My Five Favorite Eats in 2020

December 31, 2020 § Leave a comment

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. 

Boquerones

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.

boquerones
Boquerones with fennel, arugula, and gluten-free pasta

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.

tomato and burrata salad
Chef Simona Oliveri’s Tomato and Burrata Salad

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.

Sushi Shin 15-piece box
Sushi Shin’s 15-piece nigiri

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.

Pluerry Compote

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.)

pluerries in box
Ten pounds of organic pluerries from Kashiwase Farms

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.

spicy ginger and persimmon muffins
Spiced persimmon and ginger 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?

User Testing Gluten-Free Peanut Crunch Brownies

February 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

I love cookbooks. Some people collect animal figures, vinyl records, or jewelry. Not me. Nope, I collect cookbooks. Not intentionally. I mean, it didn’t start out that way, but after 30 years of acquiring cookbooks, I think it’s fair to say that I have a collection. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the possibility that exists within cookbooks: a pretty cake that might taste even better than it looks, the slow-cooked scrambled eggs that I’ll linger over on a Saturday morning, or the yeasted waffles for Sunday night breakfast-for-dinner dinner.

Some old favorites and new additions

Some old favorites and new additions

When I was about seven years old, I discovered the cookbook section in my local library, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Poring over each colorful baking book was not only about what I might make, but also what I might learn. Without Food Network and the interwebs to rely on for visuals (it was the olden days), cooking was a trial-and-error experience.  More often than not, it was error, but cooking is something that you learn by doing — and often screwing up — not just by reading about it.

I know people who are fearless cooks — those who will dive right in and try a new recipe on the first read-through or just throw ingredients together without any attachment to the outcome. I’ve never been that kind of cook; I like the guidance of a cookbook, the framework of a recipe. I’m a researcher and a preparer, which is why the sweet kitchen has always been my thing (plus, you know, all those kitchen toys tools rock).

My cookbook collection can be divided into three categories. First, there are the kitchen “bibles,” if you will: the go-to’s, the must-haves. These are the books I’ll recommend or give as gifts because I know the recipes just work, such as Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Then there are the specialty books, usually purchased for a project idea or a skill I want to learn, like canning. (Uh, still working on that. Canning cookbooks purchases to date: 3. Actual jars of jam made: 0). The last group is what I’d call personal connection, whether it’s the cookbook of a restaurant I’ve admired or enjoyed (Boulevard) or a chef who’s inspired me (Emily Luchetti!), these books are reminders of certain points in my life or milestones in my cooking experience.

Before I started culinary school at the CIA, I took a chocolate class at Ramekins in Sonoma, taught by Alice Medrich, Bay Area chocolate guru and James Beard award-winning cookbook author. (And oh hey, did you know that Alice Medrich has a 650 connection? Her Cocolat chain of shops in operation during the 1980’s included an outlet at Stanford Shopping Center.) She’s written 11 sweet cookbooks, many of which focus on chocolate (of course). Her most recent project, Flavor Flours, explores baking with gluten-free flours, such as rice, sorghum, and teff. After hearing her talk about the book at a JCC panel event that also included Beranbaum and Luchetti, it was a must-buy.

I’m not linear when it comes to cookbooks. Some people can cook right through from first page to last, but I like to skip around and make the things that look most interesting first. So, I’d been waiting for an excuse to make Medrich’s Peanut Crunch Brownies — which is basically a fudgy brownie on top of a peanut butter cookie. Yeah, you read that right. Then came National Chocolate-Covered Peanut Day this week. Chocolate brownie covering peanut cookie? Works for me.

Interpreting "chocolate-covered peanut"

Peanut Crunch Brownies

Well, it did, but honestly, not without a bit trepidation and a second run-through. Yes, even after years of baking, working with new ingredients and techniques meant that I was a little uncertain about the outcome. Would the baking times be accurate? Did I really have to bake these brownies in the upper-third of the oven? (still not sure) Could I use a smaller baking pan than the recipe called for? (Answer: yes, but there’s math involved. I don’t recommend it for first-timers.)

What advice would I give kitchen novices or those who have a bit of cooking fear when it comes to trying new recipes?

Read the recipe twice. I usually read through once to get a feel for the recipe, and a second time for details and techniques. Turns out that this recipe was really two recipes — a peanut butter cookie/crust recipe and a brownie recipe — that come together at the end.

Because the recipe has two parts, I set up the mise en place for each part separately. Shown: the brownie batter mise.

Because the recipe has two parts, I set up the mise en place for each part separately. Shown: the brownie batter mise.

Make sure you have all ingredients. One of the ingredients is crunchy, salted, natural peanut butter. I had two jars of peanut butter: both of them creamy, unsalted. *sigh* Did I really want to make a run to the market for a jar of peanut butter, of which I would use 160 grams and leave the rest in the back of my refrigerator for eternity? No. But I did have roasted peanuts, salt, and a food processor — and that was enough to make my own natural, crunchy, salted peanut butter.

Mise en place for the peanut cookie/crust layer: note the homemade peanut butter

Mise en place for the peanut cookie/crust layer: note the homemade peanut butter

Mise en place. Can’t say this enough times: weigh or measure all of your ingredients and revisit the ingredient list to check them off before starting to cook. You’d hate to find out that you forgot to add the sugar as you’re sliding those brownies into the oven. Pro tip: get organized by corralling all of your ingredients on a sheet pan.

Skip the substitutions. When it comes to baking, don’t make any substitutions the first time you make a new recipe, unless you’re really confident. Substitutions can affect weight, moisture, and in some cases, specific chemical reactions are required for a good end product.

Gluten-free brownie batter: no substitutions

Gluten-free brownie batter: no substitutions

Use baking times as guidelines. Any cookbook author will tell you that there’s no way to test every recipe in every oven. Baking times are usually accurate to within a couple of minutes, but not always. The first time you make a recipe, test it at the low end of the time range first, then give it more time if necessary. The peanut crunch layer, which bakes first, needed some extra time in my oven, as did the brownie layer.

Peanut crunch layer, pressed into the pan: Needed extra baking time in my oven

Peanut crunch layer, pressed into the pan: Needed extra baking time in my oven

Use an oven thermometer when baking. If your oven temperature is off, your baking times will be off. Knowing whether your oven temperature is accurate means adjust time and temperature as necessary for a better outcome.

Make notes. Afterwards, make notes either directly on the recipe or on a post-it note attached to the recipe about what worked, what didn’t, cooking times, and changes you’d like to try next time. For this recipe I would distribute the brownie batter more evenly for easier spreading. It’s a bit stiff and working it too much will pull up the peanut crunch layer. I’d also make sure that the peanut crunch layer isn’t too thick in the middle, pressing it up the sides of the pan more for even baking.

My notes:

First go-round: Already making notes for next time!

Give it a second try. Unless there’s something tragically wrong with a recipe (yes, there are bad and untested recipes out in the world), or you really can’t stomach the result, give a recipe a second go. I did make a second batch of these brownies because my first version was sadly underbaked, despite letting both the peanut crunch layer and brownies bake an extra few minutes beyond the recipe’s instructions. The second time around I pressed out the peanut layer so that it was thinner and baked it until golden brown, which made for a firmer base and a better texture. Muuuch better.

brownie-final-2Usually I have to make a recipe three times before I have all of the notes down and add it to my repertoire. How do you approach trying new recipes? Are you a fearless cook who jumps right in or are you a methodical note-taker? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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