Friday, September 30, 2005

Food Notes: Salmon and Scallops with Passion Fruit

This is an impressive dish that draws its wow factor from being, well, raw, and exotic ingredient heavy.

I first threw it together back in August. Failed to get photos though, and having prepared it while my wife was out of town I felt doubly compelled to give it another shot.

Preparation is simple, if painstaking. If you go with 'sashimi-grade' salmon you can rest easier about the raw fish and not sweat bones. Scallops are very slippery and these need to be diced as well. Once you have the seafood diced, you'll want to keep refrigerated while you mince the shiso and peppers. Slicing open the passion fruit will leave you with two halves that need spooning out.

Mix the passion fruit, shiso, and peppers with the salmon, then with the scallops. I like to serve on a whole shiso leaf, which shouldn't be eaten whole once you've finished the fish.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Spice: Fennel Pollen

After braving the Friday crowd at the Market Hall Pasta Shop, having already handed my credit card over to the guy ringing me up, I noticed small jars of fennel pollen on the counter by the balsamic vinegars. Imported from Tuscany, yours for 6.99.

I'd looked for it for a month or so, even flirted with buying some produced in California by people who describe it as "the new 'in' seasoning."

I've had fennel pollen in dishes twice now, once at Clio and once at Dopo. The intensity of the fennel flavor is very pronounced, but there is also something curiously earthy about it. More akin, in its aromatic aspect, to curry than anything else I can think to compare it to.

Mushrooms: Lobster

Think I first saw these mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum) on an episode of Iron Chef America. Have yet to eat one, even though Dona Tomas is pitching an intriguing Lobster Mushroom Quesadilla.

Turns out that a per se lobster mushroom is actually another type of mushroom that has succumb to a fungal parasite. For a more detalied explanation of this "mycological cannibalism", you can visit Tom Volks' website. I'll report back once I've variously sliced, steamed, sauteed.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Mushrooms: Chantrelles

Lots I can say about these. The first time I had them, some friends had brought them over for dinner. Foraged by someone from Chez Panisse who I had not meant. I let my soon-to-be wife and two good friends eat most of them before feeling safe enough to dive in. Lately I've been enjoying them in pastsa with lemon zest and red pepper flakes.

At the Grand Lake Farmers' Market they go for about 6.00 a quarter pound, and the Produce Shop at Market Hall sells them for 26.00 a pound.

Only too happy to find them at Berkeley Bowl for more like 9.00 a pound today. I'll add some details later but in the meantime, some mushroom erotica for you:

Saturday Market Recap - Volume 01

Two full days into Autumn and the food schizophrenia thickens. Heirloom tomatoes were down to 2.00 a pound at Berkeley Bowl , where I'd gone in search of beef short ribs and a bone saw.

When we lived in Berkeley, my weekly trip to "The Bowl" was equal parts parking madness and looming financial ruin. Difficult to get in without at least one angry car to car shouting match. Difficult to get out with a bottle or two of wine in the mix for less than a couple hundred dollars.

Not having been for a while, I was waylaid by the exotic fruits. I picked up a Dragon Fruit, some Passion Fruit, and a package of those baby kiwi on my way to get onions. I'd hoped that they would have Bronx grapes, possibly for less than the Produce Shop in Market Hall, but no luck. I also grabbed a few Seckel Pears.

By the time we got back to the car an understanding had been reached that this weeks Farmers Market run would be all about grapes and maybe a few pieces of stone fruit.

Figs: Going, going...

This weeks fig index is set at 5.00 a basket for starchy and thick-skinned figs without a lot flavor.

I'd picked up a single basket last week for 4.00 thinking I had all the time in the world. They were small and thin-skinned, dense with flavor, and so ripe they gave off a scent that threatened fermentation or rot. The women running the stand where I got them had drawn up a sign asking people not to squeeze them.

This week there was only one stand with figs, the stand where I'd purchased my first basket of the season incidentally.

Fruit: Grapes: Muscat

I mentioned Muscat grapes in last weeks Market Recap as tasting, "like certain candy versions of grape flavor, light, and very sweet."At the time I was tempted to use the word 'clean', but floral may be more appropriate. Wanted to add a photo and a few comments on this variety. A useful wine-focused history can be found here. Most of the muscats available locally as table grapes have an almost pearlescent green color that is immediately distinct from the dull finish of, say, Thompson grapes.

