Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cibo, Sausalito

Lately I've found myself having a confused relationship with Sausalito.  Sort of like when you break up with a boyfriend but he's still living at your house.  You start wondering if getting back together wouldn't be so bad after all, the cap off the toothpaste and dirty laundry not really bugging you as much as it did when you made your BIG decision to dump him.  The comfort of his warm body in your bed much more predictable than the cold, unknown world out there.
You see, I'm on the eve of departure from my home of 4 years.  I've given notice at my job in the City and have decided to make a big change:  I'm moving to Petaluma, the gateway to the SF North Bay's vibrant farming community. I've taken a job at Central Market, a popular sustainably-focused restaurant, literally front and center on Petaluma Boulevard North and Western Avenue.  Across the street is the Mystic Theater, built in 1911 for Vaudeville acts, where these days one can see wildly varying musicians such as G Love and Special Sauce, The John Corbett Band and even Camper Van Beethovan.  The historic integrity of Petaluma  is alive and well in the architecture downtown, the gorgeous Victorians on the westside, and the farms and ranches within a mile of town center that provide many Bay Area chefs with their organic riches.

Back to Sausalito though.  As I sat outside its newest and hippest cafe', CIBO, soaking up some Christmas Eve rays at a patio table, and sipping on Blue Bottle coffee, brewed to order and served in a fabulous Heath Ceramics mug (can't get any more Sausalito than Heath), I pondered my decision. I wouldn't call it regret, but I began to have a longing, a "shit, I should have done this more often" sort of feeling.  Started by the Ancona family of Angelinos (a longstanding southern Italian restaurant a few blocks up) CIBO is such a gem: Metallic orange banquettes line its walls, whiter than white formica tables contrast with rough exposed brick and displays of housemade jams, compotes and cookies tastefully packaged for sale.  I pondered the idea that if I had spent more time here instead of jumping into my car to get to work, perhaps this town would have successfully entranced me.  My wonders were further evidenced when the super cute Chef personally delivered a perfectly toasted Chicken Panini:  chicken, apples and Pt Reyes blue, pressed and heated together into melty goodness.  The pickled carrots, red bell pepper and celery garnish, deliciously crunchy, spicy and vinegar-ey added a high note of contrast to the sharp blue while simultaneously clearing my palate.  I know, washing this all down with coffee, which I hardly drink anyway (except for here at CIBO), has echoes of my parents, but it was only 12 noon, and there was a slight chill to the sunny December air, and it was Blue Bottle, for Chrissake!

Besides sandwiches, CIBO has great poached eggs, served simply with roasted winter vegetables and toasted focaccia.  Fritattas, soups and salads are also available as well as a beautiful array of pastries and dolci made in house.  The artisan movement has definitely made its mark here.  Only open for breakfast and lunch, I can definitely see myself making a frequent pilgramage here to meet up with Marin friends, or enjoy my Blue Bottle solo under the crisp Sausalito skies.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our local wilds

For years now I've noticed beautiful strings of pink pearls weeping down from the willow-like pepper trees that seem to be everywhere in the SF Bay Area.  So, earlier this week, when I went out to pick wild fennel to make Chai, I was pleasantly surprised to see one in "full seed" right up the block from me.  Someone long ago had told me these were the same kind of peppers that when dried, you could put into your grinder and save yourself a few bucks at the grocery store.  I've got a preponderance for this sort of thing, not really  "saving the few bucks" (believe me you!), but of harvesting the local bounty that's to be had right outside the door.  Here, on the edge of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and not too far from Point Reyes National Seashore, there's a plethora of wild plants that have common useage in our kitchens and, for the herbally inclined, in our medicine cabinets.

