a chance to explore and aim to buy a new (if only to you) ingredient each time you shop. Sure, you may encounter a few duds, but more often than not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and realize you actually love sauerkraut.
  4. Think of your kitchen as a lab
    Change your perspective and think of cooking not as drudgery but as your daily chance for culinary creativity. And really, it’s a lab with pretty low risk — the worst-case scenario is that the dog ends up being fed really well.Start simple by swapping the herbs and spices in your favorite recipes, then graduate to using ingredients you’ve never tried.
  5. Make mealtime mash-ups
    With cooking experimentation comes rule breaking, so don’t be scared — just go with it. In the last few years, all sorts of ethnic flavors have (like music) been mashed up into cross-cultural dishes — like the now ubiquitous Korean tacos.Take a page from that trend and try a spin on your favorite foods, like chorizo on a gyro, kimchi in a Bloody Mary, Madras curry spices whirred into your vanilla ice cream, or any other twist that will help you forge your own food adventure.

This doesn’t seem like your typical cut and dry recipe cookbook. What was your inspiration?
AM: That’s right. While a lot of cookbooks are a catalogue of recipes, “Keys to the Kitchen” is more of a kitchen reference combined with a cookbook. It’s a modern manual to the kitchen that teaches you how to shop, covers basic kitchen techniques, and then culminates with over 300 original recipes that cover everything from an elegant holiday-worthy roast to ideas for reinventing last night’s leftovers.

I wrote the book for my friends who like food but are intimidated by the kitchen because they were never taught to cook. Over and over again, I’d have people ask me the same general questions — things like how to read labels, which cuts of meat are best for which preparations, and recipes for interesting but accessible recipes. I wrote “Keys to the Kitchen” to provide those answers and to help people become better cooks, whether it’s their first time turning on the stove or the one-thousandth.

What’s coming up for you after the launch of the cookbook? More television? More writing?
AM: Well, the rest of the year will be devoted to my multi-city book tour. From mid-September through the holidays, I’ll be traveling to 14 different cities for book signings, demos, and other in-person cooking events.

After that, I’m going to start developing a new show that I, unfortunately, can’t talk about too much right now. But, I promise to keep you posted as it develops.

*This article is also posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

The Best San Francisco Restaurants and More: The Podcast

Wayfare Tavern’s Fried Chicken (photo property of VirgoBlue)

I recently had a great discussion with Seth Resler of Mystery Meet, where food lovers in the Bay Area can get together at a restaurant in San Francisco (that isn’t revealed until 24 hours before) and discuss their love of all things culinary.

Here’s my podcast interview with Seth of Mystery Meet discussing all my favorite eats in San Francisco. I basically leave no stone unturned, talking about my favorite purveyors like Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, Wayfare Tavern, Frog Hollow Farm, Curry Up Now, 4505 Meats, my thoughts on the SF vs. NY food debate, my pick for the best date/anniversary restaurant in town (it’s not what you think), my love of Thomas Keller, why the food truck trend has exploded, and even manage a BlogHer Annual Conference plug. Obviously, I’m in marketing. 😉

It’s all here: http://mysterymeet.org/find-dining-podcast/podcast-episode-8-wayfare-tavern-in-san-francisco/

YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C7IfmpaD-o&feature=youtu.be&a

Wayfare Tavern on Urbanspoon
Sociale on Urbanspoon
Wise Sons Deli on Urbanspoon

Media Training for Bloggers @ BlogHer ’12

BlogHer '12

Just a few weeks ago, Julie Crabill of InnerCircle Labs (a fabulous PR agency in San Francisco) and I presented the Media Training for Bloggers panel at the 2012 BlogHer Annual Conference in New York City.

Here’s the podcast of the session “Media Training for Bloggers“. Enjoy!

New York City: Work hard, shop hard, eat well

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New York City has always been about three things for me: Work hard, shop hard, eat well. I was in town for only 3 nights on a business trip, so I had to pack a lot into just a little amount of free time. Fortunately, NYC is a good place for that.

I visited a few key restaurants and hit up a few key sales, deciding not to waste my time with stores that were even remotely touristy or similar to the ones I could find back in San Francisco. I was shopping with a purpose, no browsing here. And I wanted to hit up a few key eateries that were sure to please.

Here’s a recap (but by no means a “Best of” list):

Uniqlo – I arrived early enough in the evening to hit up their new 5th Avenue flagship store before closing time. The place opened less than a week ago and in the daytime, there were still plenty of people lining up just to get inside the 3 story building full of H&M-esque Japanese fashions. They were promoting a lot of cashmere (in 25 different colors), puffy jackets, and $10 jeans (on sale), but I was more interested in their undergarments and leggings. They’re a great deal and good quality.

