Friday, December 31, 2010

Popovers - a new love

As dorky as it sounds to be "in love" with a baked good, ever since making popovers to go with our Christmas Prime Rib, I can't get those damn things out of my head.

This morning as I sipped on my morning tea, my stomach started rumbling,  It suddenly occurred to me that I had dreamed about popovers ALL NIGHT.  The main "message"  was that I had forgotten to add the egg.  Sort of retarded if you ask me considering they only have 4 ingredients:  Flour, Salt, Milk and  Egg(sorry about the political incorrectness of my self-deprication...).   My "dream" creations didn't "pop" over, nor did they puff or any of those wondrous things that happen right before our eyes through the oven door at 450 degrees.

Needless to say, I had to set things right.  Here's a very simple recipe that can be divided in half for smaller batches.    I usually do 1/2 recipe for 6.  Yes, I can eat them all in one sitting, which isn't that bad considering there isn't a lot of fat added... At what point have I ever cared about that?  Um, never, as my cell walls need an "oil change" occasionally.  If you use organic butter, it is the best, as all those pesky pesticides and other annoying fat soluble toxins aren't present, just pure deliciousness.  However, if you have some chicken fat, or beef fat (from aforementioned prime rib roasting) use that, as it will only add flavor.  Of course, using non-vegetarian fat means you probably want to eat these suckers with something savory (i.e. Prime Rib), which would then be pretty much "Yorkshire pudding" (yes, it is the same exact recipe, just cooks a little longer because of surface area etc)...

Makes 12 popovers:

6 tsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs
1/2 cup flour
2/3 - 3/4 tsp salt

Whisk or blend milk and eggs together until frothy.  Sift together flour and salt.  Whisk flour mixture into egg mixture, avoiding the tendency to overmix.  The batter will be thin like pancake batter.  Put into refrigerator for 20 minutes or until ready to use.

Heat oven to 450 F.  Add 1/2 tsp fat/butter to bottom of muffin tins.  (if you don't have non-stick muffin tins, you may want to coat them with some non-stick spray). 

Put tins in hot oven until butter melts to just about smoking point.  Remove from oven and immediately fill 1/3 way full with batter (after giving it a quick whisk).  Place back into oven quickly (you don't want the tins to cool).  Bake about 10-11 minutes until the popovers have puffed all the way up and turn golden brown.  Don't open the oven door to check, it will interrupt the rising and they won't turn out as good. 



Enjoy warm with jam or just by themselves. Because they look kind of like puff pastry, I am tempted to try some savory toppings, with the popovers tipped on their sides, and beef stew or pot roast spilling out the middle.  That's for another post.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chawanmushi - a silky surprise and yes, my Dashi recipe

Okay I know, don't be shocked.  No writey for like, 3 months.  Let me explain.  Things have been a little hectic in food land.  Ever since I stopped working for the "tyrant" in June, I've been patching my income together like a madwoman.  Some weeks are good, and some just plain POOR!  ha!  Plus I have some stuff up my sleeve.  Let's just say it involves my love of Japanese food, knives, and... my love of feeding people good stuff.  Yes, I'm trying to start my own place.

So, in lieu of trashing and praising other people's food, let me share some of my own.

My facebook food and drink posts garner a lot of oohs and aaahs (photographing food is just plain FUN).  A few days ago I posted a photograph of a beautiful Chawanmushi I made on the fly.  Lately I have all kinds of stuff in my arsenal (i.e. my refrigerator) and am finding endless combinations I can make with just a few basic ingredients.  This is one of them:


I'm not officially a Japanese food aficianado, in fact, I'm not even sure I spelled that correctly! : )  However, I do know the basics and have a huge love affair with the stuff (fortunately or unfortunately at the moment to the exclusion of all else).  That said, let's talk custard.

The deal behind Chawanmushi is that it's Dashi (fish stock) and egg based.  Simply, a 2 cup Dashi to 3 eggs ratio.  Once you combine the two and strain them (for clarity and consistency) into custard cups, tea cups or any stoneware cup you have the base.  But let's back up cuz' that's the last step. 

For the custard pictured here, into the bottom of the cup I placed a Shitake Mushroom cap, cut in half (raw), a few sprigs of green onion and about 2 Tablespoons of cooked Dungeness Crab meat.  I then poured the egg mixture over the top (reserving about 1/2" room at the top) placed the lid on and steamed it in a bamboo steamer for about 20 minutes.  I only have two official Chawanmushi cups (replete with lids) so I used a few tea cups and covered them tightly with saran wrap (which works just as well).  Strangely some of you may know, the saran wrap does not melt under these conditions. 

For this recipe I used crab stock that I made from spent crab shells, simmered for a few hours, and seasoned with soy sauce and mirin.   However, I recommend using straight seasoned dashi, as it is easier and if you are a freak like me, always have a quart or so hanging around in the refrigerator.  By the way, don't store your dashi for longer than 5-7 days.  (It is perishable after all).

Okay, you are begging, just begging to know WTF dashi is and why I keep referring to it.  Well, you see, dashi is the staple, absolute cornerstone of Japanese cooking.  It is used as the base for all soups, many dressings, sauces and even  Ponzu sauce is made with Dashi.  Little known but true, most Japanese food is not vegetarian because of this   (which is no problem for me...).

I went to Japan two years ago  (weep weep, it has been so long) and learned how to make dashi from two different Japanese chefs.  I watched my friends at O Chame; in Berkeley make dashi for years and years (because I worked there for years and years), and I've read numerous online examples of how to make dashi.  So, that being said, my way is my way and I'm not imposing my white girl version on anyone here.  I'm simply telling you how to make it so you can start your Japanese arsenal and also get some good flavoring, Umami if you will.  If you aren't into the labor involved (its not that bad but involves somewhat specific ingredients), go to the Asian market and get Dashi granules, a powdered substance one adds to water to produce the same rich broth (sort of like bouillion cubes, actually).  Watch out for the MSG however, because many commercial products do contain it (unless you don't give a shit about that - and I'm not saying that you should...).  Anyhoo, oh, I see, you forgot how long winded my stories are... 

Okay, here goes nothing:

Seasoned Dashi (appropriate for salad dressings, this recipe, soba and udon noodle soup etc)

4 cups filtered water  (1 qt)
1 - 6" piece of Kombu seaweed (may be called Dashi Kombu)
1 large handful of dried bonito flakes
tsp salt
 Mirin (sweet cooking sake)
soy sauce

Place 4 cups water into saucepan and add Kombu.  Soak for about an hour (or longer)  1/2 hour will do, this is not a perfect science, it is cooking for chrissakes!  The Kombu is the source of the umami and other amazing properties that add a little somethin' somethin' you can't get elsewhere.  So, in short, it is okay to soak it for 75 minutes if you forget.  By the way, a little side note, Kombu has naturally based MSG in it, not the evil kind, but MSG is what everyone is freaking on when they speak of umami, the 5th taste, but I won't go into that right now.    Anyway, after the aforementioned soaking has taken place, turn the burner on and the timer on at the same time - 15 minutes.  In about 4 or so the water will come to a slight boil, turn it down to med-low and let it simmer until the timer has gone off.  Turn the burner off.  Add the handful of bonito flakes (they sink into the broth but no need to stir them in) - turn on the burner for a few seconds to bring it to a slight simmer (just look for those little bubbles).  Turn the burner off.  Turn the timer on for 12 or so minutes.  Let the bonito flakes "steep" in the water.  After the 12 minutes is done, strain the whole concoction through a wire mesh strainer (into another pot or heat proof bowl, of course).  This is your basic dashi.  Okay all you Japanese people out there, don't freak out on my technique.  It works for me! 
Anyhoo, this basic dashi can be used now to make Miso soup.  Yup, just whisk the miso in, add a little green onion, wakame and tofu, and you're done.  But oops! we aren't making miso soup right now, we are making something else...

Okay, so next add the soy sauce, mirin and salt.  Taste the broth along the way.  Tt should be a little sweet, a little salty (but not too much).  If it is a little sweet but seems to be lacking, add some more salt, it is amazing how much just a pinch more will do.  Maybe another dash of soy (watch out for this).

