‘Good’ sushi may be more rare than real wasabi

Photos of yellowfin tuna sashimi and raw Kumamoto oysters depicted the “joy” of real wasabi in this week’s A la Carte.

If only there was more joy around so-called sushi, which the mainstream American palate has transformed into another kind of junk food, stuffed with cream cheese and spicy mayonnaise, sometimes deep-fried, to mask the texture and flavor (or lack of) found in inferior fish.

I don’t expect “real” sushi in the Rogue Valley, so close in geography to the ocean yet so far from coastal food culture, any more than I expect superior interpretations of other seafood. But cities like Portland … Let’s just say that a friend visiting from Japan was hard-pressed to ferret out satisfactory sushi in that foodie city long known for fresh, Pacific Northwest fish.

Shoko even shyly implied that a long-standing dispute between my husband and I over the characteristics of “good” sushi had more merits on my side. I don’t like to belabor the point, but as a South Coast native, I expect fresh, wild-caught, properly handled fish, even more so in sushi.

A piece on this very topic recently ran in Newsday. While freshness, indeed, is paramount, training of chefs, like any culinary professionals, is sushi’s make-or-break factor, writes Erica Marcus. She, in turn, cites “The Sushi Experience” (Knopf, 2006), by Hiroko Shimbo, who explains that a sushi chef must have “detailed knowledge of the biochemical changes in seafood after it is slaughtered.” Understanding and controlling this process allows the chef to serve each fish “not just within a window of safety but when it tastes most delicious.”

That’s in addition to spending years learning the proper preparation of “sumeshi,” or sushi rice: Using a bamboo paddle, warm white rice is carefully blended with rice vinegar, sugar and sea salt. During this operation, the rice is fanned (often by an apprentice) to cool it down and give it a nice shine. The resulting grains should cohere, but they should not be mushy or bloated. Nor should sushi rice be served cold but rather somewhere between 90 and 100 F.

Speaking of temperature, cold is the enemy of sushi because it dulls flavors that should be subtle. Unfortunately, so much sushi is purposely filled with all-but-tasteless fillers, including imitation crabmeat, boiled shrimp and mushy roe. Imposters beyond crab are rife in sushi restaurants, whose vaunted “white tuna” is almost always escolar, a tropical, deep-water predator not at all related to tuna (and which consumed in large quantities can cause diarrhea).

And while we’re advocating moderation, I’ll reiterate a mantra of the sushi-savvy: The rice should never be dunked in soy sauce; a little dab on the fish will do. In addition to good-quality soy sauce, Marcus measures the merits of sushi restaurants by the chef’s tamago (scrambled egg), which should be rich, moist, tender and slightly sweet, as well as its house-made daikon, cucumber and eggplant pickles to complement the fish.

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Steep, don’t smother, chilaquiles in red chili sauce

Tacos were a logical conclusion when my husband added corn tortillas, onion, queso fresco and tomatillos to our grocery-shopping list.

Turns out, Will had breakfast in mind, chilaquiles to be exact. The impetus was a disappointing version he ordered at a local restaurant, a lapse we were more inclined to forgive because of its location in a retirement home.

The lackluster plate of refried beans and scrambled eggs atop a baked tortilla shell did warrant sympathy from one of Will’s co-workers, whose wife cooks authentic Mexican cuisine. Jessica was only too happy to treat Will to a lesson in chilaquiles preparation, in addition to all the ingredients for our recent Sunday brunch.

Sarah Lemon photo

Lesson No. 1: The sauce for chilaquiles (at least in Jessica’s family) is red, not green. And it doesn’t have to be spicy to be authentic. Her mom, an immigrant to Los Angeles, usually prepares fairly mild food, she said.

But the recipe did require an entire large bag of dried red chilies, stemmed, seeded and deveined, along with some onion, garlic and Mexican oregano. After soaking the chilies, blending them with the other ingredients, straining the mixture and simmering it for about 20 minutes, Jessica added the corn tortilla wedges that her husband, Chris, had been diligently frying for about as long.

I was surprised at how long the tortilla triangles steeped in the sauce, which I had mistakenly thought to pour over the chips. But it makes sense that the method is a popular way to repurpose leftover tortillas and salsa. The quintessential chilaquiles topping, in fact, is lots of crema, which Jessica piped from a plastic bag in generous squiggles.

She confirmed that chilaquiles should be eaten with eggs, so long as the yolks are runny. She was less enthusiastic about slices of avocado on the side but took a portion anyway. Then everyone tucked into the hearty meal that would hold us until dinnertime.

