The Next Level

October 23rd, 2009

It is high time I took picnicking to the next level.

I have read and re-read the chapter in Peter Mayle’s Toujours Provence where he talks about the picnic his wife plans for his birthday, the picnic he is loathe to attend because of a fear of “a damp bottom and ant sandwiches”.  Of course, the picnic reaches far beyond all his low expectations when he is presented with a table with actual linens and sliverware, set in a sunny, quiet meadow and several courses of a divine luncheon.  As beautiful as that all sounds, I’m not sure that I would necessarily categorize that as a picnic;  it’s more like alfresco dining.   So what I want to target is something that, on the spectrum of Eating Outside, sits far, far from PB&J and rather close to alfresco dining, but without the caterers or linen.

An opportunity to experiment with picnicking arose with Mom & Dad’s visit to SF, and the subsequent – practically mandatory – day trip to wine country.  There are several wineries in the region that have picnic areas for visitors, but one in particular, in Napa, is where we had been before and wanted to go again:  Reynold’s Family Winery.   It’s a small scale operation with a nice patio, some chairs and tables with umbrellas arranged under (what is almost always) the hot sun.  Even better, they have one of the few Chardonnays on the planet that I actually find pleasant to drink.   The wine is where I started the menu, the library is where I continued.

Truthfully, I didn’t plan to actually go searching for a picnic cookbook when I was last at the library, but I happened to pick a most unlikely choice: Tassajara Cookbook, Lunches, Picnics & Appetizers, by Karla Oliveira.

“The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a legendary Buddhist monastery set deep in California’s Ventana Wilderness, is famous for its healthy gourmet vegetarian cuisine.  Guests rave about one particular Tassajara tradition: the bag lunch.”


Ha!   It’s vegetarian, and I still brought it home.  Brought it home and got completely wound up in what were starting to sound like really good spreads and chutneys, even without any meat:  Fennel Mustard Butter, Tarragon Onion Spread, Eggless Egg Salad, Mushroom Pâté…  I had to look up what “tempeh” was, and what “tamari” was (coarse tofu and a kind of soy sauce, respectively) and then designed a menu mindful of chardonnay:

Tempeh Garlic spread with cherry tomatoes

Artichoke, Walnut Tofu spread with Raincoast crisps

Un Mondo Cacciatore Hunter’s Style dried salami & grainy mustard

Cabbage slaw with maple vinaigrette

Coco-Luxe chocolate truffles

Ultimately, though I forgot the forks and the sun refused to shine in Napa (inconceivable!), this picnic was a smash.   We uncorked a thoughtfully chilled 2007 Chardonnay, dressed the salad, sliced the salami, and enjoyed our picnic despite the chilly breeze.  In fact, I’m not sure it could’ve been nicer– the spreads were good protein but not so filling that we would regret them at dinner time, the slaw added a vinegary, crunchy element and the truffles at the end effectively sealed off any overindulgence in white wine.   Only the sun was lacking to make our view out over the vineyards perfect.

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…Back to Napa

October 15th, 2009

It seems we cannot stay away.  Gail and Daniel’s visit gave us an excellent excuse to explore further wineries and picnic spots.




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To Wine Country, Jeeves

September 23rd, 2009

view-cole-valleyThe fog drifts in again and makes itself comfortable on the hill that is Buena Vista Park, opposite our picture window.  It’s this wet blanket of water droplets dampening streets, hiding views and flattening hair that makes me sigh and reminisce about wine country.   Ahh, Napa–  where the sun always shines and the palm trees wave and the wine flows. Unless you rent a convertible, in which case, it is sure to rain.

I’m convinced that the only reason it rained on our trip North recently is because we rented the Mini Cooper Convertible.  It’s cute and all, but kind of simple and definitely not as fun in the dark, cramped, ill-formed back seat with the top up.  Nonetheless, Marc and Marcia and I trooped from winery to winery despite the chill, even stopping for a surreptitiously-timed picnic lunch before the rain began.  As it turns out, a winery is perhaps the most perfect place for civilized picnic outdoors:  tables and chairs are usually positioned with a wide view of vineyard or valley or pond, staff are quick to offer knives or napkins or whatever else has been forgotten at home, and wine is conveniently sold chilled for enjoyment on the spot.  Bread and good cheese, some sun-warmed fresh figs bought at the farm stand along the road, a glass or two of unoaked Chardonnay.  It will be hard to beat that.