Okay, now you have your seasoned dashi which you will have to let cool before we proceed to the next step. 

Chawanmushi can have anything in it.  Sometimes it has spinach leaves, or bok choy or some other chopped up green leaf.  It often (almost always) has japanese fish cake.  Mushrooms are nice, so are green onions, pieces of chicken or shrimp.  if you cut them into 1" pieces, you don't even have to cook them first (the proteins, that is).  But, I like to add cooked proteins because it retains the clarity of the custard without all the excess fats etc releasing from the proteins into the custard which would otherwise occur.

So, add just a few pieces of these treats to the bottom of a custard cup, combine the said 2 cups of cooled broth with 3 eggs and whisk together.  Strain these through a wire mesh strainer (a wire mesh tea strainer works good in a pinch) and top the ingredients with it. Cover with lid and steam for 20 minutes (yes, get that steamer going a few minutes ahead of time so it is ready when you put them in).  Turn off the steam and remove the lid from the steamer.  To check for doneness the custard should be firm and clear dashi should rise up if poked with a spoon or chopstick).  Eat while hot!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

O Chame' Berkeley - still simply sublime

In a world where it seems every last restaurateur is opening a new Salumeria, Pizzeria or some permutation of the Italian way, it is refreshing to experience original, unique, and downright delectable flavor combinations that one can't find on every other corner of the SF Bay Area.   Not to lead you down the wrong gastronomical path here, O Chame' in Berkeley couldn't be further from Mediterranean in style. Instead,  has it's own unique brand of Japanese going on, one that can ONLY be found at 4th and Hearst Streets, in the midst of upscale shopping, where unique boutiques shoulder up against some tried and true Bay Area natives:  Rabat, Molly B's, Erica Tanov; and incidentally, where the latest gigantic MAC store is now putting down its roots.

David Vardy, O Chame's Owner and Chef,  planted his roots there back in 1990, when "4th Street" was developer Denny Abrams' dream, and the shopping district was only a block long, starting with the lighting store on one end, and Kona Kai farms at the other (some of you may remember those days long past).  In fact, somehow, some way, back in 1992, while studying at U.C. Berkeley, I wandered by and landed a job as "Bento Girl" on Saturdays in an old Kiosk that used to grace their patio (incidentally, that same kiosk now lives behind Sea Salt over on San Pablo and Dwight and I think is now used as an employee changing room).  After just a few months weighing fine tea, selling Nambu (a light as air cookie/cracker concoction) and lunchtime bentos, I weasled my way inside, and stayed there for almost 10 years, working every front of the house job with gusto.  Now it's almost 20 years later and O Chame' is still hands down one of my very favorite restaurants, with a consistency that can be practically measured.  And you didn't hear it from me first, by the way, as Michael Bauer (a critic most love to hate) is also a huge fan, keeping David in the Top 100 despite the explosion of new happening restaurants springing up practically every week in Berkeley, Oakland and SF. 

What is it about O Chame and can you get to the food already???  Okay, okay, just trying to set the stage here.  If the walls adorned with artist Mayumi Oda's scraffito (drawings in wet plaster), could talk, they would tell you tales of lifelong friendships made, marriages had, and babies galore oozing out its pores.  In fact, on my last visit I went with my best friend E, and her son M, a bonified O Chame' baby.   E & J met while working the floor there, soon became a couple, and although J defected to the IT industry and later became a nurse, E stayed on for an additional 8 years.  Many of my other co-workers also have held long tenures, a few of them in the teens now.  And guess what, we are all still regulars, O Chame' being a must-have-once-a-month  sort of place.  You get the picture.  A dedicated group.  Perhaps David's food is addicting.  I once had Bonnie Raitt tell me that the grilled shitake mushrooms were so ethereal she felt as if she "had just smoked opium" (yes, that is exactly what she said). 

Oh yeah, the food.  Well, for a "Japanese" restaurant, you may be in for a bit of a shock, as one won't find sushi, teriyaki or shumai on the menu.  Tempura just barely made it on after years of resistance.  Crispy, light, and served with daikon laced dipping sauce, sweet potatoes sit alongside juliennes of asparagus and earthy burdock root.   A beautiful snow crab and kabocha pumpkin croquette is also one of the more traditional items you may find - served with a bonito flake infused ponzu sauce, the portion of two left me wanting for more, but that is the problem with O Chame', it is hard not to gobble up the entire menu, especially since as I scan the list, I know intimately the flavors of each dish before they hit my tongue, like an old lover whose scent still lingers in my limbic memory...

Hamachi Sashimi with Braised Leeks and Horseradish Sauce - a standard favorite of mine,  was perfectly fresh and slightly seared, the horseradish sauce an unusual twist when you would probably expect wasabi (which they have in the back if you must).  I am embarrassed that we couldn't pull the camera out fast enough to snap a photo before half of it was gobbled up.

The seasonal Corn and Green Onion Pancake, seemingly light, yet suspiciously crispy on the outside, the perfect vehicle for dipping in the drizzle-on-everything vinegar-ey mayonnaise sauce, and is something I can't visit without ordering, as is the Blanched Spinach with Sesame Dressing - a very traditional gomae.  This dish has no added oil save for the rich, ground sesame seeds that provide a textural and nutty component.  Rounded out with soy sauce, vinegar (and a few secret ingredients), it is perfectly balanced.
 Vinegared Cucumbers with Shiso Leaf and Radishes has that refreshing crunch complimented with the herbaceous shiso. 

Grilled River Eel with Belgian Endive is one that we ended up order two of, as E's son, only 3 years old, eats like an adult and I just couldn't get enough of the smokey, sweet and salty eel atop lightly dressed, slightly bittersweet endive leaves. 

Since the Hamachi was so great, I opted for the Sashimi salad, where it is sliced thinly, marinated for a quick second in seasoning, and served simply with lightly dressed greens.

Although we couldn't manage to make it past the appetizers,  O Chame' also has a broad selection of deliciously light, yet satisfying dashi based soups that come with a choice of Soba or Udon noodles boasting toppings you won't find at most Japanese places:  Grilled Sardines, Pork Tenderloin, Smoked Trout, Simmered Beef Shoulder...  Yes, they do have Shrimp Tempura Udon for the traditionalists out there...  These soups are a favorite among the die-hards, like an elixir to warm one's bones on a cold winter day.  David also offers 3 -4 entrees per day, varying from Salmon, Yellowtail, California Bass, Grilled Flank Steak or Braised Beef Shoulder all atop magical vegetables that swim delightfully in variously flavored dashi based sauces.  His wine, sake and tea list is simple yet well selected, often with a few french varietals by the glass to compliment the delicate flavors of his food.

As we sat with our sakes, trying our best not to fight over the last precious morsels, we were delighted to see regular faces filter in through the door, including a couple of O Chame' alumni who, after many hugs and kisses, shuffled up to eat at the bar.  A couple were seated near us, ordered their usual pancakes, eel and sobas, and smiled wide when they looked over and saw E and myself, familiar faces like fixtures still in place after all those years.  The sweet lady "texted" her niece and said it was "like an O Chame' reunion." These folks clearly feel the same about the place as we do, as eating at O Chame' and the entirety of its smells, seats, lights, feelings and delectable, consistent flavors has a certain magic to it, like coming home.

O Chame'
1830 4th Street
Berkeley
510-841-8783

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Sucker for the Turntable - Humble Pie, Penngrove

Hey there.  Yup, things have been dark on the writing side lately.  Midlife crisis aside, I have been experiencing some pretty cool places up here in Sonoma County.   One of my current favorites is a tiny little place in Penngrove called "Humble Pie".

My friend K lives right down the street from this place and suggested we spend a Sunday morning checking out their brunch selections.  To the unfamiliar, Penngrove is a tiny 1 block town, (see photo above, I lifted it from Wikipedia, as my camera wasn't functioning properly...).  What you see there, well that is it.  Looks like an old western town, which is the case with all of these towns in Southwestern Sonoma County, a little clue as to why I'm so smitten...