The chili sauce for chilaquiles also could be used for enchiladas or posole, another of Jessica’s specialties. Here is a similar version from Tribune News Service.

Red Chili Sauce

12 dried New Mexico or similar red chilies

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Wash the chili pods, removing stems and seeds. Place pods in a saucepan with 2 cups water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until pods are very tender, for at least 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and pour chilies and water into a blender along with the garlic. Puree mixture well, then strain into a bowl. Set aside.

In a frying pan over medium-high heat until hot, add the lard or oil, then whisk in the flour and cook until flour is light-brown. Stir in pureed chilies and stir until thickened. Season with the salt and bring mixture to a boil, stirring continuously. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes to marry flavors, adding additional water, if needed, to thin sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired, then remove from heat and set aside until needed. Sauce will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 1 week.

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Orange-blossom water enhances honey syrup

Foods highlighted in this week’s A la Carte story on Greek cuisine also may have called to mind Middle Eastern fare.

It’s true that there’s a lot of culinary crossover in certain parts of the world, the Mediterranean included. The olive oil, lemons and mint essential to Greek cooking are just as indispensable to the cuisines of Turkey and North Africa, for example. Numerous countries are known for kebab, flatbread and baklava, not just Greece.

While orange-blossom water hasn’t attained the mainstream recognition of other ingredients from this region, it’s one of my personal favorites, mentioned in this blog a handful of times over the years. Indeed, I tracked down the first bottle to augment my fridge at a Lebanese deli in Grants Pass. In the several years since, it’s been stocked at some local grocers.

There isn’t really a substitute for orange-blossom water, which comes off as more of a perfume than a flavor. Its addition lends depth to the otherwise straightforward sweetness of simple syrup for this Greek dessert of fried dough, which incidentally has its Turkish and Arabic versions.

Washington Post photo

Orange-Blossom Loukoumades

1 cup, plus 1 ½ teaspoons sugar, divided

1/2 lemon, cut into wedges

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon orange-blossom water

1 cup honey

1 tablespoon (from 2 small packets) active, dry yeast

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup whole or low-fat milk

2 tablespoons, plus 4 cups olive oil, for frying

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup water with the 1 cup sugar, the lemon wedges and cinnamon stick, stirring until sugar has dissolved, to form a syrup.

Strain syrup into a heatproof container; discard solids. Add the orange-blossom water and honey, stirring until honey has dissolved. Let sit at room temperature while you make loukoumades. This makes about 2 cups syrup.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over ½ cup water; let mixture bloom while you mix remaining ingredients.

Whisk together the flour, salt, remaining 1 ½ teaspoons sugar, 2 tablespoons water, the milk and the 2 tablespoons oil in a mixing bowl; add yeast mixture and whisk to form a thick batter. Let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes; batter will become airier.

Meanwhile, heat remaining 4 cups of oil in a narrow, deep saucepan over high heat to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with paper towels, then place a wire cooling rack over them.

Once oil is hot, gently drop tablespoonfuls of batter into oil, about 4 at a time. Fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until golden-brown, turning loukoumades over as needed. Use a slotted spoon to transfer loukoumades to rack to drain briefly, then toss them in syrup (in its pot) until evenly coated. Drain and return to rack as you continue to fry, or, preferably drain briefly and serve right away.

Makes 12 servings (makes about 48 pieces).

Recipe from Iron Gate Restaurant in Washington D.C.

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Leave fruits whole for crumbles in a time crunch

Fruit crisps are easy to assemble with minimal ingredients, qualities that earned them a nod in a recent story on five-ingredient dishes.

Almost indistinguishable from the fruit crisp is the fruit crumble, according to cooking dictionaries. When time is of the essence, a crumble recipe that leaves fruits nearly whole is practically effortless, particularly when the topping already is stashed away in the freezer, as cooking instructor Amy Spence suggested for A la Carte.

Without the yogurt garnish, ingredients in this recipe, courtesy of Tribune News Service, just exceed Spence’s bare-bones version. Take out the walnuts if you’re not a fan, and you’re right at five ingredients.

I like this dish’s use of pears, which are nearing the end of their availability and are likely to be lesser specimens than fall’s new crop. But roasting renders even end-of-season pears silky and sweet. Firm varieties, such as Bosc and Anjou, are best-suited to this treatment. I recently spied both in my grocers’ produce section.

Pears are one of the leading fruit sources of dietary fiber, notably when they retain the peel, as a recent story in the Kansas City Star acknowledged. Neatly remove the pear’s core with a melon baller.

