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Friday, August 31, 2007

The Fruits of Labor: A Labor Day Feast for Late Summer Harvest

It's the Friday before Labor Day.

Labor Day weekend has always represented the end of summer to me; practically if not technically. As a child in Manhattan, this weekend meant the sad end of the old year and the beginning of a new one; even more so than New Year's Eve in January, which always felt more like the end of the Christmas season than the beginning of anything new.

Yes, for me, Labor Day always marked the end of all the long lazy days spent reading, daydreaming, and wandering through a nearly empty city enjoying all the parks, museums and other amenities that New York had to offer a curious child with a hunger for everything, including food.
Street vendors with ti
ny carts that rang little bells to announce their presence offered delights like Italian frozen ices, Puerto Rican piraguas which are shaved ice snow cones filled with exotic syrups like guava, tamarind and guanabana (my favorites with just enough sweetness to make them palatable but a touch of sourness to make them refreshing on sticky 95 degree, 95 % humidity days) as well as coconut ices called coquitos which were creamy frozen concoctions much more like fruit granitas than frozen ices, and there was, of course, the Good Humor and Mr. Softee trucks with their sweet musical melodies resounding through the streets who were welcomed by the neighborhood children during the dog days of summer like conquering heroes freeing the wretched and oppressed.

As an adult now living in San Francisco, the advent of Labor Day has come to mean
something quite different. The strange confluence of nature with its Bay Area topography makes San Francisco's weather from late May to early September the greyest, coldest, gloomiest, 55 degree and foggy time of the year; as can be attested by any tourist who had the misfortune of coming here during the summer months and took home a pair of sweats with "San Francisco" emblazoned on them as unintended souvenirs. Rather than marking the end of summer here, Labor Day represents its beginning. The sunniest, warmest weather of the year in San Francisco starts now and ends the first days of November. Labor Day now means to me the best of summer's produce: yummy, ripe, amazing heirloom tomatoes in all shapes & colors, avocados, peaches and figs. While we chill in San Francisco, the surrounding areas north, east and south of us are sweltering in the more typical summer heat producing lush fruits that are just now at their most abundant and ready to be harvested.

So for all of you who will be spending this long holiday weekend at home either picking fruit from your garden or your favorite market, here are a few simple delicious recipes that will allow you to showcase the "fruits" of your labor and share goodies with your family and friends. These recipes are an excellent way to use fruit that may not be picture perfect because they've somehow gotten bruised on their way from the market or the garden to the kitchen. (By the way, tomatoes are definitely fruits; just ask the chefs at Oliveto's whose annual tomato dinner we attended last night, and who had mostly great success with them as desserts particularly the amazing fried ravioli filled with tomato jam & topped with confectioner's sugar. Delicious!)

We start with a fresh bruschetta of caponata and burrata with prosciutto crisps, and an easy bake pizza using a store-bought lavash crust, roasted heirloom tomato sauc
e with fresh mozzarella, shitake mushrooms and sweet Italian sausage. Next, we grill skewers of ahi tuna, cherry tomatoes & Greek haloumi cheese as well as Niman Ranch baby back ribs with a side of grilled corn on the cob. We then add an additional side of Caprese pasta salad made simply with fresh boccocino (tiny mozzarella balls) or feta (if you have o.d.'ed on mozzarella), calamata olives, fresh heirloom tomatoes, basil & olive oil. For dessert, warm blackberry & apricot crumble with mascarpone ice cream garnished with balsamic syrup and mint leaves. (There is definitely a bread, fruit & cheese theme running through this meal; they are often the best ingredients for a satisfying summer meal.)

This is a feast that's impressive to see, easy to make and even easier to eat! As always, substitute anything you like for the ingredients in the recipes except the ribs which have no good substitute and are a Labor Day tradition in my home. If you really don't like ribs grill a steak or pork tenderloin just don't use the ribs' recipe instructions as the heat & timing are intended for the slower cooking method more conducive to ribs.

Menu For A Labor Day Weekend Feast
All recipes for the Labor Day Weekend menu serve 4-6 people.

Bruschetta with Caponata, Burrata and Prosciutto Crisps

Note: Burrata is fresh mozzarella with a creamy cu
rd interior and a very short shelf life of about 2-3 days If you can't find burrata in your market (Whole Foods, Fresh Market or other specialty grocers usually carry it) substitute fresh buffalo or cow's milk mozzarella from Italy or a good fresh creamy ricotta from your local dairy farmer; otherwise, skip the cheese because Polly-O while ok on a pizza will not be good over the caponata.

  • 1 fresh loaf of Ciabatta or other country-style Italian bread, sliced into 3/4" rounds
  • 1 lb. of fresh burrata, left at room temperature (about 1 hour)
  • 1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 lb. of very thinly sliced prosciutto
  • 1/2 large onion, sliced & cut into fine dice
  • 1/2 large red pepper, cut into strips then chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, crushed then minced
  • 2 japanese eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch dice, erring on the side of larger dice if in doubt
  • 2 zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch dice, same size as eggplant
  • 1 tablespoon italian tomato paste
  • 2 lbs. of heirloom or roma tomatoes, stemmed, seeded and cut into small dice (or 28 oz. can of plain crushed tomatoes)
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup fresh calamata or black olives, pitted & roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of capers, drained
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 handful of fresh parsley, minced
  • 3 sprigs of fresh oregano, leaves only, minced
  • 10 large basil leaves, thinly julienned
  • 1 pinch of herbes de provence
  • freshly ground salt & pepper to taste

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Fire up grill.

