Venetian Cauliflower

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In her book , Mary Oliver wrote about the peculiar life force that we call habit, and how it gives shape to our inner lives, “In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role… The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.”

Daily cooking has become a habit, a form of self realization, or an addiction.  Even on the days that I don’t have to cook, I will make something — a special after school snack, a healthy dessert or a fruit salad — just to mess around in the kitchen for a while. In the methodical preparation of food, life’s focus is simply on flavors, aromas and colors.  All other concerns fall away and turn into a haze of steams.  As I mix different spices, I conjure up faraway locales and the lives I could have lived in those places — some I have visited, and others I’ve only dreamed about. 

My need for daydreaming and quiet solitude, which used to be fulfilled only by reading, is now satisfied in the kitchen as well.  I can enjoy the pleasure of my alone time while being of service to my family.  I can have my cake and eat it too. 

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Venetian Cauliflower

Ingredients:

1 cauliflower

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 red onion, finely sliced

Pinch of saffron, crumbled

⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

A dash paprika

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper

½ teaspoon lemon zest

½ heaping cup raisins

¼ cup almond slices

1/4 cup water or chicken broth

Note from Chef Chen: This may look like a long list of ingredients, but it is actually a very simple dish to make.  I just put a generous amount of my favorite spices together with caramelized onion and raisons to cook the cauliflower.

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Preparation:

Cut cauliflower in half from top to bottom, then remove the core. With a paring knife, cut into very small florets of equal size. Blanch florets in boiling water for 2 minutes. Cool in cold water and drain.

Put olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, onion and cook, stirring, until softened and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add saffron, cinnamon, coriander seeds, cumin, turmeric, paprika and red pepper. Season well with salt and pepper.

Add lemon zest, raisins and cauliflower florets. Toss with wooden spoons to distribute. Add water or broth. Cover with a lid and cook for about 5 minutes more, until cauliflower is tender. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with almond slices. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Adapted from:  cooking.nytimes.com

Lobsters and Love Junkee

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Costco is one my favorite stores in the world.  It has everything.  A friend once said to me, “If Costco doesn’t carry it, we don’t need it.”  I probably wouldn’t go so far, but I could certainly live quite happily with what Costco offers.  Not only I buy daily staples like milk, eggs and bread, I also buy my fancy food items there.  Today, I bought 6 huge fresh lobster tails for about 40 dollars.  They are so fresh and sweet that they could be enjoyed plain.  I think I have managed to find the perfect foil to the perfect food through this salad.

Citrus Lobster Salad with Avocado and Arugula

Ingredients:

4 fresh lobster tails

4 teaspoons finely chopped shallot

2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon table salt

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 mandarin oranges (or other citrusy fruits such as orange and pink grapefruit) 

1 1/2 firm-ripe California avocado

2 oz baby arugula

Coarse sea salt to taste (optional)

Preparation:

Boil water in a large steamer.  When the water is boiling, put in the lobster tails.  Steam for 10 minutes.

When lobster is cool enough to handle, peel the shells and remove the veins on the back of the lobster.  Cut the meat into 1/2-inch-thick slices and chill lobster in covered container. 

While lobster chills, stir together shallot, lemon juice, and table salt in a small bowl and let stand at room temperature 30 minutes. Add oil in a stream, whisking.

Peel mandarin oranges. Halve avocado lengthwise, discarding pit and peel.  (Save 1 half, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, for another use.)

Divide avocado and all of lobster meat between 4 salad plates and arrange mandarin orange slices around them. Top with arugula and drizzle with dressing. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt (if using) and serve immediately.

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After taking the pictures of my lobster salad, I turned my camera toward Audrey, who was staring at the computer screen in her newly acquired torn jeans and statement tees.  I was surprised by how mature she grew over night, on the cusp of adolescence.  We are lucky we live in the digital era when we can easily preserve in frames the fleeting moments of our children’s lives.

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Audrey’s new clothes were generously provided by Love Junkee, which was described by Angela’s friends as being “like Brandy Melville, but cooler and not overpriced.”

Recipe inspired by Epicurious

Creamy Potato Leek Soup – Healthified!

