October 15, 2014 § 1 Comment
This past weekend I left the 650 behind and took a little road trip north, heading across the Big Red Bridge to Marin County. With unseasonably hot weather and clear blue skies, you would have thought it was mid-summer, not two weeks away from Halloween; nonetheless, it was perfect road-trip weather. Even the usual 19th Avenue crawl to the bridge had an upside: a sighting of the Blue Angels flying by. Lucky sighting it was, too, as the bridge itself was completely covered in fog. (The Blue Angels made another fly by while I was crossing the bridge, but the fog was so thick that I could only hear the planes.)
First stop and main event of the weekend was Bounty of Marin Organic, a food-and-beverage event/fundraiser at Marin County Mart. Despite the 19th Avenue traffic, I arrived at Marin County Mart half an hour before the event started, giving me time to stop by the event area and say hello to Jan Lee of AppleGarden Farm, who had generously invited me to be her guest at the event.*
Not only do Jan and her husband, Lou, own and operate AppleGarden Farm and AppleGarden Cottage bed and breakfast, but they also produce hand-crafted AppleGarden Farm Hard Cider from organic heritage apples on their property. Phew! Talk about a creative and energetic couple! Welcome hugs and hellos said, I left Jan to prepare for cider tastings, while I headed over to Miette Bakery to
inhale indulge in a macaron or three.
Bounty of Marin Organic kicked off at 5pm with a tasting event that featured about a dozen of Marin County’s finest organic food producers, including Star Route Farms, Gospel Flat Farm, Mindful Meats, and Straus Family Creamery. Tastes included fresh raw oysters from Hog Island and small indulgences of cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, and Tomales Farmstead Creamery. There were also a variety of prepared foods by chefs from local restaurants, such as Saltwater Oyster Bar, Parkside Cafe, and Left Bank Brasserie, who used seasonal products from Marin’s organic farms to create some savory tastes. (The tasting event was followed by a family-style, farm-to-table dinner, created by the food producers and chefs who had participated in the tasting. I didn’t attend the dinner, opting for a light meal at nearby FarmShop instead.)
As the tasting portion of the event kicked off, I started my Marin food “tour” with a glass of Jan’s AppleGarden Farm Hard Cider while we chatted a bit about her business and customers. The cider itself is flavorful, crisp, hardly sweet, and a touch effervescent — what a pleasant surprise! I think the first thing I said to Jan was “It’s not sweet, or too bubbly!” She smiled knowingly and then mentioned that it paired well with oysters (Hog Island was at the table to our left) and cheese (to our right). The fat Hog Island Oysters were calling me, so off I went.
For two hours, I happily tasted some of the best local, organic, and handcrafted food from the northern 415 and western 707 (aka, West Marin), sipping Jan’s cider in between tastes of North Coast biodynamic wines. Here are some the highlights from my Bounty of Marin Organic tasting experience.
Hog Island Sweetwater Oysters
What could be better than freshly shucked local oysters?! Apparently freshly shucked local oysters with a glass of Jan’s cider. Seriously. I’ve been challenged to find a good beverage pairing with oysters, but this could be it for me.
Mindful Meats Brisket
Mindful Meats is a wholesaler that works with organic dairy farmers in Marin and Sonoma counties to source and provide pastured, organic, non-GMO meats. They partnered with Left Bank Larkspur, providing the beef for a Gaucho-Style Braised Beef Brisket with Chimichurri Sauce. The meat was so tender and flavorful, while the sauce added some spice and contrast to the rich meat.
Savory Vegetable Pastry
There were some happy vegetarians in the crowd when they found this crispy, savory treat. Stinson Beach’s Parkside Cafe created a rich, crave-able savory pastry that featured Gospel Flat Farm’s 5-Bean Salad in a croissant-like pastry with crispy exterior. Mmm… crispy, soft, buttery, earthy goodness. To further enhance the deliciousness, you could top the pastry with a spoonful of McEvoy Ranch Olive Tapenade and a sprinkling of sea salt. (Oh yes, I did. And then I went back for seconds.)
Alongside the pastries (which were snapped up almost as soon as they arrived on the table), was a display of Gospel Flat Farm produce used to make the pastries. Need I say it? A great example of farm-to-table creativity.
