Two weekends ago, we ran into our friend Jeanne at the farmers market, as we often do. Jeanne had just returned from an East Coast trip, so we had a lot of catching up to do. But after chatting in the summer sun for a while, Cameron and I started to get antsy: We had to get home to start curing pork belly, the first step in making a batch of homemade bacon. Hearing this, Jeanne mentioned she’d always wanted to make her own bacon, but didn’t have the space for a smoker. “We have a smoker you can borrow whenever you want,” we offered. “Or, you could just come over next weekend, and smoke some bacon with us.”
Jeanne is nothing if not determined: When she discovered that none of the farmers market vendors had any pork belly left, she scoured the City for a piece, so she could cure her own batch at home. Knowing that Jeanne and Cameron share a devotion to the Red Sox, I set the bacon-smoking time so that we could all listen to the game together: 10am Sunday. With pork curing in two fridges and the schedule nailed down, our discussions turned to more important things: What should we make for brunch?
“What do you think about huevos motuleños?” asked Jeanne, linking to her own recipe for the classic Mexican egg plate. “I think your fondness of things Mexican equals mine!” (She knows us well — it took me all of 30 seconds to agree.)
So last Sunday, Jeanne arrived right at 10am, with a bundle of cured pork belly, a bottle of homemade hibiscus-lemongrass agua fresca, and a ripe plantain. After we’d loaded up the smoker and dialed in the temperature, we popped back into the kitchen to finish up our brunch. As the sauce warmed, I refried the beans and crisped the tostadas; Cameron fried three sets of over-easy eggs to perfection (all at the same time!); and Jeanne sauteed the plantains and poured tall glasses of delicious agua fresca. Everything came together at just the right time — amazing what you can make happen when three avid cooks share the work. And so, as the smell of applewood began wafting in from the backyard, we sat down to a colorful and delicious Mexican brunch.
Despite its international origins, our team effort made a perfect One Local Summer feast. With the exception of the fried plantains — I claim a brunch-guest exemption! — everything in our meal came from local sources. It took a little creativity (substituting a salty local feta for Mexcian queso fresco) and a few extra steps to keep things locavore-friendly; you could certainly simplify things by using canned black beans and store-bought tostada shells if you weren’t as set on having an all-local feast.
– adapted from World on a Plate
1-1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes
1 medium white onion, thinly sliced (divided use)
3 serrano chiles, cut into strips
1 ripe plantain, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices (optional)
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 to 2 cups black beans and their liquid
3 oz ham, cut into matchsticks or small dice
1/2 cup fresh peas, blanched or quick-braised
1 oz (about 1/4 cup) crumbled queso fresco or firm feta
4 corn tortillas
Roast the tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet, 4 inches below a very hot broiler, until blistered and blackened, flipping to cook both sides. Cool tomatoes in a bowl, then peel while catching all the juices over the bowl. Coarsely puree the tomatoes and juice using a stick blender or in a food processor.
In a medium saucepan, heat 1T oil over medium heat. Add about 3/4 of the onion and saute, stirring regularly, until onions golden, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chile strips and simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes or so, stirring often, until the sauce is beginning to thicken but is still juicy. Season with salt to taste, and remove from heat to let the chiles steep.
(At this point, you can cool and refrigerate the sauce overnight.)
Pour a 1/2-inch depth of oil in a shallow skillet or frying pan. Warm the pan over medium heat until the oil shimmers. Add tortillas, one at a time, and cook until golden; flip with tongs and crisp the other side, then drain on a wire rack over newspaper or over a cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining tortillas until all are toasted.
Pour off most of the oil, reserving some (2T or so) for frying the beans, and leave about a tablespoon in the pan. Return to the heat, and lay the plantain slices in a single layer. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes per side until richly browned. Sprinkle with salt as soon as you take them out of the oil, then drain on paper towels and hold in a warm oven.
Add the reserved oil to the pan, and saute the remaining onions until golden and soft. Add the diced garlic and cook for another minute or two. Add the beans and a spoonful of their cooking liquid to the pan. Mash with a potato masher until beans are soft but some texture remains. Add more liquid as needed to achieve a spreadable texture, and keep warm, covered, over very low heat.
Mix together the ham strips and the peas in another small pan or dish, and warm gently over low heat. Crumble the cheese into a small bowl and set aside. Remove the chile strips from the tomato sauce, and set the pan of sauce over low heat to rewarm.
Finally, fry the eggs using your preferred method. (Traditionally, you want a runny yolk, so sunny-side up or over easy.) Spread some of the beans over each tostada, slide an egg on top, drizzle the tomato sauce over and around the eggs, letting it run off the tostada and on to the plate. Sprinkle each portion with the ham, peas and cheese. Serve immediately.