Situated adjacent to the Black Cat bar (in fact, they share a pass through door into the dining room), Humble Pie is the brainchild of two couples (as far as I can tell):  Brooke and Dan McCann, Joshua Norwitt and Miriam Donaldson.  Their motto is to use food from their own farm, situated in Petaluma off Roblar Road, and round it with local produce, chicken and meat, all natural and organic from our lovely Sonoma County lands. 

Enough about the philosophy, what about the food???  And what about the place?  Humble Pie is easily the smallest restaurant I've ever eaten at.  All 6 tables are crowded into a room not much larger than my "small" living room, which isn't a problem if there are tables available, which thank God there were on that morning, as the party I went to the night before was still ringing in my ears, the 90 degree heat outside a little blinding for my inflamed brain cells.  They only serve brunch on Sunday from 10am - 3pm, so keep that in mind when venturing up from the City. 

A small but well represented menu includes Eggs Benedict, Housemade Milk and Honey Bread (Toast if you must and French Toast if you really must), an open faced "Steak Sandie", fresh grapefruit juice Mimosa's, oh and last but not least, a turntable on the way into the kitchen cranking out tunes from vinyl, yes, real vinyl - vinyl that must be put on, and turned over and then replaced every 25 minutes or so (yes, you remember...).  Okay, I hadn't yet eaten one morsel of their tasty food and was already a huge fan.  Oh, and by the way, with the bar right through the pass through door, a Bloody Mary and various other cocktails can also be had.

K had the Steak Sandie - a huge pile of perfectly medium rare Flank Steak with balsamic glazed onions and horseradish creme fraiche atop homemade bread with a huge pile of greens on the side.  She barely made a dent in it (or so it seemed from my vantage point across the large table) when she proclaimed "finito" and had the rest boxed for the hubby.  C (K's son) had toast and fruit, which was arranged like a cutey-patooty happy face, cantaloupe wedge as the smile.  I had the Eggs Benedict (sauce on side please) which came with refried smashed potatoes which if you haven't figured out by now, is pretty much my favorite food.  Potatoes, yes, mashed, even better, mashed and crispy on the outside, well, you get the picture.  Good coffee and "Magic Bus" playing in the background, we couldn't find a reason not to try this place out for dinner, so promptly made reservations for the following Wednesday night.

Our friend E joined us for dinner and C came along too (he's like a little adult, very self entertaining). After some juicy and amply sized firecracker shrimp atop a nice creamy mound of mashed Yukon Golds, shared with a perfectly chilled bottle of J Cuvee (purchased there), we popped my Sequoia Grove Syrah and eagerly awaited the Whole Stuffed Trout (described with quotes from Hemmingway) and the "Pork Chop of Awe and Wonder" - sugar and spice brined pork goodness, which came, not surprisingly, atop a mound of more mashed Yukon Golds.  The pork was perfectly cooked, not too "hammy" as sometimes happens when the brine is too strong or it sits too long, and the trout, stuffed with greens and bacon, was delish!  Who knows what C was eating, as he was busy with his puzzle and Christmas music piped into his headphones (yes, I know, pretty cute).  Two entrees amidst 3 girls and we were STUFFED.  The only complaint most people may have about this place, is that almost everything comes with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes.  For me, however, David Bowie on vinyl in the background (chchchch-changes), our charming waiter/owner, good wine, good friends and mashed potatoes, well, one couldn't ask for anything more. 

www.humblepiepenngrove.com

10045 Main Street
Penngrove, CA 94951
(707) 664-8779

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Persian in the South Bay

Okay, it may be "politically incorrect" to say "Persian", but that's what the people of Iran call their food.  One must admit it sounds better than "Iranian?"   Besides the fact that Persian food is fantastic, hugely underrated and majorly underrepresented in the realm of ethnic eating,  I found myself in the company of my oldest friend Amy, in a hotel in Millbrae, overlooking the airport tarmac and wondering what to eat in the South Bay.  Amy was in town from upstate New York for a conference and had invited me to hang for a couple of days.  Back in our twenties, she dated a Persian guy for many, many years, and one of my earliest ethnic food memories was having an incredible plate of cherry rice and lamb kebabs at a hole in the wall restaurant near his home way out in the bum-f&*k inland empire (socal).  Having lived in Rochester for the last 20 or so years, Persian was Amy's first choice (and being from Southern California,  Mexican was her second).

My quick search on the SFGate site yielded 8 results, Shalizaar got 2 stars and was just "down the block" in Belmont.  It looked only a mile or two away by my google maps estimate, but of course I didn't look at the mileage scale at the bottom... 
First though, we needed to get a much needed happy hour drink so we cruised down the road to the Elephant Bar, a place recommended by the very nice valet at the Westin.  A packed parking lot gave us a glimpse of what was in store:  A bar full of every 20 something office worker from South San Francisco to San Mateo.  This definitely was not our scene and although the place looked "interesting", serving Asian inspired fare with a tropical drink list as long as my arm, we could barely think over the din, let alone find an empty seat.  Instead, we settled on a much quieter Kinkaid's a mile or two down the road and a pretty damn good Bloody Mary set me on the right track to get my tastebuds going.
Armed with a bottle of 2006 Quintessa (I have friends in high places), we hopped over to El Camino Real, the main artery connecting all of the South Bay towns (besides the freeway of course) and proceeded south for serveral miles, finally finding the restaurant.  I have to say I was relieved in advance to find the exterior rather large and ornate, as I just wouldn't have felt right bringing a bottle of Q to a hole in the wall, you know what I mean?

In true Persian style, the place resembled a palace inside, with a large, ornate chandelier greeting us, high ceilings, arches and spaciousness.  It smelled terrific and I could hardly wait to sink my teeth into any of the wide range of kebab dishes on the menu.  They also had rice dishes with stews of this sort and that, and a nice array of appetizers, including fresh herbs with feta and housemade lavash.  Similar to Indian naan, the lavash is done in a special oven and comes out nice and soft, perfect for stuffing things into, lapping up sauces, folding like a taco.  We were happy the fresh herb, feta and walnut basket (Sabzi) were part of the standard bread service, (as we had intended on ordering it), so we ordered the cucumbers with Persian yogurt (Mast-o-Khiar), popped that bottle of Quintessa and got down to business. 

Chicken kebabs, lamb kebabs, beef tenderloin marinated in yogurt, ground beef kebabs, a combination plate,  what to order? Amy promptly asked out waiter if they had "cherry" rice. A big fat "no" was the answer.  No hesitation, just "no, we don't have that today".  Awwwhhh what a disappointment.  Really, he wasn't even going to ask the chef?  Cherry rice is considered a specialty made with dried cherries and compliments the meats from this region with a splash of sweetness.  Well, we would have to do with their standard rice, a saffron and butter infused Persian basmati,  grains of goodness to mix with the yogurt, meat chunks, herbs...

I chose a combination of yogurt marinated tenderloin kebab and ground lamb kebab.  Amy got the ground beef and ground chicken.  For the uninitiated, ground meats are the mainstay of the kebab in the middle east.  Shalizaar does offer the more familiar "Shish Kebab", skewered with onions and bell peppers, but are nothing like the overly-chewy skewers of meat, bell peppers, tomatoes and sometimes (eeghads) pineapple that our Mom's experimented with back in the 70's, when Julia Child and Graham Kerr ruled the airwaves. The menu provided the option to do half rice and half salad.  I wished I had paid attention to the large mounds of rice on the tables around us, as the half salad option would have been the better route and give us a few more shards of fiber to round out the meat and carbs.  Not to complain, because when the familiar plate of kebab over rice with a roasted tomato (for chopping up and eating with each bite) arrived, Amy and I barely looked up as we ate and drank our way past all of the years that had passed between our first Persian meal together.  The richness of the Bordeaux style blend went surprisingly well with our food.  The tenderloin marinated in yogurt was as soft as butter, with a slight piquant from the yogurt, and layers of slightly scented cumin, coriander and cardomom rounding out the perfectly cooked chunks.  The lamb kebab was all I ever hoped for, a nice gamey-ness, perfectly seasoned, and cooked through but with no relation to a hockey puck whatsoever.

