Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Weather Outside is Frightful...We've Really No Place to Go... Let it Braise, Let it Braise, Let it Braise!

To quote Yukon Cornelius, a character in the Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, "It's not fit for man nor beast out..."

A huge winter storm hit the Bay Area.

The rain was pummeling the streets and lashing at the windows; rendering it nearly impossible to contemplate doing anything more adventurous than staying at home with an old movie and a cup of hot cocoa. Although, I can't seem to watch television these days without falling asleep exactly 53 seconds after my head hits el hubby's lap - my preferred mode for viewing ye olde boob tube which has become the de facto modern day hearth. It is not quite as a romantic as being mesmerized by the flame of a yule log while drinking hot toddies (or whatever it is folks used to do before electronic devices usurped the fire's throne), but  I have a comfy old red cashmere throw el hubby (being the good fatherly hubby he is) makes sure is wrapped around my body so that I am swathed like that child in the manger of lore - snuggled up cozily, ready for Morpheus to do his stuff and lead me to the land of nod.

Of course, this is not the White Christmas-ed December that Bing Crosby sang so wistfully about in his films and television specials. This is a grey-faced wolf howling in the wind, warning San Franciscans to stay indoors whilst he's on the prowl. Although outdoor excursions are rendered virtually impossible by it, this weather does lend itself to other activities of a stay-close-to-home nature -- braising.

Braising, you say? Please lower the eyebrow and hear me out. Nothing says comfort more than a bowl of something savory and steamy when the weather is raw. Remember your Brillat-Savarin: "The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure." That master of the gastronomic knew of what he spoke. Nothing immediately relieves our sense of deprivation as the bite of something delectable. I mean look at what a bit of apple did for Eve, granted she and her poor clueless spouse Adam were booted from heaven for it afterward, but that first flood of pleasure tasted as the juice of that fruit spread over her tongue must have been exquisite.  Allow me to properly define braising. Too many people confuse it with stewing:

Braise - 
to cook (meat, fish, or vegetables) by sauteeing in fat and then simmering slowly in very little liquid


v. 1797, from French braiser "to stew" (17c.), from braise "live coals," fromOld French brese "embers" (12c.), ultimately from West Germanic *brasa(as is Italian bragiaSpanish brasa), from PIE *bhre- "burn, heat" Related: Braised braising.

Braising it yourself helps fill the home with wonderful aromas and gives you something to do that exerts little effort for lots of reward. It's a great way to clean out the pantry and the fridge, too; something that my small rental definitely requires on a periodic basis.

This recipe only needs one pot, which makes clean-up a cinch. The pot, however, should be a good heavy braiser or dutch oven. Le Creuset is the best, accept no substitutes (unless you have no choice, of course. I mean, people who own All-Clad need to eat, too.). Now, typically, one would take a tough cut of gelatinous meat such as beef chuck roast or short ribs and braise it until it is plush and tender. Toughness in meat works to your advantage during braising. Collagen, a key connective tissue that makes tough meat tough, converts to gelatin when cooked slowly in water, which softens the surrounding muscle.

it is the holiday season, and taking a little respite from all the rich, gooey, rib-sticking dishes that we ply ourselves with during these alcohol-fueled, diabetes-inducing celebrations is welcome relief. You will sacrifice neither health, nor flavor here - just calories. We will turn to the Japanese for our inspiration. My husband and I spent many a Christmas holiday on the Big Island of Hawaii at a resort called Hualalai on the Kona Coast, and there was where I first encountered fish "Nitsuke", or braising fish, one of the very common Japanese rustic dishes. Nitsuke is a Japanese word that means “to boil with spices and add flavor.” Hawaii has incorporated the cultural influences of many of its nearest Asian neighbors (who quite frankly are not very near, truth be told, but have managed to find their way there over miles of Pacific ocean), and the Japanese has certainly exerted a powerful influence over local cuisine.

Ahhh.... Hawaii. 

There are few places in the world like it.

The perfume of the plumeria is everywhere. The spirit of Aloha permeates everything and everyone in it. You can just feel the tension drain out of your body as soon as your foot hits the tarmac and that first waft of warm fragrant air greets you.  Alo means to share in the present moment. Oha is joy. Ha is life energy. Therefore Aloha translates to meaning “The joyful sharing of life energy in the present” or “joyfully sharing life.”  Viewed another way, Aloha means living in harmony. Remember Hawaii is known as the Aloha state, and its multi-ethnic population attests to its living up to its name.

