Sunday, July 11, 2010

Boysenberry Bliss

Berry season is my favorite time of the year. In San Francisco’s mild climate, where there is only about a 25 degree swing between summer and winter, I divide the year up into 2 seasons: Berry Season and Boring Season.

Ok, so that might be a bit extreme, but my friend and I like to spend the winter months ranking our favorite berries. Strawberries and blueberries tend to be in the top 2. We debate whether we prefer raspberries to blackberries. Well, now we don’t have to choose…we recently discovered the boysenberry! I’ve had boysenberry jam before, but had never tried a fresh one. There was a booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s market this morning that I’d never seen before. They sold beautiful jams and preserves, and they had an impressive display of plastic clamshells filled with succulent-looking fruit.

Boysenberries look like exactly what they are: a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry. They are large and plump like blackberries but have a deep red base that betrays their crossbreeding. Biting into one sets off a juicy explosion in your mouth. Boysenberries are a grown-up berry. They don’t overwhelm you with tartness, there are very few seeds, and they are more complex than any berry I’ve ever tried before.

The initial flavors are just tart enough to make your mouth water. Then you taste the sweetness that can only be described as a concentrated berry flavor that dances on your tongue. It’s like every berry you’ve ever tasted all rolled into one. The kiddie flavor “mixed berry” wishes it could taste like this. The finish is a lingering reminder of lazy summer days and purple-stained lips from trying to beat the birds to the ripe fruit growing next to my childhood home.

The aforementioned friend was lucky enough to score some boysenberry-cognac sauce from her neighbors. She was also nice enough to share some with me, but don’t worry, I gave her a gorgeous clamshell of fresh berries in the same transaction. It’s nice to have friends who are willing to barter for berries. The sauce was thick, and the deep purple color created a stark contrast against the creamy white yogurt I ate with it. I would love to have the self-control (and budget, at $4/clamshell at the Farmer’s Market) to make this sauce some day, but the berries don’t last long enough in my apartment.

As I’m writing this, there is only one lone survivor sitting in what used to be a bowl of gorgeous jewel-toned boysenberries. I’m sad to eat it, but I hope my new discovery will be present at next Saturday’s market. Well, maybe not too sad…that was delicious!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Someone in my lineage likely had dyslexia…

My mother’s side of the family is a classic Italian-American clan. My grandfather is a first-generation American citizen and my grandmother was second-generation. Gramps’s birth certificate reads “Umberto DiLuciano” (even though he goes by “Albert”); Gram realized she was christened “Maria” after thinking her name was “Marie” for about seventy-five years! My mother’s generation (two girls, two boys) all live within one mile of each other in the same city in which they were raised. Many of us attend Catholic Mass as a group on Sundays, taking up an entire pew. We go out for brunch after Church then meet up later that night for pizza at someone’s house. We have a family recipe for spaghetti sauce that is kept under (figurative) lock and key. Like most Italian-American families, we are very proud of our heritage and use holidays as an excuse to pull out all the stops and make traditional Italian food.

One of my favorite dishes is usually served with our New Year’s Day supper. The preparation starts in advance. People gather together a few days before the holiday to make delicate crepes filled with a secret blend of Italian cheeses. This year my Gramps and Uncle Randy made the crepes, while my Mom filled the thin pancakes and rolled them into tasty little cigar shapes. She stacked the finished product into casserole dishes, barely covering them with our homemade chicken stock. They sat in the fridge until New Year’s Day, when my Mom gently reheated them and rationed out the crepes to eagerly awaiting family members. The flour crepes absorb the flavorful stock and the cheese infuses the broth with salty, Italian goodness! This dish is the primo piatto of the meal, followed up with ham, potatoes and veggies. I’ve missed out on this meal for years, sadly, since I always return to whatever city I am calling “home” for New Year’s, but I can almost taste these delicious treats as I write this!

