a piece of cake

I didn’t bake a thing yesterday. But I made a cake just the same. I took the raw materials of sheet cake and stark white frosting. Mixed tentative drops of food coloring and declared the end result just the hue I was thinking of. I sketched with intent and sliced deliberately, carefully. I stacked cake and considered pastry bag tips and how I could pipe and get what I was looking for. What I was thinking of. A thin slice or two for a cover, a column for a spine, thin piping to show the creases and a careful, slow serrated tip to trace the lines of pages along the side. And a bookmark for good measure. I walked the line between art and craft and ended up further along than I thought I would.

And walking down Guerrero with a small cake shaped like a book, I had no idea what to do. Even if it did taste good, I had fussed over it too much for it to be appealing. What I constructed, what I put together wasn’t for taste at all. Flavor had nothing to do with it. I tried to give it away on Valencia to a tattered man carrying a garbage bag. “Do you want this cake?” “No, but thank you.” I couldn’t leave it there, on top of a trash can. No one would know what the hell it is. Sculpture? Play-Doh? It has to be introduced. This is cake. It’s in my fridge, waiting for enough time to pass until I can throw it away with lessened guilt.

It’s a start. I might make a cake again. Maybe craft a mustache cake for my dad’s 75th birthday next February. Or make a bacon cake for my brother. Maybe.


kitchen evolution

I haven’t been cooking a lot lately. I have a fridge full of thrilling produce: chedder cauliflower, romanesco, rainbow chard, Japanese sweet potatoes. And I want little to do with it. Last week, after a particularly grueling commute home, I could only find the energy to make a call to Giorgio’s for a mini Hawaiian pizza and then hurriedly steam some broccoli and pour a glass of wine before I sat down. When I finally settled in front of the tv, I made it through most of the broccoli only to realize that in my rush I hadn’t seen the extra protein that I’d steamed along with the broccoli. Maybe it’s the bugs that have turned me off to cooking for the minute.

And it’s probably the fact that I did a lot over Thanksgiving. Brussel Sprouts, mashed potatoes, homemade bread and butter. All this while dancing around a crowded, overburdened antique oven and counter space taken over by excessive collections of kitchen tools.

In the last couple months, I’ve been cooking in my mom’s kitchen a lot. Many of the pictures I’ve shuffled from my camera to my computer are flush with the terra cotta hues of my mom’s cabinets in the background. A lot of the pics have my brother in them as well. Our cooking styles are so different, but end up with damn good results. When I’m in my own kitchen I work quick, with precision and a touch of grace. I try and move as efficiently as possible. Even making a breakfast sandwich this morning involved something of a dance, with each movement up, down or side to side serving a purpose.

I didn’t cook in the kitchen much growing up. But if I ever wanted to, I knew everything would be in working order, stocked with anything and everything I needed. It was a kitchen that worked. Ample counter space. Kick-ass stove. An appliance for every need. The knives you pulled out of the block were carbon-still and awesome. An indoor grill. And there was a perfect time when my culinary adventures synced up with the state of the kitchen nicely. I think it was when I would visit after college. It was a great place to cook.

And now, it’s different. The house isn’t how I remember. Things don’t work like they used to. Utensil collections fight one another for counter space. Groupings of jars or pitchers or fruit bowls crowd the space so it takes a lot of shuffling and set-up and rearranging before you can even get started. The oven is as tricky as an old car you should have dumped long ago, but just can’t bear to see it go. One oven doesn’t work. The other requires a flashlight and a steady hand to gauge the temperature. Burns are common. Baking is a crapshoot.

But I still like it. It’s a good kitchen, if not for the functionality than for the memories. The meals we’ve cooked, the guests that drift there unconsciously like the last cheerios in a bowl. No matter the party, everyone ends up in the kitchen. I won’t say it’s not challenging, it is. It’s sad to see the kitchen in a slow decline. Disorganized, cluttered. It doesn’t work like it once did. But I still see it for the goodness it offers. It’s still a place where we come together, work together, cook together.

I have faith it’ll be what it once was. To get cleaned up and flying right again. It’s all there, in the drawers and the cabinets. By the food processor and the industrial stand mixer and the carbon steel knives. It’ll be the kitchen I remember. In time, it’ll come back.


I have my work cut out for me

To: Ken Forkish, Ken's Artisan Bakery

Hi Ken,

A little less than year ago I moved from Portland to San Francisco,
and I've been in a state of gastronomical longing ever since. From
Stumptown to Le Pigeon, I can't help but wax poetic about the places I
miss. And one of those places is your bakery. I lived on 21st and Hoyt
for two years and probably came in nearly every day. And
most of those days, I got a walnut roll with butter and jam. I'm not
one for eating the same thing over and over again, but there was
something so simply satisfying, indulgent and reassuring about that
combination of flavors and textures. It didn't seem right unless I had
that breakfast.

But I moved and I moved on. It's been eggs and sourdough toast for a
while. Until last weekend, when faced with a glut of walnuts, I
decided to make some bread. It wasn't until after I'd tasted the brown
soda bread I made that I realized I'd made the wrong thing. It wasn't
sweet I wanted, it was savory. It was simple. It was a walnut roll
from Ken's. That's what I'm craving and what I can't get out of my

So, I'm wondering if you can help me out. I wonder if you'd be so kind
as to pass on your recipe to me for your walnut bread. I know my
replication won't be perfect, but I'd really appreciate some pointers
to head down the right path.


11.13. To Me, from Ken.

HI Margo. Let's see if we can satisfy that longing of yours. You will
need to buy a scale that measures metric weights. You can get a
decent one for $50 or so at a kitchenware shop. I found this online
for $68

Other items you will need on hand:

plastic tub to hold the dough in the fridge over night and to allow
expansion 2 to 3 times the original volume of the mixed dough.
matt cloth or wicker baskets for proofing the loaves.

Here's a formula for you to try:

1 kilo flour (700 grams white flour, 300 grams whole wheat flour)
775 grams water, 85 - 90 degrees F
6 grams dry yeast
22 grams fine sea salt

125 grams walnut pieces

mix flour and water by hand and let rest for 30 minutes.
mix yeast in a very small amount of water, just enough to dissolve,
then add with the saltt to the flour mixture.
Mix in a stand mixer, like a KitchenAide with hook attachment for 5
minutes on low speed. Rest for 10 minutes and mix again for another 5
minutes on low speed. Alternatively, if you don't have a mixer, mix
by hand (First to incorporate the ingredients, and then the turn the
dough into a homogenized mass - figure about 10 or 15 minutes). You
can mix the dough on your kitchen countertop. THen fold in the
walnuts until they are more or less fully integrated into the dough.

lightly oil your dough tub, place the dough into the tub, and put the
tub in the fridge for 12 - 18 hours. Optionally, punch and fold the
dough one or two times during this fermentation.

