After our habitual two consecutive Thanksgivings, we went into full turkey denial mode. Turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce may be de rigueur across the nation this weekend, but those of us on the left coast have something much more special…
Saturday afternoon, our final day in Sea Ranch, we went strolling along the bluffs. The sun was sparkling on calm seas, the sun shone warmly upon us, and a brisk, cool breeze buffeted our backs. Jim broke out the stunt kite, which pulled with such force it made the tethers hum like guitar strings, and forced him to crouch down to lower his center of gravity lest he be thrown forward.
Down on the water, among the kelp tops, we noticed a red flag; moments after a man appeared in the rocks at the foot of the bluff, rising from the surf like Swamp Thing. Shortly thereafter, his friend came in with the red-flagged raft, containing two mesh bags full of abalone.
Our friend Joe is an ab diver. When we mention this to others, they remark how lucky we are to have a friend like that, but the reality is we’ve seen just one mollusk from him in the years we’ve known him. This is in part because abalones are pretty heavily overfished and the quotas are restrictive. But the real reason is that Joe is a master barterer, and abs make for good trade.
We’ve come to assume that all divers treasure their bounty so dearly, and small wonder. Ab diving is a dangerous business. Aside from having to immerse yourself in the shockingly cold waters of the Pacific, ab divers are allowed only to free-dive; no oxygen tanks are allowed. Abalone live in kelp forests and on the sea floor, so you have to have excellent breath control and dexterity underwater. Most alarmingly, humans in wet suits tend to resemble seals — and you’re in shark-infested waters.
As we came back up the trail, the first diver was there, parked in the cul-de-sac around the corner from the house. Three large abalone lay on their backs on the road beside his truck. We remarked that he seemed to have a good outing. “You like abalone?” he asked.
“Sure,” we replied.
“You know what to do with them?”
“You bet.” DPaul and I remember very well our friend Kathleen preparing a sizable ab of Joe’s a number of years back.
“You want one?”
We hesitated. I replied, “Sure, how much?”
“Oh, no. You can have one. I get tons of these things.” He went on to explain he was in a competition, and so after measuring the three abs, gave us the smallest one, which was still some eight inches in length and easily three pounds. We had ample wine, so we offered him a nice bottle of pinot noir in trade.
Ah, the Fourth of July, the quintessential summer holiday. For most, this day means sweltering midday sun followed by a balmy night with a spectacular fireworks display; the smell of burgers sizzling on over the coals commingled with the acrid smoke from sparklers.
But here in San Francisco, as with most things, it’s different. In nearly 20 years living here, I could count the number of fog-free Fourths on one hand that has lost digits from a temperamental firecracker. I can scarcely remember the last time I actually saw fireworks on the Fourth, as opposed to eerie colorful glowing fog.
But that’s okay; I like our quirky, often blustry weather, and wouldn’t trade it for the oppressive heat and humidity of the other coast for all the Roman candles made in China. Still, I do find myself occasionally pining for nostalgic tastes of the Northeast. Last year, I finally sated my craving for lobster rolls. This year, on a recent visit to my mother‘s place in San Diego, we undertook another New England classic, the clambake.
I have often said that my hometown of Schenectady, NY, is a lovely place to be from. I mean, it's a much underrated part of the country, rich with charm and history, but I spent my adolescent years pining for the great big world out there. I knew I was destined for a different place.
After leaving New York State, I had my dalliances. In the summer of 1990 I had a torrid affair with Santa Fe, NM, rocky and passionate. I even returned for a second summer, which was like going back to a boyfriend, only to remember why you broke up in the first place. In between I had a slow, steady and almost serious relationship with Sacramento. But I just wasn't ready for that kind of commitment.
That's when I met San Francisco. This was the city that, intellectually, I was meant to be with — after all, we have so much in common. And eventually I did fall in love with this newest companion, for mind as well as body, but it took a solid year. Luckily, that perseverance has paid off with a rich and nuanced love that has paid itself back many times over across the years.
