Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Sweet Holidays

Another Christmas down. That means another year of great memories, great gatherings, great food. From our humble abode, Rand and I enjoyed cozy evenings by the fire, good books and time spent together. We visited with family, connected with wonderful friends, and dearly missed our loved ones far away. Got to see Christmas from the childrens' eyes - joyful! - and even shared a gift or two between ourselves. In the true spirit of Christmas, we gave of ourselves to others, and reflected on what is most important to us in the grand scheme of things. Once again, nothing material even made the list. Although I do so love my new Pyrex set....

At any rate, that brings us to the New Year. By the time most of you will be reading this, I will be making my way to Argentina via a solid 24 hours of travel. I will ring in 2011 in Buenos Aires, preferably with a Pisco Sour in one hand and an empanada in the other. Or a steak on my plate and a glass of Malbec at the ready. Or paella in the pan with a gourd of mate ready to wash it all down. All while watching a tango show. Whatever. The point is, I am outta here. For three weeks, I'll be living it up in South America without a care in the world.

It's a fitting way for me to start the year. I just got a promotion and quasi new job - it's a fresh start awaiting me when I return. This trip to Argentina - planned when said promotion wasn't even in my mind's eye - is an awesome capper to a fairly rough year for me personally, and a wonderful way for me to celebrate my accomplishments. Dare I say it? I deserve it.

So while I'm off gallivanting and soaking up some me time (me! me! me!), Fare to Remember will be uncharacteristically silent. But don't you worry - it's only because when I return, I'll have a DELUGE of great foodie tales and adventures to share with you.

So Happy New Year to you all. Adios!

(The photos: iPhone fun.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mushroom Hunting: What a Trip!

So, it's been rainy round these parts. No complaints - the rain is a welcome sight, and hey, let's face it, Napa Valley is no Minneapolis. Things could definitely be worse.

I bring up the rain because here in Northern California, rain means one thing and one thing only to a select group of diligent, fungus-obsessed souls: mushrooms! A good friend of ours, John, is one such fervent mycologist, and lucky for me, he often invites Randall along for his foraging adventures. Such was the case last week. The duo was out the door at the crack of dawn to an undisclosed location somewhere along the Sonoma coast to a site where John has been successfully gathering mushrooms for decades. I think he made Ran wear a blindfold to the secret spot. I'm not exactly kidding. (Mushroom hunters are VERY territorial - I am jeopardizing my relationship with John by the mere fact that I mention the coast - to him, "Northern California" is entirely too precise when describing his hunting grounds.)

Now, I wasn't there (I just got to reap the rewards!) - but apparently the day involved miles of hiking, soaking wet clothing and mud up to there. And the mushrooms don't just jump out and scream "Hey there! Here I am!" - no no. They lie in wait under the duff and dirt of the forest floor, beneath the protective canopies of certain species of trees. Finding them takes skill and practice. I believe it was Michael Pollan in one of his books that described the ability to see mushrooms in the wild as a learned knack he called "getting your mushroom eyes on" - or something to that effect. The clever fungi use all of nature's camouflage tricks to stay as hidden as possible, when in fact, they are just about everywhere underfoot. (Bit of trivia: the single largest living organism on the planet is, in fact, a mushroom.) And then there's the whole component of actually knowing - really, truly knowing - which mushrooms are safe to consume, as opposed to which ones are toxic. It's a fine line - but one you don't want to find out the hard way. One mistake will cost you your life - or at the very least, a vital organ or two. John, thankfully, is one of those people that really, truly does know the difference. I've personally trusted my own life to his mushroom identification skills many a time - and I'm still here.

Now - the types of mushrooms that the boys were hunting that day were varied: black trumpet, hedgehog (above), other varieties that I'd never heard of (like that big yellow one pictured below)... but mainly, the prized matsutake. (Chantrelles and morels - my absolute favorites - will be a different trip.) If you ever want to know what money smells like, just take a big whiff of a matsutake. The matsutake are highly prized in Japan where they can go for almost $1,000 per pound. Here, they don't command quite a sum, but you can still expect to pay anywhere from $25-$50 per pound if you can find them fresh (usually at a farmer's market).

Here's a bit of good info, excerpted from The New York Times:

"The name matsutake means 'pine mushroom' in Japan, where the local species grows in association with Japanese red pines. About 15 other closely related species occur worldwide, including the American matsutake, which flourishes in coniferous forests across North America (and particularly in the Northwest and Northern California) [in association] with fir, spruce and pine, as well as tanoaks.