Remove the dough from the fridge, and cut in to 3 pieces. Form each
into a ball, stretching and folding the dough into itself several
times to build up strength. Let rest for 20 - 30 minutes.

Shape the dough balls into a shape that will fit whatever basket you
choose, or roll into a cylindrical log shape if you want walnut
rolls. Flour the baskets, or cloth, whatever you are going to place
the loaves into to proof.

Figure 3 hours proofing time, until the loaves are gassy without
collapsing on themselves.

Bake in oven btwn 400 and 425 degrees until done. Don't worry about
the steam. It's hard to do steam in a home oven.

I can't teach you how to bake in an email. Hopefully this outline
will mate with some past bread baking experience on your part to meet
with some success.

Good luck!



Keep it in the family

Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to family. About how we stay connected to where we come from. You might hear a story once and forget it the next day, but you tell that same story over and over, over the same meals through the years and the stories and the meals become legend. The way the stories are told over a table, the phrases of words and tone until the next generation is finishing the sentences of the first. Stories associated with pictures pressed into albums or hung on a wall. It’s the same things again and again.

But once in awhile, new details surface as attics are cleaned out and artifacts are passed on. Two years ago a rediscovered LP showed that my great-grandmother, Mae, sang in the local Jewish choir. I always felt connected to her. I wasn’t sure why. Because I visited her in an old age home that bore my name. Because I played piano there. Because she always had Almond Roca. The fact that she sang and I sing comforts me. I like the old standards which, for her, were probably the popular songs on the radio. I wonder if she liked Cole Porter like I do. A few years ago my mother gave me Mae’s engagement ring, which I’ve worn every day since.

Her son, my grandfather, I barely knew. He moved the family from Chicago to Alaska (where my mother was born) to Canoga Park where he and Louise built their own house with their own hands where my grandmother still lives. Myron taught shop and drew mice on my hands and couldn’t have looked more like his son.

His son. David Ronne. It’s been a year to the day since he got sick. A year since the stitches of a loose-knit family began to pull tighter than they ever had before. Last Thanksgiving I had grand foodie plans to do a 200-mile meal in Portland. It was going to be my first holiday I had willingly not gone home. But my mom called, and it was serious, and of all the Thanksgivings to miss, this wasn’t the one.

I don’t remember if he carved the turkey last year. I don’t think he did. I don’t remember if we had our annual heated discussion about just how much (or how little) sugar to put in the whipped cream. I always forced the addition of one more tablespoon than he wanted. Thanksgiving was the one time I could eat with abandon, and I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to have an extra serving of anything. But I do remember that everything tasted the same as it always had, with that perfect mix of savory on savory and rich on rich.

Since the day after the funeral, new artifacts have surfaced. And with them, new stories. I now have my great-grandfather’s bowling medals and his mason’s ring.

And last week I inherited knives. Knives I didn’t know existed. Knives that belonged to my great (great?) grandfather, who, as it happened, was a butcher in Germany. I didn’t know we had a butcher in the family. These knives are beautiful, rugged. Gunmetal carbon steel with soft wood handles. These knives aren’t for show, they’re for use. They look like real knives should look. Henckels, nearly all of them, except for one exotic cleaver with Chinese characters wearing from the metal.
I love these knives. Love where they came from, their authenticity and bad-assedness. I love that they came from family, that they reveal a story I only want to know more about. I’m glad to know there are new stories waiting in the cupboards and attics of our family’s homes. And I’m willing to take my time, let them be revealed to me one at a time. Dole them out over a lifetime, when I’m ready, when it’s interesting.

I’m going to bring them in to get sharpened soon. I’m going to do my research on how to take care of them. And best, I’m going to use them. A lot. I have a knife drawer I’m already proud of, and it’s about to get a lot more crowded.

Pictures to come.


the baker inside

For a long time I’ve stood behind my theory that when it comes to domestic responsibilities, there are two kinds of people: dish people and laundry people. Dish people enjoy doing dishes. They find that dishes are the perfect end to a meal. That washing each plate and glass and fork and knife is a warm, comforting feeling, and that there’s little more satisfying than a full stomach and an empty sink. Laundry people are different. Laundry people take pleasure in carting armfuls of dirty clothes down to big white machines. They hoard quarters and compare dryer sheets and like how the lint trap somehow reflects the load of laundry the dryer just held. Red towels. Red lint.

These traits are mutually exclusive. Laundry people can leave a cereal bowl untouched for days while a dish person can’t leave the kitchen if there’s so much as a spoon in the drying rack. If you come across an overflowing hamper, wander to the kitchen. Odds are you’ll find everything neatly put away. Happy the household that has one of each.

I used to think it was the same thing with the kitchen. You have cooks and then you have bakers. Cooks enjoy cooking, the improv of mixing flavors and ingredients. The immediacy of the hot pan or savoring the slow meld of a day-long braise. There’s play in cooking, in concocting, in balancing acid and richness, of an endless array of tastes to consider from season to season. Cooks can’t be bothered with bread. Bread is for bakers. Bakers take pleasure in the slow process. Of a small, rotating cast of ingredients that, when combined in minutely different measurements and ratios net supremely different endings. There’s a science, a method. Mix wet, mix dry, mix together and sit back and let the magic happen. Hope that it happens and science and ingredients are on your side.

I have never considered myself a baker. I’d get the urge about twice a year to make something bready. Usually around the holidays. As a kid it was quick bread recipes from a tattered copy of The Joy of Cooking with my mother for holiday gifts for teachers. Banana Nut. Apricot Almond. Honey Walnut. I remember the first time I was compelled to bake something. I was in high school and for no good reason, I wanted to make cookies. It was summer, and the only reason I remember this is because I was interning at the LA Weekly. Since no one in my house would dare eat refined sugar or butter, I brought in the dozen of Toll House into the paper and left them with a note: “Enjoy, from Margo the Intern.” About halfway through the day, there was an announcement over the intercom, “Thanks for the cookies, Margo.”

And other than the odd jiffy cake mix to win over my guy roommates in college or savory shortbread last year, my baking urges remained dormant. Until now. I can’t stop baking.

