Saturday, October 2, 2010


As tomato season draws to a close and the last remaining boxes are being surmised to determine who stays and who is sentenced to the saucepot, there is, it seems to me, a debate on exactly what makes a tomato worth saving.

Many, perhaps even most, will say that sweetness is the prized quality to seek. Admittedly, a sweet, juicy, sugary, summer burst of tomato in your mouth is an experience worth closing your eyes for. Sweet tomatoes can be enjoyed in many forms, and pair greatly with so very many different foods; moreover, cooking them only makes them better.

However, when dealing with raw or semi-cooked tomatoes, my hands are feeling for firmness before I start checking for sweetness. Running your fingers gingerly over the surface of the fruit, exploring dimples and assessing softness, paying attention to how much she gives when you squeeze her tenderly, gently, you allow your sense of touch to guide you.

You can even close your eyes as your hands examine the summer fruits, picture them red and orange and yellow and fat and plump and glossy, hanging in the sunshine like juicy jewels that you just want to sink your teeth into and hang from, juice running down your chin.

And if you can find the firm ones and slice 'em nice and thick, maybe a slab of buffalo mozzarella, its milky water being absorbed into the tomato steak, some sea salt facilitating the intimate transfer of juices between the supple flesh of the cheese and the firm meat of the tomato below it. One bite of that, when it's just right, and you just want to crawl right in between the two and live there.

But here's the rub: which quality is more important to look for in the tomato? In this, the most important (in this eater's opinion) of tomato tests, what do you need more? Does the mozzarella test demand Sweetness or Firmness? Naturally, the perfect answer is that you get maximum quality in both departments. And in the prime of summer, you can pull that off with little difficulty. But remember, this is early October and the last of the tomatoes have come in, thanks to some rain. You're dealing with the dregs.

So what do you look for? Do you sacrifice firmness for sweetness, suffer a bite that is softer, maybe bordering on mushy, in order to get that sugar rush, that last taste of summer nectar on your tongue and tastebuds? Or do you choose with your hands and get that perfect, beautiful fruit that gives when you cut into it while providing just enough resistance to make you work the tiniest bit for your succulent bite? Sweetness or firmness? Tomato or toe-mah-toe?

For my money, the fruit has gotta be worth the squeeze. If it's not holding up to my bite, odds are I'm not holding it up to my mouth. Not to say I'll turn down food if you offer it to me; I don't typically do that. But if I have to pick a side, I'm picking a side I can grab onto without it turning to mush between my fingers. It's gotta. Be. Firm.

2009 Grenache, Campo de Borja & Lindt Dark Chocolate, 85% cacao

A Must-Taste Combination... Coffee, earthy, a decadent, flawless mud from the Garden of Eden itself, intensifying as you chew + Dark cherry & spice, a slightly stringent, aromatic young Grenache from the Borja region of Spain = Mouth-coating, clingy, tannic yet smooth, ruby, chocolatey goodness all over your palate like a sexy, satin dress over a firm, assertive body that holds onto you passionately and then gently fades away into the darkness.

Take a deep breath, and exhale with satisfaction as pleasure runs over your palate and drifts past your lips, gently making love to every one of your tastebuds.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

I love playing with comfort food.

Everyone has those special dishes that warm both your stomach and your heart, that you just want to hug and devour at the same time. For me, one of those dishes is Mac & Cheese. I had an impulsive craving today for good ol' Mac & Cheese, but wasn't sure what I had in the house in terms of Mac or Cheese. Fingers crossed, I surmised the fridge and pantry situations; I was in luck.

Not only would I be able to throw together an impromptu pot of gushy, cheesy love, I grabbed a couple of ingredients that would stir things up, put a different spin on a familiar favorite... and away we go.

I got the pot of water going and set aside a bag of Artisan tricolor pasta shells from Italy. Meanwhile, I rendered some bacon, then added brunoise onions and garlic, finishing with a couple tablespoons of Chipotle paste my aunt and uncle had brought from Mexico when they visited. I added a little butter and some pasta water and brought it all together in a delicious, bacony sauce with a serious touch of heat. A little milk (Milk? I know, but we didn't have any cream in the house), and it was a creamy ragu-like sauce ready to cover the pasta with sexy decadence.

Next came a motley assortment of grated cheeses (a little bit of everything we had in the house), and, once that was incorporated, a few crumbles of chevre and a few of a triple cream brie-esque specimen with a rind so nice it melted in your mouth. Stirring lovingly, I watched the soft cheeses swirl into the oversized pan, languishing among the bits of bacon and draping themselves about the pasta shells. I couldn't stop drooling.