2) Heat a large saute or braising pan to medium high. When hot, add half the olive oil letting it heat up for a few seconds then add onions and 1 grind of salt & pepper mill.

3) Saute onions for a minute then add red peppers & garlic, lower the heat to medium and add the eggplant followed by the zucchini, stirring to coat vegetables evenly with olive oil & aromatics. I
f the eggplant has absorbed the oil in the pan and still appears dry add additional olive oil one tablespoon at a time until the eggplant appears moistened.

4) Now add the red pepper flakes & herbes de provence, gently stirrin
g until fragrant (10 - 15 seconds) followed by the tomato paste. Coat the vegetables with the tomato paste and let the mixture cook for 2 minutes until paste loses its raw color.

5) Add the tomatoes, gent
ly stirring to completely incorporate, then add the parsley, oregano & olives. Lower heat to low. Allow the sauce to cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to insure that sauce does not burn. When sauce has thickened, add lemon juice, capers & half the basil, stirring gently, careful not to break up the eggplant or the zucchini. Taste sauce. Add salt & pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and let cool or keep at the lowest simmer possible and cover pan with lid to keep warm.
Caponata can be prepared & refri
gerated after cooling up to 4 days in advance then either reheated or served at room temperature.

6) While sauce is cooking, place prosciutto slices on a baking sheet that has been covered with either foil or parchment paper. Bake prosciutto uncovered in middle rack for 5- 7 minutes until crisp. Do not let it burn. When prosciutto is crisp, remove from oven & let cool. When cool, crumble each slice into small
er pieces like large bacon bits. Set aside in a small decorative serving bowl.

7) While prosciutto, cools lightly brush bread slice on both sides with remaining (or additional) olive oil and place on grill. Grilling both sides about 45 seconds or so each side until bread is warm & has grill marks.

8) Now assemble the platter: On one
very large or two smaller platters, place a bowl filled with the caponata & a serving spoon in the center, the burrata with a serrated cheese knife, the prosciutto bits in another bowl, the remaining basil and the bread slices around the perimeter. Have each guest serve himself. Take a slice of bread, top first with the caponata, then the cheese, sprinkle with the basil & the prosciutto. Mangia!!!

Pizza with Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes, Shitake Mushrooms, and Grilled Italian Sausage

Note: I have greatly simplified this dish by using store-bought Middle Eastern lavash not the crispy cracker kind but the soft, large rectangular sheets of Armenian flatbread used for levant and other kinds of sandwiches. the result is a very pleasant crisp crust that reminds me of pizza you'd find in Rome. You can use any flatbread you like including whole unsliced pitas or large flour tortillas; just remember the thinner it is the less cooking time you'll need when you pre-bake the bread. A great sweet French baguette like the San Francisco Bay Area's bakery "Acme's" sweet baguette also works beautifully. Please don't use Boboli. It is a calorie rich, flavor-deficient, sodium laden brick of dough that is not worthy of summer's loveliest ingredients. If, however, you are more adept than I am at making pizza dough & have decided to make your own crust, by all means, more power to you!

As to cookware, I prefer the use of a preheated pizza stone that you can find at William-Sonoma, Macy's or on the internet. It really makes a differe
nce; but, if you don't have or want one, a preheated cookie sheet would work, too.

As for the tomatoes, I choose to roast them for two reasons: 1) roasting the heirlooms really concentra
tes their flavor & sweetness 2) a wetter, more traditional sauce would be too watery for the lavash and would result in a soggy, messy crust that falls apart when you try to eat it. Definitely not appetizing!

  • 2 soft lavash , carefully folded in half & brushed with refined olive oil (not extra virgin) on both sides; or 2 sweet baguettes, sliced in half horizontally; then cut in half vertically
  • 4 large or 2-1/2 lbs of heirloom tomatoes of different variety & color, cut into 1/4" slices
  • 4 large garlic cloves, crushed then minced
  • 1/2 of a large red pepper, sliced into strips
  • 6 large grilled or fried Italian sausages with fennel seed, cut into long slices lengthwise after grilling; then cut each half slice into quarters again (should be about 48 pieces); or, alternatively, remove the uncooked sausages from their casings & saute the ground meat in a pan breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon until cooked through
  • 1/2 lb of shitake mushrooms, sliced, sauteed in extra virgin olive oil & seasoned with salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoons of dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon of herbes de provence
  • 10 large fresh basil leaves plus more for garnish, julienned
  • 2 Tablespoons of fresh minced parsley
  • 1/4 teaspoon each of fresh ground salt & pepper, to season tomatoes
  • 1 lb. of fresh mozzarella, patted dry with paper towels & sliced thinly (Polly O is ok here, if necessary)
  • 1/2 cup of fresh parmagiano-reggiano, shaved or coarsely grated
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus more on hand for drizzling

1) Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place pizza stone in center rack. Adjust oven so as to have an additional rack on the top for the roasting of the

2) Prepare a cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Place tomato slices & red pepper strips
in one single layer on sheet. Tomatoes on one side, peppers on the other side. Use two baking sheets if necessary. Season vegetables with salt, pepper, oregano, herbes de provence a pinch of parsley & basil and minced garlic. Drizzle half of the oil over the vegetables, using your fingers to completely coat them in the oil, tops & bottoms, and distribute the seasonings evenly over them. When oven reaches 450 degrees, place the tomatoes in the oven & roast about 15-20 minutes until lightly browned, soft and fragrant. Do not leave them completely unattended as the garlic as well as the tomatoes can burn quite easily. When done, remove tomatoes & peppers from oven & let cool completely

3) While the tomatoes roast, organize the remaining ingredients to be prepared for assembly of the pizzas.