And I’m not even sure how it started. I believe it was with some pears that came in the CSA and a birthday in the office. I wanted to do something. Something with pears. A quick search turned up a Pear Clafoutis, which I had never had, let alone pronounced out loud. I did as the recipe stated, pouring the egg, sugar, flour and butter mixture over sliced pears and put the cups into bake. A scant hour later they had puffed up into beautiful little custards, warm and rich and scented with vanilla and lemon and comfort. So little turned into so much. I was hooked.
An all-office party came along, and I felt the call again. Another clafoutis, individual ginger-pear upside down cakes, a duo of lemon-thyme and lemon-basil shortbread. I couldn’t stop.

Another party, another clafoutis. I’ve started comparing flours and yeasts. I’ve moved my vase collection to the top of my cabinets to make room for a baking cabinet. I bought a silpat baking sheet. When I was offered my aunt’s KitchenAid mixer I giggled, literally giggled to a bemused boyfriend that “my life is going to change!”

Last night I made little milk breads, where yeast is dissolved into milk instead of water.
The process took hours. Mix the dough, let it be. Come back to fold it into another shape, leave it for another hour. Come back and break it apart and fold it into yet another shape, leave it alone for another hour. It takes the better part of an afternoon to do, and by the time I pulled the petit batards from the oven, I had almost lost interest. That is, until I spread cold butter on the steaming bread and took a bite. ‘Worth it’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.

I’ve become a baker. Or at least, a person who can follow recipes for baking. I’m not sure when I can make the leap to devising recipes on my own. I think it’s a matter of studying recipes and playing with herbs and fruit and savory flavors. I understand the draw of baking more than I ever did. It’s about squinting at measuring cups and sinking your hands into dough and a warm oven and making more than you could ever eat by yourself. There’s no baking for one. You bake and you share and you offer that sense of comfort you’ve made to someone else. Ideally hot. And with butter.

For the record, I am a dish person. I can’t help but end a dinner party standing at the sink and I fall asleep better when the dishwasher is running. But now, with my new appreciation for something I once dismissed as other, I’m considering if I might be a laundry person too. If I just haven’t tapped the part of me that finds as much comfort pulling warm, clean linens from the dryer as I do from warm, soapy water and cleaning, rinsing and drying as I go.


a lesson in bread

Last week I took a breadmaking class. I spent two hours listening to complicated, obscure rules about how to care for the San Francisco starter i was going to take home with me. I watched a fat pillow of pre-risen dough flop onto the work surface and saw it unceremoniously severed into sections for us to form into rounds.

My first pass at shaping the dough failed, as the surface of the dough ball broke and I was advised by the instructor to just "let it rest for awhile." So I sat back and watched as the question and answer session devolved into the question and more question session and then, when enough time passed, took the dough in my hands again.
A few swift folds, pats and pinces later and I had a round fair enough to place alongside the others to bake in the oven. And then, at the end of class, we cut into the steaming rounds of our collective efforts and reaped the rewards.

Unfortunately, the bread was terrible.

Dense. Undercooked in the center (but with a nice crust), far heavier than what I was expecting. It just made the whole class, the whole process seem entirely not worth it. I'd come to learn how to make bread, and I hadn't learned much of anything.

But then something happened the next day. A moment of the class came to mind when an old friend and I were talking about work. We were talking about the nature of the creative process, and how for me, I've always thought that if you work something to death, you might just kill it. I've had a lot of luck with the first round of things being the best, the freshest, and I'm often loathe to go something over and over again. But then, the thought of shaping that dough came into my mind. That yes, you might work something until the point that it breaks, but what happens if you let it rest for a bit? You don't force it, don't give up, just back off for a few. Move on to the next thing. And maybe the next time you come back with fresh from rest and with a dose of perspective, it might be a little more forgiving this time around.

Now of course, there's something to be said about the fact that the bread itself came out terrible. That despite the process, it might not seem to be worth it in the end. But then again, I took something away from the experience I didn't expect. All I needed was a little time to get it.


Embracable Debacle

It’s undeniably humbling to make really bad food. Especially after you’ve taken all the care and dedication to make something you’re really excited about. Some fennel and onion came through in the CSA box, and I was seized with the thought of making a tart, like a Pissaladiere, but with prosciutto replacing anchovies and some torn basil for color. I talked about it for a few days, finally bought the ingredients and spent a night letting the dough rise and fall, slowly sautéing onions and fennel over low heat until they caramelized. I rolled the dough out on my dining room table, my afterthought of a kitchen limiting the counter space. It wasn’t until then I realized I’d made a mistake. I’d picked up whole-wheat flour. The khaki dough looked entirely wrong in the pan, and made worse by the beautiful onions and fennel I nestled on top of it. But, determined and optimistic I might happen on a lucky accident, I put it in to bake.

An hour later, I pulled out the tart. I let it cool, the wafting steam carrying the sour wheat germ laden flavors of the crust battling the sweet sugars in the fennel. I cut a corner and took a bite. My jaw worked twice before I gave up trying to convince myself it was good at all. This was inedible. But before tipping the entire mess into the trash, I salvaged the fennel, onion and prosciutto to see if inspiration might strike the next day.

Even more satisfying than an out-and out failure is those rare moments of culinary spark where you sublimate a debacle into something even tastier than you anticipated in the first place. Once I tore a recipe out of Cook’s Illustrated for a rosemary-bacon tomato sauce, but after the sauce was in the pan, realized that the tomatoes were scant and of questionable quality. But the bacon was in the pan and the pasta was cooking. Answer? I mixed the pasta and bacon together, cracked an egg and some fresh pepper into the pot and called it Carbonara. And eggs came to the rescue again.

The day after The Terrible Tart, I stirred a couple of eggs into the fennel and onion mixture and cooked it up slowly on the stove. Pushing at the sides of the pan, then browning it in the oven for a moment, I ended up with a dish that hovered somewhere between a fritatta and a latka. The prosciutto made it savory and a side of toast made it divine. Without meaning to, I’d come up with a fine, fine brunch.

Unwilling to let a bad thing go, I bought the right flour and made the tart I’d intended. It was good. Damn good. A fine yeasty dough supporting a waning summer’s best ingredients. I impressed myself. Still, if pressed to make just one of these dishes again, I think the fritatta wins.


Parents' Weekend, Part 2. sketches of dim sum

Pop, Morgan made the trip out to Ton Kieng for a Dim Sum lunch. Sketches and images follow.