Hawaii seems to be suspended in some time/space warp: you co-exist with the rest of the known universe but nothing in it can affect you. Senate hearings, stock plunges, ebola scares.

None of it matters.

Not here. It is heaven. Everything is beautiful, everyone is happy. Everyone who works at the resort stops no matter where they are or what they're doing to watch the sun sink into the sea every night. Hoping to catch a glimpse of that elusive 'green flash'. (Green flashes and green rays are optical refraction phenomena that sometimes occur right after sunset or right before sunrise at the horizon. When the conditions are right, a green spot is visible above the upper rim of the disk of the sun. The appearance of green usually lasts for no more than a second or two.) 

A favorite expression among the locals, the rare time you may experience a mauvais moment, is "It's all good!" Always said not as a rebuke but just as a gentle reminder of your good fortune to be experiencing such an earthly paradise... and how right they are. 
How I wish I was on the Big Island today. But Hawaii is not just a pretty place on the map; it's also a state of mind, and since the weather system we San Franciscans are braving this week comes courtesy of Hawaii - a system fueled by the "Pineapple Express" (meteorologists describe the Pineapple Express as a long, narrow plume that pipes moisture from the tropics into the western United States that delivers a steady stream of moisture directly from Hawaii to the West Coast), I offer you my adaptation of a wonderful entree so that you, too, could share a taste of paradise when the weather outside is frightful, and you've got nowhere else to go, so let it braise, let it braise, let it braise... 

Mahalo for reading, my friends. 
Mahalo – expresses gratitude and is used to say thank you. It is as important as Aloha in the Hawaiian language and conveys much sacred and spiritual meaning. The root words are Ma  which means in, ha which is breath or life energy and alo which is in the presence of. Mahalo means "In the presence of the Divine".

Just close your eyes... can you hear the song of the ocean?

 Fish "Nitsuke"with Shitake Mushroom and Fennel Broth

A quick note, the ling cod just happened to be the freshest fish in the market today. Use any firm fleshed white fish like white bass, mahimahi, red snapper, sole or halibut; even salmon would work well. For those of you opposed to eating all things piscine, thick slices of tofu is lovely. Braising imparts a silken texture to tofu that other methods of cooking do not, it also  allows it to fully absorb the flavors of the broth.  You can braise firm, fibrous fruits and vegetables, too. Vegetables and fruits that braise well include onions, parsnips, yams, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, fennel, carrots, beets, pears and apples. Unlike most, this is a really fast braise to make, but it is just as hearty and satisfying as the more traditional braises. I'll be including other types of braising in future articles because tis the season to be braising, tra la la la la, la la la la.

  • 1 lb. of 1-1/2 " thick ling cod fillets (about 2 large fillets, cut in half), seasoned with a small amount of salt & pepper on both sides
  • 2-3 Tablespoons cooking oil(either peanut or extra virgin olive oil).
  • 1 small fennel bulb, sliced
  • 1 large shallot, sliced
  • 1 tsp of red chile flakes (optional)
  • 3 slices of fresh ginger root, finely minced
  • 1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 lb. fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 bunch of broccolini or bok choy, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup high quality, low sodium chicken or vegetable broth (Wolfgang Puck's brand is great)
  • 2 Tablespoons of reduced sodium soy sauce
  • sea salt (I use Pink Himalayan) and fresh cracked pepper to taste
  • 1 small bunch scallions, chopped
  • half a handful of fresh cilantro leaves, minced
  • 1 lime, cut into quarters
  • Toasted sesame oil, to taste