4) While the tomatoes cool, blind bake the lavash (one at a time if your pi
zza stone is small and you only have one) for 2 minutes each crust. It is very important that you use light or refined olive oil to brush the lavash with; extra-virgin olive oil will burn in the dry heat of the stone & ruin the taste of your crust. Carefully remove the pizza stone from the oven (it's hot & heavy) and assemble your pizza. Turn the oven temperature up to 500 degrees.

5) With the crust still on the hot stone, start assembly by brushing the lavash with any remaining oil in the tomato roasting pan, then, using half the tomatoes and a flexible spatula or your fingers to remove them from the baking dish; you should almost be able to spread them like a jam on your crust. Sprinkle them with half the parsley & basil & add a very light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil as the moisture from the cool ingredients should not prevent the e.v.o.o. from burning.
Next, place half the sausage evenly ove
r the tomatoes. Taking care to leave a 1/2 inch border around the crust free of the ingredients to prevent crust from prematurely cracking under their weight.
Repeat with half the shitakes, finding the open spaces between the sausage pieces. Do th
e same with half of the roasted red peppers.
Sprinkle half of the parmagiano over the entire pizza, followed by half the slices of mozzarella, being careful not to overload the crust. If the stone is large enough to fit both, repeat the above assembly using the other crust. If not just bake one at a time.

5) Place the pizza on the stone in the center rack of the oven & cook 5-7 minutes or until mozzarella is bubbly, lightly golden & melted. If the mozzarella has not yet melted, leave pizza stone in center rack but turn on the broiler & broil watching very carefully the entire time until cheese reaches desired texture. Once you're happy with it, turn off the broiler, remove the pizza stone, let the pizza stand, for two minutes then slice with a pizza cutter & serve with an extra sprinkle of fresh basil.

Grilled Corn with Grilled Baby Back Ribs

Note: This is the easiest thing to make on the menu. I find it completely unnecessary to boil the ribs first, then slow smoke them, then grill them. A rack can be cooked completely on a gas grill in 40 - 45 minutes replete with a beautifully glazed crust & tender, succulent meat if you know where your hot spots are & don't leave them completely unattended ( one bathroom or wine run is ok). Use Niman Ranch pork if you can. Although the ranch is much larger now than when they started almost 30 years ago, their pork is still humanely raised & slaughtered and the proof is in the taste of the meat which you can just tell came from a contented pig. A happy pig is a tasty pig!
The corn can be grilled with the husks on for added moisture but a hot husk is a wicked thing to try to remove when your guests are h
ungry. So husk them first, rinse them in water to remove any remaining cornsilk and leave them damp when you wrap them in foil to allow them to steam. You can lightly butter the foil or corn before you wrap them but you are only inviting flare ups in the grill. Butter & season them before eating.

  • Dry rub & wet rub, as directed in the directions to follow
  • 2 racks of baby back pork ribs, preferably from Niman Ranch
  • 12 ears of white corn, prepared according to the preceding note
  • 1 stick melted unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup (plus more for the table) of your favorite barbecue sauce (Mine is Bryan's Smooth and Spicy Barbecue Sauce, a private label sold by my favorite butcher shop, Bryan's)
  • salt & pepper, at the table to taste
  • lime wedges for corn

1) For seasoning, I use a dry rub that I mix of garlic powder, hot Hungarian paprika or Chipotle chili powder, ground cumin, a tiny amount of fresh ground sea salt (too much salt toughens grilled meat) and a more generous amount of fresh ground pepper. I usually use 2 parts of garlic powder to one part cumin & chili powder or paprika. The actual amounts depend on the size of the slabs, how the seasonings taste that day to me & my mood. Mix more than you'll need and save the mixture for another time in a empty spice bottle.

2) Let the ribs with the dry rub sit at room temperature for an hour.

3) Preheat the grill to high heat.
After the meat has reached room temperature, prepare a wet rub of about:
1/4 cup refined (not virgin or unrefined) olive, peanut or sesame oil
2 tablespoons of low sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons of sherry or cider vinegar (do not use balsamic)
1 teaspoon of sriratcha or other hot sauce
Whisk the ingred
ients together.
Cover the ribs well with the marinade and let them sit on the counter for another 15 minutes before you pat them gently with a paper towel to remove excess marinade.