Farmers and food artisans who created the ingredients for this week’s meal:
, Winters: Tomatoes
Catalán Family Farm
, Hollister: Onions
, Fresno: Serrano chiles & garlic
, Napa: Black beans
, Oakland: Ham (proscuitto cotto)
, Half Moon Bay: Shelling peas
Spring Hill Cheese Company
, Petaluma: Goat feta
, Dixon: Pastured eggs
, Sonoma: Corn tortillas
, Sacramento: Olive oil
…plus our own homegrown epazote
for the beans
Knowledgeable guitarists say that tone is in the fingers. In other words, if I were to play Eddie Van Halen’s guitar through his stage rig, I would sound like… Cameron playing Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. I wouldn’t look like him either, even though I can make all the wide-eyed guitar hero faces.
I’m beginning to think the same thing holds true for recipes. I made biscuits and sausage gravy for breakfast this morning, which I do every few weeks. I usually forget which recipe I use, so I spend about ten minutes combing through our cookbooks. I have tried biscuit recipes from the back of mix boxes (long ago), the Internet, and various cookbooks. But while they all have their own idiosyncrasies, when I make them they always taste like… well… my biscuits.
Today, I used the recipe from the Joy of Cooking, and I am here to tell you brothers and sisters that when it comes to basic American staples — particularly breakfast fixin’s like waffles, French toast, and biscuits — that Rombauer gal has got it wired. The Joy recipes are simple, direct, and every bit as tasty as the complicated shenanigans you find elsewhere. Especially from that uptight bastard in the bow tie. I mean my god, Kimball: I am not acidulating milk and using two different types of flour at 9am on a Sunday morning, even if Martha herself is coming for breakfast.
adapted from the Joy of Cooking
1-3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour (I don’t bother sifting, and it’s never hurt)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
4 to 6 tablespoons chilled butter
(Joy says that you can use shortening, but… ew. Might try lard, though.)
3/4 cup milk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a bowl and then cut in the butter. (Doing this by hand is picturesque, but a huge pain in the butt, especially on the first cup of coffee on a Sunday morning. Get smart and get out your food processor and metal blade. Dump in the dry ingredients, pulse them a couple of times, then drop in the chilled butter, which you’ve cut into 6-8 cubes. Pulse again 10 to 15 seconds, or until the mixture looks like crumbs.)
Add the milk and mix (or pulse) until you have wet dough. Turn the dough out on a floured surface, knead very gently 5 to 7 times, then roll out 3/4 inches thick and cut biscuits. Bake on an ungreased pan for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the tops are brown.
Red state or blue state, I have a funny feeling there will be many folks in a sickly-green state this morning. Democrats were perhaps a little too far into the celebratory Champagne last night, while Republicans were drowning their collective sorrows. (Not, we should hasten to add, that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Thankfully for all of us, the medical community has fairly well established that the best cure for a hangover — campaign-induced or otherwise — is a nip of the same posion that got you in this sorry state. Even if you sleep ’til noon, it probably seems a little too early to pop another bottle of bubbly, or mix up anything complicated. But a Brandy Milk Punch… that you can make with one eye shut and the other just barely open.
It’s a simple enough concoction, and one that you can almost certainly make with ingredients you have around the house. Milk, brandy, simple syrup or sugar in a pinch… we’re not going to be dogmatic here; It’s rough medicine, after all, not a mixology contest. We’ve even been known to keep agave nectar on hand for those times we’re too lazy or hung over to make simple syrup. Anyway… The milk gets a little protein and fat in your system, good enough to tide you over until you’re feeling well enough to crawl outside in search of hash browns.
I know nobody’s in the mood for a history lesson, but in case you need a referral: Most folks trace the Brandy Milk Punch’s roots — or at the very least, its popularity — to New Orleans, a city that certainly knows more than a bit about surviving the morning after.
Brandy Milk Punch
2 oz brandy
1/2 oz simple sugar (or 1/2 tsp sugar)
In a tall glass or double Old Fashioned glass, stir the sugar and brandy together to dissolve. Add ice cubes to fill the glass to the rim, then top with milk. Stir gently to combine, then top with grated nutmeg.
About 6 weeks ago, I dedicated my Black-Bottom Pie post — our entry in the “A Taste of Yellow” cancer-awareness event — to two special blog-friends:
…to our hostess Barbara, in her ongoing efforts to remain cancer-free, and to our friend Briana. Many of you know her blog, Figs with Bri, where she posted Wednesday about her recent setback: breast cancer has metastasized to her lungs. Since then, her site’s gone dark and her email account is offline. We’re keeping Bri and her husband Marc in our thoughts and prayers, and hoping for the very best.
Since then, there’s been a lot of news.
The best news of all is that Briana’s site — Figs with Bri — is back online. (The outage had nothing to do with her illness, although the timing certainly could have been better.) More good news: Barbara’s LiveStrong Day event was so successful that she had to split the roundup into two parts!
Unfortunately, all the news wasn’t so uniformly sunny. The results of the PET scan that Bri mentioned in her pre-crash post showed that her breast cancer had spread to her lungs, lymph nodes, and several areas in her bones. Classified as Stage IV cancer, Bri’s prognosis is definitely challenging, but it’s a challenge that she and her family are rallying to meet.