Tribune News Service photo

Roasted Pear Crumble

3 ripe pears, unpeeled, halved and cored

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and divided

1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts

4 teaspoons honey, divided

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 (5.3-ounce) carton nonfat vanilla yogurt

Preheat oven to 400 F. Spray an 8-inch baking dish with nonstick spray. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with nonstick spray.

Arrange the pears, cut side up in prepared baking dish. Brush pears lightly with 1 tablespoon of the melted butter. Place dish on 1 side of preheated oven. Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until pears are tender when pricked with a fork.

Meanwhile, place the oats in a small mixing bowl and drizzle with remaining 1/2 tablespoon melted butter. Stir to coat well. Stir in the walnuts, 3 teaspoons of the honey and the cinnamon to coat evenly. Spread oat mixture in a single layer on prepared baking sheet. Bake, uncovered, alongside pears for 7 to 8 minutes or until golden-brown, stirring every 3 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Stir remaining 1 teaspoon honey and the vanilla into yogurt.

To serve, place a warm pear, cut side up, in an individual serving dish. Drizzle with about 1 tablespoon yogurt mixture and sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons oat mixture.

Makes 6 servings.

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U.S. dietary guidelines change little with the times

The U.S. government’s MyPlate dietary guidelines were no mystery to kids at Medford’s Howard Elementary participating in a recent cooking class.

When I, in my role as volunteer nutrition educator, held up the pie chart-type illustration and asked who had seen it before, every hand in the room shot skyward. And the kids, for the most part, knew their corresponding vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains and dairy.

But the guidelines, as all of us who learned the Basic Four food groups, Food Pyramid and MyPyramid know, change with the times. They’re due for a revamp this year based on a government advisory committee’s key suggestions, including a more relaxed stance on consumption of coffee, dietary cholesterol and even alcohol but renewed emphasis on avoiding added sugar and cultivating a plant-based diet.

The last in that list — surprise! — comes with acknowledgement that meat-heavy diets (at least ones fueled by the standard, agribusiness model) have hefty carbon footprints and are ultimately unsustainable. Predictably, this decades-old tenet of environmental responsibility comes with some backlash from the meat industries.

It may come as a different sort of surprise that, for all the supposed science behind them, the guidelines haven’t changed all that much 35 years since the government published its very first version. The 1980 directives: Eat a variety of foods. Maintain ideal weight. Avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber. Avoid too much sugar. Avoid too much sodium. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.

Anyone interested in the past decade of Dietary Guidelines for Americans can get a historical perspective online. Then add your comments to the latest proposed guidelines at www.dietaryguidelines.gov. The comment period has been extended until May 8.

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Give Easter ham the egg treatment in sandwiches

It’s a tough time of year for hard-boiled-egg haters, particularly those with children who decorated a dozen or so for Easter.

I personally can’t comprehend this affliction and have many times lauded eggs as the perfect food. Over the years, this blog also has bowed to pressure from colleagues and readers to suggest uses for leftover hard-boiled eggs.

Not so this year. I’ve learned in more than a decade of living with a hard-boiled-egg hater that the only way to mask what he perceives as a sulfurous scent and rubbery texture is with spicy sausage coated in crispy breading. It’s fitting that the Scotch egg is the only way that my half-Scottish spouse will face down one of his food nemeses.

The Easter ham is far more likely to tax my enthusiasm for reinventing leftovers. That’s why I like to dispatch the lot in a ham-and-bean soup after carving off slices for several days’ worth of sandwiches.

But ham can just as easily shine as a sandwich filling in the manner of hard-boiled eggs. It can even be “deviled” like its Easter counterpart, a revelation when I was still a kid cultivating a taste for all things mayonnaise-laden.

So here are some classic formulas for ham salad, courtesy of Tribune News Service, along with a sweet-salty variation on the standby ham-and-cheese.

Ham Salad: Nothing can be easier to make than this sandwich spread. Trim fat from ham slices. Chop ham in food processor. Add mayonnaise and pickle relish to taste and enjoy between two slices of bread.

Deviled Ham:You can make a fancy ham salad by taking 4 cups coarsely chopped ham and adding 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley, 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 6 tablespoons softened butter, 1/4 cup whole-grain Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons dry white wine, 1 finely chopped celery rib, 2 finely chopped green onions, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 3/4 teaspoon black pepper and 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper. Cover and chill for up to 8 hours. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before enjoying with crackers or rustic bread. Makes about 4 cups.

Tribune News Service photo

Ham, Cheese and Apple Sandwiches:

Turn broiler on high. Melt 4 tablespoons butter. Slice 8 ounces Gruyere or cheddar cheese. Core and slice 1 apple. Brush butter onto 1 side of 8 bread slices. Slather other side with Dijon mustard to taste.