Huge plates of food still stood before us as we raised the white flag.  Of course I couldn't let things go to waste, as Amy still had another conference to go to and I had the inkling that cold rice, meat and flatbread would actually not be such a bad mid day snack after the hotel gym. 

Way too full for dessert, my dear friend was quick to ask for "tea".  A standard black concoction that is traditionally drunk by sucking on a sugar cube and letting the tea dissolve the cube as it washes over your tongue.  A sweet end to a great meal, and another memory to add to the long list we have compiled between us.

http://www.shalizaar.com/
300 El Camino Real
Belmont, CA 94002
(650) 596-9000

Monday, April 12, 2010

Santa Rosa Saturday Market

I've been meaning to make it up to Santa Rosa for the Saturday Farmer's Market at the Veteren's Memorial parking lot for weeks, as my friend Brook sells Black Sheep Farms organic pork, lamb and beef every Saturday, making the dedicated early trek from the City to support her brother's small Potter Valley(Mendocino) operation.

Heavy looking clouds loomed as I parked in the spacious lot, conveniently located off the E Street exit on highway 12 (right across from the fairgrounds).  Going to the market starving is like going to the grocery store in the same state, as everything looks great and of course, the spring produce is just starting to pick up.  But what really peaked my interest was the wide array of prepared food stalls beckoning to me for a mid morning breakfast.  What to choose, what to choose?  I oogled the Indian food, supple garbanzo beans, rice and greens.  Barbequed oysters, Mexican food, Mediterranean fare, Yucatano food, and California cuisine were all very viable choices.  I couldn't help but notice the term "suckling pig" and "poached eggs" on Rosso's chalkboard as I rounded the corner to seek out Brook and have a visit. 

While much smaller than its Marin Civic Center counterpart, what sets this market apart is that most of the prepared food vendors are local.  You won't find Donna's Tamales (gotta love them though), Sukhi's Indian Chutneys or the Roli Roti Rotisserie.  Instead you'll find Mateo Granados' incredible booth boasting food from the Yucatan using that day's farmer's market meats and produce.  I was envious of my friend's Mediterranean style sausage from Mommy's Yammy's (pictured right), featuring Franco's sausage from Scopa Restaurant in Healdsburg.

Uncertain what to choose for breakfast (as I truly wanted it all) I treated myself to a coffee from Gaga's coffee, featuring fair trade organic beans, roasted just this week and brewed to order by friendly (and funny) "baristas".  They do it the right way, dripped fresh right into your cup.  Blue Bottle, watch out, you've got some serious competition.
With all of the options for food, that damn suckling pig kept calling out to me from the back corner of the market.  I've been wanting to make it to Rosso Pizzeria in Santa Rosa for some time, so this foray would have to be my introduction.  Their chalkboard was a little confusing, listing poached eggs, yukon potato hash, the aforementioned roast suckling pig, foccacia... 

Why pick and choose when you can get the whole shebang for $12.  Okay, yeah, its the farmer's market, why go if you aren't prepared to pay some cash for premium produce picked just that day, and pig roasted on the spot?

About 5 minutes later, my plate was ready so  I parked myself at a picnic table tucked off to the side, the perfect spot to watch the action, and have an insiders view of the back of the booth boasting a cuban style roasting box, replete with instructions on how to roast a pig in just 4 hours.  A little quiet over in this corner of the market, it wasn't hard for the sweet girls at Rosso's booth  to hear me gushing over and over again about the heavenly goodness of my cold spring morning breakfast.  The egg was perfectly poached and adorned with bright green arugula pesto.  A dollop of rhubarb compote accompanied the perfectly cooked pig, crispy skin a-plenty to crunch with the yukon gold, green garlic hash dotted with caramelized carrots.  As if this wasn't enough, a crunchy, olive oily square of foccacia was provided to soak everything up.  I'm glad my instincts were spot on that day, because
I'm still not over how good it was.  I chatted up Rosso's owner, Chef John Franchetti, and he was nice enough to pose for a photo, holding up a large spoon of hash, Cuban pig box cooker in the background.  I can hardly wait to make it to Rosso the restaurant, but in the meantime, I'll have this perfect breakfast etched in my memory.

Full, fat and happy, I picked up some Hawaiian-Portugese style sausage as well as some traditional Italian sausage from Black Sheep Farms.  I can't wait to make some pasta with the italian, or blend the portugese style with beans and rice for a traditional portugese stew.  The Spring Hill Dairy folks were there, so I bought some organic shallot and herb scented butter as well as some goat milk feta.  Leon Day, of Leon Day's condiments, tasted me on almost everything in his booth, habanero sauce included.  I managed to get away with a spicy peanut satay sauce that I can't wait to try on some marinated chicken.  At one of the last booths on the way out, I picked up some veggie starters for my home garden:  tomatillos, zebra stripe tomatoes, early girls, red onions, and borage;  just in time, as the raindrops had just begun to fall. 

http://www.rossopizzeria.com/
http://www.santarosafarmersmarket.blogspot.com/  (provides a listing of most of the vendors)
http://www.mateogranados.com/

I haven't yet been, but I've heard you can find many of the same food and vendors at the Sebastopol Farmer's Market on Sundays.  Guess you know where to find me.





Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sonoma eats - Della Santina

A trip to downtown Sonoma for dinner was a great diversion last week. Since moving north, I've pretty much been holed up in my small apartment, hiking daily in the nearby open space, and not driving very far.  Not that I'm complaining.  My poor car needed a workout though, so I ventured across Stage Gulch road, the backroad into Sonoma from Petaluma.  Stage Gulch is a gorgeous drive, with expansive mustard fields dotted with new spring poppies around every turn.  The Tin Bar is on the corner of Stage Gulch and Lakeville Hwy.  I've always wanted to stop there for a drink, but haven't wanted to have to get in the car afterward, as shots of Jameson and beers  seem like they'd be the norm (and when in Rome...).  A few miles further, in between vineyards and rolling oak trees, is the turnoff to Willie Bird Farms, a free range turkey farm that has been there forever.  A trip between Sonoma and Petaluma is about 25 minutes max, and that's door to door, town square to town... well, Petaluma doesn't really have a square, but you know what I'm getting at.

Sliding into a parking space in the very quaint middle of town, I decided on a quick drink at The Girl and the Fig, one of many restaurants, cheese shops, and boutique inns lining Sonoma's historic square.  The Sonoma Mission (actually called the Mission San Francisco Solano) spans the northeast corner, which is the last mission to be built, and apparently not approved by Spain's government, since they must have known exactly what they were disapproving of from way the hell across the Atlantic.  Rumors say they built it because Mission Dolores was too cold and was making the Indians sick.  Or was it the white man's diseases?  Better to blame it on the weather...  The square is also the site of the famous "Bear Flag Revolt", a battle to try to gain independence from northern creeping Mexico territory (which eventually occurred during the ensuing Mexican American War).

Enough of history though, and back to food and drink.  As the Girl and the Fig is one of the Sonoma's most notable restaurants.  I sidled up to the bar and one of my old standbys, St. Germain Elderflower Liquour, called out to me (I am a girl, after all), .  A quick perusal of the menu and in matter of seconds (it really was that fast) I had a gin, St. Germain, Lillet, lemon concoction before me.  Small but strong, I was feeling pretty good and about to order a second when my friend M finally showed up.  We decided to stay on for another drink and "snack" (as he likes to put it).  The "snack" consisted of Grass Fed Steak Tartare with cornichons, mustard, and toasts.  Deliciously seasoned with capers, the tartare, which until I met M, I could take or leave, was a fabulous start to an indulgent evening.  A glass of Central Coast Viognier was just fruity and floral enough to balance the piquant mustard.  M settled on a Racer 5 beer, which also went very well with the salty/vinegar of the dish.