4) Grill is hot when you can barely hold your palm 1 foot above the grill for a count of fiv
e; about 15 - 20 minutes after lighting it, depending on the grill.
When grill is hot, turn temperature down to medium and place ribs directly over the hottest part for about 3 minutes on one side then 3 minutes on the other side.
At this stage, we want to sear the meat to caramelize it and seal in the juices but we don't want to burn it. Repeat cycle of 3 minutes per side once more, this time either turning down the heat slightly again or alternatively, moving the ribs away from the hottest part of the grill but still keeping it over direct heat. Watch for flare ups and be prepared to lower heat further or move ribs to the coolest part of the grill, if the flame seems too hot.

5) After about 12 minutes or so, move the ribs
to the coolest part of the grill and lightly brush the top side with your favorite barbecue sauce. Let ribs cook on that side for 5 minutes then turn and baste ribs with the barbecue sauce cooking the other side for an additional 5 minutes.
Here is where the grilling becomes more of an art than a science
. You must be cognizant of how much the glaze is browning, to avoid burning it but some charred bits are absolutely essential for that grilled flavor. Keep basting and turning each side every 5 minutes until you have cooked each side for about 15 minutes. Don't be afraid to test the ribs for doneness by hacking a little piece off. Don't forget to also change the right side / left side orientation of where the ribs are on the grill as well as turning their tops & bottoms. The right side (as well as the front portion) of my grill is always hotter than the left side (and the back portion) of it.

6) When the ribs are tender, baste them one final time each side; moving them to the hottest part of your grill for a few seconds each side if the glaze is not as browned as you like it. Just be careful not to burn the glaze. Remember, the sugar in it burns very quickly. Remove from the grill to a warm platter & loosely cover with foil, keeping them in a warm place until ready to serve.

7) Place damp corn in its foil wrap o
ver medium heat on the grill about 5 minutes each side while ribs rest. After 10 minutes, check 3 ears of corn: the one on the hottest part of the grill, the coldest part of the grill & the middle part of the grill & gauge cooking time accordingly. Serve with melted butter, salt & pepper & lime wedges.

Grilled Ahi Skewers with Heirloom Tomatoes, Haloumi and Mint Pesto Dipping Sauce

Note: It is important that the Ahi fillet be at least 1" thick so when you cut it into cubes & grill it, it will be remain moist & rare inside with a good char outside. Ahi is expensive & you don't want to spend $20 per lb. for something that tastes like styrofoam from overcooking. Ask your seafood purveyor to cut it to order if you don't see a thick enough piece. You can also use swordfish as a substitute since the swordfish is oiler, can be 3/4" thick & stand being fully cooked. Sea scallops or shrimp would also make excellent substitutes and have the added bonus of naturally being the perfect size for skewers.

Use metal skewers, if you have them. You don't need to soak them first like you do bamboo skewers and you won't be contributing to our overloaded landfills because the stainless steel skewers can be used over & over making them more "sustainable" (my new favorite word) & economical.

Cherry tomatoes are great
for the skewers. There are all kinds of varieties of heirloom being sold in bay area supermarkets now. You can use larger tomatoes cut into chunks, of course, if you need to. Haloumi is a cheese from Cyprus traditionally made from sheep's and goat's milk with a firm texture and salty flavor that holds up well to grilling and broiling. If you can't find it in your market, you can substitute smoked mozzarella or smoked provolone but may have to use larger chunks of cheese and cook them at a lower temperature to prevent a cheese meltdown all over your grill.
The dipping sauce is a minty pesto sauce which should offer a cool sweet counterpoint to the hot, sp
icy skewers and the salty haloumi.
This recipe will make 12 skewers.


For the skewers:
  • 2-1/4 lbs. of 1" thick sashimi grade Ahi, cut into 36 1" thick cubes
  • 48 large cherry tomatoes
  • 1-1/2 lbs. of haloumi, cut into 24 1" thick cubes
  • 12 metal skewers that have been oiled or 12 wooden skewers that have been soaked in water for one hour

For the marinade:
  • 1/4 cup of refined vegetable oil: olive, sesame or peanut
  • 2 Tablespoons of low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 Tablespoon of fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon of oregano
  • 1 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of sriratcha sauce or 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper

For the dipping sauce:
  • a handful of fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • a handful of parsley leaves, roughly chopped
  • 2 sprigs of oregano, leaves only
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
  • 1 shallot, roughly chopped
  • the juice of one lemon
  • salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon of honey
  • 1/4 cup of unsalted roasted walnuts
  • 1/4 cup of chicken stock
  • 1/3 cup of high quality extra virgin olive oil


1) Assemble skewers: each skewer will have 3 pie
ces of ahi, 4 cherry tomatoes & 2 pieces of haloumi arranged with ahi, then add cherry tomato, then add haloumi, another cherry tomato, another piece of ahi, cherry tomato, halomui, cherry tomato and ends with a piece of ahi.

2) Arrange all twelve skewers in a shallow baking dish trying to keep them in a single layer. Now combine all the ingredients for the marinade whisking them in a medium mixing bowl. When well combined, pour marinade over the
skewers making sure to coat them completely using a pastry brush or your hands to insure the marinade has evenly coated each skewer. You can at this point cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for as little as 15 minutes up to 24 hours.

3)Preheat grill on medium high.