Some names you surely recognize — Bee and Jai of Jugalbandi, Shankari of Stream of Consciousness, Manisha of Indian Food Rocks and Garrett of Vanilla Garlic — have put their hearts and brains together to build a fundraiser page to help Bri’s family defray the cost of her treatment. If you’re touched by Bri’s story, you can simply donate out of the goodness of your heart. Or — much like Menu For Hope — you can buy a raffle ticket for a chance to win some pretty fabulous prizes (which are in turn being donated by dozens of Bri’s blogosphere pals).
To raise awareness of the fundraiser, this month’s edition of Click!, the food-photography contest, is dedicated to Bri. And, just like Barbara’s LiveStrong Day event, the theme is — appropriately enough — Yellow, the color of hope.
One of the very first posts I ever remember reading on Figs with Bri was Briana’s luscious-looking Meyer lemon curd with an adorable smiling lemon-face on Marc’s homemade label. A quick glance at the recipe left me stunned: How did I not know that making lemon curd was so simple? Why had I been forking out a small ransom for store-bought curd, when I literally had the best ingredients right in my own back yard? With both a lemon tree and a bergamot tree in our little orchard, this was a recipe I needed. You can bet I bookmarked it.
As luck would have it, our bergamot tree took its sweet time ripening this year, so by the time I was ready to make citrus curd, Bri’s site was down. I ended up cobbling together a recipe from a few different sources, sad that I’d never printed out the post that I’d so admired before it disappeared. Checking back with Bri’s page now — the one that made me drool, then laugh, then smack my forehead — I realize that my version’s not so far from the inspirational source. When I spread it on a slice of freshly toasted Acme pain de mie in the morning, I’m reminded of the sunny day I made it, and of the strong-hearted woman who inspires me.
Fresh Citrus Curd
1/2 cup fresh citrus juice
2 tsp finely grated citrus zest
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
6T unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Whisk together juice, zest, sugar, and eggs in a medium-sized heavy saucepan. Add the butter and cook over medium-low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold the marks of the whisk.
Carefully pour the curd into a sterilized jar and cool to room temperature (about 1 hour). Curd can be stored in the refrigerator for at least a week.
My Dark Days Challenge cohorts, please avert your eyes: With the exception of two or three breakfasts, there was absolutely nothing sustainable, local, or even organic about the way we spent our long Presidents Day weekend. Que lastima — we traded local for loco, spending a crazy four days eating nothing but Mexican food.
Since time was limited on Friday morning before work, we headed to an old standby. Los Jarritos has been the scene of more Sunday breakfasts than we can count, and one or two dinners over the years. The coffee is terrible, so stick with the Mexican chocolate, and the chilaquiles are limp and over-egged. But it’s hard to complain too much about a place that serves homemade tortillas, and the service is always so adorably welcoming that we’re more than a little forgiving of Jarritos’ shortcomings.
Maybe it’s was a case of diminished expectations, but I have to say that my lunch at Frontera Fresco on the lower level of Macy’s Union Square was not nearly the dreck-fest I was expecting after reading some early critiques. Yes, it’s corporate chain food — think Wolfgang Puck Express goes to Mexico — but it’s certainly no travesty.
It might be too strong to say that I enjoyed my meal, but I was served a thoroughly decent, well-garnished bowl of tortilla soup, and an unorthodox (but not unpleasant) chicken torta. I laughed out loud at the sandwich’s sundried tomato garnish, and its lettuce seemed to be dressed in Good Seasons Zesty Italian. But everything else was in the ballpark: rich frijoles, tinga-style chicken, and a chunky slab of queso añejo. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not fabulous, and it’s definitely not worth a special trip, but there are certainly worse ways to spend your $10 downtown. And I’d be downright ecstatic to find a Frontera Fresco branch in an airport.
Friday afternoon, I hopped a southbound CalTrain after work. Cameron picked me up at Mountain View station and in just a few moments we were pulling into the parking lot of our favorite Mexican restaurant, Fiesta del Mar. Our friends Jason and Margaret introduced us to this fabulous place way back in the day — more than a decade ago, now — and we’ve been coming here religiously ever since. Sure it’s crazy to drive an hour to go to dinner, but such is our devotion.
And we’re not the only fans: Plaques on the wall attest to the restaurant’s enduring popularity: They’ve been voted “Best Mexican Restaurant” by the local paper every year but one since the early 1990s. They’re justly famous for their shrimp dishes — Cameron loves their Camarones Alex and the Camarones a la Diabla — but I love them for their great margaritas (El Jimador, rocks, salt… thanks!) and their unbattered chiles rellenos. There’s almost always a line out the door, but the tables turn quickly and you won’t regret the wait.
Saturday morning found us at our usual spot: The Ferry Plaza farmers market, and specifically the Primavera stand. Although this market favorite offers chilaquiles nearly every Saturday, they mix things up a little by varying the sauce; one week it’s a green tomatillo-serrano blend, the next it’s a tomato-chipotle salsa, and the next it might be a puree of guajillo chiles (as it was that weekend).
A plate of salsa-sauteed chips served with Cameron’s all-time favorite soft-scrambled eggs and some pretty delicious black beans… ahh, brunchly perfection. Of course, we couldn’t resist ordering a plate of tacos al pastor — and its perfect pairing, piña agua fresca. Weighted down by our mega-breakfast, we wandered our way around the market, vainly trying to work off our stuffedness while finishing our weekly shopping.