After having filled the wee trunk with as much wine as it could carry/we could purchase, we headed for The Fig Café in Glen Ellen.  As they accept no reservations, we took our place second in the queue forming outside the door for the first sitting at 5:30pm.  It smelled delicious as soon as we walked in– did someone toss garlic into pan as the doors were unlocked?



Fried calamari with lemon aioli, no corkage (!), fig and arugula salad with chèvre, pecans and pancetta, duck confit, saffron and white corn pasta, and a humble order of “fries” with tarragon aioli.  Now allow me, please, a moment to elaborate on the fries:  these were The Best Fries I Have Ever Eaten.  They were twice fried, to be sure, but that oil must have contained duck fat or pure lard or something that penetrated the fluffy potato interior and melted in one’s mouth.  Burning hot and very liberally salted, they crunched so preciously between the teeth that I found them more enjoyable eaten one by one by hand, rather than by the civilized forkful.


The three of us, after having eaten and wined all day, could barely muster the strength to get through three quarters of the honey-lavender crème brulée before crying uncle and staggering back out into the drizzle to our cramped little Mini.  The dinner and the wine and the fries more than made up for the rain.

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Mixed Grill. Mixed Grill.

September 17th, 2009

Mixed grill. Mixed grill.  The phrase hummed in the air all afternoon at the trailer.


Marc and I invited ourselves out to Carl & Julianne’s Airstream in wine country for Labour Day Weekend with the plea to use the BBQ.   This BBQ- it was previously enjoyed and left for dead next to the giant “To Burn” pile in the trailer lot next door- Carl had rescued it, dragged it over to the Airstream.  It enjoys a second life now, one in which Marc and I have played a part every time we enjoy a weekend with C, J & M out of the city.


For several weeks before the long weekend, we perused the food mags and sites for barbecue ideas.  Burgers were featured everywhere, of course, all with some sort of label of “ultimate” or “perfect” or “gourmet”, but that didn’t seem special enough for one of these cherished occasions where we get to use actual flames to cook food.  Flames that burn from artisanal charcoal.  After narrowing down the list and debating about what would go best with cold beer and hot weather, we decided on the menu.

Homemade babaganoush with grilled pita bread

Mixed grill with cherry cola barbecue sauce

Grilled vegetables with goat cheese

Grilled nectarines with honeyed crème fraîche

And so, early on Saturday afternoon, the preparation and cooking began.  The coals were lit, the mesquite pellets sealed in tinfoil, the grill scrubbed clean.  There were to be hours of slow cooking ahead for the ribs and the eggplant, and hours spent lounging and beering in the shade as the smoky, meaty smells would waft towards the picnic table.



Then we started to get hungry.   The eggplant was the first to be lifted from the flames, only to be judged insufficiently cooked and thrown into the trailer’s oven for softening.  At best, the resulting babaganoush tasted intriguingly smoky.  At worst, it tasted a little… burnt.  But at 5:30, after having already sat still listening to and smelling the ribs sizzling for almost 2 hours, we weren’t going to waste any more effort on the stupid appetizer.


Then came the sausages (the homemade Antonelli’s sausages which never let us down), and the spice-rubbed, skin-on chicken thighs that blistered and crisped to perfection under the supervision of three adults who could not leave the meat alone, who could not go five minutes together without one of us “peeking”, even though we promised each other we’d leave it alone.  The barbecue sauce was applied, and reapplied; the veg hit the grill as the meat neared its end, the ribs rested before they got hit with more sticky, sweet, cherry-cola sauce.   Mixed grill.  Mixed grill.  Finally, we ate.  Even the pickiest eater among us could not help gnawing at the bones.


All of it was divine.  The ribs fell apart in our hands, every surface, every utensil on the table became sticky with sauce.  The sausages, coarse enough to be toothsome, were spicy little nuggets next to the juicy chicken, done just right.  The vegetables were tasty but hardly seem worth mentioning next to the all-consuming chewy, meaty, saucy, smoky, drippy, messy mixed grill.

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Better Be Worth It

September 4th, 2009

So, home canning:  the activity has arguably lost its ubiquitousness in the new millennium.  The idea brings to mind root cellars, giant pots, wooden cratefuls of vegetables and an already bone-tired matron of a household taking a deep breath and tying her apron as she begins the forced march into canning season.  It’s so much work and it’s so hot already.  No wonder the old parable about the ant and the grasshopper;  if one didn’t do the canning, one’s family would not taste vegetable matter until spring, and that must’ve been the motivation for ploughing through all the sweaty work.