Assemble 4 ham, cheese and apple sandwiches so buttered sides of bread face out. Put on rimmed baking sheet. Toast 2 to 3 minutes per side. Serve immediately.

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Light lemon souffles are an easy Easter treat

Spring’s first strawberries foreshadow the bright, juicy berry bounty that’s just around the corner.

And there’s little that complements fresh, sweet berries like a bit of citrus, the topic of a February story in A la Carte. As strawberries offer variety during the rapidly waning citrus season, now’s the time to pair the two.

One of my favorite salads, mentioned in a previous post, does just that with avocado and a raspberry vinaigrette. The recipe actually lists canned mandarin oranges, but I use fresh clementines, tangelos and the like as long as they’re available.

I’m also capitalizing on the availability of Meyer lemons as often as possible, including in last weekend’s buttermilk-lemon pie, adapted from the 2003 cookbook “Lemons: Growing, Cooking, Crafting.” Filched from my grandmother, the book also has a recipe for lemon gelatin cut into duckling shapes. I could see those at a gathering of Oregon Ducks, for a baby shower or as tangy alternative to Easter’s Peeps.

For a more sophisticated treat this Sunday, I would serve up these Meyer lemon souffles, with a side of macerated strawberries. Highlighted in a recent Chicago Tribune food section, the souffles are ready in about 30 minutes.

Tribune News Service photo

Meyer Lemon Souffles

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided, plus more for preparing ramekins

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut up, plus more for preparing ramekins

4 or 5 large Meyer lemons

4 eggs, separated

Butter and sugar 6 (1/2-cup) ramekins; set them on a rimmed baking sheet. Preheat oven to 425 F.

Zest 2 of the lemons. Squeeze as many lemons as needed to measure ¾ cup strained juice.

In a heavy medium saucepan, whisk the egg yolks with lemon zest and juice, ¾ cup of the sugar and the butter. Whisk over medium heat until thick, for 10 to 12 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large, clean bowl. Let cool a few minutes.

Using a heavy-duty mixer with whisk attachment, whip the egg whites until foamy. With mixer running, sprinkle in remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and continue whipping to glossy, white peaks, for about 1 to 2 minutes.

Whisk a big spoonful of whites into lemon curd to lighten it. Scrape in remaining whites. Using a flexible spatula, fold curd into whites. Do this gently, so as not to crush meringue and thoroughly, so as not to leave any white blobs. Ladle into prepared ramekins.

Slide sheet of ramekins into preheated oven and bake until golden and dramatically puffed, for 8 to 9 minutes. Taking care with hot ramekins, serve and eat right away.

Makes 6 small souffles.

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Try slightly smoky baked beans instead of refried

With a cooking surface several times larger than a Weber kettle, a wood pellet-fired smoker is seeing lots of use at my house.

Mentioned in a previous post, my husband’s new Rec-Tec is proving its versatility, even as a pizza oven. Not only can we cook several components of a single meal at once, but we’ve been cooking additional meats — whole chickens, sausages, etc. — for the coming week in one shot.

A classic side dish with so many smoked and grilled meats, baked beans have factored into some of our recent feasts. Beginning with whole, dried beans, soaked overnight is ideal.

That’s how we started some white beans that later simmered in homemade lamb stock and got a flavor boost from tomatoes, brown sugar, hot sauce and fresh herbs. I put the brakes on adding bacon, considering that we already had tri-tip on the smoker.

But pork fat no doubt will show up as the outdoor cooking season heats up. And when meat on the smoker is destined for tacos, tostadas or other Latin dishes, these subtly smoky charro beans would complement the main course and could cook right alongside it. If using canned beans, they’re ready in about 35 minutes.

Tribune News Service photo

Cowboy Charro Beans

6 slices bacon, chopped

8 ounces fresh, uncooked Mexican chorizo, casings removed

1 medium white onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped, or more to taste

1 (14-ounce) can no-salt-added, chopped tomatoes or 1/2 pound fresh Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped

3 (15-ounce) cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed (or about 5 cups cooked pinto beans and their cooking liquid)

Kosher salt, if needed

Fresh cilantro, chopped

Tortillas, warmed, for serving

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the bacon until lightly browned and starting to crisp, for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chorizo; cook, breaking up sausage into smaller pieces, until it starts to brown and crisp, for 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the onion and jalapeno; mix well. Cook until they begin to soften, for 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes; cook, stirring, until tomatoes begin to break down and ingredients come together, for 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the beans; mix well and reduce heat to medium. Cook, covered, until beans are moist but not soupy, for 8 to 10 minutes. Add broth or water if needed. Taste and add more salt to taste. Serve in bowls, topped with the cilantro and accompanied by the warmed tortillas.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe adapted by the Chicago Tribune from the website of Pati Jinich, www.patismexicantable.com.