The grapes in this photo are about a week old (brown spots are atypical)

Fruit: Pears: Seckel

Berkeley Bowl seems to have Seckel Pears year round these. I'd first noticed them a few falls ago. Immediately fell for their coloring, tannic quality and cinnamon-like flavor. Tony Tantillo provided this useful description:

Seckel pears, developed in about 1800, are a small variety with a dull green cast and often have red highlights. It is very sweet with a somewhat grainy texture since it is a hybrid of European and Asian pears. Seckel pears are the variety most often found in home orchards.

Most web searches mention how sweet the pears are but compared to other ripe pears I'm not sure this holds up.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Saturday Market Recap

Got to the Grand Lake Farmers' Market at about 10:00am yesterday. The fog was breaking up, sun was coming through, and still people were flashing the autumn gear. Knit caps, scarves, and sweater sightings in abundance.

Probably my favorite time of year. Feeling autumnal, but still plenty of tomatoes to go around. Zebras, Cherokee Purples, and something called Wild Boar Romas.

Concord grapes made it to the Hamada Farms booth. The concord flavor wasn't as abundant as in some of the others I've picked up recently, but they were plenty good and plenty tart. You can also pick up Muscat grapes there. The flavor of Muscat grapes is hard to describe. They taste like certain candy versions of grape flavor, light, and very sweet.

Also, not sure which booth I got them at, but there were pomegranates. I buy these on sight each year, the first time I come across them. They usually rot before I have a chance to do anything with them, but just bringing them home and seeing them on the counter makes me happier. This is (along with the wool caps on folks when it gets below 60 degrees) what passes for the changing of seasons here, and certain traditions need to be observed.

At the same booth I picked up some Jujubes. They were handing these out as tasters last year, and when I bit in I felt duped - as though someone had deliberately asked me to bite into a crunchy-shelled, dry and mealy apple with a pit. My wife was curious though, and I offered up that maybe cooking would help. Home they came.

I saw, but did not pick up, a few types of pear. A friend up in Sacramento had bagged some Seckel pears at his local market last weekend. I was cautiously optimistic that I might see some down this way. There were only the asian varieties that showed up a week or two ago and the Wild Mountain booth had boscs.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

September: 2nd Monday Dinner: Home

Quick post here, and a plot twist: a rare Monday dinner at home. This was a broiled center cut pork chop, served with roasted peppers, a tomatillo-avocado concoction, and midly spicy sauce.

For the sauce I dry fried onions that I'd grilled the night before, a couple whole cloves of garlic in their skins, some chipotle chili powder, before adding chicken stock. After the sauce reduced a bit, I also added two teaspoons of the house salsa from Dona Tomas. The flavors were very intense, but too salty. Plumb out of home-made chicken stock, and the one can I had was not the low sodium variety.

For the tomatillo-avocado blend, I blended roasted tomatillo, the garlic that had stewed in the sauce, and one whole avocado. The result was considerably more sweet than I'd expected, even after adding the juice of one half lime. Worked well with the other spicy and salty components of the dish though.

Beef: Grass-fed: Marin Sun Farms

As local food excursions go, this one is a serious commitment on a couple of levels. A New York Steak will set you back about 18.00 a pound. Getting from Oakland to Pt. Reyes Station in a GTI VR6 consumed about a half tank of gas, and took about an hour and a half each way. It was also in every way worth it.

After last weeks' visit to the new Marin Sun Farms Butcher Shop and Eatery, I was eager to get back up there and buy some beef to prepare. After a few hours on Shell Beach, and briefly considering something called a "Baseball Steak" (nod to the nearby baseball diamond I'm guessing), I settled on that New York Steak.

I went for a simple grilled preparation from one of the Chez Panisse cookbooks: olive oil, oregano, a few slices of garlic, and a liberal amount of salt. Grilling took slightly longer than usual. A full 4 minutes per side, and another minute for good measure. Grass-fed beef has a lower-fat reputation than corn-fed beef(1), but this particular piece had plenty of fat to go around.

The familiar magic of char, fat, beef, and salt conspired here into something truly unique and memorable. I served with some grilled squash, grilled onions, and a wholly unnecessary blue cheese sauce.

(1) Two years ago the NYT Magazine ran an article by a guy who had purchased a cow. The article narrated the progression of the cow from small animal to side of beef. One of the more absurd passages in the article dealt with the diet of cows in feed lots. How the diet of those cows consisted of corn that they were in no way equiped to digest.