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Angela and Audrey attended preschool at The Playgroup in Ann and Gordon Getty’s house.  It was the best start in life anyone could ask for.  There were almost as many teachers as there were children.  And every child was embraced for who he or she was.  We couldn’t have been luckier to be given such a generous gift from Ann.

Tonight, Peter and I went back to the Getty home to attend a fundraising party for The Playgroup prior to its move to the Presidio.  It was quite wonderful and nostalgic to see the teachers who helped shape the girls’ character and were a part of their childhood memories.  It was especially nice to hear anecdotes about the girls that we didn’t know about or have forgotten.  We met the parents of Lonna Corder, the amazing principal of the school at tonight’s event.  Lonna’s mother told me that when she met the 3-year-old Angela at The Playgroup, Angela said to her, “Hi, if you think I speak Chinese, I don’t.” without anyone asking her.  Interesting psychology.  She was fluent in Chinese.  As a matter of fact, Chinese was her first language.  Did she project what she imagined others saw in her?  Did she not want to be different from others?  Was she laboring through the intricate process of finding her identity and her place in the world? 

I will not know the answers to these questions, but I have an inkling that that was the first step of a journey — a lifelong journey to continuously evolve and form new identities.

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Lonna made this shadow box for every graduating student.

Speaking of The Playgroup, the school had a gourmet chef who would cook up fancy lunches for the teachers, the children and the visiting parents, but my children turned their noses up at caviar blinis and whined for macaroni and cheese, which they also had – baked and topped with seasoned bread crumbs, of course; none of that easy mac business.

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Creamy Potato Leek Soup

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic (sliced)

3 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), slice into medallions

2 large russet potatoes (about 18 ounces total), peeled, diced

3 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth

1 can fat free Evaporated Milk

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon parsley

A few dashes of Ground Cumin, Cayenne Pepper and Coriander (optional)

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Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400; coat 10 to 12 medallions of leeks and 1/4 of the cubed potatoes with 1 tablespoon olive oil in a roasting pan.  Roast for 12 to 15 minutes or until tender.

Heat 2 tablespoon oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and the remaining leeks; stir until aromatic. Cover saucepan; cook until leeks are tender, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add potatoes. Cover and cook until potatoes begin to soften but do not brown, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add broth and evaporated milk. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

Puree soup in batches in processor until smooth. Add roasted potatoes and leek medallions. Return to saucepan. Season with salt, pepper and spices.  Bring to boil.  Ladle into 4 bowls with 2 medallions of roasted leeks and roasted potatoes in each bowl. Garnish with chives and parsley and serve.

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Recipe inspired by: http://www.epicurious.com

Lotus Root: the Sexiest Tuber

An anonymous internet philosopher once said, “Just like the lotus, we too have the ability to rise from the mud, bloom out of darkness, and radiate into the world.”

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Ever heard of eating your feelings? Well, today we ate the part of the lotus that never makes it out of the filth. We ate the lotus root, the part responsible for the growth and existence of the pretty flower that never gets to see the light of day until it’s cruelly uprooted and devoured. It does almost all the work and never gets much credit or appreciation. Eat a lotus root. Everyone’s got a little lotus root in them.

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Potatoes and lotus roots face off. East meets West. MMA.

And they stand their ground against sweet potatoes too!

And they stand their ground against sweet potatoes too!

According to the wise and all-knowing Google, lotus roots are better than taters. Think of ’em as the plain old potato’s sexier exotic friend with more potassium and vitamin C and fiber by mass. Lotus roots are popular in many Asian cuisines. We watched a documentary last year in AP Chinese about how lotus roots are grown; apparently they’re quite difficult to harvest since farmers have to dig out the entire root, which is several feet long. If the root breaks, it gets filled with filth and it can’t be sold. These A+ tubers are definitely worth the trouble though.

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Apologies for inundating you with lotus root pics.

So that’s Lotus Root 101.

Anyway… lotus roots can be used in both sweet and savory recipes. You can stuff them with soaked glutinous sweet rice and cook them up with dates, “dragon eyes” and xylitol (or sugar, if you’re into that) and they’re sort of dessert-y, almost like Japanese mochi in texture.