The table shared by San Francisco-based Boxing Room and local (as in: in the same shopping center as the event) FarmShop Restaurant was pumpkin central. These two restaurants showed just how versatile and tasty pumpkin can be. FarmShop’s contribution was a Pumpkin Hummus with spiced pepitas and pomegranate molasses, served on a house-made lavash. (And, by the way, this can’t-stop-eating-it snack pairs nicely with hard cider. The dryer cider balances and complements the sweetness of the pumpkin and molasses.)
The Boxing Room’s pumpkin soup, on the other hand, was rich with a hint of spice. It’s the kind of soup I’d crave while curled up in bed on a cold, rainy night, but that could be fancy enough for a dinner party. There was already plenty of buzz about “the soup” before I got to try one of the last few samples, and yes, it was worth it.
This event was a fun (and filling!) opportunity to enjoy some of the best food that Marin County has to offer. I love the fact that an organization like Marin Organic exists to support and promote the local, organic and handcrafted products of the area. I’ll be back Marin, I’ll be back!
Have you experienced the bounty of Marin? What did you eat? Local oysters? Organic cheeses? An amazing restaurant meal? Share your Marin food experience!
*Full disclosure: I attended Bounty of Marin Organic as the guest of Jan Lee. My opinions are my own and not provided in exchange for attendance at the event, nor at the request of Marin Organic, Jan Lee, AppleGarden Farm, or any other participants in Bounty of Marin Organic.
October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Salmon. It’s what’s for dinner. And lunch. And well, even breakfast. From Safeway to Whole Foods to the local farmer’s market, you can find beautiful, fresh fillets or thick steaks of this healthful, tasty fish in hues ranging from bright orange to almost-red. While salmon is versatile — it holds up well to most cooking methods and pairs with a variety of flavors — the much-publicized health benefits of wild salmon have helped in making it a popular addition to the dining table. (Wild salmon is high in Omega-3’s, making it heart-healthy and an important source of brain-building nutrition.) Oh, and it’s delicious.
Our Northern California salmon fishing season varies throughout the year, but you’re likely to find a regular supply of fresh, local, wild salmon if you know where to look. Need some ideas? Try Whole Foods, weekend farmer’s markets, or Cooks Seafood in Menlo Park. Not only do we have access to delicious wild salmon caught right off the Northern California coast, but from time to time Alaskan salmon from Copper River and Bristol Bay makes its way down the Pacific coast to our local suppliers.
I am an admitted salmon convert. When I was a kid, the only salmon I knew came in cans. In my limited, kidhood experience, the only difference between salmon and tuna was the color — pink, not grey — and sometimes the texture. Salmon was crunchier because there were usually some small bones ground in. This salmon is what my mother and my aunties used to make an Australian dinner-table staple: fish cakes. (Canned tuna was an option as well, but somehow the salmon version holds a larger place in my memory). Salmon cakes would be the core of a “lighter” cooked dinner — lighter than, say, steak or roast or lamb chops, which, most nights, were de rigueur for dinner. (British influence, much?) The recipe was simple: combine canned fish, egg, breadcrumbs, and a few herbs into patties. Then, coat them in more breadcrumbs and fry those babies in drippings (aka, lard) until the outsides are crispy and dark brown, occasionally brown-black. Serve with mashed potatoes and green vegetables, usually the boiled kind.
Fresh fish was not something my mother cooked. She came from a meat-potato-veg-for-dinner generation of Australian women who knew how to economize while still putting out a well-rounded, nightly dinner. Fish sticks, fish cakes, and Red Lobster shrimp cocktail were the limit of my seafood experience until high school, when I tried lox for the first time. I was well into adulthood when I first tried fresh salmon. I was amazed at what I’d been missing for so many years — a flavorful, healthy source of protein that was pulled right out of our West Coast waters!
If you’ve read this blog for a bit, then you know that I’m an advocate for knowing the source of your food — and better yet, for connecting with the producer of that food. What does that mean? It means starting a conversation — talking with farmers at your weekend market, or the manager at a family-run grocery store, or the person in charge of making food at your favorite local restaurant. But what about something like fish? How do you make that connection? When are you likely to run into a fisherman? I mean, most people buy fish, in a package, at the local grocery store (ok, stop that, by the way). But how do you find out the source of your fish: whether it’s farmed or wild, Pacific or Atlantic, sustainably fished or not, and so on? And do fish have seasons? And what does “local fish” mean? All good questions to ponder.