After some investigation, I discovered that the California Pepper Tree, Schinus molle, is not in the same Genus as true black pepper, Piper nigrum, which grows as a vigorous vine, native to South India and spread throughout the tropics.  Schinus' uses are not interchangeable either, damn.  It is easy to see how one could be mistaken for the other, as when you crush the California pink peppercorn between your fingers, it certainly smells of fresh black pepper.  But no, Schinus molle, is originally from the Peruvian Andes, and a close cousin to the Brazilian Pink Pepper Tree, Schinus terebinthifilious.  S. terebinthifilious turns out to be more culinarily used, as it is often the exotic pepper put into mixtures and billed as "prized pink peppercorns".   The S. molle that grows up the street from me can be used sparingly as a seasoning, as the dried seeds have a slight piquant taste with a hint of peppery tone, but can cause stomach upset in large amounts. The Native Americans commonly use all parts of this tree for a myriad of medical ailments.  My fantasies about using it interchangably with black pepper were unfortunately dashed, and without reliable enough firsthand information on its medicinal uses, I've decided to admire the sweeping branches of these beautiful trees from afar.

However, just this year I spotted a milk thistle plant growing out of the decorative bark near my kitchen door, next to the huge stand of peppermint that can't be beaten down (but thankfully finds its way into my drinks).  I'm used to only seeing milk thistle on my hikes, and usually don't make it back to the same spot often enough to harvest any of the dried flowerheads.  So, I put a note on the milk thistle in broken spanglish "este planta es medicina, por favor, no cortar", as the mow and blow gardeners plow down anything not natural looking. I waited for it to go to seed, and clipped the tan furry flowerheads into a paper bag.  I later donned gloves and tweezers and picked each black seed off the prickly flower head, a medicine that is important to liver health and regeneration and a good thing to ingest if one has an affinity for alcohol (the drinkable kind, that is), or works with volatile compounds (oil paints, thinner, varnishes).  Incidentally, it this amazing seed which is also the only antidote to the unsettling incidences of death cap mushroom poisoning which happen around here every winter.  There's always a few stories in the paper about someone's grandmother who picked wild mushrooms and poisoned their entire family within a few hours of dinner.  Its very sad, as there are a huge amount of edible wild mushrooms in this area, but you will never find me ever attempting to decipher good from bad, I'll buy mine from Whole Paycheck, thank you. Unfortunately, unless treated with Milk Thistle, death cap poisoning is usually fatal, if not, at the very least, cause for a  liver transplant.

I  learned about Yarrow, Achillea millefolia, from a local herbalist on my first hike with a knowledgable professional back in the early nineties (his name escapes me at the moment).  He pointed out the furry leaves(pictured), the broad flat white flower heads (hence the millefolia) and trailing rhizomes.  It turns out that yarrow is a well known blood stauncher, stopping bleeding quite effectively.  He mentioned being on a backpacking trip when someone fell and cut their leg on a rock.  In the middle of nowhere this can be alarming, as a deepish puncture wound with blood gushing could set off a bout of panic.  However, yarrow was nearby and he instructed the hiker to chew up the leaves and flower heads, making a pasty poultice, and shove it into the wound.  The bleeding stopped within a minute and by the next day, the wound was well on its way to healing.  Turns out the yarrow also has antibacterial and immune stimulating properties, so it will help cuts heal from the inside out, preventing nasty infections.  Once I was sawing a piece of wood (yes, I'm a bit of a tomboy at times) and the saw jumped out of the curf and sliced a jagged tear in the fleshy part of my hand near my thumb joint.  Shit!  Looked like I needed a few stitches but I'm not one to rush to the ER (esp with no insurance at the time), so I ran to the backyard instead, did the requisite chewing and chomping of the yarrow, and shoved it into the wound.  A bandaid kept it all in place and by the next day, I kid you not, the wound was 50% better.  A wash and fresh yarrow a few more times had it healed in a week.   Incidentally, the dried flower stalks: long, straight and stripped of its leaves, are used to cast the I Ching, an ancient chinese oracle/advice giving text.  Back in the day I used to cast my own readings, it took about 20 minutes to sort the 51 sticks and cast a 6 line hexagram.  With all that time to ruminate on the question at hand, the result was usually more accurate than the modern "coin toss method" which could be repeated quickly if one didn't like the result.

