Monday, May 31, 2010

Recent restaurant favorites

I've been to some wonderful new (to me) restaurants in the past couple weeks, and I wanted to spread the word...

BAR JULES (San Francisco)
Before every concert in our San Francisco Symphony series, my friend Laura Eklund and I go out to dinner. (I wouldn't go so far as to say the concert provides the pretext for a nice meal out, but it certainly provides the opportunity!) Our last concert (and dinner) of the season was a couple of weeks ago… As we talked over this past year, we agreed that only three of our six meals had been particularly memorable (i.e., definitely worth a return visit): Zuni Café, Absinthe Brasserie, and Bar Jules. We'd delayed checking out this last place because they were not taking reservations. However, this policy has recently changed — although they have not yet updated their website.

We ate simply at Bar Jules: Laura had a salad and a cheeseburger; I had soup and salad. But everything we ordered was pretty much perfect. My asparagus soup was simple and delicious: a lovely clear chicken broth with rice, sliced asparagus spears, and shreds of prosciutto. The salad of fresh-picked greens was lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, tossed with fresh fava beans, and sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese. It's the kind of food that makes you feel like you're doing something good for your body — especially your taste buds.

Their desserts were spectacular. Even Laura, who doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, agreed that they were worth every calorie. We didn't leave a crumb of the "chocolate nemesis" (a flourless but surprisingly un-heavy chocolate cake) or the buttery, not-too-sweet frangipane tart topped with strawberries and whipped cream. That's right: we got two desserts — and they were both shockingly good.

Recommendations: Go. Remember to make a reservation. And save room for dessert.
I had dinner at Dametra Café with my sisters last Saturday night. My sister Shannon had been to Dametra a couple of times before, and what had struck her particularly on previous visits was the warmth and effusiveness of the staff. We had the same experience that night. The tiny place is very popular and was quite crowded: new parties were still coming in when we left about 10:30. But they made the most of the available space, frequently asking diners to shift their tables so as to accommodate newcomers. But everyone was so friendly and the mood so hospitable that the limited elbow room made the place feel homey and cozy, rather than uncomfortably tight.

Dametra is very popular, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine (pizza, pasta, Greek and Middle-Eastern specialties). The food is fresh, simply prepared, and reasonably priced. Most memorable dishes:
  • the spanakopitas were the best I've ever had, with a flaky pastry that had more texture than the usual filo dough — don't miss!
  • wonderful Greek salad with feta cheese mixed into the vinaigrette
  • excellent chicken souvlaki: moist and flavorful
Recommendations: Make a reservation. Be prepared to rub elbows with the other diners! And dress in layers: it was quite warm in the restaurant the night we were there.
VIOGNIER (San Mateo)
On Sunday, Lisa Sherman treated Judith Bishop and me to a wonderful dinner at Viognier in San Mateo. It is situated above Draeger's Market (the fanciest grocery store I've ever visited!), and the easiest way to find the restaurant is to go through the market, which makes for an entertaining detour.

You create your prix-fixe meal by choosing any three items from their menu. All the offerings sounded so good that we had a hard time choosing (of course, I always have a hard time choosing!). Fortunately, our waiter was able to give us helpful suggestions, including wine pairings. Every dish we tried was beautifully prepared and presented. These were my favorites—yum!
  • house-made ricotta cavatelli (a dense pasta somewhat reminiscent of gnocchi) with mushroom ragout and spinach cream
  • house-smoked pork belly (a large chunk of meat, surprisingly lean) glazed with harissa and served on a bed of tiny French lentils with just-tender cauliflowerets
  • beef short ribs with creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed baby turnips (my leftovers made a great sandwich the next day!)
  • orange soufflé with hazelnut-chocolate sauce
  • an interesting selection of cheeses, including a Utah cheddar crusted with coffee and lavender
Wonderful wines we tried:
We were astonished at the end of the evening to realize we'd been there for nearly three hours! The relaxed and leisurely pacing of the meal allowed us to savor all the dishes.