At one point in the article, a verterinarian who had fielded an emergency call to make an incision in the cow (so that the gas accumulating in it could be released) was asked what the impact of changing the cows diet to something more natural might be. The vet offered up that he'd probably be out of a job. It was few months after reading this that I got into grass-fed beef.

In the East Bay, it isn't hard to come by. Berkeley Bowl and Enzo's Meat and Poultry at Market Hall both sell Western Grasslands Beef. It is tempting to describe the flavor in stereotypically positive ways: natural, lean, and etc. but once you make the switch it can be tough to go back.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Fruit: Grapes: Concord

Until my exposure to Bronx Grapes, the annual arrival of Concord Grapes was (along with figs) one of the true highlights of seasonal food availability for me. When Concords reach the Grand Lake Farmers' Market, we've been known to go through several pounds of them a week.

They haven't made there way to the Farmers' Market yet, but you can get stunning organic concord grapes at the Produce Market in Market Hall. Deeply flavorful, more tart than I typically expect. Yours for 5.00 a pound.

Fruit: Bronx Grapes

The Produce Market at Market Hall has Bronx grapes in for 4.59 a pound. Don't know much about them, the chronicle describes them as an "obscure hybrid":
Considered by some to be the Rolls Royce of table grapes, this rare hybrid is grown by Lagier Ranches in the Ripon area. It has a reddish- gray color, silken texture and muscat-like flavor.

We first had them at Chez Panisse a couple of Fridays ago. They served a cluster of the grapes along side two figs and a peach. The flavor was intense, almost berry-like.

The grapes at the market aren't quite as mind-blowing, but that distinct flavor is clearly present.

September: 1st Sunday: Home

Wanted to get these photos added. It had been a serious food week. Sunday rolled around and I wanted to take it easy.

Threw together two dishes culled from Dopo menus...

These were blue lake beans from the Grand Lake Farmers' Market. Depending on how starchy they are I usually boil for 3 minutes, strain, and then throw in a bowl of water and ice. The dopo preparation used bottarga, which I have not been able to find. I substituted Ortiz Spanish Tuna. The Pasta Shop at Market Hall sells the tuna in bulk and in cans. Had my first bite a few months ago, and I pick up a 1/4 pound every week now. I'd run out of Salt Packed Capers and the ones you see here are Stella brand capers. You can find these at any 7-11.

These are anchovies served over beets with a salsa rustica of parsley and garlic. I've eaten a lot of beets over the last few years, but I always prepare them in the same way. Bake whole in an oven, halve, and then slice. Toss with Sherry Vinegar. I baked these in slices, and they were overcooked as well as too thick. Tasty though - I'll use a mandoline next time.

We had a bottle of Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, 2002 vintage I think. This was overkill for the food but very tasty. Started off tight and bright enough that we ran for a decanter, it hit its stride a by the second glass, after two hours it was pretty much done. The write up from the Tablas Creek website is here. K & L has their Cotes de Tablas which, at 10.00 less a bottle, is all kinds of comparable.

Monday, September 05, 2005

First Visit: Marin Sun Farms

I was tipped off to the new Marin Sun Farms butcher shop and eatery by the entry over at Bay Area Bites.

It was very much as they described, though somehow we had the idea it was "in" Pt. Reyes Station proper, as opposed to at its edge. There's only so much time this sort of confusion can cost you in a town that is all of two blocks long and two blocks deep, but remember... just south of town.

I'm a big fan of grass-fed beef, and have been holding out for a restaurant that falls more squarely in the middle ground between taqueria and Mankas than, say, the Olema Inn.

What totally worked:

· The very refrigerated cart of home made condiments
· Photos of grass shot --no other way to say this-- from the perspective of a cow
· Chalkboard listing many parts of cow and whether they were available that day

I also got the feeling they know the Condiment Cart is all that, because after a woman from the kitchen deposited our food on the counter she pulled a Vanna White - directing us with a practiced gesture to the cart which she also opened. Releasing chilly air and revealing avocado cream, horseradish cream, chipotle mayonaise, and home made sauer kraut among other things.

The food was very tasty. I'll have more to say after we go back up next week.

What if you cooked paella, and everyone showed up?

