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Archive for February, 2012

avocado bruschetta with smoked salmon (san francisco part 2)

Saturday

5:20 p.m.

We arrive at Bar Bambino early—very early—because I haven’t made reservations. The host gives our six-person group the once-over and decides we are one of those overly-confident foodie families, but after a quick consultation with my father he seats us three and three along the corner of the bar. An elderly man and woman sharing olives and wine are our only dining companions, but by six o’clock the place is packed.

I have chestnut soup with celeriac (feeling very self-satisfied that I know this gnarled root after my time at Love Apple) and we all vie for crispy florets of cauliflower that have been battered and lightly fried. We finish dessert just before seven and my thoughts turn shamefully (and longingly) to my inflatable mattress at our friend’s home in San Rafael, but Stas the music maven has another suggestion: the SF Bluegrass and Old Time Festival. After settling snugly in a basement bar to wait for Hang Jones and the Jugtown Pirates, she and I venture upstairs where a friendly festival-worker lets us in to go square dancing. Immediately I love it—over 30 couples assembled in plaids and dresses, with a live string band and dance moves like “three little ladies” and “let the dove pass through.” At one point a very tall man whisks me two feet off the ground, and moments later Stas and I burst out giggling in the giant circle of dancers, clasping hands for minutes before realizing none of the actual romantic couples are doing so. I laugh a lot. “You look so happy!” My sister cries reproachfully when we pass her in the do-si-dos, with a look halfway between envy and I’m trying not to be embarrassed for you.

Sunday

9:30 a.m.

Sunday morning is farmer’s market round two in Marin, and this time I’m ravenous. A five minutes on the premises I’m sinking my teeth into an Indian spinach flatbread at a stand where we somehow spend $25 (“But he gave us a free samosa!”). From there I buy and devour an extremely large Asian pear, then go for a handful of caramel dates, then finally settle on a pretzel-croissant (let it be known: Germany and France have produced a perfect love-child). It’s a good thing we get lost on the hike that follows because two-hours of walking is exactly what I need.

Sunday night I have made a reservation: a restaurant called Picco that I imagine is “amiable Italian.” One glance at the menu proves me utterly (and delightfully) wrong. There are grilled baby artichokes with smoked ham and tarragon aioli, lamb chops with rapini pesto and cumin yogurt, and a risotto made from scratch “on the half hour.” Each plate arrives to be shared by the whole table, and as we wait to be delighted yet again (nothing disappoints) I’m hard-pressed to think of a meal with my family that I’ve enjoyed more. An avocado bruschetta scores big, and we finish with miniature alcoholic shakes and warm chocolate madeleines.

Sitting at Café Fanny in Berkeley early the next morning, I’m rejuvenated and thankful and full as I nevertheless contemplate a second hot chocolate. Oh to live a life of travel and eating with family and friends—but then I suppose that’s why we work, isn’t it?

Avocado Bruschetta with Smoked Salmon

This recipe–inspired by a similar dish with chorizo at Picco–resulted in one the simplest and most delicious lunches I’ve had in ages.

4 thin slices of good-quality bread (whole wheat levain works well)

1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half

2 ripe avocados

1 small packet of smoked salmon

red pepper flakes

olive oil

sea salt

Cut the slices of bread in half diagonally and toast until lightly browned. Rub each half-slice with the raw garlic and drizzle with olive oil. Place a thin piece of smoked salmon on each toast.

Cut your avocados into quarters and peel. Slice each quarter thinly lengthwise before fanning it out gently on top of the salmon. Sprinkle completed toast with sea salt and red pepper flakes.

soba noodles with garlicky greens and toasted walnuts (san francisco part 1)

Friday

5:20 p.m.

We pull up to the MacArthur BART station in Oakland just as the sun begins to set. My parents and I have driven up to visit my sister in Berkeley for the weekend, but this first evening I’m headed into the city to stay with my best friend Anastasia in her Bernal Heights apartment. The station is under a freeway overpass and crowded with commuters; drums echo angrily from an invisible street performer. My parents eye the scene warily and my mother leans over to zip up my coat—I remind them pointedly that I lived in New York for four years but still feel like a scolded teenager.