  1. Heat a large braiser or dutch oven over medium heat.
  2. Add 1 Tbs. cooking oil, red pepper flakes and a tiny pinch of salt. Add the fennel, cook until softened slightly.
  3. Add shallots and ginger. Saute' for two minutes; then add shiitakes and the remainder of the olive oil along with another pinch of salt and some fresh black pepper.
  4. After shiitakes have softened, add the garlic, making sure the incorporate it into the stir fry.
  5. When garlic is softened, deglaze the pan with the wine; stirring well to get up all the vegetable bits at the bottom of the pan.
  6. Add the broccolini, stirring in well to coat with the aromatics. Then add 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce, stirring until evenly absorbed.
  7. Add the stock, stirring it in. Lower heat to a bare simmer. Then carefully place each fillet over the vegetables just above the level of the broth.
  8. Drizzle the remaining soy sauce evenly over the fillets. Sprinkle half the cilantro and half of the lime juice over the fish.
  9. Cover tightly with lid and allow the fillets to poach for 7 minutes.  Check for doneness, fillets are done when center is almost opaque (there should still be some sign of translucency at the very center) and edges are slightly flaking. Do not over cook. Remove from heat. Season with sesame oil to taste. Remember to be sparing with the sesame oil, it's strongly flavored and could easily overwhelm the dish.
  10. Place the fillets in warm bowls. Ladle the broth and veggies over the fish, and sprinkle remaining lime and cilantro over each dish. You can also serve it over jasmine rice or buckwheat soba noodles by placing them in the bottom of the bowl then adding the fish and broth.

Serves 2 hungry people as a soup or 4 people if you ladle it atop rice or noodles.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tis The Season To Be Thankful....

As a young girl growing up in the wilderness that was East Harlem in New York City, I always enjoyed the holidays.

There were certain days of the year that by virtue of their inherent meaning and collective cultural significance, by their joyful reminders that we are all one in the spirit in our desires for this life, this liberty, this pursuit of happiness, this ability to share with others the bounty of our table, gave us the ability to willingly release all or any of the angst of our yearly hardships and focus, instead, on the good & the beautiful in our world over the evil and the ugly.

Their wonderful Americana transcended the longitude and latitude of a particular place and time uniting most of us under one flag at an enormous virtual table; no matter that our feet touched hard concrete pavement or soft dewy sun-kissed grass, or whether we sat down to a tidy, orderly Norman Rockwell rendition of the typical American feast or stood up to a wildly messy but love-fueled buffet filled with the jewels of ancestral pasts that mixed & matched traditional foods from wherever our first generation of family hailed, be it Palermo or Shanghai.

Thanksgiving is one such holiday with its central theme of gratitude for being alive and surviving another year and, of course, it's wonderful gift of culinary delights.

That tiny kitchen in my grandparent's housing projects apartment (where the small government issued refrigerator stood adjacent to the front door because it was far too large to stand at its rightful place in cooking heaven) was wafting out clouds of such sheer tantalizing scents for three days before the blessed event, it took all my strength not to swoon from the pleasure & anticipation of a yummy holiday feast. Picture if you will, Bob Cratchett's children in full frenzy over that roast goose & plum pudding In Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" and you have a fair idea of how we felt.

My grandmother, a woman of quiet but steely reserve, was in sole charge of the spectacle; shooing away anyone who dared enter her domain to stick a finger in pumpkin pie batter.

The only assistance she accepted was the grating of the crateloads of green bananas for the making of the pasteles, a holiday treat that was laborious to make despite the simplicity of its presentation which at first glance might seem an odd choice to the uninitiated with it's meaty savory filling hidden buried treasure like in a green banana bed of earthy goodness that was then lovingly tied up in a banana leaf & set to boil in cauldrons of water by the dozens.

Nope, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore... with the arroz con gandules, garlicky roasted pernil, garbanzos simmering in a pumpkin sauce studded with crispy bits of pork rind & redolent with the alchemy of the sofrito or the recaito that is the mainstay of all national Puerto Rican dishes (la comida criolla, as we of Borinquen descent called it).

Sofrito is a bunch of herbs and aromatics: garlic, cilantro, sweet Scotch bonnet peppers, onions, tocino (pig fat) with either achiote (aniseed) infused oil or tomato pastes and, I suspect, lots of love. It is either chopped to a paste consistency by hand as my grandmother painstakingly did or blended in a food processor as we do now. I still will often chop it by hand, I love feeling those aromatics succumb to me under my knife's sure blade. So sexy...

There are some things Dorothy & Toto would recognize if their Kansas tornado blew them into 421 East 102nd Street like Tom Turkey, all trussed & stuffed with a traditional "American" bread dressing, the mounds of fluffy buttery mashed potatoes, roasted candied yams in a casserole crowned with pineapple rings & of course the ubiquitous "what would Thanksgiving be without it" cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, the only processed item on the menu but a necessary element to every Thanksgiving day feast that we all seemed to love mainly because of those wonderful rings you could slice them into... such F-U-N food for a kiddie!