I like the luck of dim sum. The small plates. The mystery. I like trying things I’ve never had before, returning to dishes I’ve forgotten and finding the familiar flavors I’ve come to expect. The little, non-commital tastes encourage trial, and even if you can’t fully understand what the lady has under those steaming tin containers, if it looks good, it just might be. We tried silken tofu nests each with a tender shrimp centerpiece. A whole host of steamed dumplings and shu mai. There was a long noodle folded over and back on itself with morsels of BBQ’d pork nestled in the pockets of soft dough. Vibrant green pea shoots brightened the table and of course, every time the steamed pork bao lady came by, we took her up on her goods.

I wonder about when the dim sum servers get their assignments for the day. Does the girl who picks the ‘chicken feet’ cart sigh sadly, knowing that she’s going to be turned down again and again? Or does the girl who proffers steamed baos anticipate her feet aching at the end of her shift, knowing that she’ll have the most popular item.

I like the pace of the meal, that you start right away with no attention to menus or what you’re in the mood for. You’re in the mood for whatever’s in front of you, and maybe something you’ve never heard of before.

Whenever I go, I try to have something new. Push myself beyond the baos and shu mai and anything that contains BBQ pork. A woman came by and offered little doughy disks in shattered English. Before the guys could wave her off, I said yes, and brought them in front of me. I broke open the warm stretchy dough to reveal a bright yellow custard inside. It was just like mochi, but warm and immensely comforting. Rice pastry pulling across warm vanilla custard. I tried and I tried to share my giddy revelation with the guys, but the brother was in pork bun bliss and pop wasn’t feeling the want for sweet. It always makes me a little sad when I have a moment of gustatory excitement that try as I might, I can’t share with the people I’m with. Really, after all the times I’ve forced bites of this or that on them, they should know better.

I’m still craving those custard things, but I know that if I return to Tom Kieng anytime soon, I’ll try and fail at ordering them. That they won’t have them that day, or that I’ve missed the description entirely. It’s fine. Each time is adventure and next time I might discover something even better.


CSA interlude

The cornucopia of produce continues to spill into my fridge every week, and I'm struggling to keep up. I was hoping that all the good raw goods would inspire me to try new things, and it has once in awhile. And then there's nights like last night, where in anticipation of another greengrocer's delivery, I boiled, roasted and prepped everything I had. There was a bit of ingenuity too:

Western salad rolls: organic fennel and basil with shrimp and vermicelli salad rolls with a lemon-garlic dipping sauce. Eastern style meets western flavors

Reconstructed caprese: Roasted white beets with burratta mozzerella, crisped basil leaves and a balsamic glaze. I had this for lunch and, had there been a prize for Best Lunch of the Office, I would have won.

Here's the rundown of the rest:

Four ears of fresh corn: boiled and de-cobbed. Destined for salads. Maybe soup.
Three red peppers: eaten raw. like sushi.
yukon potatoes: roasted with shallots and mashed. This recipe is now perfected.
Broccoli: steamed and doused with lemon butter
lemons: in the butter above., also in an failed aioli (faioli?) that went alongside the salad rolls
Romaine: tossed in a kick-ass salad last week with feta, red peppers, cucumber, olives and garbanzos. Organic lettuces are ridiculous.

All I have left to tackle is the cantaloupe and a half waiting for me in my fridge. I've been tossing around the idea of making a chilled cantaloupe soup with basil oil and crispy procioutto, but last night my mini-prep chopper thing wouldn't co-operate.

On the block this week:
red and yellow peppers
red leaf lettuce
romaine lettuce
yukon potatoes

Also picked up some grass-fed organic chuck to keep the grass-fed organic short ribs in my freezer company.

recipes welcome....

Parents' Weekend, Part 1. All the tea in China

When I was a visitor to San Francisco, I’d always end up hitting the Tourist Triptych: North Beach, Union Square and Chinatown. I would marvel at how close all these things were to one another, get confused with the labyrinthine streets, drift from one trapping to another. I’d end up walking to the point where I started shopping for new shoes to give my feet some relief, meandering hungry and pained until I finally gave in to a steamed pork bao at any random dim sum place or a scoop of gelato at a corner café. As a resident, I’ve moved beyond that experience of the city. If I want dim sum, I head to clement. If I want Italian, I’ll head to any one of the pasta joints around the city. I’ll drop by Union Square a couple times a month for a shopping trip, but I do it cursing and quickly passing all the tourists eating up the sidewalk and mindlessly ogling at the streetcars.

When my mother and brother came to town for marathon weekend, I hoped that we’d be able to avoid the Triptych. Cumulatively, my family has put in a lot of time to the city, and I didn’t think they’d want to be such tourists in the town. Besides, it was race weekend, and I was supposed to be hydrating, carbo-loading and resting. So climbing the steepest streets in the city in pursuit of a souvenir wasn’t on my list of pre-training good things to do. I wasn’t the happiest camper to hear that after I picked up my race packet, we’d be meeting up in some tea shop in Chinatown.

When I walked in, I still had quite a skeptical look on my face. My mom, cousin and brother seemed really into it. Sucked in by the animated young host behind the counter. He brewed and poured tea after tea, going through his shtick and sure, why fight it, I had him set me up with a cup. Tea was water and I did have to hydrate, after all.

And then it happened. Maybe around the third cup, where I was comparing the subtle tannins of the jasmine tea with the first black tea he poured, or when I discovered I knew a little more about white tea than I thought, I found myself actually having a good time. I was learning, I was tasting, I was laughing. I wanted to find a green tea I really liked, and before I knew it, I was exchanging restaurant recommendations with the guy behind the counter and chatting up the family next to us.

We tasted over a dozen teas, learned how to brew them for flavor, had our friend behind the counter mete out small packages of us to take home and recommend the best teapots, strainers and cups. Before long, each of us had a full set-up to take home and continue the tea-stravaganza any time.

Where usually a tourist experience is spent wandering and observing, and not really understanding, we had the opportunity to dig deep, to drill down into one central aspect of the culture. To take a daily ritual and take it home with us. Instead of postcards and pagodas, we got to have a real, genuine experience. I was surprised, I really was. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ll wander into when you’re a tourist in your own town.


Summer Produce: My first CSA box

Since I’ve been in the city, I’ve haven’t found a farmer’s market that works for me. The ferry market plaza, initially a revelation of gustatory bliss now smacks of tourist trappings and high prices. Besides, getting there on a Saturday is a bitch. The civic center market is more of a culture shocking experience than I can handle on a regular basis. It reminds me of the first time I tried to get dim sum in Chinatown, where it wasn’t your place in line but the conviction with which you stepped up to the counter that got you service. The civic center market has that same feeling but with the added charm of the smell of bum pee. This leaves the Alemany Market which I haven’t yet visited, mostly because it feels counterintuitive to have to drive my car so far to get sustainable, local produce.