Ambling down the street for more "snacks," we were disappointed to find the Harvest Moon Cafe closed on Tuesdays.  How dare they?!  Instead of walking the short distance to the other side of the square  (as prior so-so experiences at the El Dorado Kitchen had left us wanting), we jumped into the car and parked over on the southeast corner (yes lazy, but why walk off a nice buzz?).  We poked our heads into Cafe LeHaye, full and bustling for a warm spring Tuesday, and then decided on Della Santina, an old-school Italian place I was already fond of, even though I had never once been.  You see, Shirley and Dan Della Santina are regulars at one of my old jobs and always took care of me.  The sweetest couple, I was glad to be spending my hard earned bucks in their establishment.  Of course I wasn't expecting them to be working, as their son Robert runs the place now. Dan is still the chef though, and his recipes hail back to the old country with items like Gnocchi alla Nonna on the menu, it brings a tear to eye imagining his Tuscan mother rolling and cutting long ropes of potato laced dough. A brick alleyway leads to interior dining rooms and bar and ends in an enclosed brick patio, straight out of Europe, with white latticework and an old Wisteria vine twisting this way and that.  Slightly funky and probably built in 1922, the patio gives off a familial, rustic and unpretentious air.  The setting prepared me to possibly forgive a few missteps on the food.   Like travelling in a different country, I was ready for anything.

That's probably why when M said "Tripa" four times, looking for a nod of approval from me, I gave in and said, "sure".  You see, in all of my time visiting restaurants over the years, the only place I've ever bothered to notice tripe is in giant bowls of menudo on Saturday and Sunday mornings while I stop into my local taqueria for a (hungover) spicy fix. Somehow, this is one organ meat that seems to have found its way right past me.  M is Brazilian, and apparently tripe is alive and well in the Brazilian food repertoire.   That doesn't surprise me, as us "Americans" are hopelessly behind the times when it comes to offal, hooves and snouts.

We chose a spinach and arugula salad, the tripe, and an organic Porterhouse steak to split.  That's what happens when you are dining with a Brazilian:  meat, meat and more meat.  We were both starving, and the arugula and spinach salad with roasted garlic vinaigrette went down fast.  Robert sent out a second salad of mixed greens draped with thinly sliced pork loin..  By this time we had our wine, a 2003 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi.  100% Aglianico, indigenous to Campagna.  The saline, earthy and dusty nature of this great Italian red provided a perfect complement to the mustard dressing.  And of course the Brazilian was happy another meat dish had hit the table.

Next came the tripe, an ample bowl dotted with chunks of sausage sitting atop crispy polenta triangles.  A moment of hesitation ensued, would I be mortified by this huge dish of entrails, leaving my dining partner to revel all by his lonesome?  One bite and the answer came:  must-have-more.  Soft and only chewy enough to not fall apart, with all those microvilli soaking up the zesty tomato sauce, followed with a crispy bite of polenta...  You may be squirming in your seat reading this, especially the graphic scientific terms.  Knowing me a bit better you wouldn't be surprised.  Dinner conversation has no limits in my book.  And apparently I am now a huge tripe fan.  I'm not sure why I'm surprised by this, as anything connective tissue oriented:  gristle, that membrane that pulls away from the pork ribs when it is perfectly done cooking, chewy fat morsels...  Okay, you get the picture. 

Okay, so needless to say we polished off that bowl in a short time.  I would have more photos of the food, but the lighting was so dim, my poor cell phone just could not make anything out.  I was a slight bit concerned we didn't save enough room for the Porterhouse, but when it arrived, a beautiful grass fed organic piece of love, glistening with charred goodness from the grill, we had to fight for how to divide up the NY and tenderloin. And of course, who gets the edge with all that amazing caramelized fat??  (we split that too)
The steak was perfectly cooked medium rare, with just enough crispy roasted potatoes to chase down each bite (although I could have used a few more, but isn't that always the case for me?).  As we polished off the wine, full bellies and the warm spring breeze swirling about the dining room, I hoped Robert didn't have any tiramisu left, as there was no possible way I could fit one more morsel.  I'd have to wait for next time,  and there would definitely be a next time, as my first visit to Della Santinas had been way tardy, and I had some catching up to do.

Della Santinas, 133 E. Napa Street, Sonoma 
http://www.dellasantinas.com/

The Girl and The Fig, 110 W. Spain Street, Sonoma
http://www.thegirlandthefig.com/

Harvest Moon Cafe, 487 1st Street West, Sonoma
http://www.harvestmooncafesonoma.com/

Cafe La Haye, 140 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
http://www.cafelahaye.com/

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tara Firma Farms hosts Joel Salatin at IONS

So many things to write about these days and so little time with the new job and all.  I was lucky to snag one of the last seats at the Joel Salatin a few Wednesdays ago, sponsored by Tara Firm Farms.  I had vaguely remembered Mr.Salatin's frank manner from the documentary, Food, Inc. But his principles and farming style really stood out to me as I read about Michael Pollan's experiences living and working on his Virginia based Polyface Farms, in the book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan ended up there because he had inquired about Polyface shipping him some of their beef or chicken so he could compare it to standard grocery store fare (he lives in Berkeley). Salatin wouldn't have it, only selling to people who can come to his farm to pick it up. I was captivated by Pollan's apt description of Polyface's committment to rotational grazing animals and fowl in a systematic way.  This method regenerates the landscape for continual energy output and leaves a negative carbon footprint while allowing the animals to exercise their innate animal instincts (letting chickens be chickens).  Salatin writes books, lectures and produces instructive videos as to how to practice his farming methods. The folks at Tara Firm are dedicated to farming using these standards. In fact, reading his materials and watching his videos is how the Smith's decided to start a farm, and they use these instructional treatises to help guide them through each step of the process.

The setting for the dinner and talk couldn't have been more special. Held at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, way up on the hill above San Antonio Valley.  San Antonio what?  For those of you who never make it over the bridge (shame, shame), San Antonio Valley is the beautiful rolling acreage you see on your left as you cross the Sonoma-Marin County line driving north on Hwy 101.  It has always been one of the more captivating landscapes in the area to me, and even 25 years ago when I was a peon in Santa Rosa I remember gazing at the beautiful countryside and falling in love.  This time of year is the greatest, as the bright sun hasn't had a chance to dry out the hillsides and the mustard is just starting to go off in its expanse of yellow carpet.  The oak trees seem happy (I swear) as does the grass, the burgeoning poppies, the flowering plums which are just coming into full bloom and the myriad of wildflowers about to burst forth even more spring goodness.  Okay, I'm gushing, but you would too if you were surrounded by all of this beauty - its hard not to smile.

Up at IONS, which incidentally has been around since the 70's at least, they host talks, seminars, retreats and the like.  Their facility is huge, set on about 200 acres high up on the hill.  The main purpose behind IONS is that they "conduct and sponsor leading-edge research into the potentials and powers of consciousness—including perceptions, beliefs, attention, intention, and intuition."  (sorry I lifted it straight from their website).  I'm no stranger to IONS, as for many years they have been one of the only private funding institutions for alternative medicine research, you know, the kind that isn't really in the market of making money, but instead dedicated to the health of the population and prevention of many of our society's ails.  They are more focused on metaphysical and spirituality based research now it seems, which is basically just another factor along the continuum of health as far as I can tell.