Dorothy would be able to readily identify the pumpkin and the coconut custard pies as well as the bowls of nuts still comfortably nestled in the safety of their shells until we cracked them open with the always in need of repair nutcracker. Although she may stare in wonder at the guava paste, the turrone (a hard almond & meringue candy) & the sugar cane that I loved sucking the sweet sap out of & then chewing on mercilessly grinding every bit of juice out of the fibrous stalks.

Still, she and Toto would surely have partied hearty with us.
With my grandfather holding court crooning tango after tango while strumming his guitar in one corner, while my beautiful Aunt Meyda was cranking up the old tunes like the "Watusi" that we would all dance wildly to & of course, the television blaring Dorothy's story, "The Wizard of Oz" or other seasonal wonders like "It's Thanksgiving Charlie Brown", the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, or maybe a Bing Crosby or Bob Hope special with even more laughter trilling in the background...

Dorothy would have noted the wildly disparate elements in the room, all relics from my grandfather's merchant mariner days: the Bali heads (carved exotic wood busts of Balinese nationals), the wild painting over the plastic-covered sofa depicting a tropical bacchanal with conga players, women dancing frenetically & men clapping to their pulsating rhythms, the giant Happy Buddha whose belly we all rubbed for good luck, the enormous stone elephant with real ivory tusks, the modest china closet filled with two entire sets of beautiful table settings that Don Pedro (my abuelito) was so proud of, that Carrera marble topped coffee table whose hard edges gave me a scar I bear to this day when as a silly child I decided I could fly from the sofa cushions and land cat-like on its marble surface (I didn't, I landed scud-like at one of it's sharp edges & bled all over the snowy white stone . One anguished grandmother, a trip to the emergency & two stitches later I was good as new and pretending to be a pirate instead...).

Yep, Dorothy & Toto would have noted the shabbiness of the walls that were only painted once every five years, the low square footage of a 3 bedroom, one bath apartment that housed three generations of family members (8 of us cohabited the place at any one time) that the windows appeared not to close fully, that my mother appeared to be in some drug-induced coma or bitter rage off on her own, never participating in our reindeer games; but she would have also seen all the plants that grew so lush & happily on those window sills, she would have heard the laughter, the singing, joined us in our revels and our dances.

Enjoyed the general silliness, the banter about politics, movies, books, art, music. The fights that would break out as everyone disagreed about agreeing with each other because they were all such looneys and enjoyed a good heated debate (even if it did end in police and ambulances being called in half the time). Dorothy would have seen an abundance of love.... and felt the gratitude we all did to be there together sharing... EVERYTHING, all of it. The good, the bad, the sad, the joyful, the exaltations and the terrible sufferings but still... alive, Alive, ALIVE!

And she would realize that every family from far and near share this commonality, this humanity, the beauty in the distress and the dysfunction that while trying also binds them to each other in an eternal alliance that nothing - not even death - can ever set asunder...

Dawn has just now broken over the San Francisco Bay & with it a realization that those taken from us really truly never are, so long as we have the honey in our memories to preserve them sweetly,  and the traditions like Thanksgiving Day feasts that seem to stir their spirits and revive them  even if only for a few hours on a dark November morning...  My family no longer exists as such, but I felt them here today as I wrote in the cool dark of this early morning.  They were such hams - particularly my grandfather, Don Pedro and my Aunt Meyda...  If this computer screen were a camera they'd be mugging for it. Looks like some things never change because they surely took over my keyboard, and kept me from my main task which was to suggest a possible Thanksgiving menu. Such being the case, I will just share with you, gentle reader, last year's menu at Casa Gomez. Every major holiday, I devise a menu, type it out, print it & present it to my spouse and guests (or just my spouse when we don't have guests). It gets my creative juices flowing and keeps me organized. I always take the menu with me when I go shopping for the meal.