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A very Shanghainese dish

You can also sauté them and they’ll be nice and crunchy. We made ’em with noodles… I didn’t choose the carb life; the carb life chose me. Dr. Atkins can run in terror from pasta, but I’ll embrace it with a smile.

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Ingredients for Asian Peanut Noodles with Lotus Root:

For the Peanut Sauce:

14.5 oz fat free chicken broth (or vegetable broth for vegetarian)

5 tbsp peanut butter (I used reconstituted PB2 for lower fat)

1 tbsp sriracha

2 tbsp honey

2 tbsp soy sauce (use Tamari for gluten free)

1 tbsp freshly grated ginger

2 cloves garlic, minced

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For the Vegetables and Noodles:

1 section of a lotus root, sliced

salt and pepper (to taste)

1 tbsp sriracha (more or less to taste)

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated

1 tbsp soy sauce (use Tamari for gluten free)

1/2 tbsp sesame oil

8 oz rice noodles, preferably 100% whole grain

3/4 cup green onion, chopped

1 cup shredded snow peas

1 red bell pepper, sliced

2 tbsp chopped peanuts

Preparation:

For the peanut sauce: Combine 1 cup broth, peanut butter, sriracha, honey, 2 tbsp soy sauce, ginger, and 3 cloves crushed garlic in a small saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat stirring occasionally until sauce becomes smooth and well blended, about 5-10 minutes. Set aside.

Boil water for the noodles and cook pasta according to package instructions.

Heat a large skillet or wok until hot. Add 2 cloves crushed garlic, scallions, snow peas, bell pepper, lotus root and salt, sauté until tender crisp, about 1-2 minutes.

Drain noodles and toss with peanut sauce. Separate the noodles in 6 plates and top with the sautéd vegetables and chopped peanuts. Or mix the sautéd vegetables with the noodles and top with chopped the peanuts.

The recipe makes about 6 servings.

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Spaghetti Squash Tots

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Spaghetti squash is one of our favorite vegetables.  We’ve made salads, cakes and lasagna with it in the past.  Today I improvised simple spaghetti squash tots with what I have in the fridge and pantry, and the girls finished all three trays of them.  I enjoy it very much when I do something by feel.  It’s more fun to line up the spice bottles and just shake my wrist instead of measuring everything precisely.  A dash of this.  A dash of that.  I felt like a witch concocting some wicked delicious magic.  

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You can eat the tots by themselves or with a little dollop of pesto sauce.

Spaghetti Squash Tots Ingredients:

1 small spaghetti squash

1/2 cup shredded fat free Cheddar cheese (packed, 2 oz)

1/4 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (packed, 1 oz)

1/4 cup oat bran

1 egg + 3 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 shallot (thinly sliced)

1/4 teaspoon Garlic & Herb Seasoning

1/4 teaspoon dry oregano leaves

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon paprika

A dash of cayenne pepper

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cut the squash lengthwise in half.  Scoop out and discard seeds.  Microwave each half with 2 tablespoon of water in a container for 8 minutes.  Scoop out the flesh and let cool.

Mix in all the ingredients well.  Spoon the mixture on the baking dish lined with parchment paper.

Bake for 35 minutes or until golden.

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A note about spaghetti squash: try it! It’s super easy to make since you can just cook it in the microwave. Also, you can eat it just like pasta but it’s got more fiber and less starch! Truly a miracle vegetable.

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This spaghetti squash was from our nanny’s garden.

Home Sweet Home

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I got home this morning, just in time for Thanksgiving.  There was unopened mail piled up on the dining table, dishes piled up in the sink.  There was hair all over the bathroom floor.  And the piano was dusty…  But the girls and Peter were all happy and healthy.  That was all it mattered.  I can’t believe I actually was able to cook today.  What a joy!  It was a simple dish, but it’s Angela’s favorite: ratatouille.  