The yarrow you'll find at the nursery (pictured here) will have similar yet much weaker medicinal  properties, but much more showy bright yellow or even rose colored blossoms.  Have those in your garden for show, and a small stand of wild yarrow nearby by snagging a few wild seedlings, being sure to get some root matter with them.  They easily take hold in your garden or pot, yet won't flower quite as readily or be as hearty as the one found in the wild.  For medicinal use, the leaves are okay without the flowerhead.

As with all medicinal herbs, before ingesting or experimenting with the effects of these magical plants, consult an herbalist and take a few classes in plant identification and uses, cross toxicity and interaction with western meds.  The Pacific School of Herbal Medicine in Oakland is a SF Bay Area mainstay. Adam Seller, Director, is one of the best herbalists and teachers around

Friday, December 18, 2009

A toast to the holidays!

Every year I have a drink that I gravitate to.  If you've been reading my blog (and can identify the photo on this page), you can probably already guess what it is.  To digress though (because what would my blog posts be without a little digression?), in recent years it has been vodka with St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur and lime juice, shaken and served up, martini style.  Mojitos have made their appearance, but usually more frequently in the summer, a refreshing minty alternative to the Margarita.  This year its the Pisco Sour, using Peruvian Pisco (not the Chilean variety), simple syrup, lemon juice and the white of one egg.  As I ponder this drink (and pondered one more closely near my Christmas tree last night after work), I rationalize that it is a Christmas-ey  drink after all.  I mean, isn't it similar: a little eggwhite and pisco (a clear variety of brandy made from grape spirits), to some eggnog and brandy?  (and less caloric, I'm sure).

Pisco Sour

1.5 ounces of Peruvian Pisco (found at any large liquor store)
.75 ounces of fresh lemon juice
.75 ounces of simple syrup (I bought mine at Trader Joes but you can make it yourself)
1 fresh egg white (the yolk, well, you could make some aioli with it, why not?)

Angostura Bitters (or Peychaud's Bitters)

Add all the ingredients (except the bitters) to a cocktail shaker without ice (this part is important, as it allows the egg to get frothy).  Use a good egg white, organic, free range, natural eggs.  Why would one use any other kind anyway???  Shake the hell out of it, for say, 30 shakes.  Add a few ice cubes and shake the hell out of it again.  Strain into a rocks glass (or a martini glass if you must, but that is not traditional).  There should be a nice 1/4" of foam on top.  Sprinkle the top with a few dashes of bitters.  Drink slowly and savor the heady goodness of the pisco and bitters marrying in the creamy matrix.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I'm blaming it on the Butternut Squash Gratin!

My posts have been abruptly halted by the incredibly lame right neck and arm pain that has kept me off my laptop for over a week.

Once I took the time to retrace what brought this on, all paths led to the huge pan of Butternut Squash Gratin I made for Thanksgiving last week (although, I have yet to disclose this to my frustrated chiropractor).   You see, I cut 4 large butternut squashes into 1/8" slices with the dullest damn (Global) knife on the planet.  Why didn't I use a mandolin?  Well, I only have a cheap-o model that doesn't have an adjustable blade (take note all of you out there wondering about what to get me for Christmas! ha!).  The squash would have disintegrated had it been any thinner and the texture of the gratin would have been one big pile o' mush instead of the delineated layers of goodness that it was.

However, that fricken squash was hard (as it should be) and my knife was painfully (literally) duller than you can imagine.  Funny thing is, the reason I even have this lovely piece of steel is because my chef friend Jon was prepping a side dish for one of my dinner parties a few years ago, and was shocked  at my poor stock of kitchen knives.  Next occasion to buy me something, a global knife appeared at my door (and he isn't even my bf!).  Okay, well that was a few years ago, and let's just say my sharpening skills are, um, non-existent.

Which brings me to the current issue, I can't type anymore without producing mucho pain later, so, don't worry, my posts will pick up as my arm chills out.  Stay tuned for more local eats as well as new posts about the naturally edible world outside my door.