Not surprisingly, we weren’t hungry again until dinnertime. After the sun set, we made our way to the Daly City border to check out a little hole-in-the-wall we’d heard good things about. Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant looks like a biker bar from the outside, with its microscopic windows, spotlit sign, and ugly burglary bars facing Mission Street.
But when you step inside, you’re entering another world. Every surface but the floor is covered with goofy stuff — photos of old Mexican movie stars, life-size parrots, oversized sombreros, and creepy paintings of big-eyed children. The overall effect is like dining inside some crazy abuela’s closet, but somehow it feels cozy, not chaotic. The welcome is friendly, both from the staff and the other patrons. And the food…
Well, honestly, I don’t want to get your hopes up. Lisa’s is decidedly not gourmet, and it definitely isn’t in the same league as Fiesta del Mar. But if you’re a homesick Southern Californian pining for the cheesy combo-plates of your youth, Lisa’s will fill your heart and belly in a way that you’ve never experienced north of the Grapevine. Their chile relleno sauce is just right (it’s the kind with chunks of celery like you see absolutely everywhere in L.A.) and their crispy tacos are dynamite. The best thing we’ve had at Lisa’s — and I am embarrassed to admit, we’ve been back almost every week since we discovered it – is their chile verde. Cameron likes to ask for it in their Lisa’s Especial, a football-sized ‘wet’ burrito stuffed with everything a homesick Angeleño needs to feel right again.
Sunday we crossed the bridge for brunch at our East Bay fave, Tacubaya. The spinoff of Temescal’s oft-lauded Doña Tomás, this taqueria — tucked behind Sur La Table and Café Rouge on Berkeley’s Fourth Street restaurant row — lures breakfasters into gorgeous skylit space decked out in tropical-fruit colors and natural wood surfaces. It’s a neighborly place, albeit one with a very calculated and upscale vibe, and though the crowds come out in force, the line moves fast and there’s never much of a wait for a table.
No matter what time of day we visit, we can never resist an order of churros y chocolate; other breakfast fare mostly starts and stops with so-so chilaquiles and decent variations on huevos, plus menudo on weekends. Like its O-Town sibling, Tacubaya bases its menu on local produce and sustainable meat.
Later in the day, we took a long-overdue tour of Oakland’s taco-truck scene. We used to love planning day-long taco crawls with our Seattle crew, and when we first moved back to San Francisco, we tried to get our new friends to follow suit. Various circumstances conspired against us — ranging from a surreal bout of foul weather to half the group catching one of those pandemic colds — and eventually we gave up trying to get everyone across the bay at the same time. But I’d kept my notes, adding a truck here or a cart there from time to time, and waited for the right day. And now that day had come.
We started out at the corner of 22nd and International, at a former A&W Drive-In that’s now home to not one but two taco trucks. Tacos Sinaloa features the usual assortment of meats — carnitas, chorizo, carne asada, and such — ensconsed in the eater’s choice of tacos, burritos, tortas and more. Across the parking lot, Mariscos Sinaloa offers all these plus fish tacos, tostadas de ceviche, and other seafood-based items. I opted for a taco full of deliciously meaty carnitas; Cameron had a muy sabroso shrimp taco from the other truck. Off to a good start, we ate our way up and down the boulevard, stopping at any truck where we saw more than two people in line. Our favorites: El Grullo’s tacos al pastor, Tacos Guadalajara’s shredded carnitas, and the cabeza at El Novillo in the shadow of Fruitvale BART.
Monday is a hard day to find Mexican breakfast in the City; many family-run businesses take the day off after their weekend rush. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so we headed to Green Chile Kitchen over in NoPa. It’s the kind of storefront cafe you find in nearly every San Francisco neighborhood: Wood tables, tall windows, a chalkboard menu, and a tall counter where you place your order.
Sadly, the food’s no better than average, and it’s definitely Southwestern rather than Mexican. But they use quality ingredients (mostly organic produce, Niman Ranch meats, and Fulton Valley chicken) and there’s good coffee, easy street parking, and a pleasant little vibe.
As we were leaving NoPa, the once-cloudy day turned sunny, so we grabbed the dogs and headed back to the Mission. There’s nothing better on a bright winter afternoon than a lazy meander down the eastern stretch of 24th Street, where you can walk and shop for hours without hearing a single word of English. When we’d finally gotten our appetites back, Cameron entertained the pups while I popped into Tortas Los Picudos, a cheerful slice of chaos where they sell grilled Mexican sandwiches and licuados (which many shops translate as “milkshakes” although they’re really more like smoothies).
Fillings at Los Picudos run the gamut from basic ham-and-American or turkey-and-Swiss to belly busters like the Cubana. A very distant relation to the medianoche you may be used to, Los Picudos’ porcine homage to La Isla includes roast pork, ham, queso fresco, lettuce, jalapeños, mayonnaise, butter… and a foot-long hotdog! We wisely chose to split a spicy pulled-pork torta, and picked up a Mexican Coke at Casa Lucas on our way back up the block.