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Always Mommy’s little helper

Ingredients:

2 large eggplants (cubed)

2 large tomatoes (diced)

2 medium onions (chopped)

1 red sweet pepper (diced)

1 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

1 teaspoon sugar

4 cloves garlic (minced)

1/3 cup Tomato Basil Marinara Sauce

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

a dash of each ground cumin, paprika, coriander, oregano

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Put the cubed eggplant in a microwave-safe container and cover with a lid.  Microwave it for 12 minutes or until soft throughout.

Sauté onion and garlic on high with half of the olive oil for about 6 minutes, add sweet pepper and tomato and stir for another 6 minutes.  (I used a wok for this.) Set aside.

Use the other half of the oil and sauté the eggplant on medium for 4 to 5 minutes before mixing in the onion, pepper and tomato.  Pour in the Marinara sauce, vinegar, sugar, salt and spices, and cook at low for 20 minutes.

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As we have been doing for the past fifteen years, we went to David People’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.  The five cakes and pies were made of full fat cream, real sugar and butter and white flour.  Happy holidays, right?

My first kiss went a little like this…

Chase painting Joan

Chase painting me when I was 19 before I came to the US

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Vanity Fair Magazine write-up on the book Chase and I made

Dusting the living room coffee table this morning, I saw the book my brother Chase and I made when we were starving artists in Los Angeles.  We reminisced about our childhood in China, which was still a strong influence in Chase’s art work after he came to the US.  Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in his Letters to a Young Novelist: “The novelist doesn’t choose his themes; he is chosen by them.  He writes on certain subjects because certain things have happened to him.”  This is also true with artists or filmmakers. 

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Chase and I being the Marx brothers for Halloween

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Chase’s self portrait from that era

I am sharing parts of the book here in this blog:

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When we were children, we spent most of our time leaning on the window, looking out and day dreaming. 

My brother taught me how to really see the things that we looked at, how there were shapes in what appeared to be one shape, and colors in what I thought to be one color.  How did he know all this?  I didn’t know.  He was older than me.  Older brothers knew these things.

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We stared at the black roof tiles, grey buildings, brown dirt and green tree tops for hours on end.  The geometry of the shadow changed as the day went on.  The clouds were never the same from minute to minute.  Nature went out of its way to please us — kids with no toys.

One morning, just before dawn, I woke up to see my brother propped up on his elbows by the window sill.  He had the abstract expression of someone in a trance.  Curious, I joined him and looked out.  Everything slumbered still in primeval blue, blurred and dewy.  The world was absolutely calm and still, I could hear my own heart beating.  It was as though the first time in my life I became aware of the creature that was myself.  And I was living the morning’s first stirring breath of air, the first bird taking wing and the sun winking above the horizon.

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Why is it that some moments stay with us, moments that didn’t seem significant?  I close my eyes and I can see the blue mist of that morning, and feel the moist air in my nostrils.

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My mother saw us looking at the sky and bought us a picture book called Forecast the Weather by Observing the Sky.  She hoped that our staring at the sky would somehow turn into an educational experience.  “The red sky forecast a high wind and storm tomorrow,” I’d account at the end of the day.  Or, “the fish-scaled clouds suggest a light drizzle.” I finally had something important to say.

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My mother with my brother Chase in front of our house

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Even in the coldest of winter, we sat by the window and stared.  Our feet rested upon a round box made of wrought iron, filled with poplar wood cinder, covered with fine ashes.  The box was called a foot-warmer.

Before Lunar New Year, after my mother did the rationed special purchase for the festivity, our room would be filled with the warm odor of chestnuts, sweet yams, or dates being cooked in the foot-warmer.  I would feel happy and drowsy from the sweet aroma and carbon monoxide that the brazier emanated.

We looked into other people’s windows too.  Some of the windows looked like mirrors of our own.  The same little faces staring back, lost in their imaginations or boredom.  In the window across from ours lived an older girl with very long black hair.  Every time she lifted her arm to tie her pony tail, I wished I was her.  My mother caught me watching and said, “A big waste of soap to wash all that hair.”  Soap was scarce.  Throughout my childhood, the length of my hair stayed firmly at my earlobe.

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One window always had its curtain drawn.  I heard the other children say that there was a ghost living in that house.  She only came out at night to steal little children.