But nowadays, is home canning even a thing?  I have fleetingly toyed with canning in the past, producing a few jars of jam now and then when we’ve bought too many strawberries or picked too many saskatoons.  The simpliest of jam recipes always sound appealing – boil fruit and sugar until it is of jam consistency – but the next steps involving sterilizing and submerging in boiling water for “processing” leech the simplicity from the recipe.  Plus, we don’t have jar-lifting tongs or a canning rack, let alone a canning-sized pot.


However, with an unexpected surfeit of persian cukes and a variety of cute little peppers, we decided last week to enter into the arena of home canned vegetables.   Marc searched the internet for pickled pepper recipes and I went straight for the recently published family reunion cookbook, in which I knew I could find Judy’s recipe for “dills”.    The whole thing turned out to be an exercise in substitutions:  we couldn’t find pickling vinegar (which, for the record, has an acidity of 10% instead of the standard 5% of distilled white) and we also couldn’t find pickling salt, though someone somewhere on the internet suggested using kosher salt in its place.   Our jerry-rigged operation included a stock pot, one metal trivet with the rubber feet removed in order to stand in as a canning rack, a large and somewhat greasy monkey wrench as jar-lifter and a new set of pint-sized Mason jars.   There seemed to be alot of variance in processing time and methods for determining if the jars had truly sealed – listen for the pop, unscrew the ring and lift the jar by the lid to make sure it holds.   In the end, we compiled our own recipes from the parts of other recipes and instructions that seemed the easiest and/or made the most sense.   Lots of dill, lots of garlic, lots of salt.


The conduct of this experiment was rather uneventful and now, one week later, we have two jars of pickled peppers and five jars of pickles sealed and marinating in the pantry.   The results remain to be tasted.   If we have succeeded and they actually taste good, then we will make a point of insisting our friends try them and admitting, with false modesty, that indeed we did make these ourselves.   If we fail, we’ll chuck the lot and all too easily buy replacements.

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Beat the August Chill

August 26th, 2009

It’s been chilly here for the past few days.  If we’re lucky, we get a few hours of sun in the morning, spilling over the hill to the East and into our dawn-facing windows and warming the whole flat.  Then the fog crests the hill to the West and seeps over the side, through the green belt forest, to smother us in a chilly blanket.  I swear the fog leaks through the gaps in the window frames.  It was like this on Saturday, when I started the day in a T-shirt but by noon had wrapped myself into a light sweater.  Despite it’s being August, the cool air encourages a snug and tasty lunch inside, which is how we ended up at The Alembic in the Haight in the early afternoon.

Between lunch and cocktail hour, the bar was quiet; dim with fog-filtered light from the skylight reflecting off the giant mirror at the back and onto the bar.  We chose a table and kept our jackets on while examining the cocktail menu.   It’s written as prose so it takes some time to weigh the options.  At length, I opted for the “Vieux Carré”.



I realize it was designed for hot weather, but cognac sounded warming and solid.  Besides, we were about to order some savoury  snacks that would warm the blood.  The menu here is, I think, perfectly matched to cocktails that are not shy on alcohol: salty, with lots of innards.   Organ meats are tastier, in my opinion, when chased with liquor, bringing out their dark flavours.   We started with a nibble of “Jerk spiced duck hearts with pickled pineapple and thyme salt”.  Marc’s theory is they take delivery of all the parts the other restaurants don’t want and make something creative with the discounted bits.  Perhaps-  though with at least ten little hearts skewered on our plate, how many whole ducks is the Bay Area using?


Scrumptious little bites, with a sweet tang from the pineapple.   This lit the fire and we ordered two more dishes from the daily specials board:  Sweetbreads with potato spuma topped with a quail egg, and Razor clams cooked á la plancha with parsley.



I had never before had razor clams – to what was the clam adapting that it had to become long and narrow? – and spuma was also new to me.  I ate it, so I know that it was a light, creamy, almost-bisque of potato; but now, having looked it up, I find that it is Italian for ‘foam’. I’m not sure if this is how it was done with potatoes, but the Food Dictionary on described a technique where uncooked meringue is folded into the mixture to give it a light and airy texture.   Topped with hot sweetbreads that were a little crunchy on the outside and bathed in egg yolk, this was my afternoon favourite.   Until we ordered dessert.


The caramelized brioche, with custard and peach-lavender chutney by its side, then became the favourite.  Well, maybe a tie with the sweetbreads.  It might become necessary for this foray into the Haight to become a weekly ritual, if only to keep up with the specials on the chalkboard.