4)Prepare pesto: Using a food processor (or you can make it by hand with a large mortar & pestle if you like a more rustic texture), add the mint, parsley, oregano, garlic, shallot & lemon & pulse together lightly for a two se
conds to mix the herbs together. Then add the walnuts, pulsing for a few seconds until the mixture begin to look like a paste & walnuts are very finely chopped. Then with the processor running slowly add the olive oil until an emulsion forms and the mixture resembles pesto. Then add the honey & pulse for two seconds to incorporate well. Finally add the chicken broth in a slow steady stream watching carefully until the pesto is smooth but not too runny. Remove the sauce from the food processor, place in a serving bowl and set aside. (You can heat it in a microwave for 20 seconds before serving but it really isn't necessary if the pesto has been kept at room temperature.)

5) Remove skewers from refrigerator. Blot off all the excess marinade with a paper towel then carefully place as many skewers as will comfortably fit on your grill, you may need to cook the skewers in batches depending on the size of your grill. Grill skewers for one minute each side for a total of two minutes each skewer. The ahi & haloumi should blacken slightly but don't overcook the fish. Place skewers on a warm platter, brush lightly with some of the pesto sauce & serve with the remaining pesto on the side.

Pasta a l
a Caprese with Boccocino & Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes

Note: It really doesn't get any easier than this dish. Cook the pasta, add the other ingredients raw, stir & voila. It's great hot or cold. You can use any small shape pasta you have on hand: fusilli, shells, orrechiette, farfalle are all good choices. Boccocini and cherry tomatoes have a natural affinity for each other; being as perfectly sized for each other as they are. You can obviously use small chunks of larger mozzarella & tomatoes or get away from Capri & head to Greece by substituting chunks of feta & oregano for the mozzarella & basil. I add calamata olives to the dish; not a traditional part of the caprese salad but then neither is the pasta. Olives add a nice bite and acidity to the dish and balances the sweet mild flavor of the mozzarella & the cherry tomatoes. Remember the quantity of each ingredient can & should be adjusted to suit your taste. This recipe like most is just a guide, an outline; it's up to you to color between the lines and make it the way you'd like it .


  • 1 lb. box of small shaped pasta like fusilli, shells, etc.
  • 1/2 cup of very good quality extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
  • 1 pint of heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved if large
  • 8 oz. of fresh boccocino, patted dry
  • handful of basil leaves, julienned
  • 2 oz. pitted calamata olives, halved
  • 2 oz. freshly grated parmagiano reggiano
  • 1 clove garlic, grated (optional)
  • the juice of one lemon (optional)
  • fresh ground salt & pepper to taste

1)Put a large pot to boil with salted water.

2)When water is rapidly boiling, slowly add the pasta, stirring it in and being careful not to stop the water from boiling. Cook the pasta according to the manufacturers instructions.

3)While pasta cooks, assemble all the ingredients (have them on hand). Place a large pasta serving bowl next to range & add garlic, whisk in olive oil, lemon juice, salt & pepper. Add basil, mozzarella, olives & tomatoes gently stirring them in & coating them with olive oil. You can refrigerate it at this time, if you'd rather keep the mozzarella from melting. Just be sure to bring the bowl next to the pasta pot (if you want to eat the pasta warm) so as to have it handy when you are ready to combine it with the pasta.

4)When pasta is cooked, turn off the heat & using a large slotted spoon or pasta fork, slowly remove the pasta from the pot, one spoonful at a time, allowing the water to drain completely before adding each spoonful to the large pasta serving bowl. When all the pasta is added, stir gently to combine all the ingredients, sprinkle the parmagiano over the pasta. Drizzle additional olive oil if desired & serve. Garnish with basil leaves.
If you prefer this as a cold salad, you can simply cook the pasta one minute less then drain the pasta in a colander, fill half the pasta pot with cold water & ice and plunge the colander in the pot for two or three minutes to cool it before draining and adding to the other ingredients.

Warm Blackberry and Apricot Crumble with Mascarpone Ice Cream

Note: Sorry, there is no real recipe for ice cream here. There are too many high quality premium ice creams available out there for me to suggest that I have a better way to do it at home. Instead, I think you should buy a pint of your favorite vanilla ice cream, allow it to soften at room temperature for an hour and then mix in well half a pint of mascarpone that has been "lightened" by whisking it with 3 oz. very cold heavy cream, 2 Tablespoons Frangelico liqueur, & 1/8 cup of confectioners sugar. Make sure you use a stainless steel bowl that's large enough to accomodate everything & then cover the surface of the ice cream with plastic wrap & put it in the freezer for a few hours. You could even do it a day ahead. The balsamic syrup adds a nice finishing touch to the dish but is not essential. Omit it if you like.


For the fruit:
  • 2 cups blackberries or blueberries
  • 3 cups of apricots or peaches, pitted & sliced thickly
  • 2 Tablespoons cornstarch (don't use flour)
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

For the crumble:
  • 1/2 cup unsalted walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup unsalted almonds, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
  • 3/4 stick of unsalted butter, very cold & cut into 1/2" cubes

For the balsamic syrup: (optional)
  • 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar (don't use your finest, just a good $5-$10 vinegar will do)
  • 2 Tablespoons of honey
  • 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
  • a few sprigs of fresh mint

For the ice cream see note

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees

2) In a large mixing bowl, combine well all the ingredients for the fruit and pour into a small to medium lightly buttered gratin/baking dish (about 3-4 quart baking dish, Le Creuset or Emile Henry are the best & prettiest).