A new book by Paul Greenburg, American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, examines some of these questions. Greenburg knows his subject matter; he’s a passionate, lifelong fisherman (not just a consumer) and award-winning author who writes about the state of the American fish industry. The book is an important read for anyone who eats seafood, values sustainable seafood sources, or just wants a better understanding of the seafood we’re eating (or not eating) in this country. The third section of the book focuses on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, currently a rich and pristine source of Alaskan wild sockeye salmon. Within the past decade, Bristol Bay has been threatened by mining interests, potentially sending it the way of so many other natural, American wild-fish sources that have been ravaged by industrial interests.
I finished the book shortly before attending the IFBC conference in Seattle last month, so much of the content — and specifically Bristol Bay’s current issues — were still in my mind. Not to mention the fact that Greenburg made Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon sound so utterly delicious that I was wondering when, if ever, I might have a chance to try it. (You see where this is going, right?) Yep, in a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up experience, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon was featured at the IFBC 2014 opening reception. Seriously.
Three Seattle chefs created dishes that highlighted the versatility and flavor of the fish for attendees to try. Bristol Bay folks were on hand to talk about their salmon, as well as the potential risks to their fishing industry. It was an opportunity to taste this product I’d only read about, meet the people supporting it, and even participate in a little food activism. The dishes created by the chefs were tasty and approachable — not “fancy restaurant food,” but something you could cook and enjoy at home. Unfortunately, no recipes were provided, but you creative/adventurous cooks could probably reverse engineer them on your own.
Chef Kevin Davis’ grilled sockeye with tomatoes, sweet corn, and roasted heirloom chilies was a hearty, flavorful late-fall dish, that I could imagine enjoying with rice and a side salad.
Craig Heatherington’s peppered sockeye on brioche with a little sour cream is satisfying and elegant appetizer.
Chef Sean Ellis’ gravlax was probably my favorite of the three. Ok, let’s be honest, I’m not likely to make this one any time soon, but I do love me some gravlax!
Sourcing was included in the presentation; a sign was placed near each dish, crediting the chef, as well as the provider of the salmon itself. Seattle seafood processor, Icicle Seafood, provided the salmon for the the tomatoes and chilies dish, as well as the gravlax. However, the sockeye for the peppered salmon on brioche was provided by a single fisherman and vessel: Matthew Luck, MegJ LLC dba Pride of Bristol Bay. That’s something I’d like to see more often!
So how do you find out more about the source of the salmon you’re about to buy? Simple: ask. “Is this local?” If not, where is it from? If the guy (or gal) working the fish counter doesn’t know, ask if there’s someone else in the department who does know. I’ve ended up having some really good conversations with the folks working the fish department where I shop. You’d be surprised how knowledgeable your local fish supplier (or butcher, for that matter) can be!
Recently my local grocery store had two kinds of wild salmon in the fish case: king (aka, Chinook) and sockeye. I asked about the source of both, and the fish guy was on top of it: king from the California Coast and sockeye from Alaska. That rich, red-orange color of the sockeye, not to mention the “Best Choice” rating from Seafood Watch, won me over. The fillets were perfect for baking and enjoying over a simple green salad. Next time I’ll have to buy extra and try my hand at those salmon cakes.
August 29, 2014 § 4 Comments
Sometimes you just gotta bail… hit the road… get outta Dodge. Take a vay-cay-shun. I love my little corner of the 650, but it’s good to travel and see the rest of the world from time to time. I’d been fantasizing about a trip to Puerto Rico — especially Old San Juan — since the beginning of the year, and I finally managed to squeeze in a getaway.
Given that I spend most of my waking moments thinking, reading, and writing about (what else?) food and drink, exploring local restaurants was definitely at the top of my “must do’s” for Old San Juan! But aside from a thriving food scene with a variety of top-notch restaurants, Old San Juan is packed full of history, culture, and romantic charm! There are museums, national landmarks, and narrow cobblestone streets to explore. The pace is slow (year-round temps of 85ºF and high humidity help with the slowing down), and the everyone I met was friendly.