The potage is a lovely creamy potato soup that can be made a day or two in advance. I used sweet potatoes & yukon golds and added roasted poblanos for an extra kick as a foil against the creamy sweetness of those tubers. I make the cranberry sauce on Monday of Thanksgiving week, and make the turkey stock on Tuesday, and usually prepare the dessert, the croutons for the stuffing, as well as season the turkey itself the night before the big day. I wake up early on Thanksgiving morning, make coffee, turn on George Winston's, Autumn, and spend the morning & early afternoon slaving away at the kitchen, sending my husband and guests into exile from it until I am ready to serve. I am a very jealous & territorial cook. I haven't an inch to spare in my tiny galley kitchen, so I make sure before I start cooking the big dinner itself, I bake something the others can eat first.

Last year it was this pumpkin bread for breakfast:


And this swiss chard and feta crostata for lunch:

Recipes for crostata (an Italian, open-faced pie or tart) date at least as far back as the 15th Century. These delicious free-form pies were traditionally made with a mix of sweet and savory ingredients and included fresh, seasonal produce. I'll keep faithful to the original concept and make it with briny olives and feta, the crunch of roasted walnuts, peppery swiss chard roasted red peppers and the rich sweetness of caramelized onions.


  • 6 Kalamata Olives
  • 1 Red pepper, sliced & coarsely chopped
  • 2 Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Vidalia (or other sweet) Onion
  • ½ Cup All-Purpose Flour
  • ½ Cup Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1 Head of Swiss Chard
  •  Cup Crumbled Feta Cheese
  • 1/3 Cup  Roasted Walnuts, chopped
  • Extra Virgin Olive oil for sauteing plus 4 TBS for crust
  • 1/4 cup of ice cold water

    Preheat the oven to 425°F. Wash and dry the fresh produce. Using the flat side of your knife, smash the olives; remove and discard the pits, then roughly chop the olives.  Peel and thinly slice the garlic and onion. Rinse swiss chard, dry thoroughly, de-stem & coarsely chop it

    Prepare veggies:

    In a medium pot, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil on medium-high until hot. Add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes, or until completely softened. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes longer, or until thoroughly caramelized and golden brown. 

    While the onions are caramelizing, heat a large frying pan until medium hot, add a tablespoon of olive oil, wait 5 seconds then add red pepper, saute until softened (about 3 minutes) and add sliced garlic, saute garlic for 30 seconds until it releases its aroma , then reduce heat to medium, and add swiss chard. Cook until chard is wilted (about 5-7 minutes).

    Make the dough:

    Set aside veggies
    , dust a large sheet pan with a pinch of the all-purpose flour. In a medium bowl, combine the whole wheat and all-purpose flours with a pinch of salt. Stir in 4 tablespoons of olive oil and ¼ cup of cold water until a dough forms, being careful not to over-mix. Transfer the dough to the prepared sheet pan. Using a rolling pin or wine bottle, roll the dough into a ¼-inch-thick round.

    Assemble the crostata:

    In a medium bowl, combine the swiss chard and the olives. Drizzle with olive oil, if the chard seems dry, then season with salt and pepper and gently toss to coat. Place the caramelized onions in the center of the dough and spread them towards the edges, stopping about a ½-inch from the outside edge (there should be an onion-less border all the way around). Place the chard mixture on top of the onions and evenly sprinkle with the feta cheese, then the walnuts. Gently fold the outer edge of the dough over the toppings with your hands (this is the fun part, don't worry if the dough breaks off, remold it into shape) to create an open-faced pie.

    Bake the crostata:

    Bake the crostata 12 to 15 minutes, or until the dough is browned and cooked through. Let it rest for 15 minutes in a warm spot. Cut the baked crostata into wedges to serve. Enjoy!

So... I bake them, place them on the dining table with cutlery, napkins, dishware,  and shoo anyone who happens to be around away encouraging them to go for long walks on short piers. This is quite different from the chaos that I grew up with, but happily my husband understands my need to totally immerse myself in the cooking process and allows me room to breathe. Every year, we bargain about what time dinner will be served. I was raised with holiday dinners being served in the late evening. My husband's family counted the day wasted if they hadn't gobbled their gobbler by 2 in the afternoon. This causes minor rifts every year wherein I promise to have dinner ready by 5, but invariably never deliver the first course before 6.