So, inspired by my friend over at spare change, I looked into a CSA program I could get into. The biggest Community Supported Agriculture group seems to be Organic Express, which delivers a box of assorted produce to your door. Convenient, yes, but since I’m never home, it doesn’t work for me. I found something even better. With Eating with the Seasons I get to pick up my produce really close to where I work. Becky sends me an email, I get to choose the items I want. 8 items for $20. Then come Wednesday, I drop by a little house in Menlo Park, and there on the porch is a grocery bag with my name on it, filled to the brim with the local, organic produce I’ve asked for. If I’ve opted for grass-fed beef or farm-fresh eggs, they’re in the cooler nearby.

There’s quite a bit of pressure with a CSA. $20 gets you a lot of produce. A lot of produce that’s been raised well and picked at the right time and it’s there, perfect, and begging for you to enjoy it. And I open my fridge to see this cornucopia, this summer bounty and I just don’t know what to do with it. I want to give it the credit it’s due. I pore over current magazines, convinced they’ll give me some guidance on what to do with what’s in season. I turn to cookbooks, my recipe binder, think about going simple, make lists. I’m paralyzed with indecision. Overwhelmed. Finally last night, a full five days after I picked up the goods, I roll up my sleeves and get cooking. Here’s what I got and what I did:

1 pound of green beans: washed, rinsed and snacked on raw while cooking. Mr. Kitty got a hold of one and batted it around for an hour. The rest were blanched and tossed with a fresh gremolata of parsley, garlic and lemon zest. I’ve made better things before.

1 bunch spinach: found its way into a stir fry of draper farms chicken breast, garlic and ginger, served over couscous for a nice lunch.

Corn: boiled straight, cut off the cob and mixed with red peppers (from the box) for a side slaw. Simple and really, really good.

Red Pepper: one in the salad above, one cut into matchsticks and drizzled with a damn good balsamic, two have yet to meet their fate.

Yukon gold potatoes: In my family, mashed potatoes had always held a place of reverence. Sunny’s Mashed Potatoes were the stuff of legend and as such, I always thought there was something tricky to them. About three months ago, I dispelled this myth by making my own. Oh. My. God. So easy. So good. So nothing to ‘em. Half the potatoes were boiled then mashed with Strauss Valley organic cream and butter. The other half were roasted alongside a shallot. I thought to eat them as is, but then inspiration struck and I gave the whole lot the mashed treatment. Roasted Yukons, then mashed in a bowl with a splash of cream and a pat of butter with a shallot in there for good measure. So damn good. Proud of this one.

A pint of strawberries were cut up and mixed in with the last of some Bi-Rite creamery mint chip ice cream. This is one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life.

There’s still some broccoli that’s fated to be paired with the grass-fed beef I’m getting in my next order. I’m going to give it the Chinese Takeout Food treatment and have it the next day for lunch.

Last in the box were some apricots which just didn’t do it for me. Fresh apricots rarely do. The mealy texture upstages any good flavor. I thought about relegating them to a quick bread, but summer, even in San Francisco, isn’t too conducive to baking. I feel bad about throwing them away, but glad that I made the most of my first CSA box.

It’s a nice way to keep in touch with the season, especially since the San Francisco weather can keep you cut off from what time of year it is. For the last few weeks, I’ve been longing for a real summer, with nights still warmed by the heat of the day, for a car a little too hot when you first get in it, but something still comforting about the sauna-like heat, if just for a second. I’ve missed the smell of a sun-baked sidewalk freshly washed with water from a garden hose, the sound of ice cream trucks and invitations to backyard BBQs. But even though it doesn’t feel so much like summer, with my new produce source, I can at least cook like it is.

Next week I’ve requested spinach, basil, shallots, onion, cucumber, lemons, strawberries, and plums. Recipe ideas welcome.


Tell Philip I sent you

The outside of the Java House doesn’t look like much. It sits next to the docks, tucked between a kayak rental shop and the looming shadow of the ballpark. The inside doesn’t offer much more. A busy grill, a cooler of drinks, and a menu on the wall that offers all the basics by grill or fryer. You know the joint. Nothing jumps out. But then maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of another order, like I did. And it seals it. You know what you’re getting even before the words come out of your mouth. Bacon Cheeseburger. With fries. And a beer.

The place has a way of making you feel like a tourist and a local at the same time. You could be on vacation anywhere from Hermosa Beach to Astoria and find a place just like it. Or, like a lot of regulars, just happened down to the docks for a quick lunch. And it seems like no matter when you’re there, Phillip, the owner will be there too. If he’s working he’ll grumble behind the register, short with his words and his patience. Or on his day off without the comfort of the counter, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself, like an ex-con newly released from a long-term sentence. In fact, if it wasn’t for his endearing wife and daughter softening his image a little, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that Philip might have served time. He clears tables and casually watches the day go by. He’ll visit the different tables, ask you your name and where you’re from. He’ll flirt with the ladies and talk baseball with the guys. A sign on the register answers any question about his loyalty. “Osama bin Laden is a Dodgers Fan. Go Giants.” With the Java House a foul ball’s throw away from the ballpark, this isn’t too much of a shock. When Philip comes by my table, I do let him know I’m from L.A. I don’t let him know I follow the game.

The simplicity of the place belies the quality of the food. You don’t see the crisp romaine coming. That isn’t to say the food isn’t dead simple. It is. But the quality is top-notch. With one bite you’re taken back to a camp cookout, a $15 burger served on white tablecloth, and any seaside shack you’ve ever chanced on at any coast, anywhere. This is a burger you’ll crave again.

The food takes a little bit longer than you think a short-order should, but it’s worth the wait. And something happens while you’re waiting for the bacon to crisp, for the cheese to melt over a perfectly-cooked patty on a warm-toasty bun. Sitting on the embarcadero in a slice of sunshine blissfully free of any wind, you hear the dockside sounds of seagulls and bells, watch the methodical chores of boatkeeping, and an hour passes like an afternoon vacation in any coastside town. You drag your feet to leave, wanting to hold on to that vacation feeling just a little longer before you pull yourself away from the weathered picnic table and back to the workday week.


nabeyaki bliss

There are just a few things I crave when I catch a cold. Orange juice. Large bottles of water. Ample time with television, a cat and a duvet. And when it comes to food, there is only one thing that can cure me. Nabeyaki udon. Since the sniffling started on Sunday, I've had three bowls from three different places. The best comes from Sanmi, a little gem around the corner from me on Geary. Savory, deeply flavored broth, perfectly cooked thick udon noodles, assorted fresh mushrooms, silky tofu, tender bites of chicken, soup greens and one adoringly poached egg. Nabeyaki udon has everything. It's comforting and warm, protein and vitamin rich, and it just tastes so damn good. And as an added bonus, you get a little sidecar of shrimp tempura to slough away anything left of a scratchy throat. Plain chicken soup has got nothing on this.