I am crushing hard on Old San Juan; it’s a gorgeous city with so much to see and experience. To me, the old city is a mashup of French Quarter meets Caribbean, with plenty of Latin influence thrown in. Yet, there are surprises everywhere: a block of Art Deco buildings here, and good ol’ USA commerce — Walgreens and fast food — over there.
There’s history on every block of Old San Juan, so walking is the best way to see the old city. Keep an eye out for plaques, affixed to just about every other building, for even more historical information. (I now know where the first Piña Colada was created!) Yes, the text is in Spanish, but you’ll be able to get the gist, even if you don’t speak the language.
My days were spent walking the old city, visiting national historic sites, such as the Museo de Casa Blanca (home of the Ponce de León family for 250 years) and Castillo San Felipe del Morro (huge, multi-level “castle” that has guarded the city’s entrance for more than 400 years). As each day’s sightseeing wound down, I’d head to the Calle Fortelezza – Calle Tetuan area for a happy-hour cocktail and bar snacks before deciding on dinner. Bliss!
Mojitos are de rigeur at just about every bar. I tried both traditional and contemporary versions (let me just say that Toro Salao’s Rosemary Mojito rocks). One of the tastier, traditional versions that I tried was at Anam Spa & Cocktail Lounge. That’s right, spa and cocktail lounge. I wandered in thinking I’d just grab a happy-hour mojito and be on my way, but it turns out that I was able to relax with my cocktail while getting one of the best foot massages I’ve ever had (thank you, Hayley!!). Yet another opportunity to slow down.
Anam’s mojito had no measurements — just a handful of mint, muddled with the juice of half a lime, a healthy pour of Don Q limon rum, and a top-off of Sprite. The addition of lemon from the Sprite and the Don Q rum added sweetness, but wasn’t cloying. The cocktail was absolutely delicious, well-balanced, and refreshing!
I’m already missing Old San Juan and thinking about another visit. I’ll be posting more about my trip (and what I ate) in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’m going to mix up a mojito with some backyard garden mint, homemade lemon-lime simple syrup, and Puerto Rican rum.
Recipe: Missing Old San Juan Mojito
Yield: 1 cocktail
You’ll need a highball or pint glass, cocktail shaker, shot glass with measurement markings or measuring spoons, a muddler, a long-handled spoon, and ice.
Note that I’ve given the ingredients in ounces. If you’re using measuring spoons,
2 ounces = 4 tablespoons, 1 ounce = 2 tablespoons, ½ ounce = 1 tablespoon
Handful of mint leaves (if you must count, let’s say about 2 dozen leaves)
2 ounces lemon-lime simple syrup (heat 4 ounces sugar and water to a simmer, stir until sugar is completely dissolved, add the zest and juice of 1/2 lime and 1/2 lemon, then cool and strain)
2¼ – 2½ ounces white rum (I used DonQ Cristal)
4 – 6 ounces sparkling water
- Juice the ½ lime into a glass.
- Add the mint leaves and lemon-lime simple syrup to the glass and muddle.
I use a press-and-turn motion with the muddler to crush the leaves without shredding them. You’re working to release the mint essence from the leaves and combine it with the simple syrup and lime. Want to know if it’s working? Put your nose in the glass and take a sniff. You should be able to smell a combination of mint and citrus. (Want more details about muddling? Check out my 650 Blackberry Mojito recipe.)
- Add the rum.
Stir once or twice to combine.
- Add ice to fill the glass about halfway.
- Top with sparkling water.
- Give a quick stir to combine everything.
- Adjust to your taste, if necessary, by adding more simple syrup or rum.
- Garnish with a mint sprig and enjoy!
July 23, 2014 § 4 Comments
One of the items on my Summer Bucket List this year is “blackberry picking at a local farm.” Blackberry season here in the Bay Area is rather short, usually running from the end of June until the end of July. If you want to get the best berries (or any berries at all, for that matter), you have to make a point to plan your visit to a u-pick farm. Sure, you can purchase local, organic blackberries at most farmers’ markets — no muss, no fuss — but where’s the fun in that?! If you’re a DIY kinda person, and don’t mind getting your hands dirty (or fingers stained or arms scratched up), then u-pick is a great way to get your hands on the freshest berries around.