"Japanese pay a premium for young, unopened matsutakes, before the veil between the cap and the stem breaks, which stay fresh better than more mature ones. (Matsutakes at this stage have a phallic appearance, and women at the imperial court at Kyoto once were forbidden to speak the mushroom's name.) However, there's no difference in flavor.

"The price and availability vary considerably, depending on the domestic and international harvests and demand from Japan."

Bless them, the boys brought back two bushels full of the gems. And that was after a really sweet bargaining trade on their way home. They stopped in Bodega Bay and greeted the Dungeness crab fisherman pulling up to the docks. A few rare and prized mushrooms go a long way toward negotiating a killer deal on the freshest crab imaginable.

So guess what my dinner was that night? You got it - heaps and heaps of sauteed mushrooms with fresh cracked crab. (I kept the mushrooms really simple to let their natural flavor shine through. I sauteed them in a combination of olive oil and butter - small amounts of both, just enough to coat the pan - and drained the juice as the mushrooms released their water. Salted them lightly. In the end, they were caramelized, tender and almost steak-like). Heaven!

So boys - when the next hunting trip?

Ran's pictures from the harbor in Bodega Bay...

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Cookie Tease

What is Christmas without cookies? The cookies in the photo above are one of my most recent favorite finds: Cornmeal Ginger Shortbread Cookies from the Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley cookbook. And you know that if I actually baked them, they must be simple to make. Indeed. Wanna know how it's done and get the recipe? Well click on over to FoodFixe where this recipe and my guest post are part of FoodFixe's 12 Days of Cookies. And browse around while you're there - the cookie recipes being featured right now are outstanding!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Food Truck Frenzy... in Napa!

The food trucks have arrived in Napa with a vengeance. Finally! Over this past year, in this crappy economy, chefs have taken to the streets here in my corner of the world, and I couldn't be more excited.

Now food trucks - and not just of the roach coach variety - have been staples in Napa Valley for eons, but mainly in the form of mobile taquerias. I venture to say that the taco trucks here in town offer some of the very best Mexican street food you'll find anywhere north of the border, and they've always been an excellent place to get a great meal on the cheap. But now, the offerings here in town have exploded - from Thai food and dim sum, to wood-fired chicken and grass-fed beef sliders - street food has become an elevated and delicious alternative to the high-end restaurants that are the norm around here.

My dilemma for the past few months has been figuring out how to pay a visit to each of these new food trucks that I've been hearing so much about, when most of them are only open during the day when I'm at work more than 35 miles away. Let alone track them down - they've each got different spots staked out around the city and sometimes the locations change. Hm.

Lucky for me, the Oxbow Market solved my problem. On the first Friday of every month, a selection of food trucks circle their wagons and have an all-out late-night party called "Food Truck Friday." From 5 p.m. until midnight, the trucks are all in one location and serve up their popular fare. Last Friday was only the second time the event has been held, and the first time I've attended. The trucks that participated were Dim Sum Charlie’s, Karma Karma Thai Food, Street-Eatz, Chicago Style Hot Dogs, Phat Salads and Wraps, Crossroad Rotisserie Chicken and Mark's the Spot. In addition, there are many tasting rooms in the neighborhood that also stayed open late, and people bought bottles and were enjoying glasses of wine with their food truck nibbles. It is Napa, after all!

But wow. It was pretty obvious from the crowd that had assembled and the lengthy lines of hungry folk at each truck, that this is the type of activity that us Napkins sorely crave: affordable, good food; a place to gather; and late hours. What a freaking concept. I even spied one of Napa's premier caterers there, checking out the goods. She's got a kitchen full of the finest Napa has to offer, and yet, she too was in on the scene (besides - who wants to cook if you do it all day for a living?). And with offerings like artichoke pokoras; wood-oven pork belly sandwiches with cranberry and fig relish; confit duck wings with spicy plum sauce; udon noodles in a savory broth tossed with foie gras, braised duck leg and fresh herbs... are you sensing my predicament? It was difficult to narrow down our choices.