Half an hour later I step off the train onto 24th street in the Mission district. There are murals and a McDonalds, the air alive with machismo and more drums (this time upended plastic buckets). I cross the street to avoid lingering hesitantly on the corner and feel the primal thrill of a city after months on the farm and quiet Shepard Mesa.

Stas shares an apartment with an artist in her fifties, and immediately I love it: colorful canvases lounge against walls, books cascade over chairs and shelves, glass jars of beans and grains line the kitchen counters. I examine a beautiful Picasso sketch that hangs over a cluttered shelf. Es maravilloso, Stas whispers, reverting to the fluent Spanish she retained from our high school years.

I start chopping cabbage while she prepares a dinner of sautéed greens, walnuts, and soba noodles, along with a salad seasoned with rice vinegar and sesame seeds. At 8:30 her housemate Annice picks us up for a nearby concert, and we drive down dark, industrial streets that would be hard-pressed to look less inhabited. Suddenly, there it is—a glowing slice of a building with scruffy-haired hipsters and a woman holding a french horn huddled round an outdoor fire pit. A mosaic of art covers the walls inside and soon after we arrive a thin, older man picks up a guitar and starts to sing. His plaintive voice moves between song and spoken word and we sit mermaid-style on the carpet, listening as girls (and boys) in a variety of leggings and artfully sagging boots traipse over us back and forth to the bathroom.

Saturday

11:00 a.m.

After a long walk and a longer wait we are seated at Plow, a popular brunch joint in Potrero Hill frequented by an embracing pair of muscled Abercrombie models and three separate tables of women in yoga attire indulging in their post-workout gorge. I nibble a bit of everyone’s meal before turning to my own, dipping bites of almond and lemon-ricotta pancakes into runny egg yolk. The pancakes are so tasty I end the meal with only slight menu-envy for the smoky sauce and cilantro kick of Stas’ breakfast choice.

It is both torture and a blessing in disguise that we arrive at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market unable to stomach another bite. The day is bright and breezy with a definite nip in the air—apart from that, it could be the middle of summer. People walk by with bags of oranges and plates of chilaquiles, and grannies of the traditional and tattooed variety root through baskets of radishes and boxes of loose greens. Inside the Ferry Building a barrage of wonderful smells warns you of approaching products before you see them: coffee from Blue Bottle, cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, bread from Acme Bakery. We buy South African Pinotage from one vendor and I stand in line for apple cider sorbet made bitingly spicy with cloves.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good museum or a nice hike. But if you’re starting to suspect that 90% of my travel plans revolve around food, well… stay tuned.

 

Soba Noodles with Garlic, Walnuts and Sauteed greens

My best friend Stas is a musician, soon-to-be yoga teacher and creator of such delights as chocolate beet cake and avocado pudding–in other words, she is California incarnate. She is also an admirable enemy of food waste: I once watched her eat a bottom-of-the-backpack banana bruised beyond recognition (a tale my entire family enjoys telling with gusto). My version of the lovely dinner she made for us is so simple that I’ve eaten it with relish every day for lunch this week.

1 package buckwheat soba noodles

two cloves garlic, sliced

several handfuls dark greens–kale (Toscano and Red Russian work well), rapini, chard or spinach

liberal splash rice vinegar

walnuts

sunflower seeds

red pepper flakes

olive oil and salt

Salt a pot of water and set it on the stove to boil. Heat oil in a saucepan and add sliced garlic, stirring for a minute or so until fragrant but not brown. Roughly chop greens and add to the pan with the rice vinegar, cooking until slightly wilted but still green and robust.

Drop a serving or two of soba noodles into the boiling water. Cook until chewy (overcooking results in a gluey mass), drain, and rinse immediately under cold water. Toast walnuts in a small pan until warm and crunchy (add sunflower seeds as well if you desire). Serve noodles in a bowl with greens spooned on top, and garnish with nuts, red pepper flakes, and a splash of olive oil and additional rice vinegar to taste.

strawberries dipped in mexican hot chocolate

One of my fondest memories of my early college days was late-night Mexican hot chocolate in Wallach 9C. Our 11-person suite—which included a Chinese physics genius, a Russian pianist, two Cross Country runners and a reclusive boy by the name of Dante—would gather in the common room most nights around ten, when Homer’s poetry had lost its muse-song and a vague yearning for an (absent) TV set was communally felt. It was then that Matt would emerge with thick tablets of Abuelita hot chocolate from San Diego, dissolving them in half a gallon of cheap milk. We drank it steaming from mismatched travel mugs while playing a finicky card game that involved multiple decks, listening to—dare I say it—old Disney tunes. It was privileged nerd-ism at its best.