Recommendation: This would be a great choice when you want a special meal in an elegant but unpretentious setting (and you happen to be in San Mateo...).
Price: expensive but worth it ($55 prix fixe for three courses; $85 for a four-course tasting menu)
Service: excellent and attentive; our knowledgeable and helpful waiter made great recommendations of both food and wine
Ambiance: white-tablecloth elegant and very quiet on a Sunday night

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Meal #7: Recipes

Shepherd's Pie (Alton Brown's recipe from
Jenny's Notes: We made this recipe as written, with two exceptions:
  1. Because we weren't sure how lamb would be received at the shelter, we used ground turkey instead—not as flavorful, but an acceptable and affordable alternative.
  2. Because I detest peas (!) we substituted Trader Joe's frozen French green beans, which we chopped into pea-sized chunks. Much better! :)

Sweet & Sour Squash Salad (Gretchen Bell)
4 small zucchini, very finely sliced
4 small yellow squash, very finely sliced
1 red (or yellow or orange) pepper, finely diced
1 red onion, finely diced
1/2 cup celery, finely sliced

1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
  1. Combine all vegetables in a heat-resistant bowl.
  2. Place the dressing ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil, cooking until the sugar dissolves.
  3. Pour the hot dressing over the vegetables, and stir to combine. Allow to marinate for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
  4. Drain and serve.

Marshmallow Treats with M&Ms (from
Jenny's Note: We added 1 cup of M&M candies to the basic recipe.

Smoked Salmon Spread (Jenny Michael)
Jenny's Note: This recipe is my own concoction, and I've served it a couple of times as a cooking-day snack. People have asked for the recipe, so even though it wasn't an official part of this meal, I thought I'd post it here.
hot-smoked salmon, flaked
cream cheese (I used light whipped)
capers, chopped
pickled jalapeños, chopped
red onion, finely chopped
ground black pepper, to taste
lemon juice, to taste
Preparation: Combine all ingredients and mix together well. Serve with crackers or baguette slices.

Do shepherds really eat pie? (Meal #7)

Let me just start by confessing that shepherd's pie is not a dish I grew up with, and I don't remember eating it before this particular Sunday. Nor is it something that ever much appealed to me, perhaps because it's usually made with green peas, a vegetable I have loathed since childhood. However, since several others in the group remember shepherd's pie as a comfort food and suggested it for A Common Table, I wanted to give it a try—my personal disinclination notwithstanding. :)

Date: Sunday, May 16th (served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Maria Massolo
shepherd's pie, sweet & sour squash salad, marshmallow treats with M&Ms
Sandy Cate, Bob Fagan, Joel Jordan, Maria Massolo, Jenny Michael, Sara Miller, Lisa Sherman, Rita Shuster
Kevin Koczela, Jenny Michael

Maria told me that her Argentine version of shepherd's pie uses raisins and olives in the filling (much like the pastel de choclo we made a few months back), and Sandy mentioned that a place in her neighborhood spiced the meat with curry. But since I still needed an actual recipe, off I went to the internet to research the possibilities. Epicurious, of course, yielded many options, but I ended up choosing Alton Brown's recipe, posted on the Food Network's site, both because it had received universal raves and because I [heart] Alton Brown, who is just cool in a quirky, whimsical, and delightfully geeky way. And the man can cook!

Almost all the recipes I reviewed called for ground lamb—which, now that I think about it, makes perfect sense for shepherd's pie. (Don't know why that didn't occur to me before!) However, I had some doubts about how palatable lamb would be to the folks at the shelter—especially the kids—so I followed Maria's lead and opted for ground turkey instead. (Did that make it turkherd's pie?) Seasoned with thyme and rosemary, turkey worked well enough, though I do think lamb would make for a more flavorful dish. I also made a concession to my personal palate and traded the specified peas for green beans, which we chopped into pea-sized chunks. Together with corn and chopped carrots, they balanced the meatiness nicely.

Instead of a basic green salad, I chose a tangy and colorful one of sliced green and yellow zucchini, diced red onion, red (and orange) bell pepper, and chopped celery. The vegetables marinate in a hot vinaigrette for a couple of hours, and the salad is drained before serving. It has a nice texture—a bit more tender than a cucumber salad—and keeps very well. The recipe came from a family friend, Gretchen Bell, who brought it for Easter dinner one year and kindly shared the secret.