What are they called and where can you get them? My family calls them “scrapelle,” and have done so for as long as anyone can remember. I’ve searched high and low for this dish in restaurants and online but haven’t been able to find them anywhere. I took some Italian in college and even spent a quarter studying in Italy. I asked dozens of Italians about “scrapelle” but none had ever heard of such a thing! I was headed home for the holidays, thinking about our family traditions (including my favorite dish). Suddenly, I had an “aha” moment worthy of a cartoon light bulb illuminating over my head. The Italian word for “crepe” is “crespelle”! Somewhere along the line, someone must have mixed up the word! No wonder there was no trace of this dish anywhere! In true Italian-American fashion, we had our own bastardized pronunciation of an Italian word. Hey, the Sopranos leave the vowels off the end of every Italian word (“mozzarell” and “mortadell”), give us this one.

I’m not sharing the recipe for this one, because it’s a serious family secret and I might be disowned for doing so (well, someone would definitely give me mal'occhio). But please, enjoy the photos of my family! 

Friendly group, huh? The man on the left and the woman standing in the middle are my great-great grandparents.  It was taken circa 1919.

If you're curious about the others:
The first one is my great grandparents, my great-uncle, and great-aunt Francie, taken around 1924. I LOVE how Victorian it is!
The second picture is my grandfather on his confirmation day with his godparents, taken around 1940 (that's a guess, but it's close!).
The third photo is my great-grandparents' wedding picture, taken in 1919.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bacon, Eggs and Toast for Dinner

I lived three blocks away from the bakery for at least six months before stopping in to investigate. There’s no shortage of little Italian bakeries in North Beach, and this one looked decidedly less inviting than the majority of them. In fact, most of the time you can’t even be sure they’re in business. They hold true bakery hours and are only open until 1:00 (or more often until they sell out of their tasty product). The only thing identifying it as a bakery at all is a sign made of a few lines of worn gold script painted onto one of the windows, barely visible from the road. These windows are usually barren - with the exception of certain holidays, when overnight there is an explosion of festive spirit. Near human-scale mannequins have startled yours truly more than once when my walk home activated a motion sensor to send a crooked-nosed witch into a fit of cackling or induce a unexpected “ho, ho, ho” from a robust Santa Clause.

I was waiting for a ride to work one morning from my Beau, who was running quite behind. In order to kill some time I decided to run down to Liguria Bakery. Looking at the menu, it quickly became clear that this was not your ordinary bakery. There were no glass display cases with flaky pastries, and no shiny espresso machines. No tables to sit down and read the morning paper or check your email on free Wi-Fi. As my eyes searched the small shop for the menu, it became clear that this was not the place to pick up a morning latte and some biscotti. The “menu” consisted of a list of ingredients: rosemary, garlic, mushroom, raisin, etc. Although the staff was quite curt and definitely not in the mood for a chat, I was able to ascertain that this was a very specific bakery, specializing in focaccia bread. The list of ingredients was a list of the different toppings on their bread. And that is all they serve. Focaccia. Just focaccia.

They serve around ten different types, but my personal favorite is rosemary. And apparently I’m not the only one who dreams about this bread! If you can’t make it into the shop early enough it’s sold out; then you have to settle for one of the other delicious toppings, like garlic, mushroom or green onion. I know, life’s rough.

I bought a slab of rosemary focaccia last week and wasn’t able to finish it because some last minute dinner plans popped up. A few days later, I noticed the pretty package wrapped in white butcher’s paper and tied with twine sitting in my bread basket. I just couldn’t bear to throw it away, even though it was as hard as a rock. What’s the best use for bread that’s a few days old? Bread crumbs, of course! One of my favorite America’s Test Kitchen recipes is spaghetti with garlic, breadcrumbs and a fried egg. I modified it a little bit to make bacon and rosemary bread crumbs with my beloved focaccia (yes, I’m always trying to make recipes healthier…).