A few more seconds in the pan, and then the whole delicious lot of it into a Pyrex. I scraped every last bit of creamy, gushy goodness over the pasta and finished with a generous amount of dried Mexican queso and grated Australian Parmesan. Some garlic cracked pepper and it was into the oven at 350.

Twenty minutes later I was savoring forkfuls of perfect Mac & Cheese. The shells were al dente, each bite a gushy, squishy, cheesy, morsel from heaven. The heat from the Chipotle warmed me all over and the United Nations of cheeses were crispy on top and melty, stringy happiness throughout. The bacon added both umami and texture in addition to that perfect flavor that only bacon does. I paired with a glass of Muscat, whose cool fruitiness was the ideal companion to such spicy richness. Seconds were a must. Of everything.

It's always fun to do a fresh spin on a classic, simple plate of good, old-fashioned comfort food. Chipotle Mac 'n' Cheese with Bacon: now on file and freaking delicious.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Joelly's Visit

Joe arrived to SF last Tuesday, sparking a little vacation (for him, Julia, & myself) that ended up revolving, inevitably, around food. Prior to his arrival my special lady and I had back-and-forthed about where to take Joe on his first visit to the city, indeed his first visit to the West Coast. I have to admit that my original agendas (Twin Peaks, the sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf, Ocean Beach) were soon 86ed in favor of Julia's ideas of simply following our appetites around Northern California. The following is a chronicle of every bite we took: from Joe's arrival at SFO to his return to the same, no finger-lickin' mouthful goes unmentioned.

Tuesday, August 31st, Lunch: Joe's plane landed ten minutes early at 10:25 AM. Naturally he was hungry, and we spent the drive from the airport debating the ideal lunch spot. Joe expressed a craving for Mexican, and wouldn't you know it, our exit off the highway dropped us in the Mission. Without a second thought, we made our way up Mission St. to 24th. El Farolito. Joe got a Carne Asada Super Suiza, Julia a Torta al Pastor, me a Carne Asada Super Burrito. As we peeled back the foil in our living room and sank our teeth into our respective meals, grunts and groans of pleasure and disbelief were audible over the decadent chomping and chewing of avocado, steak, cheese, pork, tortilla, torta, sour scream, rice, beans, caramelized onions, and pico de gallo, a bright palette of Mexican flavor smeared together and wrapped and grilled. Glorious. Joe declared it the best quesadilla he'd ever eaten.

Tuesday, August 31st, Dinner: Joe made it to Waterbar just before the kitchen closed in time to grab some snacks. I sent him the Yellowtail sashimi with pickled nectarine, watermelon, and mint; he ordered a steaming, glistening, juicy plate of Asian-style barbecue short ribs with a fresh horseradish slaw. Tasty. The deep burgundy of the rib glaze pools around the tender, fatty meat with honey sweetness and a hint of kick. Plus, Joelly is quite the rib enthusiast so I knew it would be a home run. He waited for me to finish my shift and we went to an industry spot with a few of the other Waterbar cooks. After a few rounds we headed back to our spot with a small group to kick it in the garden with herb & beers. Julia came through clutch around 3 AM with munchies: homemade asiago garlic bread on a loaf of Acme ciabatta. Great cap on the nite.

Wednesday, September 1st, Lunch: We awoke mildly hungover and were compensated with absolutely gorgeous weather. Donning sunglasses, we bounded into the 80 degree sunshine headed for Ike's Sandwiches at 16th & Sanchez. Ike's is to sandwiches what a Tyrannosaurus is to lizards. The sandwiches are enormous, overwhelming, incredible, dripping, golden, absolutely crammed with goodness. Julia had the Napoleon Complex: turkey, honey poppy seed dressing, avocado, & havarti. It was sweet and moist and smooth and you kind of wanted to kiss it softly but passionately. I had the Menage-a-Trois: chicken breast, honey, honey mustard, bbq, pepperjack, swiss, & smoked gouda. Holy mother of God, this thing was succulent. The various sauces and condiments swam together and united in creamy, tangy, harmony. The three cheeses were in perfect ratio. It was a thing of art. Joe opted for the most outrageous of the three, The King Koopa: all-beef meatballs, mozzarella sticks, stuffed jalapeno poppers, and marinara. Are you serious? Yes, I'm serious. And believe it or not, of the over 200 sandwiches they have on the menu, this is not the most ridiculous. Suffice it to say we ate until we literally could not eat any more. We passed in and out of food comas in Dolores Park, people-watching and basking in the sunshine and the sandwich buzz.