The menu:

· Panzanella of Heirloom Tomatoes and Sun-dried Acme Levain
· Carne Cruda, served on cucmbers and with house cured anchovies
· Two Paellas - one with mussels, one without
· Two Tarts - one plum, and one peach
· Pine Nut Cookies

The wines:

· Adami NV Proseco
· 2002 Domaine Rimbert St. Chinian "du Schiste", Magnum
· 2003 Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose, Magnum
· 2000 J.C. Conde y Otros, Ribera del Duero "Neo"
· 2002 Dashe Vineyards Zinfandel
· 2002 Dry Creek Vineyards Estate Merlot
· 2002 Davis Bynum, Estate Bottled Single Vineyard Merlot

What went down:

Day started with a trip to the Grand Lake Farmers' Market. We'd eaten out often enough the week before that our haul from the previous weeks market was more or less intact, but we stopped to get a few late-summer staples. Figs, tomatoes, and grapes.

We had plenty of grapes already, had picked up Zinfandel and White Concord grapes mid-week from the produce shop in Market Hall. But I noticed that the Hamada farms guys had Muscat grapes and was not to be denied.

After the Farmers' Market we headed back up lakeshore for bread and coffee. Something seemed to be up at Arizmendi. I noticed many things going into pink boxes and the savory stuff (zampano, focaccia, and the saturday focaccia) was not out at 10:30am. I settled for a cheese roll and we headed home to drop everything off. Such optimism.

I still had one more trip out to make, for anchovies and beef --these were going to wind up in carne cruda-- and a friend's paella pan. We'd looked at several online. lusted after copper, settled on stainless, before agreeing that 189.00 for a twice a year pan was too much.

Took forever to dice the beef for the carne cruda. Lot of refrigerating in between slicing. I could pretty consistently get a quarter inch dice on the beef, but moving through a pound and a half of london broil took us pretty close to start time for dinner and we hadn't began the paella.

Two guests who had recently started a cross- country bike tour called to say they were in Ross, and that they wouldn't be in for a couple of hours.

It all came together though. Paella prep was wrapping up as the first few folks arrived. There was chipping in: cleaning and chopping squid, cracking and de-veining shrimp. My relief when I slid the two paellas in the oven was absolute. 45 minutes of proseco and hob-nobbing.

Which was great. we got 10 folks to the table for panzanella --just enough room-- when the stairs behind the house began to creak. quick exchange of glances followed by some awkward conversation in the kitchen. "didn't know it was a dinner thing."

No matter, several men de-camped to the backyard and brought some rust-covered and vinyl-webbing patio furniture up. Thought I'd done a good job of brushing off the cobwebs, but there was some insistence on a towel over each.

I had one more glass of wine, think we were at the bandol by this point, took a few bites of panzanella and then went to plate carne cruda. I was about 5 plates in when the doorbell rang. Two more guests, same sort of confusion. "NO indication that we should rsvp." The cruda was making the rounds, but my plate count was off. At least 3 people passed on the more-or-less raw beef, and someone else offered up that they were really digging the tuna.

The bike tourists arrived. They'd eaten at Burger King on the way in, less than 3 blocks away. The wheels came off here a bit. The bike tourists disappeared to argue about whose idea it was to eat at the bruger king. Paella was plated, the dining room was packed beyond capacity. A friend asked if we'd sent the invite to our entire address book. I recall telling multiple people,"I don't think we own 18 of anything." I drank way more than my share of the Neo.

Wasn't in the room when the desserts came out, they were mostly gone by the time I got back to the table.

Menu: Dopo: Monday August 29

Lots of catching up to do for last week, starting with this week's Monday menu for Dopo. Trying a new format for these things, the bullets were inserting too much vertical space, though the items i ate are still bolded.

Always happy to see the pigeon on the menu. My friend and I had miscommunicated about when we'd be meeting, and I got there just as the pigeon order he'd been trying to sneak in before I arrived reached the table.

· paine farm pigeon with grapes, pinenuts, and sherry
· crostini of caponata with mozzarella di bufula
· monterey bay sardines with beets and salsa rustica
· knoll farm arugula
· rock cod, corn and tomato soup

· rigatoni with pork and saffron ragu
· tagliatelle with braised hoffman farm hen and porcini
· lasagna alla napoletana

· pizza dopo
· pizza with chantrelles and thyme
· pizza with pancetta and gyspy peppers
· pizza with mozzarella di bufula and basil
· pizza with gorgonzola and red onion

I'd brought a Dry Creek Vineyards Reserve Zinfadel, the Somers vineyard designation, that had a port-like intensity of the cherry flavors I tend to associate with the Dry Creek region.