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Stoke meat-smoking passion with these tips

Two years of researching brands and saving spare cash paid off last month when my husband set up a wood pellet-fired smoker on the back deck.

Will has since smoked everything from whole chilies to rabbit in the Rec-Tec. It comes as little surprise, though, that beef tri-tip has been the most well-received by Will and dinner guests. Despite my aversion, other cuts of beef can’t be far behind, particularly when the outdoor cooking season ramps up.

Brisket, of course, is the quintessential stuff of beef barbecue. This dish got in-depth treatment by the Washington Post with a profile of Texas A&M University’s Camp Brisket, which ran this month in A la Carte. After printing a recipe for Texas Smoked Brisket, however, the paper didn’t have room to incorporate copious tips that accompanied the Post’s original version of the story. Find the story and recipe in the March 11 e-edition of the Mail Tribune.

So here they are for all the meat-smoking enthusiasts and friends and family who benefit from their enthusiasm:

Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

Don’t inject. A quadrillion Texans know what Lyndon B. Johnson’s pitmaster, Walter Jetton, knew: A brisket is “self-basting.” Among the worst epithets a brisket can be called is “roast-beefy.” Injecting makes briskets roast-beefy. Concerned about it being succulent enough? Wrap your brisket in foil after about four hours. Even better: butcher paper, because, unlike foil, it breathes.

Keep it simple. Forget brining and super complicated rubs. Brown sugar mates well with pork butt; cayenne is a nice touch on pork ribs. But the best pitmasters in central Texas use nothing more than kosher salt and cracked black pepper. The point is to not mask flavor, but to enhance it. Coat the meat liberally to create a rough, thickish texture. Use equal parts salt and pepper for balance, or 60 percent of one or the other if you prefer a peppery or a saltier crust.

Know how to position it. Set brisket on the cooking grate fat-side up. You want the fat to melt through the meat to moisten and provide richness. If cooking in an offset smoker, face the point toward the fire to achieve a better crust and avoid overcooking the flat.

Hold steady. Don’t go nuts trying to maintain a specific temperature. The primary goal is to avoid drastic fluctuations, so try to keep the temperature between 225 and 275 F throughout the cooking time. If using a kettle grill, keep the bottom vents open about halfway and use the lid vents to help maintain temperature. If using an offset smoker, learn the hot and cold spots of your cooking chamber and move the brisket if needed. Mainly, though, keep the top on and resist the temptation to peek.

Keep an eye on it. “Don’t walk off and think the fire will take care of itself,” says pitmaster Aaron Franklin, who has his own PBS cooking show and soon will release his first cookbook. “If you’re going to buy this expensive cut of meat, buy firewood, sit there for 10, 12, 15 hours, let it rest, invite people over, do all this stuff — I mean, that’s a serious commitment. Don’t you want to do a good job?”

Be patient. “It will be done when it’s ready,” says Franklin.

Give it a rest. You know how everybody tells you to rest a steak before cutting into it? Same thing with a brisket. Wrap it in foil after taking it off the grill and let it rest for at least an hour. Contrary to popular belief, the pros don’t pull off their briskets and slice them when hot. They pull them off and place them in warmers set at 140 F for up to three hours. For you to achieve the same result, wrap in foil and cover with towels in a room-temperature cooler and hold for between two and three hours.

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Top toast with smashing beet, cheese spread

Tribune News Service photo

Ways for enjoying beets with cheese have been suggested in several recent posts to this blog.

Whether the root vegetable is roasted or raw, the cheese firm or soft, rich, savory dairy adds a satisfying note to earthy beets. But really, doesn’t cheese make just about everything better?

So in that vein, here is one more recipe to try, which acknowledges the anything-as-toast-topping trend. I hopped on board after writing a story about local “toast bar” Uber Herbal last summer. Maybe this one will make its menu.

Beet and Feta Smash

6 ounces cooked beets

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh orange juice

2 teaspoons rice-wine vinegar

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 ounces crumbled feta

4 slices toast

Orange zest, for garnish

In a bowl, smash the beets with the olive oil, orange juice and vinegar; season to taste with the salt and pepper. Mix in the feta. Mound mixture on top of the toast slices; sprinkle with the orange zest. Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from Every Day with Rachael Ray.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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