Two years ago my inner clock went completely awry and dinner wasn't ready until 8. My husband refused to eat and went to bed. I slammed every door in the apartment before I left with two bags full of a delicious roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings (and serving wear) in the hopes of finding some hungry homeless person to feed, and wound up walking for two hours and several miles before I finally begged a homeless man sleeping in the doorway of an abandoned bank to please allow me to leave the dinner with him, promising him I was a pretty good cook. He looked at me  wearily, but accepted hearing the desperation and tears in my voice... Still, I harbor hopes of making dinner by 5 Post Meridian, Pacific Standard Time this year.

Wish me luck.

Apropos of nada, I love this Van Gogh, and will go from the ridiculousness that was my writing today to the sublime that is Van Gogh's majestic art:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

San Francisco: The Town of Stepford?

We had friends from D.C. visiting with us last weekend. Both were born and bred east-coasters. Lee originally hailed from the northeast (Long Island) and Christine was born a true steel magnolia from the coast of northern Florida. Each one's sensibilities as ruggedly and practically informed as anything that has been yielded east of the Mississippi River.

They are N.Y. bagels, Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, Nova Lox, Coney Island hot dogs, Maryland crab cakes and homemade 30 minute corn grits; if you get my purport: paragons of their culture: the purest paragons of the no-nonsense, quick-witted, intellectually advanced, slightly left of center (politically, not physically), cynical breed of personage necessarily fomented by an increasingly frenetic right coast lifestyle.

They are both smart, funny and amiable. They are also extremely well-traveled (he is after all THE Geographer of the United States of America; you know, like the Surgeon General), cosmopolitan and, although both are academically inclined, they are a far cry from those dusty denizens of ivy-covered, ivory towers who lead sheltered lives and remain blissfully untutored in the ways of the world.

Which is why I was wholly unprepared, though thoroughly amused, by their joint reaction to the wonderful world that is San Francisco.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that they disliked the city or its citizens. Or that they were dissatisfied with their accommodations (The Fairmont), their meals (Kokkari Estario, Gary Danko, Acquerello) or the tourist attractions (Cable cars, Fisherman's Wharf, Giant's game, Haight Ashbury, etc.).

On the contrary, they found everything and everyone to be very pleasant. Too pleasant.
Scarily pleasant, frighteningly helpful and ridiculously agreeable. According to them, the experience was much too much like that nightmare cult B movie of the '70s: The Stepford Wives. Wherever they went they were accosted by hordes of smiling happy people giving them unsolicited directions if our friends happen to be holding a map, offering them advice en masse on the best stop to get off on Muni to see a particular sight, constantly thanking them for their custom and patronage, endlessly wishing them well as in "Have a good one!".

These and many other small examples of friendliness and civility were too much for our friends. They being good east coasters were unaccustomed to such neighborly largesse; a stomp on the foot and a dirty look being the usual mode of intercourse between strangers on a metro line back east.

One day, Christine asked me with some concern and great puzzlement, "What is wrong with these people?"

She feeling that perhaps it was some nefarious conspiracy headed by the chamber of commerce to hoodwink innocent tourists into believing that they had entered the last bastion of Norman Rockwell's America by planting out-of-work actors on the city buses and streets to behave like something in a Frank Capra movie thereby ensuring future visits by rubes who would then believe San Francisco is an earthly nirvana to be experienced again and again. (Have I mentioned that tourism is currently the number one industry in San Francisco? All of our techy young upstarts who own all those start-up companies that are gentrifying San Francisco's few gritty neighborhoods notwithstanding?).

Or worse, that the Board of Supervisors or some other governing body in cahoots with Eli Lilly had drugged the citizenry by placing large but not lethal doses of Prozac or some other anti-depressant in the drinking water in order to conduct long-term, large-scale studies of the drug's effect on the various populations of would-be users.

Try though I might to explain the purely altruistic motives of the good citizens by the bay, our friends would only shake their heads, smile sadly and say, "They're so weird!". It was said gently, without rebuke, as though San Franciscans were to be more pitied than censured.

Maybe, we are.

I say we because after several years of living here, I, too, find myself almost irresistibly drawn to people with puzzled looks who are carrying maps and wearing Bermuda shorts. God help me!! Move over Stepford, USA, make room for Baghdad by the Bay! I still despise taking pictures of tourists, however, especially whilst I am trying to hike along Crissy Field, think beautiful thoughts and enjoy the stunning bay view (so that aspect of my former NYC street cred remains untarnished).