But secretly, scandalously, I love another.
Happy Labor Day!
I often tell people that my hometown in Upstate New York is a lovely place to be from. I love living in San Francisco, and in California in general, and I have little desire to return back to the Northeast. However, there are a handful of things I do miss.
When I was young, I spent a fair amount of time on and around the New England shores. My father lived in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for most of my life, and my mother and I would often take summer trips to Cape Cod or Rhode Island. I loved those pebbly beaches, the balmy days and, above all else, lobster rolls.
I have been pining for years — years — for lobster rolls. There’s really nothing all that remarkable about them: Just lobster meat barely dressed, served in a bun with a side of potato chips and a pickle spear. But two things have thwarted me in fulfilling my craving. First, lobster is not particularly common out here, and when it’s available it’s insanely expensive. But second and more importantly, I could never find the right kind of bun.
You see, lobster rolls are served in hot dog buns, but they must be top-cut buns. That way, you have the most important feature: Sides that have exposed crumb, which you then brush with butter and broil or griddle. Cuz, you know, the lobster and mayonnaise just aren’t rich enough. Lo and behold, Whole Foods stocks hot dog buns that have not been sliced in either direction, so at long last I was able to achieve lobster roll nirvana.
The contrast of the warm, toasted sides of the bun and the cool, creamy lobster salad are the perfect taste of summer, and a flash of nostalgia from my childhood. My craving has been sated for at least another year.
Quinoa is the new black. It is the darling ingredient of the hour, the what’s-old-is-new favorite of foodies everywhere. Ancient in its roots, quinoa has become today’s “it” grain.
I’m a fan. For years, I’ve loved quinoa’s nutty flavor and crunchy, caviar-like texture. It’s versatile, flavorful and easy — easier, in my opinion, even than rice. It’s a natural for salads, and I drew inspiration from several of my favorite bloggers:
- Tea discovered she likes quinoa, much to her chagrin, reveling in a red quinoa salad.
- Healthy grain advocate Heidi’s lemon-scented quinoa salad is just one excellent preparation.
- Ilva gives it an Italian twist with radishes, ginger, pine nuts and balsamic.
- Clotilde continues the Mediterranean theme with red peppers and pine nuts.
- Catherine, writing at Bay Area Bites, hit closest to home for me with cucumber, tomato and mint.
I was also working off a salad I get occasionally from the take-away counter at Piperade, with shrimp, cucumber and herbs, with a lime dressing. The dish is well-intentioned and often flavorful, but all too often the shrimp are tough and it is overdressed and sloppy. I knew I could do better.
I wanted the combination of shrimp and cucumber to bring color and contrast to the dish, mango for gentle sweetness, just enough heat to tickle the palate, and lime and mint for a refreshing finish.
Finally, I chose red quinoa, which I have never used before. I love it. I’m not sure whether it genuinely has a nuttier flavor than its paler cousin, or whether the color simply has power of suggestion, but I thought it had a pronounced flavor that stood up well to the other players in the dish. (Like the other variety, though, you must rinse it before cooking, as all quinoa is naturally coated with a substance called saponin, which can taste bitter.)
For all its deceptive simplicity, this salad is satisfyingly complex. It’s got sweet, sour, salty and hot. It’s got crunch and chew. It’s got earthy nuttiness and herbal freshness. It’s got it all.
How can you resist making something called "crazy water?"
I first had fish in acqua pazza during a trip to, where else, Italy — specifically, while we were on the Amalfi Coast. To be honest, I don’t remember whether it was in Sorrento, Positano or some other gorgeous town, but I do remember the dish rather distinctly. In that case, it was a whole, small fish swimming (or as the case may be, not) in a thin, briny, herbed broth tinged with red and dotted with pools of olive oil. In many ways, it embodies the delicious simplicity of southern Italian food, a dish cooked in its own deconstructed environment.
I had largely forgotten about it until recently; my friend Julie has been on a little acqua pazza bender of late. And so as I peered into my fridge, assessing the waning freshness of the previous week’s haul of produce from the farmer’s market, I decided to get all pazza on some halibut. But, of course, I had to take my liberties.