Fair Enough

We approached the Marin County Fair with wild gastronomic abandon. Sure, there was the rouse of a lure of seeing Pat Benatar live, but our intentions were as pure as any could be at a county fair on a Monday. We were there to eat, and I had great deep-fried visions of all manners of food unceremoniously impaled on a stick.

I should know better than to eat food on a stick. I really like the idea of it, the kitsch factor, the portability. But there’s a huge problem I have. It’s the stick. Creeps me out. Popsicle sticks, even the mere thought one touching my teeth gives me uncontrollable chills. For me, eating anything that’s been stuck through with any wooden implement is a challenge. I’m in the clear for the first third, but then it becomes and awkward dance of avoiding taking a bite where my teeth meet wood. My brother and I discovered we shared this particular quirk when we were tasting some ice cream and presented with wooden spoons. We alternately shuddered just looking at them (in fact, if he’s reading this now, my bet is his shoulders have shook a few times). I suspect some common tongue depressor trauma, but that’s yet to be confirmed.

We started simple. Just a corn dog. A sign on the window attempted to assuage our non-existent worry by proclaiming “Guilt Free Corn Dogs. 100% trans-fat free.” Because, you know, when I’m eating at the fair, it’s my health I’m concerned about.

We continued walking around the perimeter of the fair, really trying to gauge our options. Once we realized just how limited they were, the Eggroll on a Stick we had summarily dismissed earlier was called into consideration. It was fried. It was on a stick. We ordered one. Also in the order was a trio of coconut-fried shrimp. Three little mealy crustaceans run through with a skewer, deep-fried and served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce.

(As an aside, I know that I have no business going into the nuances of fair food. This is food that isn’t nuanced. It’s overt. That being said, the coconut flavor was a toasty surprise on the shrimp. Ok. Done.)

We took a break from the tour of gastronomic disappointment and wandered back to the Midway to survey the crowd, or to see if there was some outlying Deep Fried Oreo stand we had overlooked. There wasn’t, and in an effort to submit to the full fair experience, we lined up for the Ferris Wheel.

Oh, and do you have any idea how fucking scary the Ferris wheel is? I had always dismissed the Ferris Wheel as a nothing ride, but oh no. It’s deceptive in its placidity, its old-fashioned charm. The delightful Ferris Wheel! Sepia-toned images of the World’s Fair and all that. What, with the jerking and rocking in fits and starts, it just seems that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for one of the little cars to fall off, or for years of awkward bumping and swaying for the bolts to finally come loose and the whole thing would roll off the pins. We looked on at the teenagers lining up for the Ring of Fire, a circular track tipped on its edge, the whole point of the ride being that you go upside-down. It’s as if you took the scariest part of one roller coaster and did it over and over again. Coaster a la carte. I’ll pass.

After a brief reunion with solid ground we took a ride on the scrambler, a low-lying demonstration of the dizzying powers of centrifugal force. Our hero in line was the one teen who climbed into a car between two hot girls, so that no matter which way the scrambler scrambled, he was going to be pressed up against one. Nicely played, kiddo.

After watching the fair crowd filter past the line, and the more we watched, the less we felt inclined to continue the deep-fried frenzy. We were lined up not far from the “Tubs of Fun” game, which seemed to describe the fair clientele more than the carnival amusement.

It had been an altogether wholesome night, Ferris Wheels and innocent flirting, simple foods and simpler pleasures. It’s what summer nights are made of, hours that take their time to pass by, faces lit up by fireworks and the blinking lights of the midway. We ended our fair food tour just as simply, bypassing grotesque funnel cakes heavily laden with all syrups chocolaty and cherry and instead opting for a caramel apple. With nuts. Sweet. Simple. And so satisfying.

For more fair pics, including some really unfortunate food photography, go here: http://flickr.com/photos/wordstern/tags/marincountyfair/


ritual coffee cupping

Quick on the heels of a return to coffee, I found myself with an opportunity to go to an actual coffee cupping yesterday. A coffee cupping is a slow, methodical, multi-step process designed to showcase a coffee at its best. You engage with the bean at every level. Whole, ground, wet, broken and finally steeped and ready for slurping. We tasted five coffees side-by-side, suggested tasting notes that ran the gamut from dark chocolate and walnuts to curry, tamarind and Mexican candy. The beans on the block were (from left to right for those keeping score at home: Bolivia cararavi, Guatemala Palo Alto Azul, Brasil Boa Sorte Peaberry, Kenya Gethumbwini and Tanzania AA. I’ve been favoring Kenya coffees lately, and this was no different. With its bright acids and complex flavor profile, the K.G. got my star of approval.


break for lunch

Shoot days were the best. My dad traded his standard Hawaiian shirt for a mechanic’s work shirt with “smitty” stitched on the patch. He donned a belt heavy with light meters and mysterious tools. Other men walked around the set, their waists weighted with rolls of a thousand different kinds of tape. There was a lot of waiting. There was a lot of seemingly nothing happening, but no matter, my dad was part of all of it. Even though no one seemed to do anything, I felt a little special walking around as The Director’s Daughter. I’d pass the time in the on-set school, or watching the monitors in those few seconds a day where people actually seemed to be doing something. Pouring a soda or moving a doll from here to here or just sitting and saying the same things over and over. I could never understand the minutia of it. The differences from take to take.

Truth was, it wasn’t the filmmaking or the lights or the snap of the slate that enthralled me. No, for me, living a life of restricted food and hearing the phrase, “are you sure you want to eat that” rather than “clean your plate,” it was the craft service table that made the day special. An unimaginable array of any food you could ever want, magically refreshed through the day. Bagels and donuts in the morning, chips and candy in the afternoon and the ever-present bowls of m&ms, dry-roasted peanuts and a tub of my eternal weakness, red vines. In fact, when I was studying abroad in Russia, I didn’t ask my mom to bring my favorite shampoo or macaroni and cheese like the other students. All I wanted was red vines.

So there I’d be, on set, drawn to this table throughout the day. I’d find excuses to make my way there, ensure that every route to track down my father or whomever he had tapped to look after me ran me by the table to pick up a small handful of pretzels or to dig another root beer out of the icy depths of the well-stocked cooler.