Halal Cart http://53rdand6th.com (53rd St. & 6th Ave.) – Their famous Chicken and Rice platter with white sauce is frequently named as one of the best street food eats in town. I’m lucky because I usually end up staying at the Hilton which is right next to the cart. And after arriving in NYC just a few hours before, it was the perfect low-key meal to take up to the room and eat while unpacking. Although, I suspect this meal tastes much better after some club hopping and you’re looking for something hearty to suck up all the alcohol in your system.

Ess-A-Bagel http://www.ess-a-bagel.com (831 3rd Ave.) – Just like NYC pizza, you can’t get a bagel anywhere else like the kinds you find in the Big Apple, and Ess-A-Bagel is the perfect place to get the perfect bagel. It’s been around since 1976 and is a NYC institution. I went with the standard lox and cream cheese with some red onions and lettuce on a toasted everything bagel and it was the perfect breakfast. The bagel itself was perfectly crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, just like you’d want it to be. Why is this so hard to find anywhere else?

Lupa http://www.luparestaurant.com (170 Thompson St.) – This Mario Batali eatery is the lower key version of his famous Babbo restaurant, though many think it’s actually better. It’s casual and low-key, which I liked.

My friend and I shared the Salumi Platter which included slices of Prosciutto Di Parma and house-made Coppa Cotta, Testa, Speck and Lingua, among others. It was the highlight of the meal. For entrees we ordered the Spaghetti Carbonara, which was solidly good, but nothing to write home about, and the Skate with Lentils and Greens, which had a bright citrusy flavor from the grapefruit in the dish. And it was perfectly cooked. For dessert, we splurged with the Lupa Tartufo which both looked and tasted like a huge Ferrero Rocher chocolate, except with a decadent ice cream filled center. There was hazelnut and chocolate all over this huge thing. It was delicious and definitely enough to serve two. The service was friendly, attentive and unpretentious.

The Jill Sander Sample Sale – This event happens twice a year in NYC from what I can tell, and it’s a popular sale with locals. Eventhough my pregnant self can’t fit into any of the clothes that were 85% off, I found handbags and shoes. You can’t beat getting a pair of patent leather flats and pair of neutral slingbacks for just $140, altogether (including tax). They originally retailed for over $400 a pair.

Prune http://www.prunerestaurant.com (54 East 1st St.) – Before I talk about the food, I have to get my Jake Gyllenhaal sighting out of the way. The dude was waiting for a table just like anyone else, so that was refreshing to see. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to get all TMZ on him so I didn’t snap a picture.

Anyways, this famous restaurant is a favorite among chefs like Eric Rupert and Anthony Bourdain, and obviously, celebrities that like to wander in without an entourage. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton has become a bit of a celebrity herself in recent months with her culinary accolades, bestselling book, and personal life. All that aside, the food was surprisingly simple but beautifully executed.

We ordered the Rock Shrimp Roll with Old Bay Seasoned Fries and the Duck Breast with Beets. The shrimp was some of the freshest we’d ever tasted. They were so tender and sweet and tasted like they were just plucked from the water. The duck breast had just a touch of sweet smokiness and was cooked to a perfect medium rare. It was simplicity at its best.

Laduree (864 Madison Ave.) – I have been in love with this legendary Parisian macaron giant since my first bite at their Champs Elysees flagship store. Everything about it is over the top but their macarons stand up to the hype with their wonderfully delicate cookie (crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside) and their fragrant flavored fillings. I HAD to make the trek to their new outpost in NYC. This is their first and only store in North America. I’m happy to report that the macarons taste just as good as they did in Paris…except just a tad sweeter (to fit the American palate, unfortunately). They come in a myriad of flavors and colors, but my favorites will always be Cassis, Orange Blossom, and Salted Caramel. Yum…

Pizzarte http://www.pizzarteny.com (69 West 55th St.) – It’s hard to find a distinctive place to eat in the heart of Midtown that’s not touristy, overpriced, or unimaginative. Enter Pizzarte. Though it wasn’t the New York-style pie I was craving, it didn’t disappoint. Their Neapolitan-style Margherita pie had that perfectly charred and chewy crust with a fresh and tangy tomato sauce. And the Warm Burratta with butternut squash and broccoli rabe appetizer my friend and I shared was creamy and comforting.

