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.