Somehow we found room for Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream on our way out of the Mission. Joe got a scoop of Ricanelas, which is cinnamon ice cream with Snickerdoodle cookie dough swirled into every bite. Unreal, and for my taste, hands-down the best ice cream I've ever had. Julia got a scoop of balsamic strawberry and I got a cooling scoop of mint-chip... and a scoop of chocolate. We spooned and slurped and dripped our way home, where we would part ways for dinner. Julia was meeting her best friend Kaitlin for Kaitlin's birthday dinner at Aziza, a fantastic Moroccan restaurant in the Inner Richmond.

Wednesday, September 1st, Dinner: Joe and I had reservations at a San Francisco landmark, The House of Prime Rib. It was my first time dining there and I had high expectations; I was not disappointed. We arrived early so we could grab a martini at the bar, fully embracing the whole steakhouse experience, then scored a spacious yet cozy booth and let the games begin. The meal began with the house salad, crisp iceberg and their creamy house secret dressing contrasting to make every bite delicious. The hot sourdough loaf brought to our table was as soft and steamy on the inside as it was crusty and golden on the outside. Then arrived the prime rib, sliced tableside and jaw-droppingly succulent. Juicy like a summer peach, tender, and fatty, surrounded by mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed spinach, and accompanied by a Yorkshire Pudding. It was like trying to eat an entire delicious circus. It's funny; my former vegetarianism seems more ironic every day. I attacked that steak like a jungle cat, and when it was over I had to stop myself from gnawing the bone. Espresso was a necessary finish on the meal, dessert an impossibility. So, so good.

Thursday, September 2nd, Lunch: Sonoma bound, we met Kaitlin for lunch at Sol Food in San Rafael, home of the best Puerto Rican food you will ever taste. Seriously. The four of us joined forces and ordered aggressively: 2 bistec flatbread sandwiches and a steak salad, 3 pieces of oregano roast chicken, 2 orders of garlic tostones, 1 order of sweet plantains, four limeades and a mess of rice and pink beans. We ate until the buttons flew off our clothes so hard that they embedded themselves in the plaster on the wall. We poured their secret recipe hot sauce copiously and slurped the bubbly, fizzy limeade until our satiated burps punctuated the conversation regularly. Completely stuffed and glowing satisfaction, we said goodbye to Kaitlin and drove north.

We made it to five wineries: Sebastiani, Ravenwood, Nicholson Ranch, Roche, and Charles Creek. Highlights of the tastings included everything from dry Roses to heavy Cabs. Blends, sweets, tannins, chocolate, cinnamon, citrus, blackberries, scents and tastes and notes swirled together and separated delicately, each touching your tongue and cheeks in a different spot, lighting up your mouth and dancing with your tastebuds. We tasted a Port infused with chocolate so fantastic and different that Joe had to buy a bottle for Mom & Dad. All said and done, we ended up buying five bottles between the three of us: a Cab, a Merlot, a Syrah, a Gewurtztraminer, and a Cab/Grenache blend.

Thursday, September 2nd, Dinner: There's nothing as decadent, relaxing, and delicious as going through good bottles of wine with good friends and good food. Julia went all out at the grocery store, appeasing Joe's demands for fish tacos and adding shrimp and calamari to the menu. When we got to the incredible and impeccably decorated house where we were fortunate enough to be staying, we fired up the charcoal bbq with some mesquite and gots to cookin'. There was a beautiful, tangy, vinegary purple cabbage slaw, grilled tomatillo salsa, summer squash, corn on the cob with chili and lime, and gorgeous red snapper for the tacos. I marinated the calimari with chili, paprika, lime, garlic, and cilantro, and the shrimp with pineapple, brown sugar, lime, and jalapeno for some sweet-spicy-tangy. The mesquite gave everything a gorgeous punch of smokiness and we descended on the food like lions to the kill, faces caked with sauce and plastered with huge smiles. Drunk with vacation relaxation and really excellent wine, manners and poise were thrown to wind and we reveled in the bacchanalian summer seafood feast before us. At one point Joe had to inquire whether Julia and I had plans to eat him, and was this the reason we were fattening him up. I have to admit, the way we'd been feeding him, it wasn't an unreasonable question.