By the time we were hungry again, our options on a Monday night had diminished to a handful of late-night taquerias. Wanting to make sure we ended our weekend of gluttony on a high note, we popped down the hill to our nearby favorite, El Gran Taco Loco. Sandwiched in between a hard-liver bar and our local branch of Cole Hardware, Taco Loco has won our hearts despite its interrogation-room lighting, uncomfortable booths, and goofball murals.
We long ago discovered that the burritos and other semi-Americanized offerings at Taco Loco aren’t much to write home about, but their tacos — and most specifically, their carnitas tacos — are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. (Or at least the next 4 to 6 hours.) Cameron’s a huge fan of their birria, — a goaty, dark-chile-flavored soup that’s good for whatever ails you on a Sunday morning. But for our last meal of the long weekend, we kept it simple: A carnitas super-taco for me, and a buche taco for the bald guy. It certainly wasn’t the best meal of the bunch, but a late-night snack at our neighborhood favorite was definitely a fitting end to a gastronomical journey that spanned three area codes.
901 South Van Ness
San Francisco, CA 94110
170 O’Farrell Street, Macy’s basement level
San Francisco, CA 94103
Fiesta del Mar
1005 N. Shoreline Blvd
Mountain View CA 94043
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (Embarcadero at Market)
San Francisco, CA
Lisa’s Mexican Restaurant
6582 Mission Street (near John Daly Blvd)
Daly City, CA 94014
1788 4th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Tacos Sinaloa / Mariscos Sinaloa
International Blvd & 22nd Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
International Blvd & 26th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
International Blvd & 44th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601
Tacos El Novillo
1001 Fruitvale Avenue
Oakland, CA 94610
Green Chile Kitchen
601 Baker Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
Tortas Los Picudos
2969 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
El Gran Taco Loco
3306 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
We’ve talked a lot about our Dark Days Challenge dinners, and even occasionally mention our lunchtime trials, but — aside from our “free-range” egg dilemma — we’ve rarely made a peep about breakfast. The truth of the matter is we’re in a bit of a rut: Nearly every morning, Cameron eats an over-easy egg and a slice of Acme toast with Spring Hill farmstead butter. Not such a fan of the usual breakfast fare, morning often finds me dipping into leftovers, cannibalizing my lunch, or scrounging some other non-breakfasty breakfast.
But when the weekends roll around, it’s big-breakfast time for both of us. Every Saturday, we head to the Primavera stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market at the start of our shopping rounds. We’re so predictable that David and Paulette know us by name, tease us when we’re bleary-eyed, and generally treat us like the regulars we are. Some days we split a single order of chilaquiles, but more often — especially if there’s something else on the changing menu that catches our eye, like fish tacos, perhaps, or tacos al pastor — we’ll each get our own plate and share. Primavera’s tortillas and chips aren’t made from local corn, but they do manufacture both items in Napa, and purchase their eggs and produce from local farms. Judged by volume, our Saturday breakfasts probably don’t quite make it to the 90%-local mark, but we’re content with understanding exactly where our food is coming from, and knowing that we’re directly supporting such a fabulous crew.
We often stay up late on Saturday nights, so Sunday breakfast is more of a brunch-time affair. Sometimes we’ll brown some homemade pork sausage and Cameron will whip up biscuits and gravy with scrambled eggs. Other times we’ll simply fry up some local bacon — we alternate between Fatted Calf and Range Brothers — and serve it alongside two of Cameron’s perfect basted eggs and a slice of Acme toast topped with June Taylor preserves or local honey. We rarely plan these Sunday meals in advance, and yet they’re always wonderful.
During the first part of the month, we had two of my favorite brunches of all time: a post-porchetta batch of hash with poached eggs and buttery toast, and a plate of custardy French toast made from leftover baguette slices (we froze two bags full after the cocktail party!) alongside Range Brothers sausage. With the exception of maple syrup, and the flour in the locally made bread, everything on our table on both mornings was 100% local. And 100% fabulous.
For the most part, we stuck with old favorites and tried-and-true options for lunches and dinners in the first part of the month; even our Valentine’s Day dinner was a simple grilled steak with creamed spinach and roasted potatoes, with ice-cream sundaes for dessert. We did have one out-of-the-ordinary supper: A picnic in a cozy downtown hotel room. Much as I’d love to tell you that we planned a romantic escape, the truth is that the overgrown frat-boy who lives in the house next door decided to have (yet another) all-night party, and we had to evacuate.
While Cameron packed up the dogs and our overnight bag, I headed to a local supermarket for makeshift meal provisions. The locavore-friendly pickings at the Bristol Farms around the corner from my office are pretty slim, but I did manage to score a crusty loaf of Artisan bread, some respectable sopressatta from a outfit called Ticino (a second-label brand from local mega-brand Columbus, it turns out), and a couple of nice local cheeses. A quick stop at CocoaBella turned up just two locally made treats: peanut butterflies and salt caramels from Charles Chocolates — a sweet ending to an otherwise hectic evening.