Well, in honor of our friends' experiences as tourists in the sweet and easy-going town of San Francisco, I offer for your consumption a uniformly easy to make dessert, west-coast style:

San Francisco Treats: Double Chocolate Almond Biscotti with Dried Cherries


These biscotti evoke one of the favorite tourist spots in San Francisco: North Beach with its Italian-American heritage and its cafes/coffee shops that were once the home and work place of the famed beat generation poets.

Columbus Avenue. Washington Square Park. City Light Bookstore. Jack Kerouac Street.

All crammed with tourists in the summer and fall. These cookies are something they might enjoy as a pick-me-up to go with a foamy cappuccino in one of North Beach's sidewalk cafes after a long day's touring.

Biscotti means twice-cooked in Italian and that is exactly what we are going to do. Bake them, cut them into slices and bake them again.

As always, you can substitute the ingredients fairly freely: hazelnuts or pistachios for almonds, cranberries or raisins for cherries. Use what you like.

You can substitute canola oil for butter. You can omit the butter altogether for a more traditional, longer shelf-life style of biscotti. Just add another egg white to the recipe.
If you like your biscotti a little less crunchy, decrease the time for the second baking.

  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) semi-sweet Ghiradelli chocolate chips (for added San Francisco cache)
  • 3/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 egg yolk, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon high quality pure vanilla extract
  • 1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped into raisin-sized pieces if large
  • 3/4 cup roasted unsalted almonds purchased as slivers or coarsely chopped by hand

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, make sure to place rack in center of the oven before heating.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silpat.

  • In a large stainless steel bowl with a whisk or hand mixer, cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.
  • Add the eggs and egg yolk, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
  • Beat in the vanilla extract.
  • In a separate bowl, add the dry ingredients using a large strainer as a sift adding the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking powder into the strainer one at a time then carefully agitating the strainer over the bowl, allowing the ingredients to fall into the bowl as they sift. Once the strainer is empty and all the ingredients are in the bowl, give them a quick whisk to ensure they are uniformly distributed.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and beat until well incorporated. Stir in the cherries, chips and nuts.

  • Transfer the dough to a floured surface and divide it in half. With well-floured hands, form each half into a 10" log by rolling the dough back and forth on the board into a cylinder shape. Don't worry if the log breaks apart while rolling just paste back on & re-form it. Make sure you have a 12" ruler handy to help you measure out the length of the log.

  • Carefully place the logs on the baking sheet, placing them well apart on the pan. Remember the logs will spread as they bake.
  • Even out the shape of the logs with your hands then bake in center rack 25-30 minutes until logs are firm to the touch. Remove from the oven, place on a wire, and let cool for 10 minutes.
  • Don't let them cool completely or they will be too difficult to cut.

  • Using a long spatula, carefully transfer the logs to a large cutting board.
  • Using a long serrated (bread) knife, cut the logs into 3/4 " slices on the diagonal. (About 24-30 slices depending on their thickness)
  • Arrange the slices on the baking sheet and bake 8-10 minutes on one side. Then turn the slices over and bake the other side 8-10 minutes until biscotti are crisp and dry. Remove from the oven and let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

    Serves several smiling shiny (slightly incredulous) happy people. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Fruits Of Labor

"The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze."
-   John Updike, September

Labor Day has come and gone.

Labor Day wee
kend 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. It was back to school, to regimented hours, to the end of summer's sweet liberty. Yes, for me, Labor Day always rang the death knell 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. 

In the summertime, 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 pure in their essence: fruit granitas rather than the sugar-laden 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.

I still remember lapping up those Mr. Softee soft serve frozen custard cones, one lick at a time, trying to make it last as soon as possible without having that tower of spiral cream melt into a puddle in my waffled cone. And Good Humor! Those chocolate eclairs, strawberry shortcake, toasted almond works of art. I never took my eyes off those bars as I ate them. I would stare at the cross-section of every bite mesmerized by their beauty. All those layers of flavor so beautifully delineated and contrasted by color and texture. It was like a miracle on a stick.  All of this wonder ended come September. Strange child that I was, I lamented Labor Day. It seemed less like a holiday and more like a threat for further oppression.

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. Mark Twain may never have said the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco, but I can guarantee even he would have felt his arms break out in gooseflesh on a brisk August morning and likely was grateful for that first September warm spell. 