Did I digress?  And you are surprised!!??  About 100 of us lucky ticket-holders gathered pre-dinner sipping wine in the dining room and roaming around the gardens.  What a wonderful space- it reminded me of Esalen in Big Sur (minus the crashing waves and hot tubs).  A diverse crowd showed for the event:  folks who volunteer their time to manage the drop-offs of Tara Firma's CSA boxes, writers, photographers, a local Dad whose daughter brought him along to educate him about what she finds important for her health and hopefully her family's.  I ran into a couple of familiar faces but chose to sit at a table where I knew no one, as why go to an event alone if not to meet new people, right?  I must have had my homing device well tuned, as it turns out that I ate dinner next to Robin Carpenter, producer of KWMR's Farm Report that airs on Mondays (http://www.westmarinradio.net/).  She was a real hoot and gives workshops on non-fiction writing with a bend toward the environment, sustainability, and of course, food.  She has interviewed Tara Smith for her radio show a few times and judging from Tara's ease in front of an audience, I'm sorry I didn't catch them. 
Tara Smith is the most natural public speaker I've seen in a while.  She has a warm, confident and humble way of communicating her farm's mission and even threw in a few self-depricating jokes to keep us attentive (get that poor woman a manicure!).  Most of the crew behind Tara Firm Farm was there and put into the spotlight for all of us to applaud, as well as the staff behind the great dinner we proceeded to scarf down.  Cooking dozens of chickens, pork loins and an incredible array of vegetables, all from Tara Firma, I'm sure took a couple of days of prep.  The did a great job with hand massaged kale with lemon and pumpkin seeds, roasted butternut squash, salads and beets, chicken simply roasted to bring out the natural flavors, and pork with cranberry glaze.   Another gal made a huge production of meyer lemon cake which was incredible, as I  usually don't even eat dessert.

After dinner, we made our way across the courtyard to an intimately small amphitheater to meet the guest of honor.   Salatin entered the small lecture hall, serious behind big glasses, adorning an academic blue jacket and khaki pants, with charachatures of chickens embroidered into his tie.  His effervescent personality was captivating, bubbling forth like a minister, cracking jokes and quoting statistics that had us all in wonder and laughing at the same time.  Quite the wordsmith, Salatin strung adjectives and movements together in long run-ons that I can't even attempt to mimic or replicate.  When the crowd laughed, he repeated his hyphenated adjective string, rolling off his tongue like a new catch phrase for a movement that all 100 of us are in the crux of incubating, a very small percentage of the very small percentage of the population dedicated to the organic/sustainable food movement.

Geez' I'm sounding like a holy roller here.  You'd think I just joined a cult or something.  You have to understand though, what he does is so "no brainer" that it leaves my head spinning as to how our food production system has gotten so fricken out of whack: cows eating corn, and chickens never seeing the light of day.  Salatin has the intellect of a professor, scientific facts rolling off his tongue, equally at ease speaking of how to slaughter a chicken as he is of current government legislature aimed at trying to overregulate small (not government subsidized) farms.  His words were dense and left me much to think about,  ruminate on, digest.  Perhaps it is bad journalism on my part, no tape recorder, no notepad, just taking in someone's energy and passion. And passion is an understatement when it comes to Salatin. As he puts it, when things start to change the people at the front of the movement are called "lunatics," he views himself as only slightly past that label, if at all. However, because most people are followers and not leaders, it only takes 10% of a population to hit the tipping point, when the new paradigm becomes the standard.   A guest asked him how to get his message out, how to convince their skeptical friends.  He said not to try to convince them.  They will only see when they open their hearts.

You may find his lecture on http://www.russianriver.tv/
Rent Food, Inc. 
check out his website:  http://www.polyfacefarms.com/

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tara Firma Farms

I was very lucky enough to spend a very sunny and clear Sunday morning out at Tara Firma Farms, a few miles west of Petaluma, on "I" Street extension.  They offer farm tours every Sunday on the hour from mid morning to early afternoon.

Craig and Tara Smith, proprietors of Tara Firma Farms, came into Central Market for dinner the other night.  Coincidentally (or not) I had just been poking around their website earlier that day.  In fact, I emailed them about a special dinner they are sponsering for now-famous Virginia farmer, Joel Salatin.  If any of you read The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's treatise on the benefits of sustainable farming and the negatives of Monsanto and their corn/cow industrial machine model, you will remember Salatin as the owner of Polyface Farms, where he rotates his fowl and cattle systematically to increase the recovery period of the grazed grasslands, and maximize the animals' natural grazing and foraging behaviors.


The Smith's at Tara Firma are emulating Polyface in that manner, as well as other sustainable, ecologically rich practices that make me proud to live just a few miles down the road.  Cheery with a tanned face and infectious energy, Craig showed Tony Najiola (my new boss) and I around the ranch, traipsing down muddy roads lined with bright green and white milk thistle plants, under electric fences and out to the chicken pens which they move every few days so the chickens have fresh greenery to ingest.  The cattle were high up on the hill happily munching on fresh grass blades.  We made our way across the muddy field (thank God for my new Orchard Supply Hardware $17 rubber boots!) and admired more chickens out in the open: colorful  reds, whites and grey plummage pecking around their mobile chicken coop and hanging around the edges of the pig pens. 


At dusk Craig and his staff corral them back in to ensure safety from the racoons, opossum, and coyotes that would love a fresh plump chicken dinner (and I can't quite blame them).  The pigs, well they are another story.  Loving the mud and rooting around in the dirt, they couldn't have looked happier.  Large sows laid on their sides, teats exposed for the little 2 week olds running around.  There were about a dozen 2 month olds and quite a few beheamoths oinking and snorting and sticking their noses through the fence.  I wanted to stay there all day watching them be their pig selves.

We finished the tour walking through a large open barn where the Smith's hold events and parties, inviting the community to experience their way of life, and turning people on to their CSA meat boxes, $35 or so dollars a week, with an alottment of fresh meat, chickens and vegetables, perfect for a small family and way healthier than anything you will find at Safeway.  Tara Firma feeds about 100 or so families a week off their produce and meats, and connect the folks in our community to the freshness and health of non-factory farmed organic meats and greens.  Tara Firma also has a farm store that you can stop by and pick up their seasonal offerings without the commitment of a weekly drop.

http://www.tarafirmafarms.com/
Tours Sundays starting at 10.

Friday, February 5, 2010

For the love of Quark - The Petaluma Creamery

Last Saturday morning's sunshine was welcomed with a nice long walk out to the edge of town, up to the end of B Street, and looping back down Western Avenue.  Happy horses and cows munched on grass probably enjoying the sun as much as I was, and a huge-sounding bullfrog exercised his lungs, echoing off a tumble of rocks that traversed a small stream.  The green hills sparkled with early spring mustard blossoms. Even though its not quite spring, as it was still January, but who could tell? It was 58 degrees and the rolling farmlands were simply shimmering with emerald lushness.

Down on Western, just a few blocks from the center of town, I happened upon the Petaluma Creamery.  Being a neighborhood institution since 1913, the Creamery (as the locals call it), was recently purchased by Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Company and revived, keeping alive the ability for small local dairies to process their milk there.  The other great thing about Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Co. is that most of their products are organic!  Yay!  The Spring Hill Farm is only 7 miles out Western Avenue (which eventually turns into Spring Hill Road) in Two Rock Valley. This land of dairy farmers harkens back to well over 100 years ago when Italian, Swiss, German and Irish immigrants set up homesteads, bringing their native traditions with them. I imagine the landscape doesn't look much different now than it did then, as many of the farmhouses are original and the nearest neighbors are still quite a walk over to the next hill.

You know I've never been a purist (well, it sorta depends on what we're talking about), but organic dairy products are a must.  They don't contain the fat soluble pesticides and hormones that other products unknowingly have (they certainly look the same though, right?). Not to pontificate, but most people don't realize that butterfat concentrates these toxic and disruptive substances.  I was once taught by the local well known herbalist, Adam Seller, (although hard pressed to find a reference on the Web about it) that butterfat is one of the only fats absorbed directly across the gut into our bloodstreams, bypassing the liver.  So, in essence, not to be morbid, but standard "non-organic" butter has scary stuff possibly piggybacking across our gut walls, getting a free ride to wreak havok on cells and tissues.  Hmmm, food, or I should say, fat for thought, eh?