Dark Days Ticker — February 1 to 14
- Dark Days meals at home: 8 dinners, 2 brunches, most breakfasts
- Locavore dining-out: Range
- New recipes: Chard gratin, Coq au vin
- Old faves: porchetta, pork hash, shaved fennel salad, Clearman’s red cabbage slaw
- Freezer fodder: Rigatoni Bolognese, Cameron’s chicken soup
New local items in the pantry:
- Capellino spinach-ricotta ravioli (San Francisco — 5 miles)
- Charles Chocolates (Emeryville — 13 miles)
- Ticino sopressata (Hayward — 35 miles)
- Marin Sun Farms range roosters & stewing hens (Point Reyes Station — 43 miles)
- Artisan Bakers sweet batard (Sonoma — 47 miles)
- Barbara’s Natural potato chips (Petaluma — 51 miles)
- Rancho Gordo chiles de arbol (Napa — 51 miles)
– Marin Roots Farm mâche/lambs lettuce (Petaluma — 52 miles)
- Fiscalini Farmstead ‘San Joaquin Gold’ grating cheese (Modesto — 87 miles)
All the cool kids are taking blog-sabbaticals this summer. Oh, how I wish that were the reason why we’ve been so blissfully post-free. Truth is, we’ve got plenty of inspiration, and we’re cooking up a storm. We’ve had a week of meals lined up, shopped for, and planned to a fare-thee-well. But – sadly, right in the heart of the best-eating time of the year – we’re more than a little off our game.
First there were the gnocchi.
As any sane cook will tell you, gnocchi are fraught with peril, even in the best of circumstances. Attempting to devise gnocchi that are somehow simultaneously delicious, gorgeous, and interesting enough to write about adds a serious degree of difficulty. While I am sure there will be plenty of entries in this month’s exciting episode of Hay Hay, It’s Donna Day, my Day-Glo fuschia beet-ricotta gnocchi will not be among them. Fussy, dumpy, and not terribly tasty… it’s not too strong to call this an outright failure.
Then there was the antipasto salad. I think it’s safe to say that Nancy Silverton is decidedly not targeting my demographic with her latest book, A Twist of the Wrist. It’s a cool, heartfelt attempt at legitimizing the semi-homemade trend, streamlining weeknight dinners with the judicious application of store-bought gourmet goods. Like tapenade.
Oh, the tapenade.
Trust me, kids, it was all I could do to fight the urge to just buy some good olives and slap them in the Cuisinart with a splash of olive oil and a spoonful of capers – completely eliminating the book’s time-saving charm. So I didn’t; I bought a nice-looking bottle of chunky green-olive paste and added it to my pile of lettuce, salami, and herbs.
You know where this is going, eh?
Salty, metallic and otherwise irredeemably bad, the store-bought ‘tapenade’ overpowered all of the other ingredients – and I’d only used half what the recipe called for. I don’t think we actually tossed it all down the drain, but it was a near thing; there was a lot of picking good salami and cheese out of the hyper-salinated salad.
Returning to familiar territory, we pulled out a tried-and-true recipe for Thai shrimp-cakes from Dancing Shrimp. Our makrut lime tree is finally bearing fruit, and these savory morsels seemed the perfect way to showcase our harvest for Andrea’s “Grow Your Own” roundup. As I pulled all of the ingredients out of the fridge, I caught a whiff of the ‘fresh’ shrimp we’d bought at Whole Foods: It had spoiled overnight. (That will teach me to sleep in and skip the market. This would not happen at Shogun.)
Feeling defeated, we cannibalized a meal we’d planned to eat later in the week: Rib-eye steak and rosemary salt-roasted potatoes. It was fine, I guess, although we both picked through the definitely-not-Prather-quality meat and the too-sweet supermarket spuds.
Last night, in need of a sure thing, we hoofed it all the way down the peninsula to our favorite Mexican restaurant. We’ve eaten there for more than 10 years now, always bragging that we’d only ever had one bad meal there. Well, now we can say we’ve had two: Unmelted cheese, blown-out rice, tortillas heated to the point of hand-scorching rubberiness, and a squeaky-dry chicken tostada. At least the margaritas were good.
With the exception of a lovely dinner at Oliveto on Monday, I can honestly say that there were exactly two meals over the last week that I truly enjoyed: a fluffy Denver omelette I made from piperade leftovers, and a bowl of Rancho Gordo’s giant lima beans simmered with onions that had been sautéed in bacon drippings.
Amid an overwhelming collection of intricate disasters and well-planned flops, these simple, graceful plates stand out as a steady reminder: Sometimes even the best-laid plans are no match for kitchen kismet, and sometimes less is more.
3 large eggs
1 T half-and-half, or cream
2 T butter
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced bell pepper
1/2 cup small ham cubes
1/4 to 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
In an 8-inch skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Saute the onions until they just begin to soften. Add the pepper, and saute until vegetables are well softened but not browned. Add the ham cubes and saute until heated through. Remove sauteed ingredients to a plate and keep warm. Return the skillet to the fire.