We rounded out our menu with that favorite of school lunches: marshmallow (Rice Krispy) treats. So easy, so crunchily reminiscent of childhood, and extra-yummy with the addition of M&Ms. How could we go wrong?

As a whole, the meal was such a success that, for a change, we ate up every bit of it! (And, yes, I did like the casserole. :) If I were to do it again, I would add some kind of bread to the menu to round things out—but it was also fine without it.

Reflecting on the process: Although these gatherings officially begin at 2:00, most folks show up sometime after that—which works very well. Whoever is there at the start helps organize. Then we start chopping (always a primary activity) and go from there. This pattern allows for a nice rhythm to develop and makes things a bit less chaotic at the outset (!). 

We all agreed that this particular menu worked well. There was enough to do that we were kept as busy as we wanted to be, while still having time to drink wine and talk about Argentine politics. And I had planned the preparation well enough (yay!) that we got the salad—which needed time to marinate—going first, before working on the shepherd's pie. We had to sauté the meat in batches, since we didn't have a pot large enough to do all of it at once. And when we realized we needed some larger bowls for mixing, Kevin kindly ran home for his set. So it required a bit of strategy to work out all the logistics, but there were no significant problems. And we even had time to wash the pots and bowls and then to relax together while the casserole baked. Oh, and this was also our least expensive meal so far: less than $100 was laid out for non-staple groceries.

More menu suggestions: In June, we're hoping to make pierogies—an Eastern European specialty—under the tutelage of Kevin and Cole, who grew up with these yummy dumplings. Other suggestions were tamale pie (much less work than actual tamales), oven-fried or barbecued chicken, baked penne… Did I forget any of the other ideas?

THANK YOU!! Special thanks to Maria for hosting us this time! I don't think we left her too much mess... but thank goodness for dishwashers. And thanks once again to Bob for being our delivery guy. I really appreciate your help in this area. And as always, many, many thanks to all those of you who contribute your time, energy, money, and generous spirit to these endeavors. This project wouldn't be possible without you, and I'm very grateful that you want to be part of it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Eating green on a budget

[This continues the thread begun in my earlier post on Whole(some) Foods...]

In the past couple of years, in particular, I have begun paying more attention to where and how my food is grown. I try to buy local, organic produce whenever it's reasonably affordable. But sometimes it isn't—and there are other complicating factors in this equation, like what kind of organic is it? How far did this organic food travel to reach me?

Meat and fish offer a more complicated puzzle, I find.
  • Thanks to Michael Pollan and others, we now better understand the problems associated with corn-fed beef. While grass-fed beef is becoming more readily available—at least in this area—I'm not sure how the prices compare.
  • Chicken is a real challenge. While I can buy a roasted 3-lb. chicken for $4.99 at Costco ($4.99!)—and I sometimes do—thanks to Pollan, I now know rather more than I wish I did about the industrial production of chicken. If I want an organic chicken, Trader Joe's sells them for $3.99/pound (roughly 2½ times the Costco price)—or, in a more extravagant mode, Niman Ranch will sell me a pair that have been "humanely raised in a sustainable environment" for $57 (through Sur La Table)! Niman Ranch aside, we're clearly talking about a very different price range for chicken I can feel good about buying and eating. And because our industrial food system has made cheap chicken seem normal, it goes against the grain (so to speak) to pay so much for meat that I've learned to believe should be inexpensive.
  • And what about eggs? Cage-free! Free-range! All-vegetarian feed! Organic! Omega-3-enhanced! It's hard to tell what these various claims really mean about the way the birds are treated. I do know that I don't like paying $6 a dozen at the farmers' market for eggs that don't taste much different from the $1.99 ones from Trader Joe's. Sigh.
  • There are lots of issues around seafood production and harvesting, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program provides helpful information to allow us to make informed choices. (I'm distressed to learn, though, that my favorite tilapia from Indonesia turns out to be on the "avoid" list...)
Back when I was originally researching food-related volunteer opportunities, I saw a request for someone to teach low-income women about healthy cooking. The idea has stayed in my mind, because I keep wondering what I know that I could share. I think perhaps the key thing is that—thanks to my mom—I know how to cook. Which means that I can prepare delicious meals without having to rely on the pre-fab "edible food-like substances" that the food industry presses upon us—and which Pollan and the rest urge us to avoid. I don't need to rely on packaged foods, because I know how to turn raw materials into something delicious. And I know enough about nutrition to be able to put together a well-balanced, healthy meal.