Not that there’s any one recipe. However, the standard equation appears to be simply a couple of herbs, some tomatoes, wine and/or stock (though traditionally the stock would have been seawater), a touch of chili pepper and fish. I modeled mine off a recipe from Cucina Italiana, which called for fennel. I didn’t have fennel, but I did have some wee artichokes that had to get used pronto. Hey, it’s all Italian, right?
All in all, a satisfying and simple dish, though I might have blanched the artichokes ahead to get them a little more tender. The broth was flavorful and complex, and the fish perfectly cooked — still supple and moist.
Oh, and those green logs? Favas, the first I’ve made this season. The nice lady at Knoll Farms suggested that they were still young and tender enough to be roasted and eaten whole, pods and all. Well … not so much. The pods were definitely too tough to eat. However, it certainly made for the least labor-intensive fava beans ever, and it was kind of fun to extract the creamy, roasted beans from their housings.
One year ago today … I made a lovely berry gratin.
Can someone please tell me why it’s so dang hard to find escarole in this town? All winter long I’ve kept an eye peeled for this most versatile (and most Italian) green, to little avail. In fact, I must confess a wee sin: When I wrote about escarole soup a while back, I ended up using a leafy endive, which is botanically practically the same thing, but still. There, I feel better getting that off my chest.
Anyway. Ever since last month’s visit to Taverna Santi, the memory of my first course has haunted me ever since. Creamy white beans. The acerbic tang of braised escarole. The sun-bright note of preserved lemons. And shrimp — nuff said. I knew this was a dish I would fold into my own repertoire.
Except, dammit, no escarole. And yet, to a degree that amazed me this year, an abundance of dandelion greens. Big, toothy spears of the stuff, everywhere I looked. Even frickin’ Bell Market is carrying the stuff, and they barely carry normal groceries.
I like dandelion greens, a trait I apparently share with my maternal grandmother. (She passed when I was still an infant, so all my knowledge of her is hearsay.) Grandma Mary like dandelion green sandwiches, a snack I have yet to reproduce. But I like them braised, that’s for sure.
Yet they can be fairly intensely bitter, even for a bitter lover like me. This is why bland, white beans make such a fabulous counterpart.
I’ve made this a couple times now, both warm and chilled, and it’s a winner of a dish. I’d suggest making the salad well ahead and chilling; the flavors marry well and it keeps its form better if you choose to get fancy and whip out the ring molds. And you know you want to.
This is also another of my typical "recipes" — I can’t promise precision nor perfection. Rather, this is another algebraic equation with very forgiving variables. Where Santi used ginormous broad beans, I used smaller runner cellini beans from Rancho Gordo, which I adore. And while I would have very much loved to use escarole, as did Santi, the dandelion greens certainly made the flavor of this dish pop with bright bitterness.
But maybe, someday, I’ll have the opportunity to make this with escarole.
When DPaul and I made our first (and in his case, only) trip to the UK back in 2003, I have to confess I had a certain degree of trepidation about the food. England’s reputation for grey food under grey skies is deeply entrenched, and the idea of meal after meal of boiled meats left me a little cold.
But once there, I discovered something altogether different. For one, we lucked into ten days of unbroken clear, sunny weather. For another, we ate like kings. "Beautiful weather and delicious food," I emailed friends and family back in the States, "Why have we been lied to all these years?"
And so when the inimitable Sam of Becks & Posh announced an event to illustrate that English food is no laughing matter, how could I resist joining in?
It’s no secret that England has undergone something of a culinary revolution over the past several years. It was wonderful to experience a nation’s renewed perspective on food, embracing, at long last, the myriad cultural influences of its colonial history (beyond just Indian food, which is of course legendary in England).
Now, while we were there, it did sometimes seem that everyone was in the throes of the exact same culinary battle. Fads were extremely evident — nearly every restaurant had duck spring rolls and some flavor of satay, for example. But the dishes I enjoyed most seemed to draw their greatest inspiration from homey roots. Hence I ate quite a few fishcakes.