Knowing that I was running out of time, and with all kinds of plans for what I might make with the pounds of plump, sweet dark-purple berries I’d pick myself, I decided that last Saturday was The Day. We were having perfect berry-picking weather here in the 650: sunny with a few clouds and temps in the low 70’s. I thought about making the 45-minute drive to Coastaways Ranch in Pescadero, especially as they were about to close their blackberry u-pick for the season, but opted to head over to Webb Ranch in Portola Valley instead. Getting to Webb Ranch would take less time, and they were advertising more varieties of berries. Win-win.
Webb Ranch is family-friendly and well set up for u-pick. Signs point the way to the u-pick parking lot and to the fields’ entrance (look for the white tent where you’ll enter and exit the fields). When I checked in with the ladies at the u-pick entrance before heading out to the fields, they let me know that pickins were slim (sad face). However, there were berries to be had for those pickers willing to search (hint, hint). Undeterred, I grabbed several boxes and headed out.
I saw lots of unripe, red berries on the vines, but the dusky berries I was expecting were few and far between. Anything at eye level was definitely picked over, but there were some berries at ground level. It took some scraped arms and pricked fingers from moving vines to get at those hidden treasures, but I can get a little obsessive when it comes to berry picking. After a while I got into a groove, searching vines in sections, and really just enjoying walking through the fields. I lost track of time, moving from one row to the next, squatting, moving vines (ouch), slipping my hands under leaves (ouch), and occasionally finding a cache of ripe berries, missed by the early-morning pickers.
Lost in my hunt and enjoying the fresh air and warm weather, I started to get this weird feeling. You know that point when you realize that things have gotten really quiet and there’s no one else around? When I finally put my head up and checked the time, yikes! It was past closing time for u-pick and yes, I was actually alone out in the fields. Well, that’s a first. I’ve closed bars and restaurants, but never a berry field. I looked down at my haul. Barely two containers full. Oof.
Fortunately, farmer Deano Lovecchio and his wife, who were (ahem) waiting for me so that they could close up, were nice enough to chat for a few minutes about my picking experience and what’s going on at Webb Ranch. I got the low-down from Deano on what they’ve planted and why, and what’s up with the lack of berries. Basically, it comes down to what Deano called “our weird weather” — cool, foggy mornings in the Portola Valley hills has slowed down the ripening process — along with a lot more of “you folks,” meaning more u-pickers. And this isn’t a bad thing for the farm — more of “us folks” picking means higher demand for their berries and a growth opportunity for the farm. In fact, Deano was telling me about all the additional crops he’s planted for the coming year to support the farm’s growth. (More about that in a future post!)
During my drive home I had a little internal debate as to what I might do with the berries I’d picked. Quantity-wise, things hadn’t worked out as I’d anticipated; I probably ended up with about a pound. But quality-wise: jackpot! These very ripe berries were at their best right now (ok, so I’d taste-tested few while picking…); they were very sweet, flavorful, even a bit jammy tasting, with just a hint of tartness. They wouldn’t be better tomorrow or the next day. That’s the thing about u-pick: you need to be thinking ahead as to what you’ll do with the fruit. How much you can eat or cook now and whether the fruit is sturdy enough for storing for future use. It was pretty clear from the juice leaking into the box holding the berries that these super-ripe babies needed to be enjoyed or cooked right away. I decided to split the difference: eat my fill now and cook the rest into a blackberry syrup that I could enjoy for the next week or two.
Not to be a big tease after all that talk of sweet, ripe berries, but if you’re thinking about getting your blackberries from Webb Ranch, better hurry up! This Saturday, 9am–2pm, is the last chance for blackberry u-pick for the season! Check out their website or Facebook page for the latest updates. And if you do get your hands on some sweet, ripe berries, make up a batch of this versatile syrup!
Recipe: Blackberry Syrup
This syrup is delicious on waffles, homemade vanilla ice cream, or a scoop of Greek yogurt (hint: you don’t need to buy yogurt with fruit added — make your own fruit sauces and syrups). It’s also a great way to use up very ripe, soft, or ugly berries. Note that blackberries, depending on the type, can vary in size from about 1/2-inch to 1-inch, so I recommend weight over volume measurements for consistent results.
Yield: 8 – 9 ounces syrup
What you need:
Small container or bowl to hold the strainer
Glass or plastic container with lid for storing the syrup
12 ounces ripe, fresh blackberries, boysenberries, olallieberries (or a combination of any of these)
3 – 4 ounces sugar
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 ounce of water
- Taste your berries.