But how well could I do this on a much more meager budget? Could I still eat healthy, delicious, satisfying meals? Would I be able to afford any organic produce? I'm tempted to take on the experiment... In the meantime, these are a few strategies that I think might help someone in this situation:
  • Learn to cook. Yes, from scratch. This may seem obvious, but too many Americans have grown up relying on ready-made foods, instead of preparing meals for themselves. Nuking a Lean Cuisine entrée does not constitute cooking.
  • Eat plants. Both Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman suggest that eating a primarily vegetarian diet is the best solution for both our individual health and the health of the planet. At the very least, cutting our meat consumption in half would make a huge difference. Check out Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food. Or think about trying Graham Hill's strategy of weekday vegetarianism.

  • Don't be a purist. Alice Waters may be able to afford to disdain anything not local and organic, but most of us don't have that luxury. So we need to choose our battles and make reasonable compromises. The occasional $4.99 Costco chicken, for example—whose cost, of course, includes the price of cooking gas, is a case in point.
  • Let lower-cost ingredients be the focus of your meal. Use more expensive items as sauces and condiments. (Epicurious suggests various ways of cooking these Top 10 Money-Saving Ingredients.) In a lot of traditional Asian cooking, rice is not only the staple food, but it is in essence what's for dinner. Everything else is just gravy. A Hmong woman I worked in Philadelphia often invited me to stay for lunch, and I was at first surprised to see how highly seasoned all her foods were—very spicy, salty, tangy, etc.—until I realized how they were eaten: as condiments eaten in small amounts as flavoring for your big bowl of steamed rice.
  • Keep organic produce costs lower by hitting the last 20 minutes of the farmer's market or by joining one of those organic box farm delivery services or by planting a garden. (Read an interesting article about mushroom farming in New York City.)
Do you have other suggestions? Other helpful resources? I'd be interested in hearing your ideas!

Whole(some) foods

I finally finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which—as he intended—has gotten me thinking about the hidden costs of "cheap" food and wondering what to do about it. I've also come across a few other thought-provoking pieces on similar themes:
  • The author of this article about Alice Waters, who's been running Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley for 39 years (!), describes her as "a fierce ideologue, a food Calvinist whose commitment to local ingredients, produced without hormones and pesticides, is uncompromising." Her stance raises hackles with some, but I found it interesting to learn more about how she thinks about food.
  • Mark Bittman, who as "The Minimalist" writes about food for the New York Times, gave an excellent and thought-provoking speech about "What's wrong with what we eat." He suggests that the extreme "locavore" position represented by Alice Waters is both elitist and unrealistic (at least for those who don't live here in California). His main emphasis is on the ecological disaster represented by the over-production—and over-consumption—of livestock. Have a listen:

[This is continued in Eating green on a budget...]

Meal #6: Recipes

Layered Chicken Enchiladas with Tomatillo-Cilantro Salsa
(from Epicurious)
Jenny's Notes: We made a few modifications, as follows:
  1. Every enchilada recipe I looked at recommended a different cheese! We used a mixture of Monterey jack and mozzarella cheeses. 
  2. We used 2/3 half-and-half and 1/3 heavy cream (instead of using all heavy cream), and it was plenty rich. 
  3. We added sauteed pasilla peppers to the chicken layers—a nice addition in terms of both taste and color.
  4. And we made three layers, instead of just two, for a more substantial casserole.

Spicy Slaw (Jenny Michael)
green cabbage, finely shredded
red peppers, finely diced
radishes, cut into matchsticks
black beans, drained and rinsed
frozen corn kernels, thawed
cilantro, leaves only, coarsely chopped

olive oil
lime juice
white balsamic vinegar
Trader Joe's chili sauce

Cherry-Chocolate Bread Pudding
(adapted from Epicurious: I made enough changes to the original recipe that I thought it was worth rewriting it)