This is my kind of food: Hearty and delicious, simple yet versatile. And anyway, what’s not to like about potato-y cakes encrusted in bread crumbs and fried? Even if you don’t like fish, this is not hard to swallow. And they’re pretty darn easy to make, too.
The recipe I used as my foundation comes from a charming British food show called, simply, The Best. In this program(me), three young chefs were given a topical challenge to cook, such as Tasty Fish Supper or Lamb Lunch, which they would send blindly through a hole to three eagerly awaiting tasters in the dining room on the other side. The tasters would deliver their judgment back to the chefs via SMS, which is, like, so Euro-chic.
Right. So I worked from Silvana Franco‘s recipe for fishcakes with mushy peas and chunky chips, only I figured that one iteration of potato was sufficient for this meal, so I ditched the chips. But beyond that, I had to make some alterations right out of the gate. First off, her recipe called for haddock, which is not quite as readily available here as in the UK; I figured any sturdy, flaky white fish would do, so I got a lovely fil(l)et (which you must pronounce in the British manner, with a hard "T" at the end) of Pacific cod at Sun Fat. And of course there were the mushy peas. These are a pedestrian canned ingredient in England, but not so commonly found on the shelves over here. Just as well — I really wanted the texture of whole peas to lend some contrast to the cakes just the same.
Silvana also calls for a dollop of mint jelly; though I like the combination of mint and peas, in the future I might eschew the stuff for just a handful of fresh mint, chopped, as I found the sweetness of the jelly distracting and too much in competition with the other flavors.
But overall quite good, and the options for adaptation are limitless. We had ours with a simple salad and a nice drizzle of homemade aioli, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But top that puppy with a poached egg, and you’ve got a brunch entrée extraordinaire. Or make them miniature with a eensy drop of romesco, and it’s pure party food. Pull the flavor profiles in whatever direction you like — a dash of curry, some minced garlic, or a pinch of herbes de Provence can paint the colors of a culture on this basic yet sophisticated canvas.
And that, my friends, is no joke.
So we had this pineapple. At first, I didn’t notice it, nestled deep in the shredded-paper grass in the Easter basket my mother sent last week. But sure enough, a second glance revealed its thorny crown protruding on one side.
DPaul doesn’t really care for pineapple. Truth be told, I’m not really nuts about it either, at least not raw. However, I do have a penchant for pineapple when it’s cooked, particularly when used in a savory application. My first instinct was to grill it, develop some caramel goodness on the surface, but as the week wore on and I continued to ignore the thing, it lured me with its strengthening perfume.
Curry beckoned. It was just a tickle at first, an unformed idea knocking around my olfactory centers. As my mind chewed on it further, the picture became clearer. Green curry. Prawns. Herbs. Chili pepper. Yum.
I wasn’t exactly shocked to find that Bell Market didn’t have Thai green curry paste. I was, however, a little nonplussed that they had no curry paste of any color or national provenance whatsoever. Maybe I’m being a little San Francisco snobby here, but in this day and age, curry paste is hardly exotic.
Okay, time to improvise. How to make a respectable Thai-inflected curry with supermarket ingredients. Ginger, check. Cilantro, no problem. Hey, lemongrass! We’re getting somewhere.
I am certainly no expert when it comes to Thai food, and I surely cannot pretend I was aiming for any particular traditional dish. But I had a clear vision of where I was heading, a sense of what I wanted the final dish to taste like, and that was my culinary compass.
My only other imperative: Easy. I really didn’t want to spend hours pounding herbs in a mortar and pestle, toasting spices, what have you. This was going to be a Cuisinart meal.
Right. Ingredients in and set the food processor to obliterate. Get a pot of rice going. Whip up a simple salad of red onion and cucumber (thanks to a little inspiration from Anita). And there you have it: A tip of the hat to Thailand in practically no time. Not bad for a white guy.