So, it’s come around again, like everything tends to. I was on set today for a shoot of my own and found myself longing for the craft service. It gives you something to do between takes, while they’re reloading tapes, and for all those moments when I never understood what was happening. The set today that was half-ass at best. No craft service to speak of. Nothing at all. The talent asked for water and there was none. I overheard that the studio would keep a tally of what we went through in the fridge, like a low-brow mini-bar. It was sad.

It made me long for the old-school days, for the way it was done right. We’ve got another day of shooting tomorrow and even though it would strike everyone as odd, I have half a mind to hit Costco on the way in for some dry-roasted peanuts, some m&ms and, of course, a tub of red vines. I don’t think it’s a real shoot without them.


coco 500 gets more props

About once a week I go to coco 500 for a cheeseburger. Maybe it's once every two weeks. Either way, I've become a little bit of a regular. I didn't even realize it until the guy behind the bar asked, "Remind me how you like your burger cooked again?" As if it was his fault for not remembering the indiosyncrasies of an regular order. And then I noticed that the host usually smiles a little brighter when I walk in, or, like today, touches my arm when I'm leaving. It's sweet.

So even though I had quickly prepped a very nice lunch for myself (belgian endive with smoked salmon and lemon dressing), it was 12:30 and I wanted a burger. Off to coco. I sat down to the bar, and the guy there (I've got to learn his name), placed the menu in front of me with a raised eyebrow. "Yes, I'm getting the burger," I said, "but I always like to look at what else you guys have going on." Today there was a nice looking ricotta ravioli with rapini, lemon and garlic. Still I went for the burger.

But I did make a slight variation from the norm. Consistent with my new sparkling water affinity, I asked for a bottle. I couldn't really mask my excitement when I was presented with a bottle of Badoit!!! And I tryed to conceal my glee, I really did. Because how can you explain to any reasonable person why you'd get so damn giddy over a bottle of water. Well, I knew one person who would delight in the discovery, so I called noneifbysea to leave him a lunchtime message.

Just then, some coworkers walked in and invited me to join them. I brought over my treasured bubbles and again, couldn't conceal my excitement. "I know, " I explained, "It's ridiculous. It's just water, but I don't know, it-"

"-it makes you happy," one of them concluded."

"Yeah, " I conceded. "It does."


tiny bubbles

There are times, more often than I’d like to concede, where I am utterly mockworthy in the way that David Rakoff perfects in his collection, “Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems." This is one of those instances.

Ok. I’ll admit it. I have a problem. I’m addicted to bubbly water. That’s right. Me. I’ve always eschewed it for smoother, easier still water, but these days, I can’t quit carbonation. I used to find all those bubbles too filling, but now, well, my desk is punctuated with dead soldiers, still wearing their crystal geyser labels proudly. Every night the cleaning crew sweeps them away, but I’ve been keeping tabs on my consumption by compulsively stacking the bottle tops into little towers like poker chips.

I had to do something because since I read The Omnivoure’s Dilemna last summer, I rarely can enjoy soda. All of a sudden, I’m acutely aware of the imperial corn machine that contributes to each and every can. And diet sodas scare the crap out of me. If I come across a Mexican Coke, I’m all over it. In fact, over Passover, there were some Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda’s in the Kosher-for-Passover section of the Safeway. Kosher-for-Passover means corn syrup free, since corn is one of the no-can-eats during the festival. I picked up a six-pack, and it wasn’t until I got home to see that the shelves had seemingly been mis-stocked. There are still five left in my fridge. I’m not sure what to do with them.

And it gets worse. I remember late last summer when I was introduced to Badoit, a French sparkling water of the utmost superiority. Delicate bubbles dance across the palate and refresh with little more than a whisper. You can’t find the stuff anywhere. And when you do, it’s generally too prohibitively expensive to make a habit out of it. So, I’m here, throwing back one crystal geyser after another. I make do.

Still water disgusts me now. It just sits there, stagnant, flaccid, pervasively uninteresting. Except when it’s really cold and I’ve been working out. Then I can deal.

morning unbroken

Somehow, I’ve become a morning person. I’m not sure how it happened. I’ll get into work at 9:30 and realize I’ve already been awake over three hours, which seems impossible. See, there was a long, long time where I’d set my alarm not a minute too early to accommodate a shower, a quick email check, and little else. On the way to work, I’d pick up a walnut roll from Ken’s and a coffee from Peet’s and spend the first billable hours of the day tabbing through my daily web pages.

Then I began keeping up with someone else’s schedule, and started to enjoy a leisurely ritual of toasting two bagels while coffee was being made. We’d sit down at the table to sprinkle salt over homemade butter, trade urls like sections of the morning paper, and, providing the beans had co-operated, even poured a second cup.

When I left, I was intent on carrying on the morning ritual. In fact, gifted with a French Press, stainless steel thermos, measuring spoon and detailed directions to the best coffee in the Bay Area, I was obligated. And so I did. For months I’d get up early enough to allow for the boiling of the water, to pour it and let it steep for a minute before churning the grounds and letting them soak for exactly three minutes more before depressing the plunger. In these crucial four minutes there’s just time to cut, toast and butter a bagel, shake and pour the cream, set the table and, if the dance is timed just right, stuff Mr. Kitty’s morning pills into Pill Pockets and medicate the old man for the day.

But as I fell into a routine of a.m. spinning classes or late nights out, my breakfast got cut short. In the morning, every minute is slightly more urgent than the last. To sit down to breakfast at 7:56 seems luxurious, while if I settle in at 8:05, I'm going to be picking up the pace to run for the bus. I started brewing tea and only had time to finish half a cup. I’d grab a juice on the way back from the gym and scarf down a clif bar once I settled into my desk. Well, this week, I’ve decided to bring breakfast back.

Weekends are still quiet and I’ve gotten into the habit of sunny Mission Sundays where I procure provisions for the week. First I head down to Ritual to chat up the baristas, determine my coffee for the week, and get a half pound ground for French Press. I delight in the internal rhyme scheme of that phrase, every time. This week, it’s Peaberry Kenya Gethumbwini.

Next stop is Bi-Rite for a thick glass bottle of Strauss half-n-half, a pint of Bi-Rite’s ice cream (post to come), and whatever seasonal, organic produce calls to me. I’ll pick up a few bagels Monday morning on my way back from the gym at Cal-Mart. They get theirs from House of Bagels, a local bagelry, and when they’re fresh (like on Monday mornings) they do just fine.