Seriously, before you go any further, taste several berries to get a good idea of how sweet and/or tart they are. If they’re very sweet with a hint of tartness, start with the minimum amount of sugar (3 ounces) and lemon juice (2 teaspoons). If the berries are more tart than sweet, they’re likely not ripe enough, and you’ll need to add more sugar — up to 3 ounces more.
- Place the berries in the saucepan and add the sugar, lemon juice, and water.
Per your taste test in Step 1, add more sugar and/or lemon juice as necessary. Just to give you an idea of what I did: the berries I used were super-ripe and very sweet, AND I prefer a less-sweet syrup, so I used only 3 ounces of sugar. Next time, I might add another half ounce to see if that brings out the berry flavor a bit more without making the syrup too sweet. If your berries are tasting more tart than sweet, consider adding more sugar.
- Bring the berries, sugar, lemon juice, and water to a boil and reduce the heat.
- Cook for 15-20 minutes over low-medium to medium heat until the mixture has thickened and reduced to about three-quarters of the original amount.
Make sure you’re stirring the mixture regularly and using the rubber spatula to break up the berries in the pot. I press the spatula against the berries until they pop.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down with the spatula to extract as much liquid as possible.
I haven’t yet figured out a good use for what I call the “smoosh” — the leftover skins and seeds from making the syrup. Got any ideas??
- Taste the syrup and make any final adjustments for sweetness or acidity by adding sugar or lemon juice in small increments.
- Allow to cool. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
July 1, 2014 § 4 Comments
How did you mark the official arrival of summer? Did you barbecue at home with the family and neighbors? Take your kids to the park for a picnic? Pass a leisurely afternoon day drinking with friends on the patio of your favorite restaurant? Whatever you did, I’ll bet it included friends or family and food!
I get a little giddy when I think of all the wonderful, fresh food that’s available from our gardens and local farms this time of year — which you could probably figure out from my recent posts about local stone fruit and coastal strawberries. We’re so fortunate to have fine weather and a long growing season here, but also a culture that values growing, making, and sharing good food.
So how did I mark the official start of summer? With some delicious food and fine cocktails, of course! CUESA’s Summer Celebration at the Ferry Building on June 22 was the perfect summer kickoff party. The event, which benefits CUESA’s educational program, celebrated the bounty of summer produce with small plates and handcrafted cocktails created by some of the city’s best chefs and bartenders. (There were also fresh nonalcoholic libations: juice blends and shrubs.) Each plate or beverage was inspired by one of six categories of summer produce — or “culinary families,” as CUESA calls them:
- Grains and legumes
- Leaves and flowers
- Stone fruit
Most of these food families are probably familiar to you — especially berries and stone fruit. Alliums and cucurbits might be less-familiar names, but you’ll recognize their family members. Allium, the latin name for garlic, includes all varieties of garlic and onions, including shallots, leeks, and scallions. But what the heck are cucurbits? (Ok, am I the only person who hears Bill Cosby’s voice saying “Riiiiight. What’s a cucurbit?”). The cucurbit family includes vine-growing produce, which are botanically classified as fruits: squashes, melons, and cucumbers.
More than just a tasting event, CUESA’s Summer Celebration brought together farmers, chefs, beverage crafters, and food lovers of all kinds from around the Bay Area to taste, savor, and learn. While you might know CUESA as the people who put on the Ferry Building farmers’ markets, much of what CUESA does involves educating consumers about sustainable agriculture and local food systems. (Want to know more about their mission? Check out their site.) The Summer Celebration included a variety of fun and creative educational games to teach attendees more about each culinary family. (An added bonus for food geeks!)
Santa Cruz’s Dirty Girl Produce had a gorgeous display of alliums and challenged attendees to an allium “sniff test.” Could you tell the difference between onions, leeks, shallots, and scallions with just your sense of smell? Not as easy as you might think! I had a chance to test my berry knowledge by spinning the Wheel of Berries to answer a berry trivia question. My prize? Yum — a tasting of fresh berries! However, one of my favorite games of the evening was “What’s Your Stone Fruit Name?” (I won’t tell you how it works, but there’s not much skill involved). For the rest of the evening I was “Flavor King,” and my date? “Golden Blaze.” We wrapped up our game-playing at Grains & Legumes Jeopardy, rocking the Grains category, but stumbling on the Legumes. Looks like I need to brush up on my legume facts, but it was fun all the same.