Here in Santa Barbara it’s been such a warm winter that even strawberries have become year-round fare, and whenever I go to Shepard Farms I marvel at the plump berries tucked in with the kale and butternuts. But even a California winter is an excuse to make hot chocolate, and though I’m still a fan of Nestle’s Abuelita (and her Hispanic Foods aisle cousin Ibarra) I’ve begun experimenting with Mexican hot chocolate rich enough for dipping winter strawberries. Make this spiced, chocolatey base as a decadent sauce for fruit and ice cream, or whisk it into hot milk for a warm evening treat. Want hot chocolate to rival Juliet Binoche in Chocolat? I’ve been coveting this milk frother for some time, and who knows–my birthday’s coming up.

Mexican Hot Chocolate for Dipping or Drinking

The following amounts are for a single serving, but they can be easily doubled or tripled if you’d like to share.

1 small square dark chocolate

1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 tsp cinnamon (plus extra for dusting)

3 tsp sugar

1/2 tsp almond flour (or ground almonds)

milk

In a small saucepan, melt chocolate over low heat. Add cocoa with a small splash of milk and whisk to combine, then add cinnamon, sugar, and almond flour with an additional splash of milk and whisk until chocolate base becomes thick and shiny. At this point the sauce is ideal for dipping.

For hot chocolate, add 3/4–1 cup milk to the saucepan and whisk to heat and combine. Taste and add additional milk if necessary, and enjoy steaming in your favorite mug.

butternut squash with cauliflower and crispy edamame

Recently, in what felt like a return to my English lecture days, I was asked to write on what makes a compelling character in a book or movie. So often in novels or films we see protagonists accomplishing death-defying feats, I began, they are heroes in the face of mediocrity, extraordinary beings in an ordinary world. The authors I love are those who acknowledge that the reverse is truer to human experience: we are ordinary characters in an extraordinary world. The characters whose lives I fall into with abandon are those who make spaghetti, drink beer, and buy pantyhose at the drugstore while things of utter strangeness go on around them.

I’ve long been a fan of authors who don’t flinch from providing mundane detail. My childhood heroine Nancy Drew couldn’t so much as climb into her blue roadster without a description of her pastel-colored outfit, an authorial move both entirely unnecessary and thoroughly enjoyable. The characters in the novels of one of my current favorites, Haruki Murakami, might be in the throes of mind-altering mysteries, but they go about their lives in much the same way I do: there is lots of opening the refrigerator and boiling water for pasta, many Friday nights spent in bed reading a book.

We tend to go about our daily activities on autopilot, and recently I realized just how powerful our neurological cruise control is when I read David Eagleman’s fascinating book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Once we learn to chop vegetables or spin lettuce for a salad, there’s no need to focus on it—the activity is seared into the brain’s wiring, and in fact it’s often impossible to describe exactly how we wield the knife the way we do. But just because we can cook and eat without focusing on what goes into our mouths, does that mean we should? Jeff Gordinier’s compelling article in the New York Times yesterday on mindful eating offers a glimpse into a world where each bite is carefully savored, a practice that doesn’t come naturally to our efficient brains.

The concept of mindful eating appeals to me for the same reason that ordinary, spaghetti-making characters do: there is something deeply meditative about daily moments spent preparing and eating food. Cooking reminds us that life has a rhythm, that no matter how exciting or dull things become we pause several times each day and eat. These times can be rushed affairs, scarfing down a banana on the fly, and sometimes they have to be. But they can also be moments of unhurried reflection, of ordinary, everyday delight that lends itself more to happiness than heroic victory does.