Wine Notes: August 7, 2005

These really should have been posted along side the notes for the first Dinner in August, but pictures were a long time making it from camera to hard drive. As some of the bottles were older, my links for them are to notes on the varietal or region. The Kermit Lynch website doesn't do the eCommerce thing yet, so links for those wines point to their site where you can snag PDF versions of their newsletters.

Bottle 00: as we got started most people seemed to be drinking the Mas Champart Rosé from the St. Chinian region in France, which you can pick up at Kermit Lynch for 16.00 per bottle. I had frozen this one to the point of cork-seep a few days before, but folks didn't seem to mind at all.

Bottle 01: for the first course we went with a Corsican white — 2004 Domaine Leccia Patrimonia. Bright and dry enough for me, if more pricey than I like my white wine to be. 21.00 also from Kermit Lynch.

Bottle 02: Friends had brought a bottle of something called "trinch!", a 2003 Bourgueil. Very low in alcohol (11.5%) and lots of fruit. This was the last of the Kermit wines for the evening, not sure if it is still available.

Bottle 03: Everyone still seemed to have something in their glass as we worked our way through the tonnato. We eventually got to a 1978 Chateau la Lagune. which was still packing a lot of nose and some unexpected depth. A cork incident prompted decanting, which didn't seem to phase the wine at all. They have several older vintages from this producer available at K&L. I had a bottle of the 1997 two nights ago. Felt like a steal at 21.00.

Bottle 04-06: At this point the wine drinking gloves really came off. We had in rapid succession a 1999 "La Mannela" Brunello di Montalcino (earthy and layered plum flavor, a little cranky, i'd bought the last 9 bottles of this that K&L had earlier in the day), a 2002 Rafanelli Cabernet (only available at the winery or in some local restaurants - Chez Panisse comes to mind), and a 2000 Ridge York Creek Late Picked ZInfandel (the 2001 is available through the Ridge website).

Bottle 07: A friend brought a 1998 Moscato di Pantelleria to finish both us and the meal off. I don't remember much beyond liking it, and hauling out several bottles of whiskey when it was gone.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

September: 1st Friday: Chez Panisse Cafe

Chez Panisse looms large in my food mind. My first apartment in Berkeley was up the street from the Gourmet Ghetto, and one of my first weekends in town there was an anniversary event for the restaurant. Shattuck avenue closed off, people clogging the streets. Think I may have even seen Jeremiah Tower holding forth.

Later there were meals with there with friends and girlfriends. Sometimes these were special occasions, other nights just dessert and a glass of port. My wife worked there for a couple of years. When we met, several of her friends had worked or were working there. Some still do.

Particularly in the Cafe, there's the sense of something classic. Part of it is the space, all that wood and copper, the huge flower arrangement, even the pizza oven. And then there's the food. After a minute or two with menu the song running through my head was Wyclef's "It Doesn't Matter":

How many of y'all ever been to a barbecue
And you always got an aunt or uncle
wanna show you how the old dances go
And they start it off like this...

The Baked Sonoma goat cheese and lettuces are always on the menu. There's always a chicken dish, a fish dish, and something heavier - beef or pork. Confits, al mattone, gratins.

The wine list will always have a Kermit Lynch lean that extends all the way to Neyers Vineyard (operated by Kermit's sales director for North America). When we ordered wine —1994 Bandol, Cabassaou, Domaine Tempier— our waiter went into all business mode and nearly tripped over himself in his haste to decant.

We had a pizza with bitter greens and pancetta to start. The greens were cooked perfectly, still bright and not cooked to death. The pancetta was crisp and translucent, golden brown at the edges. The crust was not as good as my wife remembered; a friend confided that they'd been having dough issues lately.

There was a beet and cucumber dish. The beets were tasty - naturally sweet, and dressed tart.

We both had "Pork Two Ways", with grilled polenta and greens. Pork confit and slices of pork loin. I took issue with the polenta. The grilling was superficial and left the polenta tasting unpleasantly charred. The pork was just what you'd expect though. Intensely flavorful and moist.

For dessert we had a fruit bowl of figs, bronx grapes and a single peach. If it's possible for fruit to be kick ass, then the grapes and peach were totally that.

I never go to Chez Panisse expecting to be surprised, but in the last 12 months they managed to spring Green Olive Oil and those grapes on me. They are also taking an interest in heirloom farm breeds.

We typically get together with several friends for dinner during Zinfandel week (December). Don't know if I'll be able to wait that long to go back.