The event was also an opportunity to connect one-on-one with food growers, such as Frog Hollow Farm, Sierra Cascade Organic Blueberry Farm, Star Route Farms, and Dirty Girl Produce. I learned some “Fruity Facts” and talked food waste solutions with the Frog Hollow folks, who grow some of sweetest, most flavorful peaches and apricots in the area. I got the lowdown on how Sierra Cascade’s farmer, John Carlon, created a sustainable farm by understanding and working with the synergy between the blueberries, bumblebees, and gophers. And I experienced edible blossoms and leaves (oh my — Meyer lemon blossoms! Floral, perfumey, sweet, and citrusy, with a bit of crunch.) at Star Route Farms’ beautiful display.
There were so many delicious creations to try, but here’s the short list of favorite tastes from the event.
The Sweet Onion and Tasso Ham flatbread from Il Cane Rosso doesn’t look fancy, but it’s so flavorful and craveable. To me it was like a next-level nacho plate. The flavors paired well, as did the contrast between the crispy flatbread and the tasso ham. Even thinking about it now is making me hungry.
Most of the handcrafted cocktails showcased locally produced spirits — and gin seemed to the spirit of choice. I’m not a gin fan, but this cocktail of raspberry, lemon, bitters, and No. 29 gin was a favorite. Plus, it had a super-cool (pardon the pun), large ice cube.
Everyone I talked with listed “the pork belly” as one of their top tastes of the evening. 1760’s tasting spoon paired rich pork belly with a sweet berry compote. A bit of bad planning on my part, as I tasted this one later in the evening, not leaving enough time to round back for seconds… or thirds…
And this is why I love tasting events: being surprised by something unexpected! I was thinking “yeah, yeah, stuffed squash,” when I saw this plate, but this stuffed squash from Bluestem Brasserie was delicious!
I was holding off tasting most of the desserts until later in the evening, which meant that I missed out on a few — and maybe that worked out for the best. Yigit Pura’s Panna Cotta was worth it, and he has restored my faith that there is well-made, creamy panna cotta in the world. Perfect summer dessert: light, balanced, fruity. Trust me, if I weren’t so full, I would have eaten two more.
Grains & Legumes
Andrew Court’s Ancient Grains & Seaweed Salad was another surprise of the evening, which is why there’s no photo of the plated dish. (Sorry, you’ll have to make do with this fancy copper baby bathtub full of the grains and legumes used in the salad.) I pretty much inhaled it once I tasted it. The grains were perfectly cooked, the seaweed added a bit of umami flavor and crunch, and the dressing brought it all together. Deliciously healthy, and yet indulgent at the same time.
Leaves & Flowers
Here we have the first gin cocktail of the evening, and it might have changed my opinion about gin! This one, made with the 650’s own Rusty Blades Gin, was probably my all-around favorite. Again, not a gin fan, but Rusty Blades reminded me more of an aged whiskey and was really tasty with a bit of sweetness. The cocktail was summery, citrusy, and floral, and garnished with a pretty flower. Loved it!
Smoked salmon? Yes, please! I thought Gaspar’s English pea and chive blini would be nothing more than a delivery device for the salmon, but I was so wrong! This bite pulled together the sweet flavor and soft, creamy texture of the blini with the smokiness of the fish and the herbal accent of the chives. So good!
If you’ve read past posts, you know that Campo de Ecanto Pisco is regular in my home-bar lineup. Pair that with Frog Hollow Farms apricots for Rye on the Road’s Pisco Apricot Tropical, and wow! Yes, I’ll be doing some major “research” to reverse engineer this one at home.
Last, but in no way least, was A16’s Stone Fruit & Roasted Beet Salad. The beets and fruit played perfectly together, while the yogurt and nuts added texture and flavor. The kind of salad you could eat all summer long!
Did you attend CUESA’s Summer Celebration? What was your favorite drink or small plate?
June 10, 2014 § 5 Comments
While most of the 650 was sweltering through another 90-something-degree day this week, I decided to make a run for cooler temperatures on the coast. It was actually perfect timing to check off a couple of items on my Summer Bucket List: lunch at eco-resort Costanoa, followed by a short trip over the San Mateo county line for strawberry picking at Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport.