But narrow them down we did. We started with a good old street food staple - a Chicago dog - which we shared to whet our appetites as we waited for the remainder of our orders. Then Ran and I split up - he went to Mark's the Spot to order their slider sampler; I went to Dim Sum Charlie's to get their "Ten Dolla Make You Holla" sampler. Excellent choices both. I was very stoic and did not order the rosemary fries from Street Eatz... that was tough - especially since everyone was raving and they smelled SO good. But we did enough damage, without adding deep fried goodness to the mix. The dim sum sampler came with a honey pork bun, a steamed pork bun, and five different dumplings - all delish.
And the sliders from Marks - awesome. The sampler trio is composed of three different sliders, each served on an artisan brioche bun - the Oooh Girl Chicken (organic buttermilk fried boneless chicken thigh with pepper aioli and slaw), the Baby Bubba Burger (Niman Ranch beef patty with onions two ways, spicy aioli and slaw), and the BBB Good (bacon, basil and brie with carmelized apple). OMG. They were all spectacular, but I'd go back for the beef slider again and again.
I would venture a guess that I will return to Food Truck Friday... often. I'm already bummed I'll miss the January event. There certainly are wrinkles to be ironed out - the lines were very long, and some of the trucks were not well equipped to handle the crowds (cooking to order? Really?) - but for only the second time out the gate, I predict that things will only get better. You certainly couldn't argue with the food - it was worth the wait.

We're certainly no Portland (the Oregon city boasts more than 700 food trucks - heaven!) - but in this little corner of the world, assembling more than a half a dozen food trucks in one locale seems like quite a victory. So come on up and see me sometime - I've got a great truck or two to show off.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tollhouse with a Twist

So a funny thing happened as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day... I actually found something utterly and totally interesting! (I jest - I LOVE Twitter and find amazing, funny, insightful, creative, inspirational and helpful tidbits there all the time.) But this one post completely caught my eye. In less than 140 characters, it spelled out how to take a Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie recipe and turn it on its head. Coincidentally, I was actually in the market for a good cookie recipe, so I thought I'd give the tweeter's idea a try (sorry - I can't even find the tweet now to give proper credit!).

At any rate, the twist: use half semi-sweet chips and half dark chocolate chips, and then add potato chips to the batter as well. Potato chips? What the....? But the idea intrigued me. Could this simple twist on a classic recipe turn out a cookie creation that had that sweet/salty combination that I so very much love? I had to try it.

So I made the recipe according to the Twitter instructions - meaning, I winged it. I followed the Tollhouse recipe on the back of the chocolate chip package, and dutifully swapped half of the semi-sweet chips for Ghirardelli dark chocolate nibs. But when it got to the potato chip portion... where to start? The tweet did specify that the potato chips should be crushed into dime-sized pieces, but that was about it (140 characters only go so far....). How much to add? Did I want ridged chips or just plain old plain chips? I made the executive decision: plain original Lays potato chips, in a quantity that I eyeballed, but just seemed about right - I'm guessing about 1 to 1-1/2 cups of crushed potato chips. Then I threw in chopped walnuts for good measure. It made for a very chunky dough - really tough to stir - but the elbow grease is totally worth it.

The end result: quite possibly one of the best chocolate chip cookies you'll ever make. The dark chocolate addition - excellent as I suspected. As for the potato chips, they did add a saltiness, although it was subtle. What they really imparted, however, was texture and structure. You know how Tollhouse cookies usually fall flat? Not these. They held a nice, round-ish shape, and remained moist. The potato chips also added a nearly-imperceptible crunch... here was a bit more body than in your average cookie. And no one - I mean no one - was the wiser. I took my platter of cookies to a meeting, and they disappeared in a heartbeat, with everyone remarking just how delicious they were. Not a single soul said "Hey - is that a potato chip in my cookie?" (They really did almost just disappear when the cookies were baked.)

So, dear readers, I have no recipe for you ... just a concept that I know works. Try it out, and let me know if your experiment is as successful as mine!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Giving Thanks

As we're about to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, I have so much for which to be grateful. My list could go on and on and on. But that would be boring. So I'm just going to focus this post on one person for whom I am thankful each and every day, and who just doesn't hear it from me enough. That person is my mom.

If you think that I'm a well-rounded, talented person (why thank you!) - you need to get a load of my mom. I get most of my best traits from her, I suspect (no disrespect to dad!), and I love her more than I could ever express. I just had the pleasure of spending some quality time with her - she came for a five-day visit and spoiled me rotten. As is our usual, we covered a lot of ground while she was here. She's been the one to teach me to love the backroads, to enjoy getting lost, and to delight in discovering new things. So that's just what we did.

The following is a photo journey of our recent time together, as it pertains to the theme of this blog - namely yumminess shared in the company of the ones we love. (I'm sticking to mainly images because I found out that dear mom doesn't actually READ this blog... just looks at the "pretty pictures" - hmph!) At any rate, enjoy the view, and if you're lucky enough, go give your mom a heart-felt squeeze. Happy Thanksgiving!

Adventures with Mom, November 2010

We hit the road. Took the road less traveled....
Why don't I live HERE?? I mean, get a load of that tire swing!