Pasta and over-easy eggs are an amazing combination. The yolks break to coat the noodles in a thick sauce. In this dish, the toasty breadcrumbs add a bit of crunch to contrast with the creamy sauce and toothy pasta. Parmesan contributes its characteristically nutty flavor; the garlic adds an earthy, mellow layer; the red pepper flakes give a tiny kick. Top it off with a hint of salty, meaty bacon and you have a satisfying dinner using the components of a traditional breakfast – bacon, eggs and toast.

Spaghetti with Rosemary-Bacon Breadcrumbs and Egg
Serves 4
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen (The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2008)

You can use any kind of bread for bread crumbs, or if you’re feeling a little lazy then use panko. And you can always drop the bacon and use olive oil (that's what the original recipe calls for).

1 lb spaghetti (use dried, fresh doesn't have the right texture for this recipe)
4 eggs
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ sheet pan of day-old rosemary focaccia (can substitute day old bread or panko crumbs), torn into 1 inch pieces
4 slices bacon, cut into matchsticks
Pinch of red pepper flakes
½ c grated Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Optional: Chopped Italian parsley

1. Cook the bacon until crisp in a medium non-stick skillet, about 5-10 minutes. Keep the oil in the pan but drain the bacon onto a paper towel.
2. Pulse the bread in a food processor into fine crumbs. Add the crumbs to the bacon fat and toast over medium-low heat on the stovetop until golden brown. Set breadcrumbs aside to cool.
3. Cook the pasta according to instructions on the box. While the water coming to a boil and the pasta cooks, prepare the rest of the ingredients. Reserve 1 c of cooking water when draining.
4. Heat 3 T olive oil in the skillet over low heat. Add garlic, pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt. Cook slowly to mellow the garlic. This will take around 10 minutes, but be careful not to burn the garlic or you’ll have to start all over! Set this mixture aside and return the pan to low heat with 2 T oil.
5. 1 minute before the pasta is done cooking, add the eggs to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper and cover. Cook until the whites are just cooked but the yolks are runny (2-3 minutes).
6. While the eggs are cooking, mix the pasta, the garlic/oil mixture, 3 T olive oil, and Parmesan in the cooking pot. Add ½ c of the reserved cooking water, adding more if the pasta is too dry. You can add chopped Italian parsley in this step if you want.
7. Plate the pasta, top with a cooked egg, and sprinkle the dish with the breadcrumbs, bacon and additional grated cheese.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Smoky Snack

The California company Rancho Gordo is best known for selling gorgeous heirloom beans (yes, that's right, I used "gorgeous" and "beans" in the same sentence), but my personal favorite is their crimson popcorn. The kernels are a deep garnet color and pop up into a fluffy, snow-white miniature clouds. Normally I just cook them in vegetable oil and a bit of butter, liberally sprinkle coarse kosher salt over the pot, give it a good shake and enjoy!

The other night I wanted something a little more...exciting. I bought some wonderful ground chipotle from a spice vendor at Cleveland's West Side Market and was looking for ways to use the smoky, spicy, terracotta-colored powdered. I skipped the butter and drizzled some olive oil over the popcorn after cooking. I added one tablespoon at a time of the chipotle powder until it was just spicy enough, then gave it the mandatory saltiness required of popcorn. The smokiness of the chipotle wasn't enough to satisfy my craving, so I used applewood-smoked sea salt from Dean & DeLuca to finish it off.
You don't need fancy popcorn or expensive sea salt to make this snack. You can add these ingredients to microwave popcorn (but promise me you'll try the Rancho Gordo popcorn if you get a chance!). Most major supermarkets and probably every gourmet market sells smoked salt. Even Morton's makes a brand of large-crystal sea salt. It's too big to actually stick to the popcorn but you could use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to pulverize the crystals. In fact, while you're at it, mix the chipotle right in with the salt to sprinkle over the popcorn. You can make a big batch store the mixture in a ziploc bag for future use.

Use a 2-1 volume ratio of chipotle to salt, and adjust it to your personal taste. I used about 1 tablespoon of the mixture for every 2 cups of popped popcorn ( you season it will depend on the strength of your chipotle powder and your taste).