Back to the Creamery though (even though I may have now ruined your appetite). Housed in the original wooden clapboard building from the early 1900's and looking straight out of an old western, the Creamery makes an impressive array of organic cheeses, various butters (some flavored, some not), and ice cream!  Samples abound, some made with goat milk, and some with Jersey cow milk (hence the name), many flavored with herbs.  The Jersey milk has a higher percentage butterfat than regular Holstein dairy cows, producing richer products.  Large scale commerical dairies usually don't use the Jersey breed because their yield is so much less than the Holstein's, making them not as economically viable. (and we know, in large scale food production, it all comes down to the almighty buck...)  Speaking of which,  I had no cash during my first visit to the Creamery, having been out exercising, and felt a little guilty working my way through the samples, using way too many toothpicks (no double dipping, of course!).

Some cheeses were deliciously sharp and distinctively "grassy" tasting, and others, like my favorite, quark, creamy and indulgent. I'm a huge ricotta fan, sneaking bites as a kid when my Mom was making lasagna and stuffed manicotti. The Creamery's quark reminds me of a cross between ricotta and cream cheese. German style in origin (as opposed to French style, which is firmer like a brie or camembert), quark has about the same fat content as lowfat cream cheese, which means I can happily eat it by the spoonful without even the need for a bagel (ha ha, just kidding, sort of).

Sold in half pint tubs, quark comes plain, garlic infused, vanilla bean, or my personal favorite:  lemon (pictured on right).
A few days later, money in hand, I went back and bought some quark and a pound of fresh butter.  The Creamery also sells fresh local free range eggs and straight curd (milk solids without the watery whey), the essential start to fresh mozzarella making.  I have yet to dig into their small organic ice cream collection, but with flavors like lavendar, lemon chiffon and espresso, and $8 a quart, I'm sure to make this a destination spot with friends and out of town guests, old school style and just 3 blocks from my house.
http://www.springhillcheese.com/

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rocker Oysterfeller's, Valley Ford, CA

It took only a slight twisting of the arm to get my girlfriends to drive out to Rocker Oysterfeller's Kitchen + Saloon in Valley Ford on my last Friday night off (for a while at least). It had been raining for days, and even though I looked forward to some southern fare in the “country”, I understood their trepidation after commuting at 20 mph in huge downpours earlier that day. This week between jobs has been no vacation, as moving on Wednesday was done in the midst of torrential downpours, my brother and I muscling my inflexible couch up the narrow stairwell of my new Victorian flat on B Street. The Temperapedic mattress posed another unwieldy challenge. Not to mention I basically have too much shit.

So back to Valley Ford and why the hell I picked a restaurant in the middle of nowhere on a rainy-ish Friday night?  Situated about 20 miles west of Petaluma, on Hwy One, Valley Ford forms the eastern apex of a triangle between Bodega Bay to the north, and Tomales Bay to the south. I passed through there last September on my quest for oysters (Oysters in Marshall post, September…). And a few weeks ago in my search for a place to call home, I met a guy who happened to be one of the chefs there. While we stood in his kitchen and chatted about the fact that there was no way I could live all the way out in Bloomfield (yes, there is a town named Bloomfield about 15 miles west of Petaluma), I sipped on his incredible homemade Kombucha and made plans to go check out the restaurant, as I’m always up for a road trip if food is promised.

Having looked at their website with good reviews of hearty southern fare, I coerced my friends to go check it out with me. My sister was only committed to pre-dinner drinks at my new flat, but after a little wine she gave in and decided to join us.   As we pulled up, I felt like we were way out west, as it is truly in the boondocks (did I already mention that)?  Nothing but big sky, cows and sheep roaming the pastures.  Rocker Oysterfellers is housed in the base of the Valley Ford Hotel,  an old clapboard style building with the saloon up front and dining room in the back.  We thought of sitting in the bar to eat, as it was pretty lively, but there wasn't a table to fit the four of us, so we continued on to the dining room.

Sparsely populated with a few local families finishing up their suppers, the room's wooden tables were adorned with paper placemats, nice wine glasses, and cloth napkins, giving  the place a rustic elegance. A local artist's Sonoma County landscape paintings randomly accented the walls. It was only 7:30 but I got the impression that folks around here eat early. Got to get up and milk the cows and all that, you know. Us girls  were in great moods and had to be reminded to “simmer down” as we were shooshed by the elderly group at the table next to us, digging into a giant piece of chocolate cake. "Did they just shoosh us?", I leaned in to ask my sister.  Yup, they did.  It is folks like that who have no idea how most places keep afloat. Scaring off people like us, new customers out to spend a little money and have a good time, could put their local “sanctuary” out of business. You know what I’m saying?

Anyhoo, Kimberly is from the south, and I saw her face light up at Rocker Oysterfellers’ down home menu boasting quite a big southern influence with cheddar grits, jalapeno corn biscuits, fried chicken, two different types of gumbo, fried okra and Tomales Bay oysters prepared every which way. While I pondered which oysters to order: fried over a Caesar salad, barbequed with either traditional style bbq sauce, Louisiana Hot, or their house signature “Rocker Oysterfeller” with bacon, arugula and cream cheese, a combination plate magically appeared on the table, compliments of the chef. Yay, gotta love that! After finding out that both Lisa and Kimberly aren’t big oyster fans, I could barely stop myself from slurping all 6 within seconds. But I had to share (with sister), my favorite being the one with Louisiana Hot sauce, but really, I wouldn’t kick the other two out of my, oh, I mean, off my plate.

After much discussion about what to order off a menu that included Crab and Artichoke cakes, numerous fresh salads boasting the pedigree of local farms, grilled local halibut and a huge sounding New York steak, we decided on a bunch of southern style comfort foods to share.  Lisa and I chose Little Farms Romaine salad with Creole caesar dressing and fried oysters (yes, more oysters), the Gleason Ranch Fried Chicken and a side of Mac n' 3 cheeses.  My sister and Kimberly chose cups of gumbo with andouille sausage and seafood, fried okra (not exactly listed as a side but we managed to fanagle that) and cheese grits.  A side of Jalapeno Corn Biscuits automatically comes with dinner, and we wished we had more as the texture of the corn played off perfectly with a hint of heat and cheddar cheese.  More please...

The caesar arrived, with chopped romaine and cornmeal fried oysters dotting the edges.  I was happy with more oysters to indulge in, although they could have used a remoulade or some more dressing, as the lettuce was very sparsely adorned.  In the meantime Kimberly and sis were contending with bowls of dark brown gumbo, unsuccessfully fishing around for seafood, shrimp or even a piece of andouille sausage.  The soup lacked salt and unfortunately, flavor in general. Lisa and I occupied ourselves in between courses with small carafes of Unti Dry Creek Valley Grenache, from a well priced tidy, yet well represented list of both local and european producers..  The also have a full bar and good array of specialty drinks.

Next came the Gleason Ranch fried chicken with Lagunitas Ale-caraway gravy and crushed potatoes.  We quickly forgot about the gumbo and caesar hiccup, as this comfort food dish still has me craving it a week later.  A large thigh and breast were perfectly encased in a crunchy crust:  moist and flavorful. The Gleason family has been farming sustainably out in Bodega for over 100 years and it shows, as the intensely flavored chicken was the most "chicken-ey" in recent (and not so recent) memory.   The delicious gravy, rich but not overwhelming, and "crushed" potatoes were so good, we had to guard them, as our dining companions kept reaching over to steal  That's okay though, as their Estero Gold cheese grits, made with an asiago type sharp cheese from the Valley Ford Cheese Company, kept finding its way over to my side of the table.  The mac and 3 cheeses was out of this world.  I didn't get a chance to try the fried okra, which my companions said was just "so so".  I really can't imagine what were were thinking on this carbo load mission.  However, it was a rainy Friday, and one couldn't deny this was perfect "stick to yer ribs" kind of fare.
 
You may or may not believe that we actually decided to try one dessert, the eponymous chocolate cake our "shushy" neighbors were having. The four of us couldn't even finish one piece, generously filled with a layer of house-brandied cherries.  They added a serious touch of the incredible, as even though we were stuffed to the gills, we couldn't stop picking at them. 