3) Using a food processor (or another large stainless steel bowl, if you're doing it au naturel), place all the ingredients except the butter in the bowl and pulse until ingredients have combined well; then, add the butter & pulse (or use your fingers, if food processorless) until the butter is the size of very small peas or the mixture resembles coarse oatmeal.

4) Crumble the dry ingredients over the fruit, and gently pat down on top of the fruit. (you may have leftover crumble mixture). Then place baking dish in oven & bake for 35-40 minutes until top is golden brown & aromatic and fruit is bubbling. Remove from oven.

5) Let crumble cool on a baking rack for 30 minutes. While crumble is cooling combine 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar with 2 Tablespoons of honey and 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice by whisking together in a small saucepan set over low heat. Keep vinegar mixture over heat until reduced by half, stirring occasionally to prevent it from burning. When done, remove from heat & allow it to cool slightly. Serve crumble with a scoop of mascarpone ice cream a, a drizzle of balsamic syrup and garnish with a sprig of mint.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Restaurant Review: The Presidio Social Club

While recuperating from this never-healing knee injury has certainly put a damper on my social life, the hubby & I still managed to find a way to get out & try one of the new eateries in town: The Presidio Social Club. It definitely involved some strategic maneuvers: such as dropping me off in front while he parks the car so that I could try to hobble up to the restaurant without being subjected for too long to my undignified efforts.

The name, Presidio Social Club, conjures up in my mind the image of relaxed conviviality.
In many respects, the restaurant certainly lived up to that expectation.
It's park-like setting in the Presidio; it's handsome, stand-alone rustic structure still evocative of the military barracks that it once was, the more than ample parking spaces comfortably surrounding the restaurant which spares you the parking lot angst that comes in a city where parking is always at a premium, all give you a presentiment of good things to come.

Entrance to the Presidio Social Club from the parking lot

The clubby, country club vibe continues as you walk up the stairs onto the large porch where family & friends gather to greet each other before entering the restaurant; exchanging bits of news & gossip just as they would if they were at their own home or clubhouse.
As you enter, you see an old 40's style snare drum set in the front corner across from the hostess stand, a whimsical touch that alerts you to the classic American mid-twentieth century retro atmosphere & menu, though thankfully more Glenn Miller than Elvis; we've all had enough of those "American Graffiti" meets "Happy Days" Mel's Diner epicurean experiences, haven't we? Two very polite, smiling hostesses greet us & one of them seats us immediately for our 6:30pm reservation.

The room is cavernous and window-lined with presidio views, hardwood floors, exposed beams, and bare wooden picnic tables; yet, despite the fact that it was already crammed with a large cross-section of happy chattering San Franciscans, the noise level was remarkably tolerable unlike other popular Marina hot spots where you have to shout to hear your fellow table mates.
We were comfortably seated in a stand alone picnic table for two, set with dish towels for napkins & the kind of flatware & glassware you'd find in the bargain bin of Ace Hardware store, but I, somehow, find it more charming & practical than off putting; that's how successful the restaurant's management is in creating a casual, comfortable atmosphere. Kudos to them because I am usually a girl who likes her Cristofle settings & her Frette linens when she dines out on the town and is not happy when she doesn't get them.

Notice, I haven't yet mentioned the food.
The truth is the menu is a clever homage to classic, homespun American foods from the pleasantly mustardy gruyere toasts made from brioche with fondue tomato dip, a riff on the old tomato soup & grilled cheese sandwich to the classic macaroni & cheese and the not-your-old-grade-school-cafeteria's sloppy joe sandwich of kobe beef brisket. These items while somewhat grotesquely portioned (reminding me why 40% of Americans are now overweight or obese, moi included) are solidly executed according to other reviews but are not enough to keep you coming back unless you are a well-to-do gen-x'er who never cooks at home. Last Sunday, we ordered the fish plate special appetizer, the gruyere cheese toast, the Sunday night special which was roast suckling pig as well as the pork chop which our server told us she preferred to the flat iron steak. The hot prepared food section at Whole Foods serves almost comparable meals, but you'd still have to clean dishes at if you ate at home which may be why P.S.C. is such a sensation with the youngin's; it's hearty comfort food with no dishwashing required.

The fish plate appetizer was described to me as belly of tuna served over a carpaccio of cucumber with heirloom tomatoes & a baby arugula salad atop the fish. While calling the three thin slices of cucumber a carpaccio is stretching the definition of that technique, I had no quibble with it or the elegantly dressed arugula & the colorful sweet grape tomatoes that garnished the tuna. The tuna itself, however, gave me pause.
When I am told I am about to be served that most unctuous, delicately fatty, moist & flavorful flesh that is called tuna belly, I almost swoon imagining the sensuous silken texture of the fish gliding over my tastebuds sending shivers of delight through my body. I think of o-toro, chu-toro, hell any toro, naked, pristine and glistening; unsullied by excessive handling & heavy condiments. If you were about to have carnal knowledge of Brad Pitt, you wouldn't want him covered in a suit of armor!!!
Yet this is what the chef did to that beautiful tuna belly; he mashed it and masked it in a coating of mayonnaise so heavy, it looked and tasted like a Bumble Bee tuna salad made by a third grader who was left home alone for lunch.
Needless to say, after one bite, I left the rest of the tuna untouched but I did eat the veggies. When our server who was pleasant, competent & attentive asked if we were enjoying our starters, I was honest. I told her that I was a little puzzled by the preparation of the tuna belly; having mistakenly assumed that it would have been served as a carpaccio or possibly as a tartare not as a mayonnaise-based tuna salad. She looked concerned, but I told her it was my mistaken assumption, and I was enjoying the vegetables; so she moved on to her next table.
To her and the restaurant's management's credit, this item was very graciously removed from the check without our request. A fact that our server made us aware of when she brought us the check at the end of the night. She said that she noticed I had left the tuna untouched & felt I shouldn't pay for it. This is hospitality at its very best. It is also good business because, despite its culinary missteps, this restaurant has now won my trust which would make me far more likely to give it further chances to redeem itself in the future.