Friday, September 3rd, Lunch: We woke up around noon and cleaned up some of the damage from the nite before, then headed into Sonoma Town Square for lunch at The Girl & The Fig. We had heard great things, and how can you go wrong with a French bistro in the heart of wine country? While we waited for our table on the patio, I enjoyed a lavender mojito, Julia a lemon verbana iced tea, and Joe a California IPA. The patio ended up being beautiful, with fresh flowers all around giving off a myriad of delicious smells rivaled only by the tasty looking plates coming out of the kitchen. We started off with salads. My heirloom tomato, watermelon, and feta was completely refreshing and perfect for the hot, summer day. The tomatoes were plump and perfect in their yellows and reds, probably one of the last times this year they would be as such. Julia ordered the arugula, goat cheese, and fig salad with candied pecans and crispy pancetta. The ratio of sweet to salty to creamy to tangy to peppery couldn't have been more balanced, so that in every forkful you got the perfect bite without even trying. Joe's weddge salad had a nice mellow green goddess dressing beneath it, the tarragon tickling your taste buds in every crunch. Entrees stepped it up even further: mine was a Croque Monsieur done to perfection on a brioche that I swear I could have slept on. Julia had one of her favorite summer lunches, Moules Frites. The broth of the mussels was a buttery, garlicky surprise you wanted to float around in all day, and the matchstick fries were just crispy enough to be perfect. Joe decided on the simple but delicious salami and brie sandwich on baguette; the fig jam on the sandwich was just what it needed to rise to the challenge of competing with everything else, and its sweetness paired nicely with the creamy brie and spicy salami. It was our last bite in Sonoma and a hell of a way to say goodbye.

Friday, September 3rd, Dinner: For our final meal together in California, we decided on the Catalan tapas restaurant Contigo in Noe Valley. Julia and I had been there together once before, and Julia had returned on multiple occasions with others, so we knew we could trust it to be a fitting send-off for Joe. Plus, his obsession with croquetas and the search for the perfect one made Contigo a fitting spot to bring him. We managed to get a late reservation and, once seated, began scanning the menu and discussing options as if it were a United Nations meeting. We decided on roughly ten plates and sat back, ready for the parade of tapas to begin. Unfortunately, we were soon informed that the lobster mushroom stuffed calamari we had ordered was 86ed... so were the croquetas. As Joe cursed his luck, we decided on some alternatives and comforted ourselves in the free glasses of Cava and Muscat that the waiter offered as consolation. Soon the first plate arrived, and the party was started. Naturally we started with Pan con Tomate, a Catalan staple; this is actually the first time I had tried this dish during tomato season and holy moly, was it great. The simplicity of crushed summer tomatoes on garlic toast is a beautiful thing. Next we had lamb and beef albondigas, juicy and textured and wonderfully tender. There were toasts with avocado, pickled onion, and wood oven roasted sardine that was so fresh you'd swear they had a tank in the kitchen. Joe "doesn't like sardines" (mostly because he only knows them as the salty, oily, canned fish from the supermarket), but we got him to try one and he didn't object. The olive oil fried Soul Food Farm chicken breast was truly cooked to perfection, breaded crispy golden brown on the outside and unbelievably juicy on the inside, really letting the chicken speak for itself. And the accompanying salad of cucumber, tomato, grape, and cumin was refreshing and different. Next came a flatbread with corn, shaved summer squash, caramelized onions, and Manchego... and our additions of farm egg and fatted calf bacon. It was deliciously crispy and melty and fresh; the corn gave sweetness, the bacon added saltiness, the Manchego and egg, together, as creamy as can be. It was like a summer fiesta in Spain on a plate. Naturally we had a side of patatas bravas, dependable and scrumptious as always, and a side of chard with almonds, garlic, and golden raisins, thanks to Julia. Buttery, sweet, and garlicky, it made eating your vegetables something anyone would want to do. We finished with dessert: an apple flan that was like no flan I had ever tasted, with wedges of caramelized apple on top that could have been right out of Mom's homemade pie. The Blue Bottle Coffee ice cream wasn't anything mind-blowing, but being able to really taste that exquisite coffee made for a nice cap on the meal. We pushed back our chairs and waddled out of the restaurant as satiated and smiling as we had after every meal prior. If there's one thing Julia and I can do in SF, it's get you fed. I think Joe understands that now better than ever before.

Saturday we stopped by the In & Out in Daly City on our way to the airport, determined to cram one last authentic California snack into Joe's visit. His departure went off almost without a hitch: he forgetfully packed the Chocolate Port in his carry-on and had it confiscated going through security. Oops.

A small price to pay for to the Gods of gluttonfest that had blessed us for the past four days, no doubt.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?

So after a 7 month hiatus, I have decided to resume my blog again. At this point I don't think anyone's reading anymore so I'm pretty much writing for my own benefit. So long Spain, back in SF, working at Waterbar, and living with Julia. That about catches things up.