The interior was clean, stylish and contemporary, and the food was of surprisingly great quality and preparation, which was a great surprise given its kitschy location.

Botkier Sample Sale – My last present to myself came in the form of a beautiful plum handbag that retailed for $600 at Nordstrom, but ended up being only $200 at their company’s sample sale. There were clutches for less than $100, and many bags were only $150. Incredible steal for a designer leather bag. I’m glad I went.

Besides Jake Gyllenhaal (which frankly would’ve been enough), I shared space with Gayle King and the Reverend Al Sharpton earlier that same day. Craziness. I was hoping I’d bump into George Clooney by dinnertime, but no such luck. I think my luck was already pretty good, so I didn’t complain. 🙂

The Nom Nom Truck: SoCal Comes to NorCal

It’s amazing what a reality show can do for your food truck.

Second place finishers on the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” and Los Angeles food truck staple, Nom Nom, have spread their love to the Bay Area.

Co-owners Jennifer Green and Misa Chien met during their time at UCLA. It was also during that time that they realized they could fill a niche in the growing food truck scene.

Nom Nom Truck owners - Jennifer Green and Misa Chien
Nom Nom Truck owners: Jennifer Green and Misa Chien.

“It started in 2009 when we had a lot of Kogi BBQ trucks around the UCLA campus and their popularity grew out of nowhere,” says Jennifer. “I made a lot of Vietnamese food for my friends on a regular basis and I realized the lack of Vietnamese restaurants in the West LA area. Then it clicked.”

Green and Chien chose the classic Vietnamese baguette sandwich, banh mi, as their truck’s specialty not only because there was a lack of places that served it in their area, but because it’s easy to eat.

“It’s portable, it’s fast and has a fresh taste that you can’t get from a burrito or hamburger,” states Jennifer. “The great thing is that we can also put a little bit of our gourmet twist on it too. One of the most traditional banh mi ingredients is grilled pork and I grill it with honey, which is a little different than the traditional. We also have Lemongrass Chicken and Vietnamese tacos, which are like a banh mi in your hand.”

“We also work with Le Boulanger to have our bread baked especially for us from a recipe I worked really hard on.”

Deli Banh Mi sandwich. Photo courtesy of Nom Nom Truck
Deli Banh Mi sandwich.

Indeed, the perfectly crusty on the outside, pillowy on the inside French bread roll is key to a good banh mi, and it was the highlight of the sandwich when I got a chance to sample their Honey Grilled Pork version. The pickled carrots and daikon that topped the sandwich were flavored well and super fresh, but I wish I’d gotten more of them to create more of a textural and taste contrast to the sweet pork. And I missed the lack of fish sauce flavor that brings it all together.

All in all, it seemed like something similar enough to what I could get in a Vietnamese Mom and Pop shop. So what’s the big deal?

First, the size of this sandwich is double the size of one you’d get at a typical brick and mortar. Coming in at 12 inches long, it’s a torpedo of a dish. But more importantly, Nom Nom is obviously trying to appealing to those who have never had a banh mi before.

“It’s exciting to see how many people who have never had one before try it and see their reaction, says Misa. “It’s like an introduction to Vietnamese food for those who have never had it. We’re appealing to the American palate.”

Their popularity has grown steadily, peaking when they started showing up on the Food Network reality show.

“We went into it wanting an adventure and it was a great way to expose our truck to a larger audience. People totally embraced us and it was great to see that feedback,” says Misa. “To see a small town embrace a food dish they’d never tasted like banh mi was a great experience.”

“We were bummed we came in second, but deep down we had to tell each other it was just a reality show. And the great thing was that we won the chance to travel and it was amazing,” says Jennifer.

Nom Nom recently acquired their third food truck and their next move was up north…at least for Misa.

“We decided on San Francisco because it’s a real foodie town and it’s been a dream of mine, personally to live up here,” she says. “We have two trucks in LA and one in San Francisco, now. I’m not complaining that I had to move up here! And the response has been great. People up here come to the truck, whereas in LA, you have to go to the people. They’re a little lazier down there.”

For now, Green and Chien don’t have any other plans to expand. “We have three babies right now and we’re focused on them,” says Jennifer.

For two women fresh out of college, running several food trucks in two major cities can be a challenge, but their goals are clear.

Misa says, “At the end of the day, we want to make people happy through our food. And as employers we want to hire staff that will work together to create an amazing company and work environment. Plus I get to build a great business with my best friend!”

Nom Nom
Twitter: @nomnomtrucksf
Facebook: Nom Nom Truck SF
Various locations throughout the Bay Area (no regular schedule)