I have been a hardcore social distancer since the shelter-in-place order went into effect back in March, which has meant eschewing restaurants’ outdoor dining options in favor of eating takeout at home and replacing my thrice-weekly grocery-store runs with pickup and delivery options. It’s been, well, weird—to say the least.
So much of my work as a food writer has been based on getting out and experiencing our local food system in person: leisurely picking up seasonal produce and fresh fish from the San Mateo farmers’ market on a Saturday morning, grabbing a weekday lunch on the fly in downtown Redwood City, or settling in for a long dinner with an old friend at a new Peninsula must-try restaurant.
And yet, while I miss those experiences, there are some aspects of the new normal that I’m digging—in particular, finding new (or new-to-me) food businesses to support. Ocean 2 Table’s weekly direct-to-my-front-door deliveries of freshly-caught local seafood—sablefish, California halibut, and yellowtail rockfish are just a few examples—have been a godsend. Maria Gregorio’s volunteer-run Giving Fruits not only provides grower-direct produce to Peninsula customers but also supports several charitable organizations. And on the restaurant side of things, new takeout options have meant being able to enjoy food from restaurants that usually have long waits for reservations, like Michelin-starred Sushi Yoshizumi in San Mateo (which I wrote about for the October issue of PUNCH Magazine) and Sushi Shin in Redwood City.
Ultimately, food experiences in 2020 were more about taking joy where I found it, rather than seeking the newest, hottest, or best-of. Following are my “top five” eats of this year.
Truth: boquerones will change your mind about anchovies. Cured in salt for preservation, then marinated in vinegar or lemon juice to balance the rich oiliness of the fish, these “white anchovies,” as they’re also known, are an excellent topper for toast, pasta, or salad. And the kicker: boquerones are super easy to make at home.
I ordered a pound of Monterey Bay sardines from Ocean 2 Table and used Hank Shaw’s recipe from his blog Hunter • Angler • Gardener • Cook to make my own boquerones in June, and I’ve been craving them ever since. Canned is just not the same.
Tomato and Burrata Salad (Oak+Violet)
Back in July, as the world tentatively opened up, I interviewed Oak+Violet’s Executive Chef, Simona Oliveri, for PUNCH Magazine’s August issue. Her passion for food and creating elegant plates for customers was inspiring—not to mention that she is one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet. The beautifully-plated Tomato and Burrata Salad, a highlight of the restaurant’s “Sicilian Summer Nights” menu, embodies Simona’s skill and style.
The combination of thick wedges of sweet heirloom tomatoes, generous portion of milky burrata, peppery olive oil, sweet-acidic balsamic vinegar, and herbaceous fresh basil was the epitome of summer on a plate for me.
15-Piece Chef’s Choice Nigiri (Sushi Shin)
Tiny nine-seat Sushi Shin in Redwood City was on my must-try list earlier this year (before you-know-what), although with limited seating and excellent early reviews, reservations were hard to come by. When the restaurant pivoted to Tock takeout, I jumped at the chance to treat myself and splurge on Chef Jason’s 15-piece edomae-style sushi box. To heighten the at-home omakase experience, the restaurant sent a text explaining the order in which to eat each piece.
Careful preparation techniques highlight the flavor of every item in the box. Tasmanian trout, for example, is lightly smoked, but has an undertone of sweetness. Salty Kamasu (Chiba) is lightly torched; searing the outside adds a grilled flavor while maintaining the fish’s soft interior. And what to say about the Toro other than: pure indulgence! It needed nothing more than a smidge of soy sauce and Chef Jason’s lightly seasoned sushi rice to make a perfect bite. Tofu pudding with black sesame syrup was a light and satisfying ending to the meal. Currently Sushi Shin is on hiatus, but I am looking forward to their return.
When pluerries turned up on Giving Fruit’s list of offerings at the end of summer, I couldn’t pass them up. Curious about this cross between a sweet cherry and plum, I placed my order for the smallest amount available: 10 pounds. (Pros and cons on this farm-to-table ordering thing.)
If nothing else, I figured I’d knock out a few batches of jam, but I also wanted some sweet options for immediate gratification. Plum cake? Sure, but what else? Fortunately, I landed on this recipe for Santa Rosa Plum compote, substituting pluerries for plums and reducing the amount of sugar. With a touch of sweetness from the vanilla and a bit of tartness from the skins, there’s something elegant about this compote. I can confirm that it’s just as enjoyable eaten cold, straight from the fridge, as it is served warm over rice pudding.
Spiced Persimmon and Ginger Muffins
Fall brought persimmons, and this year I was determined to work them into my baking repertoire. Having zero experience with Hachiya persimmons, this was another case of “buy now, figure it out later,” which had become part of my 2020 cooking philosophy. Fortunately, Hachiyas give you time: they need to be completely, smooshingly ripe before use, which can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. While the fruit (all 10 pounds of it) sat on my counter, I discovered Andrea Nguyen’s excellent ginger and persimmon adaptation of Alice Medrich’s gluten-free Dark and Spicy Pumpkin Muffins.
With a soft, cake-like texture, bits of persimmons, chunks of sultanas and spicy candied ginger, these muffins are a breakfast treat or perfect afternoon snack with black tea and honey. For Christmas morning, I dressed them up with a dairy-free cream cheese frosting and a sprinkle of freshly-grated nutmeg. It was basically cake for breakfast. With several pounds of Hachiya purée in the freezer, I’ll be enjoying these muffins at least into spring 2021.
And that’s a wrap for me! What are your top eats for 2020?