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.

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)

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)

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?

Field Trip: Swanton Berry Farm

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.

Strawberry plants in the sun at Swanton Berry Farm

Strawberry plants in the sun at Swanton Berry Farm

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.


Turn berries over and look at the tips to make sure they’re fully ripe

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.

Approximately 3.5 pounds of berries

Approximately 3.5 pounds of berries — but wait, there’s more…

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.berries-close

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
Phone: 831-469-8804
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.

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