In a medium bowl, scramble the eggs and the half-and-half until well blended and a little frothy. Add the beaten eggs to the hot pan, and let sit for 15 seconds; stir gently with a wooden spatula, pulling the curds toward the center of the pan and encouraging liquid to fill in the gaps. When a little liquid remains, use the spatula to gently even out the thickness of the curds in the pan, and reduce the heat to low. Spread the cheese all over the soft-set eggs, then evenly top one side of the omelette with the filling. Cover the pan and let sit for a few minutes until cheese melts. (If the underside of the egg browns too much, turn off the heat entirely; the pan will be hot enough if you leave the lid on. Unlike a French omelet, you do want some color and crispness, but you don’t want leathery eggs.)
When cheese is melted, fold the unfilled side of the omelette over the filling. Slide onto a warmed plate, glazing the top with a bit more butter, if desired.
Serves 2 with salad as a light supper, or a very satisfying breakfast for one hungry soul.
Sometimes, my palate is a live illustration of the law of unintended consequences. The combination of our sausage-making party and the constant talk about preserving food that comes with summer rattled around in my subconscious for weeks.
Then, on a Saturday morning as we did our shopping, we passed by Shogun Fish at the market. They were advertising the first local wild salmon of the season and a relay closed somewhere in my head. Suddenly, I wanted gravlax, and I wanted to make it myself.
On the hunt for a recipe, I turned to Tom Douglas’ Seattle Kitchen. Tom is my first stop when I need wisdom about salmon, and his advice mostly lined up with other recipes and random commentary that I found around the InterWebs. I guess. The big differences were the addition of ground juniper berries (possibly traditional) and the absence of dill (definitely untraditional), and the presence of some other spices.
Fennel? Cayenne? Okay, whatever.
In theory, I knew that the process wasn’t difficult: just a simple salt/sugar cure. But I had no idea how dead-freakin’-easy it would be. Just pack the dry cure over and around the fish, weight the whole pile down with cans or what-have you, refrigerate, wait a few days and POW! Instant gravlax. Seriously, the hardest thing about this whole project was picking the juniper berry flecks out of the finished product. Obsess much? No! Yesssss. (Who said that?)
I love this stuff. I eat it for breakfast — with soft scrambled eggs, yum — for lunch, for a snack, whenever. For my next batch I’m going to try vacuum-sealing and freezing some to see how it holds up.
1-1/4 pound salmon fillet, preferably skin on, pin bones removed
2/3 cup kosher salt
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground juniper berries
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Combine the cure ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle the bottom of a non-reactive baking pan with about 1/2 inch of the cure and place the fish in the pan, skin side down. Blanket the fish with the remaining cure, creating a layer about 1-1/2 inches thick.
Cover the salmon with a piece of wax paper and top with another smaller pan, then weight the top pan down with a few cans. Store in the refrigerator for two to three days until the salmon is quite firm to the touch; the exact amount of time will depend on how thick your piece of salmon is. Remove the wax paper and the cans, and then use a rubber spatula to scape the cure from the salmon. Remove the salmon from the pan and briefly rinse it, then pat it dry with paper towels. To serve, slice the gravlax very thinly on the bias.
Cook’s note: I was not shy at all about rinsing the gravlax under cold running water until the cure was gone, daddy gone.
Seattle must have missed us, because she tucked away her raincoat and put on her cutest spring dress for our recent three-day-weekend trip. Not that we would have cared if it had poured rain for 72 straight hours. Well, maybe a little. But the sunshine rounded out an amazing trifecta of food, friends, and fantastic weather.
As soon as we checked in at the hotel, we headed over to ‘Seattle Customs and Immigration’, better known as the Zig Zag Cafe. Anita has already posted about that stop, but I’ll just add that the joint was as packed as we’ve ever seen it. The revival of the cocktail and a couple of years of steady national press, including a spot for Murray on Playboy’s Top 10 American Bartenders list, have alerted the rest of the world to the magic happening there.
We usually keep to ourselves on our first night in Jet City, but we weren’t surprised to run into several friends at the Zig Zag, including Rocky (a.k.a. Old Two Livers). When the lights went on and the chairs went up on the tables, we followed Rocky to The Purple Dot in the International District. The menu at the Purple Dot reads like a description of a catering accident at the United Nations, and we took full advantage, ordering beef internal delicacies (belly, tendon, and tripe), soup noodles with beef and fish balls, beef curry, spaghetti with ham and chicken, and salt-and-pepper pork ribs. This is stuff that’s meant to be eaten at 3am with a serious load on, but I’d go back for those ribs at any time of day or night.
Dawn’s early light made way too much noise on Saturday morning, accompanied by a call at 7:30am from our remodel contractor spouting incomprehensible (and ultimately inessential) gibberish. Seeing round out of one eye and square out of the other, we shaped up as best we could and set course for the Steelhead Diner by way of the Daily Dozen Donut Company at Pike Place Market.
We figured that a mixed dozen baby doughnuts would be essential sustenance for a wait for brunch at the Steelhead, as it was close to noon on a bee-yoo-tifful Saturday. There was no line, but we killed some time snarfing doughnuts and replenishing the world’s stock of pictures of the Market’s famous sign. As it turned out, that bag of pastry would be the best thing that we’d eat that morning.