We enjoyed some great meals out...
Sol Food in San Rafael was at the top of my list of places to take mom for a killer lunch. I love love love this totally funky Peurto Rican cuisine hot spot. Despite being a bright green hole-in-the-wall, it's certainly not an undiscovered locale (just ask the Food Network). The Ensalada Con Pollo (baked chicken salad) and Tostones Con Mojo (Fried smashed green plantains with garlic and olive oil) keep me coming back for more.

We enjoyed a terribly mediocre meal out....
I say "enjoyed" because the company was stellar and sometimes that's all you need. But I'm sad to say that my mom treated Ran and me to a dinner out at the much-touted Bottega in Yountville, and we all walked away mostly disappointed. We should have stopped at starter courses and wine - those were by far the best components of the meal. Between the three of us, we ordered the soup of the day (butternut squash with toasted hazelnuts), the Brussels sprouts salad (shaved sprouts, seived egg, hazelnuts and a perfect light lemon-based dressing), and the cheese pudding (a savory Pecorino flan of sorts served with braised rapini and crostini). All were delicious. I loved the way the wines were presented. Instead of wines by the glass, they offered wines by the glass and a half, and they came in petit carafes to the table. It's the perfect amount of wine for me over the course of the meal, and the wine list truly was impressive. The only thing that tainted the starting course was the constant - and I mean constant - inquiries from the service staff to clear our half-eaten plates. I love attentive staff, but for the fourth time, yes! We're going to finish that plate. Sheesh!

Unfortunately, the good part of the meal nose-dived into the not-so-good part of the meal for our entrees. I got the rabbit, and although the meat itself was perfectly cooked, it was served with a sauce that was so overwhelmingly powered by vinegar, that it was almost off-putting. The acidity hit your nose far before the fork got to your tongue. Mom got the "Angry Prawns" - nothing special there, not even worth four more words. And Ran - on my pleading - got the daily pork special. I mean if you heard the server describe a slow-roasted herb-stuffed pork loin wrapped in pork belly with crispy skin, served with brown-butter sauteed apples over creamy polenta, wouldn't you order it too? Let's just say it was far better in theory than in reality. Ick. So - bummer. A big, expensive strikeout. Sorry mom.

We enjoyed some great meals in...
It was the opening week of Dungeness crab season... we had to do it.

We baked...
Two different kinds of cookies. You heard me right - yes, I baked (I had mom there to hold my hand, after all!). You'll be hearing about these two cookie creations soon (Tollhouse with a twist, and Cornmeal Ginger Shortbread).

We fed ourselves spiritually....
Mom was such a sport, and joined me for a candlelight Yoga class followed by an organic/biodynamic wine tasting, paired with raw foods. The evening was all about "focusing on mindfulness and gratitude for the Thanksgiving Holidays" - basically bringing awareness of how we're feeding our body and soul, and focusing on treating ourselves well. Mom did great in the Yoga class, declined the wine tasting, and pretty much dismissed the raw foods. Too hippie, I get it. :) But I, of course, loved the foods we tried (there was chocolate mousse made from avocados for God's sake!), and I discovered a wine brand that I now adore just on sheer principle: Aum Cellars. The wine I ended up liking most was the 2008 Howell Mountain Cabernet, and not just because the front label is stunning. The wine is crafted with love and attention, and the winemaker, Peter Hoffmann (on hand to pour for the event), writes on the back label: "Never surrender the opportunity to participate in the forming of the future." I need to print that out in 60 point font and plaster it in my surroundings. Namaste.

We drove all the way to Healdsburg just so mom could get her favorite cream soda (made by the Bear Republic Brewing Company)...

...and discovered that Healdsburg's Downtown Bakery & Creamery sells all of its various pastry doughs to go! It might just turn me into a semi-homemade baker yet - what a find!

We visited farm stands...
We stopped in at the organic Green String Farm in Petaluma (their promise of kale turned out to be false... but made for good wandering and pictures!).

And while I was in a meeting at the nearby Solano Community College, mom discovered THE find of the entire week: Larry's Produce. She picked me up with stories of produce flowing out of Larry's not in shopping carts, but wheelbarrows, and prices that would simply blow my head clean off. And she was right - this place, a seasonal farm stand in Fairfield (part of the Suisun Valley Harvest Trail) - was utterly fantastic. Indescribable. And freaking CHEAP. Despite already having loaded up on Thanksgiving groceries, I loaded up a wheelbarrow of my own anyway. I just couldn't resist. Sigh.

And then she was gone....
Mom departed town, but left goodies in her wake: a huge Thanksgiving gift tin loaded with Made-in-Utah products. I miss her already, but I'm feeling the love from home!

Love you, mom. Thanks for the tasty memories.