Field Trip: Webb Ranch Blackberry Fields

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.

Blackberry syrup over yogurt

From farm to table: Webb Ranch blackberry syrup and Greek yogurt

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:

Kitchen scale
1-quart saucepan
Fine-mesh strainer
Small container or bowl to hold the strainer
Rubber spatula
Glass or plastic container with lid for storing the syrup

Ingredients:

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

How to:

  1. 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.
  2. Place the berries in the saucepan and add the sugar, lemon juice, and water.
    Combine blackberries, sugar, lemon juice, and water in a saucepan

    Combine blackberries, sugar, lemon juice, and water in a saucepan

    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.

  3. Bring the berries, sugar, lemon juice, and water to a boil and reduce the heat.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
    Straining the syrup

    Straining the syrup

    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??

    Leftover "smoosh" from the blackberries

    Leftover “smoosh” from the blackberries

  6. Taste the syrup and make any final adjustments for sweetness or acidity by adding sugar or lemon juice in small increments.
  7. Allow to cool. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.in-the-jar

Field Trip: Celebrating Summer with CUESA

July 1, 2014 § 4 Comments

It’s summer! Just writing those words brings a smile to my face. (Could you tell that it’s my favorite time of year?) rusty-blade-flowers

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:

  • Alliums
  • Berries
  • Cucurbits
  • 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.

Alliums
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.

Sweet Onion and Tasso Ham Flatbread with Roasted Shallot Cream and Crispy Spring Onions (Lauren Kiino: Il Cane Rosso, Red Dog, and Fearless)

Sweet Onion and Tasso Ham Flatbread with Roasted Shallot Cream and Crispy Spring Onions (Lauren Kiino: Il Cane Rosso, Red Dog, and Fearless)

Berries
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.

Logan's Run with No. 29 Gin: raspberry, lemon, bitters, gin and one really nifty ice cube (John Gasparini: Rye on the Road)

Logan’s Run with No. 29 Gin: raspberry, lemon, bitters, gin and one really nifty ice cube (John Gasparini: Rye on the Road)

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…

Pork Belly with Berry Composte, Coriander, and Pistachios (Ben Stephans: 1760)

Pork Belly with Berry Compote, Coriander, and Pistachios (Ben Stephans: 1760)

Cucurbits
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!

Sausage-Stuffed Ronde de Nice Squash with Goat Cheese and Squash Blossom-Pepita Pesto (Francis Hogan: Bluestem Brasserie)

Sausage-Stuffed Ronde de Nice Squash with Goat Cheese and Squash Blossom-Pepita Pesto (Francis Hogan: Bluestem Brasserie)

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.

Strauss Family Creamery Yogurt Panna Cotta, with Cucumber, Basil, & Gin Gimlet Gelee, and County Line Tuscan Cantalope (Tout Sweet)

Strauss Family Creamery Yogurt Panna Cotta, with Cucumber, Basil, & Gin Gimlet Gelee, and County Line Tuscan Cantalope (Yugit Pura: Tout Sweet)

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.

Ancient Grain & Seaweed Salad with Wasabi Vinaigrette (Andrew Court: The Fairmont San Francisco)

Ancient Grain & Seaweed Salad with Wasabi Vinaigrette (Andrew Court: The Fairmont San Francisco)

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!

Rusty Blade Gin's summer celebration cocktail

Rusty Blade Gin’s summer celebration cocktail

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!

Gaspar's English Pea and Chive Blini with Smoked Salmon

Gaspar’s English Pea and Chive Blini with Smoked Salmon

Stone Fruit
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.

Pisco Apricot Tropical, made with Campo de Encanto Pisco and Frog Hollow apricots (Greg Linden: Rye on the Road)

Pisco Apricot Tropical, made with Campo de Encanto Pisco and Frog Hollow apricots (Greg Linden: Rye on the Road)

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!