Why spend a couple of hours in a dusty field along the coast of Santa Cruz county when I could find local, organic berries at my neighborhood grocery store or farmers’ market? Sure the market is convenient, but you can’t get fresher berries than those you pick yourself. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to directly support a local, organic farm.
I was thinking, as I was wandering through the rows of berry plants, that u-pick benefits both the farm and the consumer. Consumers have an opportunity to pick the freshest organic berries at a reasonable price, and the farm can reduce the costs of labor and transporting the berries to market. Not to mention that it’s a nice summer outing for families — and an opportunity to teach your kids about where strawberries come from and the work that goes into producing them.
You can bring your own containers and head right to the field, or stop in to the Farmstand shop where you can pick up cardboard boxes to hold your berries. There’s not much to know about picking strawberries — common sense is pretty much all you need. Be gentle with the plants and only pick berries that are completely red; that means turning berries over to check that they’re fully ripe. While one side might be beautifully red, the other might still be green. Strawberries don’t ripen after you pick them, which is why you want to pick berries that are completely red, from stem to tip and front to back.
Berries that aren’t red from stem to tip won’t have as much flavor, so leave them and move on to other plants. Trust me, there are plenty of ripe berries, if you have some patience and are willing to look. Swanton works on the honor system when it comes to berry picking. Once you’ve picked your fill, head back to the Farmstand, where you’ll weigh your berries, calculate the cost, and pay at the “honor station” at the counter.
Swanton says that they have fewer berries than usual for this time of year due to the drought, but I found plenty. It’s easy to get in a groove and end up with more berries than you anticipated. Somehow I always do this — I was going for five pounds and ended up going home with seven.
As soon as I got home, I did a “sort and separate”:
- Berries without stems (they won’t last as long without their stems)
- Berries that are verging on overripe and/or have a bit of damage (again, they have a shorter lifespan)
- Berries that have a bit of a green on the tip (yeah, somehow I got a few of those); they may or may not be flavorful
- Berries that are beautifully red from stem to tip (most of the berries)
Basically, I want to get any soft, stemless, damaged, and very ripe berries out of the mix because they’ll deteriorate more quickly and can potentially cause mold problems with the rest of the berries. Once I finished sorting, I lined the boxes with foil and then two layers of paper towels and arranged the berries in a single layer in each box. (You can also use a sheet pan or shallow, plastic food bin.) I put the boxes (uncovered) on the top shelf of my fridge where they’ll stay for a day or so until I get everything prepped for freezing.
Berries need cool storage temps (about 35ºF) and high humidity. You’ll also want to make sure that they have some room for airflow, which is why you should store them in a single layer. The paper towels will absorb moisture, which should minimize the potential for mold. Oh, and one very important tip to extend the shelf-life of your berries: don’t wash them or remove the stems until you’re ready to use them. Want to know more? This comprehensive article from UC Davis gives good information about choosing, cleaning, and storing strawberries.
So what am I going to do with all of those luscious, red berries? I’ll use the very ripe and stemless berries first. As for the rest, I’ll keep some in the refrigerator for breakfast and snacking, but most I’ll freeze for future projects. Here are a few ideas I’m working on already:
- Cut the very ripe berries into dice and mix with leftover sorbet syrup and fresh mint from my garden for a simple dessert
- Make Strawberries Romanov (cut strawberries into dice, mix with sugar and Grand Marnier) as a topping for Orange Sorbet
- Purée berries for strawberry sherbet or ice cream
- Make a salad with fresh lettuce from my garden, strawberries, and feta
Then there are the frozen berries that I’ll hold back for baked treats (mmm, strawberry crisp) and possibly my first attempt at freezer jam. Fortunately, Swanton’s u-pick for strawberries runs until September or October, so I might just have to pace myself.
Have you been to Swanton to pick your own berries?
What: Swanton Berry Farm U-Pick
Where: 25 Swanton Road, Davenport, CA 95017
Parking: Farmstand lot and u-pick field
Hours: Every day, 8am-8pm
Price: U-pick organic strawberries: $3/pound; Farmstand treats and baked goods: prices vary
Tip: Swanton’s Coastaways Ranch location in Pescadero will be open for u-pick ollalieberries in July. Mark your calendar.