Rocker Oysterfellers definitely has its share of items to return for, as well as much to look forward to:  They are open for weekend brunch, a perfect stop on a Sunday drive in the country and lucky for me, just a few miles out of town.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fred's Place - Sausalito



 My Sunday morning ritual not broken by moving boxes and packing tape, I headed to Fred's Place on Bridgeway for a pre-moving feast and another chance to say goodbye to this funny little town.  Okay, I know, I'm not moving to Washington or anything. My nostalgic nature has been seriously kicking in though, so it was quite fitting for me to spend my last Sunday at this quintessentially Sausalito breakfast joint, perched precariously at the counter on a barstool practically on top of the cash register, the perfect birds-eye view down the line:  plates flying, pancakes griddling, rows of bacon and piles of hash browns sizzling away on the flattop.  It also gave me a chance to chat with Tien, who is always there, running the floor, the register and the counter, spinning like a top with his eye on everyone and everything.  Knowing most of the customers by name, Tien has worked the counter at Fred's for 6 years, which is a drop in the bucket to the old timers there:  Toto has been expertly working the flattop for the last 26 years, and his sidekick, Sergio, for the last 16, scrambling eggs, and making omelettes on the smallest 2 burner stove you've ever seen.   Wait a second, what's the deal with all the sixes??? 

On any given day Fred's is rifled with locals of every shape, size and economic status, sharing communal-style tables with tourists since way back before communal tables were chic and in.  Let me just set things straight right now (in case you had any reason to think otherwise), Fred's is about as local and lowbrow as one can get, and I say that in the fondest way possible.  In fact, most breakfast places are pretty lowbrow when you think of it.  Eggs, cheese, bacon and fried potatoes aren't exactly haute cuisine. No, they aren't organic or serving nitrate-free meats with producers prominently displayed on the menu.   A place that turns tables every 30-45 minutes (I was seriously in there for less than 30), is no place for a food snob or someone wanting Riedel crystal for their Mimosa.  And they do have Mimosas by the way, great fresh O.J., decent coffee and even better lattes and cappucinos. 



As I waited for my bratwurst and poached eggs, dry rye and hash browns (yes, a walking contradication), I watched Toto carefully whipping eggs and pancake batter in a Hamilton Beach shake blender, you know, the old-school kind with 4 heads and fast spinning parts that look like a bitch to clean (been there, done that!).  What a great idea to keep the pancake batter the right consistency and the eggs fluffy.  See, Fred's has its own way of doing things and that's what keeps this place hopping 364 days of the year (they are only closed on Christmas, Tien tells me, as the cooks are "Catholic and that is their holiday").   They don't have website, so it was  hard to find out just when the original "Fred" passed-on and exactly when the Korean family that efficiently runs the place took over.  As far as I can see though, they are doing a grand job with Fred's creation.


Fred's menu is huge, with every kind of sausage imaginable:  Polish, Linguica, Chicken Apple, Breakfast Links, the aforementioned Bratwurst...  Their lunch menu has the usual suspects:  club sandwiches, BLT's, burgers and the like.  They also have Korean-style short ribs, deliciously teriyaki-ed medium rare, grilled right along side the toast.  Yes, you heard right, Fred's doesn't have a toaster, but instead has a guy dedicated to grilling each and every piece of toast they put out.  Their pancakes are the thin, swedish style, perfect to soak up the huge slather of butter (although it looks yellowish, like margarine from where I'm stationed) and they do have real maple syrup, but you have to ask for it.  I'm pretty sure the hash browns came from a freezer bag, and that hollandaise sauce I saw Toto whisking with a dinner fork, it probably came from a packaged mix.  However, somehow the ambiance, the bustling activity and the locals make it all not matter.  If you're worried about saturated fats, and knowing which farm your pork came from, then Fred's is probably not for you.  If you want a great old fashioned, down to earth breakfast, with interesting conversation, a snapshot of locals mixed with tourists and other Marinites from neighboring towns, then Fred's Place is just the ticket.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Skinny Words

HA! You thought it had something to do with weight, right?  The "skinny words" title, conjuring images of recipes touting lowfat ingredients, or perhaps some advice on how to slim down after all of that holiday indulging, or some sort of New Year's resolution to speak only of healthful eating.  Well, I guess the last one is true.  Not the resolution part, but the part about writing about healthful eating.  In my small corner of the planet, all eating is healthful as long as it doesn't include anything "partially hydrogenated", with "sugar substitute", or some sort of "left handed" fat (when our bodies can only digest the "right handed" variety).

But no, that's still not what I'm talking about.  I'm speaking of my blog, and how sparsely I've written in the last few weeks.  Please bear with me as I scrounge boxes from behind the local grocery and stash my worldly possessions in some sort of organized fashion so that unpacking isn't as much of a nightmare.

Who would have thunk that I had so much damn kitchen shit packed into my impossibly small kitchen?  Mandolins (the cutting kind), stick blenders, two food processors (although one is going to goodwill), a huge noodle pot with four different strainers in case I decide to cook 4 kinds of noodles at once (this one doesn't get a box), numerous pots and pans, pitchers, a rice cooker, bento boxes, tupperware, a crockpot, OH MY!  That doesn't sound like much, but the smell of old cardboard permeating my house, and the maze I have constructed to get through to the door is starting to drive me batty.  Not to mention the bleach I  repeatedly spray on those fricken bathroom tiles making me nauseous in my sleep, bathroom door closed, window open and two rooms away... I can't believe I will have to scrub my shower while wearing contacts (cuz' it really looked fine enough to me while showering yesterday, sans glasses, of course).

All for the better though.  I signed my lease a few days ago and strolled about  my new neighborhood.  Located just a few blocks off downtown, my new pad is located in a gorgeous turn of the century (the last century) victorian, complete with wainscoting, curved ceilings, crown mouldings, and a tub. A TUB, which I haven't had the luxury of for the last 6 years.  Hurray!

The neighborhood is awesome, with cute homes every step along the way, front yards filled with lavender, herb gardens, rambling roses and jasmine just waiting for spring to burst forth their fragrant goodness.  As I sat outside The Tea Room Cafe, sipping Assam tea, and nibbling on a goat cheese and balsamic chicken salad, I remarked to my friend that even the young punk rock wanna-bes at the next table were friendly.  They said goodbye and smiled to us as they slid away on their skateboards.  That would NEVER happen in Marin or San Francisco.  Sad but true.

So please excuse my lull, as I will be back full tilt in a week or two (with a few shorties in between). I'm now off to pack my closet.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A farm I can't wait to visit

I stopped by my new restaurant (well, not my restaurant, but you know what I mean) to learn a few things from the manager, Misja, who I'm replacing.  Come to find out, I used to work with her father, Peter Nuyttens, during my time with The Lark Creek Restaurant Group.  Small world, small world, small world (well, its not like I'm hundreds of miles away).  After she visits her Restaurateur-turned-Yogi father in France, Misja  is moving to Green Strings Farm for a 3 month internship.  How exciting!

I've driven by Green Strings many times in the last few weeks on my traverses here and there looking for places to live.  Occupying 140 acres of emerald green rolling hills on the east side of Petaluma, (now you understand why I'm moving), Green Strings not only grows for some top restaurants in the Bay Area (and my new employer), they have a farm store that I can't wait to visit.  Boasting some of the happiest chickens in Petaluma (which, incidentally, has often been called "chicken-luma"), one can buy eggs straight from the coop, organic vegetables picked that day, beef that they raise a few hundred miles north, and even cheese made from the milk of those same cows. 

Misja learned about Green String's intern program through another farmer.  For three months, about a dozen or so interns learn all they can from farm owner and sustainable food veteran, Paul Cannard.  Many go on to get their graduate degrees in agriculture, some jump into the restaurant business from the backside, and others start their own farms outright. I told Misja I was coming out there as soon as possible to write about Green String in my blog.  I'm happy to report that once a month they do a farm tour.  I can't wait to tour, but also, watch out Whole Paycheck, I'll now have a new place to shop!

For more information on the farm, what they sell, when their tours are and how to get there:
http://www.greenstringfarm.com/
For a  nice snapshot from the interns (and I won't be mad if you join), check out their blog at http://www.greenstringfarm.blogspot.com/