I made a huge batch and brought it into work for a snack. My co-workers loved it, and one even exclaimed "it's like there's a party in my mouth!" This would be a great movie night nosh, a sensational snack at work, or a tasty road trip treat. It's a terrific trio of flavors: smoky, spicy and salty.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lose the Loonies and Find the Foodies (or “How to Read Yelp Reviews”)

I recently attended a seminar in which a roomful of restaurant industry folks started badmouthing Yelp. Now, the reason I was sitting there was because I had scored some free tickets through Yelp, but you can bet I wasn’t going to throw myself to the wolves. I happen to think it’s an admirable concept and I do (sort of) regret not speaking up, but it really wasn’t the forum to launch a discussion about the merits and problems of a website that posts user-generated reviews (especially not with people who had clearly been burned by unfavorable reviews). Do I think there are some things written in Yelp reviews that can hurt someone's business? Yes. Do I think people should take most of these reviews seriously? Absolutely not.

I have almost never been steered wrong by Yelp recommendations because I know how to read the reviews. Is this guy clearly the scorned ex-boyfriend of the executive chef? Probably shouldn’t listen to what he says. Or vice-versa; is this girl clearly sleeping with the bartender? She might be slightly biased. Is “CheeseHead1955” a soccer mom from the middle of nowhere Wisconsin who gave her local McDonald’s 4 stars? I wouldn't take her review of Boulevard too seriously (unless you’re planning on taking your visiting Midwestern family there). It takes a little more time and effort to sift through the reviews and decide which ones you actually want to consider, but it’s worth it.

Here are some tips:
1. Make friends with people that have similar tastes to you. Look up your favorite restaurant. Find someone else who loves it. Read their other reviews. Do you generally agree with their opinions? Then be Yelp friends with them! You have to have an account set up to do this, which I recommend. You can then sort a business’s reviews to see your friends’ comments first.
2. Look for common themes and comments among the reviews for a business. If there is one two-star review among a sea of four-star reviews, you should probably ignore it. Does everyone rave about the rack of lamb? Then you might want to try the rack of lamb. Is it pretty unanimous that the chef can’t cook seafood? Don’t order seafood. Duh, right? But you’d be surprised…
3. Look at the dates of the reviews and when the person patronized the business. Is someone writing about an experience they had two years ago? Skip it! The place might not even have the same chef anymore and odds are really good that the menu has changed. Did someone go to a steak house for brunch? Well, if you’re going for a romantic dinner then who cares about their brunch experience? Make sure the reviews you’re considering are relevant and relatively current.
4. If there’s a review that seriously disturbs you and gives you doubt about going to a place, look at that person’s other reviews. If they seem sane and normal, then you might want to take heed. If this person is a rage-aholic who’s never given any business more than 2 stars...move on, my friend.
5. This is personal, but I always look for the “Elite” sign to the left of the reviewers’ names. This means that the Yelp staff thinks these people write legitimate reviews and use Yelp the way it was intended. You can sort the reviews for a business to look at only Elite member reviews. But of course, that doesn’t mean you should take all of them seriously.

The key point I wish I could have made to the woman in this seminar who declared “[Yelpers] say these horrible things about your business that you put your heart and soul into” is this: at the end of the day, these people are paying YOU for your food or service. If you’re not making them happy, don’t they have a right to stop other people from making the same mistake?

In full disclosure, I will admit that I am a Yelp Elite member. But I really believe in the purpose of Yelp. It’s a way for people to share their experiences at local establishments and help others find quality places of business. Now I don’t know anything about the rumors that Yelp blackmails business owners and all of that, but I do know that I’ve discovered some pretty amazing places through Yelp that I never would have tried otherwise. Do I think these reviews are a good replacement for professional reviews? No, no, no! But I’m pretty sure Michael Bauer hasn’t reviewed the Sushi joint down the street from me, and I want to make sure I’m not going to end up with food poisoning by eating there. So you can bet I’m checking the Yelp reviews.