Unfortunately, gracious hospitality couldn't save the roast suckling pig. Huge hunks of it were strewn on an enormous plain white platter over a bed of nicely flavored braised red cabbage with an immense side of creamy, vanilla-scented mashed sweet potatoes. The potatoes were by far the hit of the night; a completely surprising combination ( I winced when I heard vanilla & potato in the same sentence) of restrained inspiration. Sweet without being overpowering or cloying, the vanilla accent complemented sweet potatoes that were creamy, fluffy clouds of heaven yet somehow still managed to retain a certain earthiness in their essence and density in their texture. The taste of those potatoes haunt me still. Truly masterfully done, it shows that someone in this kitchen has great attention to detail.

Too bad he wasn't at the protein station! That poor pig either suffered a hard life or a stressful death because that meat was dry, flavorless and without any merit. Perhaps, a drizzling of Cuban-style mojo sauce would have helped it; but, there was none to be found. Roasting large meats of this kind is almost always fraught with disaster. It is very difficult to control the moisture content, particularly since the meat must be evenly cooked to a medium doneness and somehow survive being served all through the night. Large roasts of beef which you can cook and offer rare hold up somewhat better; but, I think a restaurant would better serve itself as well as its customers if they stuck to smaller cuts of pork, served their large pork roasts carnitas-style, or served it as a braise which, through virtue of resting in its warm cooking liquid, stays moist as long as you need it to.
The pork cracking served on top of the meat, however, was spectacular. They are crisped morsels of fatty pig skin that Latin & Asian cultures truly prize but are not easily attained during the normal roasting process without other means like deep frying it after the initial roasting. Thankfully, the chef at P.S.C. didn't have to deep-fry his rind afterward because the initial roasting of the pork rind was well-executed and brought it to crackling perfection.

My husband's pork chop with a side of mashed potatoes & broccolini were overdone but edible, if uninspiring. His only real bone of contention (pardon the pun) was that no server in any restaurant ever seems to know the difference between a pork rib chop (long bone on the side) or a pork loin chop (small T-shaped bone in the middle).
My husband likes only the more flavorful rib chop when eating chops. He always asks the server what kind of chop it is, explains the difference, tells the server his preference letting the server know that his order is predicated on receipt of the correct cut of pork, is assured that the bone is on the side, orders said chop, and receives the wrong cut. Always. Every time. Last Sunday was no exception. You gotta love him though! He never utters a word to the servers about the mishap and he's always willing to try and order his rib chop again. He's such an optimist full of hope for a future filled with servers who can identify a cut of meat when they see it. Oh happy day...oh happy day...

We skipped desserts though the chocolate beignets caught my eye, but I couldn't stand another disappointment. So, we passed.

Drinks here are known to be very creative concoctions that are quite popular with younger set which is a good thing because the wine list is limited and leaves much to be desired. That being said, I ordered a nice little cremant, a sparkling wine from the Loire Valley for $8.00 a glass. Reasonable & serviceable like everything else in the restaurant. It was served in a very retro champagne glass, you know the kind your mother or grandmother used; said to be modeled after the pre-guillotine legendary breasts of Marie Antoinette in the good old days of the 18th century French Court. The hubby eschewed vino or any alcohol preferring instead to drink copious quantities of Panna spring water.

The bottom line is......the Presidio Social Club is an excellent place to take children or run to after work if you live in or happen to be in the neighborhood, like a good bar scene and can get a table on short notice. Otherwise, forget it. It's your friendly neighborhood joint or your slightly better than average golf clubhouse meal. Stick to basic grub, stay away from specials when ordering and you'll get mounds of decent, sometimes surprisingly tasty homey food with great service and a fun, casual ambiance. There are many casual places in the city that serve this level of food; they just don't happen to be in such a unique setting. It is not a destination restaurant, a special occasion place or a food temple to seek epicurean nirvana. It doesn't have to be, and more importantly, it doesn't try to be.