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Moved to Eat

August 20th, 2009

“…some people get the impression that I don’t like where I live. Which is kind of strange, because I don’t understand why anyone would think that I’d live somewhere where there was a dearth of clothes dryers if I didn’t like it. And if you saw the paperwork that I have to fill out just to stay here, well, let’s just say that one really has to want to live here to plow through it all.”

I read this this morning on David Lebovitz’ blog and felt a spark of kinship.  Recently, we have both been through the yearly jaunt up to Canada and back only to cross the border so that we could each apply again to live the US.  It is hardly harrowing, but unnerving enough to answer official questions with a nagging kernel of doubt that one might not be allowed to enter the country.  Two years ago, we found jobs and moved to San Francisco specifically because of its food culture, but if I had known before we set out about the paperwork and hoops through which we would have to jump, I may not have been so keen to move.   That we were naive about the process of becoming American residents was a boon.   Like David, I do love living in my adopted home city, but one really has to want to live here.   (Every once in awhile, we’ll witness behaviour or see a news story – like people carrying loaded automatic weapons to public town hall meetings?! – that makes one of us turn to the other and say “Are we sure we want to live in America?”)


However, the work and expense involved in being allowed to legally live here fades dramatically as soon as we encounter any element of the food culture.   People talk about food here:  restaurant gems, the new ice cream place in the Mission, the grocery store that just opened, the place in Richmond that sells authentic Asian ingredients, and has anyone else tried the chilaquiles for brunch at that new Mexican place in Hayes Valley?  Everyone has a recommendation on where to eat, where to buy food and that’s why we love it here;  we belong. An existence that focuses on food, wine and cooking is not an aberration, ’tis the norm, so that our excursion to walk 30 blocks and back so as to try that new ice cream place, or our practice of driving to four different markets for the food we want to cook that week isn’t really unusual.


We’re cleared to stay for 3 years now, so we have until 2012 to focus as much as we can/want on food.  Perhaps, by then, we’ll be ready to move to Paris.


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Hell No

August 19th, 2009

p10308071While designing the menu for dinner, deciding what to do for a light dessert, I thought to myself, “You know what everybody likes? Parfaits. Have you ever met a person, you say, ‘Let’s get some parfait,’ they say, ‘Hell no, I don’t like no parfait’? Parfaits are delicious.”

And yet, there is one for whom the parfait is not delicious.  Someday, Makela.  Someday, I will make a complete dinner that you can eat start to finish.




Ham & Eggs

August 14th, 2009

sandwich3Since we’ve begun baking our own bread, it is only natural that our sandwiches have begun to involve a little more thought and effort.  Marc produced a glorious loaf of Anadama bread, which I turned into simple Niman Ranch ham sandwiches with dijon, and a side of raw asparagus salad.  That loaf barely lasted a few days, so darkly sweet, even plainly toasted and smeared with butter.


Our baguettes are hit and miss.  When the shape and texture are right, it’s hard not to eat a whole one warm from the oven.  The last good round inspired egg salad sandwiches, which I laced with truffle oil and layered with white anchovies.  Scrumptious. I defy even those who are disinclined to enjoy the egg to resist egg salad made with tart, homemade mayo and truffle oil.

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Gavin and his Tomalley

August 11th, 2009

lobster2We bought a 4-lb. lobster and we named him Gavin.  He cost $31.96 + tax.   He was too big to fit in any of our pots, but we filled the largest one with water anyway and when it was boiling, we pushed Gavin in and held the pot lid closed.  He struggled.  That was the worst part about making lobster chowder.

The best part was how good Gavin and his tomalley tasted.  Lately, I’ve taken to visiting the big library downtown near city hall.  It is gloriously enormous and has aisle upon aisle of cookbooks in the cooking section.  I barely made it halfway through one half of one aisle before I had as many books as I could carry.  In Food & Wine Best of the Best Volume 4 was a recipe – one of the best of 2001 – for Lobster Chowder, originally from Jasper White’s  50 Chowders.  Not really a repast befitting summer but it sounded too good to miss.  When we bought Gavin, he went into a paper bag and then into a plastic bag and I was hoping that we would take the bus so that I could set the bag on the floor at my feet and watch other people’s reactions as the bag kicked and  squirmed.  Because who transports a lobster on the bus?  As it turns out, we walked home with him and thus developed an appropriate appetite for chowder.

Superb, this one.   Includes two cups of heavy cream added at the end and was better for the fresh buttered baguette dipped in to sop up the juices.

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