The curtain was made of a pale blue cotton, dotted with tiny yellow flowers.  Where the flowers had been, there were little holes.  The yellow dye at the time was somehow very erosive and tended to eat through the fabric.

One night my brother and I decided to climb up to that window.  We peeked throughout the yellow flowers.  A ghost! I gasped and nearly fell.  She was an old woman with a very white face, ghastly blue eyes, and a long nose.  We later learned that she was a foreigner, an American.  She had married a handsome Chinese doctor a long, long time ago.

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The day came when I was no longer content with seeking hidden colors in the grey wall.  I had noticed a neighborhood boy and waited for him to pass by every day.  The billowing of the beige curtain in the breeze felt like a caress on my face.  One afternoon, he looked up and saw me.  Did he hear the clamor that my senses made?  I felt like spilling out the window.

This was the time when students were being sent down to work on the farms.  The night before he left, he put his mouth against mine and moved his lips in a funny way.  I didn’t know that was called a kiss.  Nobody told me.  All I knew was I wanted the return of those lips.  That night was the first sleepless night of my life.

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My second sleepless night was during a moist and hot summer.  The girl with long hair was not at her window.  In her place was her grandmother.  Grandmothers didn’t stare out the windows.  They were always cleaning rooms and cooking in the kitchen.  But this one stared.  At nothing.  She seemed to be waiting for something, but I didn’t know what.  Nobody ever came.  She was just in her window, staring, cut off from the world.  It was not the kind of expression that I was used to see in windows.

Then she climbed up and sat on the sill, new black shoes on her bound feet.  My heart missed a beat when I saw her jump out.  Later, I heard that she had wanted to die, but the building was not high enough.  She broke her legs and many ribs.  She had been rich.  Her late husband had owned factories and land.  She was the enemy of the proletariate.  I swore by that window that I’d never be rich.

My family, too, was once well-to-do.  My grandparents owned much land, and had an American education.  They adopted a “better attitude” toward the revolution and gave away most of our eight room house to families that had no house of their own. My brother and I didn’t mind that much about the crowded chaos, but we missed our back room windows.

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My grandparents with their children. My father is the handsome dude in the back

Soon, we made friends with the people who had invaded our house.  The back rooms that they occupied had a view of the long, narrow garden that grew in what had a dried up river bed.  In the spring, the air was perfumed by blooming flowers and fresh cow droppings.  I would stand by the window, breathe in with all the force that my lungs could muster, and sneeze the most satisfying and intoxicating sneeze.

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Beyond the long and narrow garden was a pasture.  My brother would be cow-watching as I sneezed.  For him, their melancholy slow pace radiated resignation and dignity — nowhere worth hurrying to, nothing worth fretting about.  Their black and white hides reflected the blue of the sky, the brown of the earth, the green of the grass.  As for me, I saw only their pink nipples and longed for ice cream.

Ice bream was a rarity in China when we were growing up.  I heard from other girls that you would be rewarded with a bowl of ice cream if you were lucky enough to have your tonsils taken out.  It was minor surgery, but performed without anesthesia.  I convinced my mother, and we went for the operation.  And they did give me a bowl of ice cream to sooth my throat.  But swallowing hurt so terribly that I gave my reward to my brother.

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So many years have passed.  We’ve left behind our childhood.  The windows are on the other side of the earth now.  My brother is still fascinated by the cows and pastures.  Me? I’m still fascinated by the pink nipples and vanilla ice cream.

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The first time I saw an avocado grove and tasted an avocado was when I visited Ojai with Chase, where he painted some of his paintings at the time.  The creamy buttery texture, the floral earthy smell and the complex taste made an indelible impression.  Now that my children are both vegetarians, I use avocados in our meals very often.  They are nutritious and very satiating.

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I used a simple recipe from allrecipe.com with minor changes:

4 large tomatoes, chopped (I used grape tomatoes)

4 avocados – peeled, pitted and diced

1 red onion, thinly sliced (I used red shallots) 

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste

1 (8 ounce) bottle balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing (I used Balsamic glaze and fresh lemon)

I also added a few kernels of fresh sweet corn that is not in the original recipe

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