Appetizers are $3.25 to $11.95
Entrees are $14.95 to $ 27.95
Side Dishes are $4.95
Desserts are $5.00 to $10.00
Corkage is $15 per bottle

Presidio Social Club
Building 563 Ruger Street
The Presidio of San Francisco, Ca. 94129
(415) 885-1888

Friday, August 17, 2007

Everything's Coming Up Peaches: Fresh Peach and Blueberry Mascarpone Crumble

My birthday falls on a Monday this year so my hubby in his ultimate wisdom decided we should begin celebrating Friday night & keep the festive atmosphere going until Monday night.
I had planned for us to patronize a few of my favorite restaurants for my birthday weekend extravaganza: Quince, La Folie, Hime culminating with Michael Mina on Monday, the big night, where I would wallow in luxurious food, artistically presented & cooked to perfection.
But nature will have it's little jokes, and I found myself still unable to walk without looking like some less than well-preserved octogenarian because of this damned knee injury that I suffered 6 weeks ago which absolutely refuses to get better. Since most of these places are swank eateries swarming with San Francisco's finest who while not always breathtakingly glamorous like the Manhattan & L.A. crowds tend to be, still do manage to emit a certain kind of je ne se quoi, the last thing I wanted to do was present myself to this society looking like a cross between Quasimodo and one of Jerry Lewis' less dignified movie characters. Believe me, nothing dulls the appetite more than a clumsy, bloated middle-aged female made more clumsy & more bloated with lots of rich food & wine.
So being the good philanthropist, I canceled all our plans and decided to rethink the weekend. I first decided that Monday night would still be filled with luxurious foods, after all it was still my birthday! The menu would consist of '85 Krug champagne, 8 oz. of ossetra caviar from the Caspian Sea, pate of duck foie gras locally made, Gioia burrata from L.A., heirloom tomatoes from the central valley and great bread from both the east bay & Sonoma, an Acme sweet baguette & a sourdough boule that a good friend of ours generously introduced us to. What more could I girl want?
I then decided we would start the weekend with a breakfast of the late summer's yummiest offerings along with the staples that I happened to have in the pantry which my loving hubby restocked them for me while I recuperate. I made it late Friday night after imbibing way too much 2000 Chevalier-Montrachet & 1997 Barbaresco (thank you, Domaine Leflaive & Gaja) and watching Woody Allen's Sleeper (looking at those Buick-sized frankenfruits in the scene where Woody goes foraging for food may have inspired this dish) which shows you just how fool-proof this recipe is: "So easy a drunken Latina can do it." Now there's a catchy tag-line...

Fresh Peach and Blueberry
Mascarpone Crumble

You can substitute cream cheese for the mascarpone. If you do, combine 8 oz. of the cream cheese with 8 oz. of creme fraiche or with 8oz of Greek-style yogurt. Cream cheese alone would make this dish much too heavy in texture not as custardy as desirable.
I used delicious large white peaches which have a more delicately perfume-like aroma and flavor. You can easily use any kind of stone fruit (apricots, nectarines, etc.) just make sure you have about 6 cups worth. As for the berries, you can use blackberries or raspberries even strawberries though strawberries alone won't give you the lovely consistency that you get from the other berries; best to eat them au natural.


For the fruit:
5 or 6 large peaches, each pitted & sliced into 12 sections
1-1/2 cup fresh blueberries, rinsed & dried
2 Tablespoons of cornstarch
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup of superfine granulated sugar

For the custard:
2 8oz. containers of mascarpone, room temperature
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/4 cup of confectioner's sugar
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten

For the crumble:
1 cup of chopped walnuts or almonds, unsalted
1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
6 Tablespoons (3/4 stick) of unsalted, well-chilled butter, cut into 1/2 dice


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray the bottom of a large 9"x12" baking dish
coating liberally then line the bottom with parchment paper cut to fit the dish (unless you are using Le Creuset or Emile Henry enamel coated clay baking dishes as they are the best to use & let you skip the buttering prep ). Butter or spray top of parchment & set aside.

Using a large bowl combine the peaches & blueberries. Sprinkle with lemon juice, sugar & cornstarch. Stir to combine well until the dry ingredients have completely dissolved into the fruit. Pour the fruit & its juices into the prepared baking dish.

In the bowl of a large food processor ( or just a large bowl if beating by hand), add the softened mascarpone with the sugar & pulse or whisk until it appears a little lighter & fluffier in texture, then add the half & half slowly to the bowl and process as you slowly combine it. Stop when well combined and large lumps have dissolved. Add vanilla, incorporating well. In a small bowl, lightly whisk the egg with the salt and add it to the cheese mixture, processing until the custard looks smooth and homogeneous. Pour cheese custard over the fruit in the baking dish.

Using another large bowl, mix together the flour & salt. Add the brown sugar, mixing well to break up any large clumps of sugar. Add the chopped nuts, combing with the other ingredients and distributing them evenly. Finally add the cold butter cubes, first coating them well with the mixture, then using your fingers or a pastry cutter to crumble them into the mixture, combining with the dry ingredients until the mixture looks like very coarse cornmeal. Sprinkle the crumble mixture over the baking dish, gently patting any loose mixture into place. There may be some crumble mixture left over.

Place crumble in the preheated oven and bake 35 to 45 minutes, until fruit is bubbly & top is browned and fragrant. If crumble hasn't browned as much as you like turn on broiler and place dish under broiler for 3-5 minutes to finish. Be sure to keep the dish several inches away from the flame. Remove from oven & let cool on a wire rack (about an hour).
You can enjoy the crumble when warm but the cheese custard tastes best when refrigerated for a few hours.
This dish can be fully assembled & baked a day ahead as long as you refrigerate it until an hour before you'd like to serve it.

This dish serves 8 people with or without a hangover.