1 loaf French bread
1 quart whole milk
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 cup dried tart cherries
1 cup chocolate chips
whipped cream, lightly sweetened, for serving
  1. Beat the eggs with the milk, sugar, and vanilla.
  2. Cut bread into 1-inch cubes and place in a bowl.
  3. Pour the milk mixture over the bread cubes, and stir to moisten. Allow the bread to soak for about ten minutes, stirring a couple of times. 
  4. Butter an ovenproof dish (9x13).
  5. Spoon half of the bread mixture into the baking dish; sprinkle with half of the cherries and half the chocolate chips. 
  6. Add the rest of the bread mixture to the dish, and pour any remaining liquid over the top. Sprinkle with the rest of the chocolate and cherries.
  7. Bake at 350 degree for 30 minutes, or until the custard is set and the top is golden. 
  8. Allow to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with whipped cream.

Salsalicious! (Meal #6)

Once again, I've fallen behind on updating this blog—so that we actually completed Meal #7 before I finished writing this report on Meal #6...

Following as it did upon "the great lasagna undertaking" (i.e., Meal #5), I tried to put together a menu that would offer us enough of a challenge to make things interesting without postponing gratification until late in the evening! So having decided on enchiladas, I chose a layered version—instead of individually rolled ones—which made the assembly considerably easier. Of course, we did make the salsa verde from scratch, but that also was a fairly simple matter—though I did buy almost all the tomatillos that Lucky had to offer!

Date: Sunday, April 11th (served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Jenny Michael
Menu: layered chicken enchiladas with tomatillo-cilantro salsa, spicy slaw, chocolate-cherry bread pudding
Participants: Sandy Cate, Cole Chabon, Bob Fagan, Maria Massolo, Jenny Michael, Sara Miller, Lisa Sherman, Rita Shuster.
Photos: Cole Chabon, Rita Shuster
Aside: This was not a meal for cilantro haters, of which there seem to be more than one might think. But as the New York Times recently reported, Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault!
Making the salsa was the first order of business, requiring the peeling of many tomatillos and onions and garlic. But once it was boiling away in my great iron cauldron, Sara Miller and I dug into the greasy task of boning and shredding six of Costco's wonderful rotisserie chickens. There was plenty of meat, so we packaged up the wings, skin, and bones for later stock-making. (Reports are that they yielded a particularly rich and flavorful broth!) The only other preparation was sauteing the pasilla peppers and grating the cheese, after which we assembled the casseroles.

Ours went into the oven, but the larger pans destined for the shelter were set aside to cool, then tightly covered with foil for Bob Fagan to deliver to the shelter. We sent along cooking instructions, so the staff could bake them on the following evening.

I had made the bread pudding before the rest of the crew arrived, so it would have ample time to bake. Even so, the three large pans spent much longer than their projected time in the oven.

The only remaining task was to cut up the vegetables for the slaw. Radishes proved a nice touch, and the corn and black beans gave the salad additional heartiness. We dressed our slaw with a light lime-and-cumin-scented vinaigrette—and sent along a jar of the same dressing for the shelter staff to use on theirs. The cool crispness of the slaw made a very nice counterpart to the rich, cheesy enchiladas.

Best practices: This day reaffirmed several of the things we had already learned about how to make these cooking events work well. First, preparing baked goods in advance ensures that they have adequate time to cook! Second, having the shelter staff cook the entree the next day also means that we're not waiting for untold hours for my overworked oven to do this job. Third, thinking in advance through the whole menu and the preparation needed for each recipe lets me organize our work more efficiently.

Cost: Like the lasagna dinner, this was one of our more expensive meals (around $200): cheese, in particular, seems to add up. But thanks to everyone's generous donations, we are still in the black. Many thanks to everyone for your contributions to this project of money and time and labor and—above all— of good will and good energy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Eating one's way through British history

My latest guilty (and slightly queasy) pleasure is watching The Supersizers, which features restaurant critic Giles Coren and comic Sue Perkins. This intrepid pair spends a week dressing in the clothing and eating the foods of a particular era of British history, assisted by professional chefs working from authentic recipes of the period. It's fascinating, hilarious, frequently nauseating—and enough to make one exceedingly grateful to be living in an age where clean drinking water is readily available and vegetables are not viewed with suspicion.

So far, I've watched the shows on The Restoration, The Regency, and The Victorian Age. Other available episodes include:
Thanks to Misha Klein for bringing this to my attention!