Stone Fruit & Roasted Beet Salad with Sheep's Milk Yogurt, Pistachio & Dragoncello Sauce (A16)

Stone Fruit & Roasted Beet Salad with Sheep’s Milk Yogurt, Pistachio & Dragoncello Sauce (A16)

Did you attend CUESA’s Summer Celebration? What was your favorite drink or small plate?

Inspired: Creating a Kitchen Garden

April 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

You know what I love about spring in the 650? Everything! The days are deliciously warm, and the sun sets late enough in the evening that you can have dinner outside. Spring color brightens every yard on my street, thanks to blooming trees, rose bushes, and freshly planted annuals. The luscious perfume of citrus blossoms fills my neighborhood, especially at night. It’s an indulgence just to sit in my backyard in the evening and enjoy that scent.

Citrus trees, full of blossoms, give off a heady scent all spring

Orange trees, full of blossoms in the spring

Spring gives me another chance to complete (hell, start) those “getaroundtoit” projects at home. It’s the time of year when I really start feeding my house-porn habit with stacks of design magazines and fantasizing about re-creating my backyard so that I can host fabulous al fresco dinners. (Hey, a girl can dream!) And in my fantasy backyard I would have a thriving kitchen garden, complete with herbs, vegetables, berries, and an assortment of fruit trees (again with the dreaming).

I have to admit that I’m having garden envy. I know — as if I don’t have enough fabulous, fresh fruits and vegetables in my life (some of which actually show up on my doorstep, thanks to my CSA)! Between the plethora of farmers’ markets here on the peninsula and the generosity of my neighbor with over-the-fence tomatoes and in-a-pinch limes, I’m pretty spoiled for locally grown produce. Yet, there’s something very special and satisfying about just slipping out the back door and snipping fresh herbs to finish off a dish, or seeing what you can pull from your own garden to make dinner.

On a recent walk through my neighborhood I noticed that my neighbors are using whatever space is available for creating gardens, including driveways and front yards. How cool is that?!

Driveway garden

Driveway garden

These homeowners are taking advantage of the sunny front yard for their garden.

Creative front yard garden

Creative front yard garden

Check out the artichoke plant in left corner of the yard:

Artichoke plant

Artichoke plant

My next-door-neighbor and his daughter just got the tomato plants in pots along our shared driveway fence last weekend. (He was pretty excited on planting day, and I have to admit, thinking about those summer tomatoes, I am too.) They also planted zucchini, basil, and lemon balsam.

A few months from now, there will be tomatoes here!

A few months from now, there will be tomatoes here!

I’ve had edible gardens off and on over the years, but planting one wasn’t really an option when I was running Gâteau et Ganache. I barely found time for the basics (sleep, exercise, or a meal that consisted of something more than taste-testing bonbons and marshmallows), let alone creating and maintaining a garden.

Being a seasonally focused business meant relying on local farms for the fruits and herbs I used for making bonbons. Sometimes I was able to plan fun field trips to places like Swanton Berry Farm to hand-pick organic blackberries. Other times it meant long, frustrating searches around the Bay Area to find a reliable source of fresh, organic peppermint. (Harder than you’d think, as it turns out. What’s up with that?). At some point I hoped to create a garden that would give me a reliable supply of the fruits and herbs I so loved working with when I was making chocolates.

Now that I’m cooking again and have a bit more time, I’m thinking about taking a step toward “garden-to-table.” Between my neighbors’ creativity in making their own small gardens and the impressive bounty of the farmers’ markets, I’m inspired to carve out a little space for my own garden this year. First on my list are the herbs I love using for sweet dishes: lavender, lemon verbena, and peppermint. They pair with most summer fruits and are perfect for infused syrups, ice creams, and yes, ganaches. Once I get those herbs going, I might add some basil and chives for salads and some jalapeno and poblano peppers, just because. If there’s time to get fancy, I might try some strawberries, or — dare I say it? — tomatoes. Stay tuned.

What’s growing in your yard and your neighborhood this spring?

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