My alarm clock went off at 4:00 this morning, and as the coffee maker turned itself on, I hopped in the shower, already feeling the excited energy anticipating the day ahead. An hour or so later I was 2 cups of joe and one bowl of mj deep. Eric, Waterbar's purchasing manager, pulled up in front of my Castro apartment in a Zipcar station wagon, and we were on our way. By 7 am we were heading south in the East Bay, sun beginning to pierce the fog and break into brilliant blue.

Our destination was Masumoto Family Farm outside of Fresno. Waterbar had adopted an Elberta peach tree there, one of many that "Mas" adopts out to restaurants, companies, and families nearby. Elberta peaches are the second most prized peaches around, I learn as the day goes on. The most highly regarded, the most "stunning" (as Mas passionately characterizes them) are the Sun Crest. Sadly, we will not munch Sun Crest today.

Upon our arrival at the farm, we get cleaned up and grab brunch: perfectly battered french toast with homemade peach marmalade (guess where they got the peaches). To stay cool there was fresh cut watermelon and a homemade lime granita that was hella addictive.

We had arrived a bit late and missed the group introduction and background from Mas, but Eric had covered the majority of it at various points in the nearly four hour drive. Nevertheless, Mas greeted Eric with a warm embrace and said he'd meet us at our tree momentarily. We approached said tree, 2nd from the end in the first row, taking it all in. The peaches exploded off its branches, pulling them down as those of a weeping willow. Shiny green glinted in the blazing Fresno sun with artistic splashes of yellow, crimson, gold, pink, rose running together. It looked as if the tree itself was ready for us to plunge our teeth into its juicy orange flesh, the squish and explosion of peachy yumminess bursting with flavor, intensity, earth, sugar, sunshine!

Mas talked to us for about fifteen minutes, filling us in on this year's nuances: a cooler spring and summer had resulted in smaller fruit, which was bad for business; for some reason, this year the riper fruit was on the outside of the tree, as opposed to the inside; et al. He departed as warmly as he had arrived and we gots to pickin'. We picked high, with ladders, and low, often finding the very best peaches on the ground in need of nothing more than a gentle rinse.

No doubt, half of the fruit was almost begging to get picked. The method for choosing which fruit is ripe & ready is to first feel it gently for softness. If it gives just a little at the surface, give it a little tug. If the peach comes right off the branch, you've found yourself a keeper. If it resists, it's not ready to leave the party. We collected roughly 20 dozen in less than 2 hours, moving at a leisurely pace and taking frequent breaks for conversation, irresistibly fresh peaches, and visits from different members of the Masumoto family. One such visit included nectarines that screamed flavor like a scarlet and honey siren, dripping with sweet juice so good that your eyes closed involuntarily as you ravenously slurped it from your fingers...

We did one last lap around the tree checking for ripe and ready and decided to pack it up and get a move on. When the car was packed, we joined the Masumoto family in the shade. They busted out more granita, and after 2 hours in the blazing sun, nothing could have been better. It reminded me of the limeade at Sol Food in Marin, super tart but super sweet at the same time, and just about as refreshing as it gets. And as if that weren't enough, ten minutes later we were in the Masumotos' pool. Perfect.

After a glorious swim, we grabbed some In & Out Burger (double double animal style and a chocolate shake, please) and then hit the road north. I passed out in the back seat with my iPod blaring and woke up about 30 minutes outside of Oakland. Eric was kind enough to stop at Bi-Rite Market in The Mission before he dropped me off so I could buy some key accoutrement for the meal I had been dreaming about the whole ride home. I grabbed a couple of pork chops, an aromatic German Riesling, and a few shallots.

I cooked dinner nice and slowly, taking the time to make my knife cuts clean and my sauces chronic. I used all fresh herbs from the garden, the good olive oil Julia's mom had given us, Meyer lemons from the tree in our backyard, peaches picked that morning at Masumoto's, and the beautiful, stunningly marbled, bone-in pork chops.

Dinner was:
Grilled, Herb Crusted, Bone-In Pork Chop
Green Beans & Shallots w Bacon & Roasted Garlic
Sweet Chipotle Roasted Potatoes
Grilled Elberta Peach w Lavender Salt

There was savory, sweet, salty, smokey, crispy, chewy, tender, juicy, aromatic, spicy, creamy, tart, bacony gooooooodness. The Riesling, Hattenheimer 2008, was light, aromatic and on the fruity side, so it both cut the heavier flavors and stood up to the sweetness of the grilled peach. Bonus.

So that's my first shot after the hiatus; hopefully I stick with this...