Butternut Squash with Cauliflower and Crispy Edamame

The key to this simple and satisfying dish is roasting until the edamame are browned and crunchy–they add wonderful texture to the sweet, soft squash and crispy florets of cauliflower.

1 medium butternut squash

1 head of cauliflower

1 cup frozen edamame

sweet Moroccan paprika

olive oil

salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel butternut and cut into cubes; spread on a baking sheet with frozen edamame. Cut cauliflower into bite-size chunks and add to the sheet, then sprinkle vegetables with sweet paprika, salt and pepper. Use your hands to coat veggies well with olive oil, then slide into the oven to cook for 30-40 minutes, or until butternut is fully roasted and edamame are browned and crispy.

astoundingly delicious (and easy!) homemade bread

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I know, food is a communal joy, a pleasure to be shared around the table with family and friends both new and old. But to each of you reading this, let me say that I wish for you just once to experience the moment of utter, profoundly selfish delight I felt this week while eating a slice of bread.

To backtrack: this was no ordinary bread. How I stumbled upon it was rather ordinary—I photocopied a few pages from a friend’s book, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method by Jim Lahey. True, the titular claim sounded a bit far-fetched. But bread-making had been a distant goal of mine for some time so I decided to give it a try.

The Lahey method stressed full dependence on time, and I was in no rush. I mixed the dough. I waited the requisite 18 hours, then a bit more for good measure. I pulled the dough out of its bowl and into a dishcloth. I waited another two hours. I heated the oven, with an old Le Creuset pot in it, and when it reached 475 degrees I awkwardly dumped in the dough. Thirty minutes passed, and then the room began to smell like bread.

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It was a wonderful—no glorious—aroma, the kind that draws you to the oven to peer inside. It was time to remove the lid and let the crust brown, and it was all I could do to fidget around the room for ten agonizing minutes, rearranging piles of mail and straightening the tablecloth. When I finally pulled it out I felt the sort of pride I’d previously associated only with my fifth grade reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, or maybe my acceptance into college. In the recipe Lahey had specifically warned against cutting into the loaf right away, recommending an hour’s wait. An hour? An iron will (not in my arsenal) would be required.

I stood alone in the kitchen with my bread, the crust almost too hot to touch and the inside a soft, fragrant network of air pockets. The first bite was joy, pure and simple, the crispness of the exterior giving way to a moist and tangy center. I ate slice after slice, dipping them in olive oil sprinkled with salt. It was the kind of reverie you awake from to find, to your confusion, that the sun is still shining and half the loaf has vanished.

An hour or so later I lay immobile, the sheer volume of the bread I’d consumed weighing painfully with every breath. But Oh—it was delicious, worth every bite.

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Jim Lahey’s No-Work, No-Knead Bread

The chemistry of this bread is fascinating–Mark Bittman describes it eloquently in a way even my meager science mind can grasp. The traditional recipe calls for 3 cups of bread flour, but I had great success substituting in one cup of whole wheat. I also found I consistently needed more than 1 1/3 cups of chilled water to create a moist enough dough.

2 cups bread flour (I use King Arthur)

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 cups chilled water

wheat bran (or cornmeal)

Mix together dry ingredients in a large bowl, then add chilled water and stir with a wooden spoon until you have a cohesive–but very wet–dough. Set aside in a warm environment for 18-24 hours.

Lay out a clean dish towel (not terry, as it can shed) and sprinkle with wheat bran. Gather your dough (it should be doubled in size and dotted with bubbles) with well-floured hands and transfer it to the center of the towel, pulling in the edges of the dough towards the center to create a nicely-shaped round. Sprinkle the top of the dough with wheat bran and loosely cover with the edges of the towel. Set aside for 2 hours.

After 1 1/2 hours, heat your oven to 475 degrees with a large, lidded enamel or cast iron pot inside. When the oven is heated, remove the pot (careful–it’s very hot!) and coat it lightly with olive oil and flour, then transfer your dough from the towel to the pot. Cover and bake for 20-30 minutes, checking if the aroma begins to indicate burning. Remove the lid and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the crust is a dark brown. Remove from the oven and lift the bread from the pot with a wooden spatula, then set aside to cool for as long as you can resist.

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