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 during the summer months, 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, and more importantly, eaten. A loaf of bread, a slice of fruit, some lush creamy cheese and a few swills of something white and chilled set the tone for warmer days and longer nights. It's a different type of creamy beauty from my old Mr. Softee days as a child, but it is just as satisfying to the hungry soul. 


"Lord, it is time. The summer was very big. Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose. Command the last fruits that they shall be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine." 
-     Rainer Maria Rilke

Yes, Rainier, quite right. It is time to enjoy the fruits of every California farmer's September labor... 

Here's my suggestion:

Bruschetta with Caponata, Burrata and Prosciutto Crisps

  • The Italian verb "bruscare" means 'to roast over coals' and "brusciare" means 'to burn or toast,' which is how the first bruschetta was made. The noun bruschetta is derived from these verbs although modern style bruschetta is often made from bread grilled in a skillet or baked in an oven until hard and dry. If you order bruschetta in Italy, you will likely be served one piece of crusty, lightly toasted Italian bread slathered with olive oil with a clove of garlic on the side. However, if you order bruschette, the plural of bruschetta, expect a plate of bruschetta with a variety of toppings. Toasting the bread on the grill gives it a particular fragrance, but with an oven or a broiler you can obtain the same good result.

  • Although all accounts of bruschetta's origins trace it back to Italy, the exact region and year of its birth are murky. Ancient Romans reportedly used to test the quality of freshly pressed olive oil by smearing it on a piece of fire-toasted bread for tasting, a custom that is now common in all major olive-oil producing regions of Italy, specifically Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria. Certain accounts claim the oil-soaked bread was rubbed with a clove of garlic to bring out the flavors of the oil. Other historical accounts of bruschetta claim it evolved from people trying to revitalize stale bread by soaking it with olive oil.

It's believed that this "poor man's food" was born as a snack for the workers in the fields. It was prepared with homemade, sometimes, stale bread, and flavored with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and tomato. These are the basic ingredients of bruschetta. However today, the ways to prepare it and variations in circulation are truly endless.

For a proper preparation of bruschetta it is necessary to slightly grill or oven-toast the surface of the bread, taking care that it remains soft inside.  
For best results, use an authentic Italian bread, the more rustic the better; ciabatta is a good choice. Acceptable substitutes include French baguette or any hearty bread with a chewy body and porous texture that toasts well. Toast the bread on both sides to avoid sogginess. Use the highest quality virgin or extra virgin olive oil to impart the bruschetta with the best taste.

These slices of bread should be fairly thick, surrounded by a quite hard but crunchy crust, with a soft, white crumb, and small and regular cavities (suitable to absorb the oil). These, once grilled, although well seasoned with oil, will be stiff and easily manageable. It 's a bread that stays good for a long time and so it is ideal to be used to prepare this dish, even if it's not freshly baked. If you consider that in the past, especially in very poor rural areas of Italy, often one had little more than this, it is understandable how bruschetta often became a full dinner and not just a snack or appetizer.

Note: Burrata is fresh mozzarella with a harder exterior shell and creamy curd interior mix of cream and curd. It has a very short shelf life of about 2-3 days. If you can't find burrata in your market (Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Safeway or other specialty grocers usually carry it) substitute fresh buffalo or fresh cow's milk mozzarella from Italy or a good fresh creamy ricotta from your local dairy farmer, a creamy goat chevre would also work well; otherwise, skip the cheese because Polly-O while ok on a pizza will not be good under the caponata.  
Caponata is a Sicilian dish made with eggplant, tomatoes, capers. Traditional recipes add the raisins. I don't.  T
he etymology of the name is not entirely known. Some suggest it derives from the Catalan language, others that it comes from the caupone, the sailors' taverns. The dishes described by Wright would suggest that in the past the Sicilian dish was similar to the Genoese capponata
This recipe would actually work well over any pasta. 

  • 1 fresh loaf of Ciabatta or other country-style Italian bread, sliced into 1" thick rounds, or a French baguette sliced through its median line into halves
  • 1 lb. of fresh burrata, left at room temperature (for at least an 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
  • 2 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 (optional)
  • 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. (Alternatively, place bread on a heated pizza stone or directly on oven racks and toast under the broiler.)

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 cheese, then the caponata, sprinkle with the basil & the prosciutto. Mangia!!!