Despite a promising menu packed with foodstuffs from local purveyors, the half-empty Steelhead took nearly 45 minutes to deliver disappointment on white plates. The fish portion of my fish and chips was pretty good, but the chips absolutely sucked. The whole plate cost $16, and they didn’t even put bourbon in it or anything. Anita’s eggs Ellenburg — a Sysco-style chicken-fried steak topped with (broken!) fried eggs and a terrible sausage gravy — was stunningly bad.
Salvation lay only a couple of hours away. When the mid-afternoon turned peckish, we decided to visit our friend Jason at his ‘office’: Pagliacci Pizzeria in Lower Queen Anne. We ordered a couple of slices, sampled the monthly special ‘za (Portabello Primo: yum!), and re-acquainted ourselves with the sorely missed Pagliaccio salad.
After a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up, we met a crew of friends for drinks at the stylish, strikingly beautiful Vessel. Read Anita’s review and go now: This winning combination of smart, solid cocktails, tasty nibbles, and attentive, welcoming service is already drawing crowds.
From Vessel, we taxi-ed over to Tavolata, a new Belltown Italian venture from Union superchef Ethan Stowell. With a little help from a friendly kitchen, our posse of eight serious eaters managed to sample almost the entire menu. It was all very, very good, right down to the lemon zeppole for dessert. (How can you argue with a day that begins and ends with doughnuts?)
Two weeks later, Anita is still dreaming about this meal. Ethan’s crew is making most of their pasta from scratch in a basement workroom filled with flour-grinders, dough-extruders, and restaurant-sized rollers. And, while the secondi are glorious — both the Fiorentina-style T-bone and the double-cut pork chop are among the best meat dishes of the year so far — the pasta is amazing and totally different than anything else in town. Out of a near-dozen options, we sampled eight and there wasn’t a clinker in the bunch, from familiar standbys like a heart-stoppingly good rigatoni in tomato sauce to more-adventurous recipes like gnocchi with bitter greens.
Mind you, this was after we’d eaten our fill of gorgeous starters like cork-shaped fried polenta with bagna cauda, asparagus and fried duck egg topped with shaved Parmesan, octopus and bean salad (which will win over tentacle haters), and house-made mozzarella cheese served with a hazlenut-butter crostino. And they serve all of this gorgeous fare until 1am daily — sure beats the pants off of Beth’s.
One of the pleasant hazards of visiting our second home city is that we have a long list of ways to complete the sentence, “A visit to Seattle wouldn’t be complete without…” Sunday morning, the Mad Libs answer was, “brunch at Cafe Campagne with friends: ouefs en meurette, ouefs en cocotte, bloody marys, and bowls of cafe au lait.” We filled in another blank later that day with “…pizza and pasta at Cafe Lago,” with Tea and Carla.
Our last day was a bit of a struggle, food-wise. Breakfast: indifferent ouefs plats (but fabulous conversation and to-die-for morning light) at Le Pichet. Lunch: Lots of laughter (and friendly staff) at Bernard’s on Seneca, a “morbid curiosity” favorite as much for its “Germans storming the castle” decor as for the surreal food.
The lone bright spot for our tastebuds on Monday was a pint of cream ale at Hale’s Ales. We knew better than to try and eat at the pub, and decided to grab a pre-flight late afternoon snack at Baguette Box as we passed through lower Cap Hill. Can we say it? We are completely over this place. Every time we go, poor execution torpedoes a nifty “bahn mi-goes-global” sandwich-shop concept. And they’re always out of the first two things I want to eat… argh.
The rain began to fall as we drove south to the airport, and the droplets obscured the glimpses that we were catching of the skirts of Rainier. The distant mountain just barely peeked through the haze that erases her enormous presence even when the day seems clear and bright. We waved and said goodbye. Maybe she’d come out for our next visit — one of the many dear friends that we look forward to seeing again.
ps: You can see photos from all 15(!) food and drink stops in our Seattle Collection.
Purple Dot Cafe
515 Maynard Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98104
Daily Dozen Donut Company
93 Pike Street (Pike Place Market)
Seattle, WA 98101
95 Pine Street
Seattle, WA 98101
550 Queen Anne Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98109
2323 Second Avenue
Seattle, WA 98121
1600 Post Alley
Seattle, WA 98101
2305 24th Avenue East
Seattle, WA 98112
1933 First Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
Bernard’s on Seneca
315 Seneca Street
Seattle, WA 98101
Hale’s Ales Pub
4301 Leary Way NW
Seattle, WA 98107
1203 Pine Street
Seattle, WA 98101
I made an atypical stop at Starbucks on the way in — oooh, they’re importing Top Pot doughnuts from Seattle! — and got a huge kick out of the array of super-picky orders being called out by the barista:
“Short triple latte extra-hot, extra foam”
“Iced triple tall sugar-free cinnamon dolce”
“Venti half-caf extra-shot soy with-whip white-chocolate mocha”
They were all picked up by people wearing Fancy Food Show badges.