The morning dance is back. My timing is impeccable, though even if my measuring sometimes isn’t. The coffee isn’t as good as when someone else was making it for me, and I usually pour a little too much cream into the pitcher. The cat seems to know. He’ll offer a few more headbutts while I’m cleaning up, waiting for that moment when I’ll pour the extra in a dish for him. He’s getting quite a sense of entitlement about it.


nearly forgotten my login

I know. it's been far too long.

And yes, it's the inevitable, "Sorry it's been so long since I posted" post. But, gastronomically-speaking, I've been in something of a rut. The morning brings a bagel with butter and tea with sugar. Lunch is limited by the sparse offerings of deep, deep SOMA. And by the time I fight the commute home, the prospect of deciding, shopping, and cooking is a little too daunting. Too many nights of pasta with scallops and peas.

It's not like I'm not going out, I do. Monday night was Nopa, where we nibbled on delicate salmon carpaccio, a fresh salad of shaved fennel, radishes and frisee, followed by a flatbread of house-smoked bacon, spring onions and cumin yogurt. All of it was great, fresh, inspired, simple. Oh, and there were fries too. Also fantastic.

But I think I'm still overwhelmed by the food culture here. There's too much of it. Too much to discover, and I don't know where to start. So I don't. I haven't found a farmer's market that fits. I think I might have missed spring produce. I will. I want to. And now, after this sad little post. I think I've got to.

More to come. Soon.


what'll it be?

It’s been a long search, but I think I’ve found my drink.

It started with easy glasses of merlots in college or shots of vodka stinging with notes of jet fuel and ice.

I evolved into an affected post-grad sophistication of cosmos and the occasional apple martini. I’m still a little ashamed, though I find some redemption in that I’ve never done a keg stand or a body shot, and that I’ve never even considered a red bull and anything.

And then came the era of ampersands. Gin & tonic. Vodka & Cranberry. 7&7. And when I was feeling dirty, jack & coke. Made even better with a side of tater tots, mini corndogs and camel lights. Just once a year. Maybe twice.

But after years of uncertainty at the bar, I’ve found my drink: A dirty martini. Very dirty. With Hendricks.

It’s strong, but classy. That briny salt offsets a bone-chilling cold gin in a something of an elegant balance. Well, elegance with just a hint of an edge. A dash of punk rock. An eyebrow raised. Little ice crystals floating on top, cloudy and a bit bruised, a little rough around the edges, yet still smacking clean. Clear. Oh, and to order it The fact that it’s one of the sexiest damn drinks to order doesn’t hurt much either. Very dirty indeed.



My good friend, formerly known as noneifbysea has tagged me to divulge five things about myself you might not know. Here goes:

1. I have a bad, bad television habit.
I can't quit it, and I go through great lengths to justify my behavior, especially when it comes to a certain reality television show that rhymes with America's Next Top Model. It saddens me.

2. I have a weakness for quiz shows.
Wait, wait don't tell me and jeopardy make me very, very happy. I live for that smug feeling I get when I get the final jeopardy answer right and none of the contestants do. Ah, satisfying.

3. fruit hang-ups
I don't like fruit cut up by other people. Fruit salad, samples at the farmer's market, breakfast garnish. You name it. It creeps me out. As do red grapes. They seem dirty.

4. my favorite word
is murmur

5. I sing. All the time.
Jazz standards, mostly. As of late, it's "would you like to swing on a star," though "misty," "night and day," and "my reverie" are probably often overheard by my neighbors and neighboring cars too.


coffee pride

I'm sitting at Ritual, as is my Sunday ritual. I have a half pound of Guatemala el injertal freshly ground and waiting for me. The guy behing the counter asked what I got this week, and I told him. "You always make good choices," he said. I didn't even know he was keeping track, or that he remembered me, as, to be honest, I didn't remember him.

"You liked the Rwana," he said.
"Yeah. I did. I tried the, what was it, the chamberi last week, and I don't know, it put me a little on edge, more jittery."
"It's a light roast, so there's more caffiene in it, "He explained."

It's not a bad time here. Not bad at all.

food in flight

There’s nothing new to discover on a plane. It’s the same upholstery, the same signage, the same smile-frozen flight attendants. The beverage service offers a nice break from the awkward shuffle from book to ipod to computer to magazine. Though I drink it nowhere else, I’m compelled to get a ginger ale on the plane. Seems to make sense. Like root beer with pizza.

And all I’m expecting to go with my soda is one hermetically sealed snack mix. But, it seems United is tentatively stepping up to confront the no-food-on-the-plane criticism by offering an assortment of snack boxes for $5 a apiece, the contents of which are located on page 197 of the in-flight magazine.

With a per diem to burn, I reached unabashedly into the seat pocket in front of me and swiftly flipped the magazine to page 197. I studied the contents of each box carefully, weighing one option against the other. Yes, I am in the mood for lavosh crackers, but that mini-toblerone does sound really good. What’s the trade-off, a latte candy? What is that? Ok, this one I’m writing off, just because it seems too junk foody- aloutte cheese spread, crackers, milano cookies. No, if I was feeling indulgent, I’d go there. This one, way too 7-11. Meaty steak bites? Tortilla chips, salsa, trail mix. Wait a minute. If I could just ignore the steak bites, I think I could get behind this. They are so compiled without rhyme or reason that I look to the titles to guide me in their thinking;

Beef bites, baked chedder cheese snacks, stoned classics all-natural blue tortilla chips, salsa, honey coated trail mix, mrs field’s milk chocolate chip cookie.
For this one the people who put this together got their nephew really stoned, armed him with $10 and pushed him inside a 7-11 and whatever he got, went into the quick-pick.

Rite Bite
One can lemon pepper tuna, organic crackers, pita chips, Wild Garden Hummus, gouda cheese slice, newman’s own organic raisins, mini-toblerone.
Big organic thanks you for the nod, United. It’s bad you’ve been driving your knees into my back for the last three hours. But now I have to smell you eating tuna for the next one? Have the united people ever been in an office before?

lavosh crackers, white chedder, sunspread (whatever that is), peach applesauce, latte candy. I can’t for the life of me figure out what the organizing principle of the jumpstart might be. Maybe this is the high carb/ intense protein combination? Or maybe it’s in reference to the coffee candy? Either way, why do you want to get all jumpstarted when you’re just going to sit in a tube for another few hours.

Hormel hard salami bites, rondel cheese spread, venus stoned wheat crackers, applesauce (noted as unsweetened, for no logical reason) chips, milano cookies

This I though of as the junk food one, what with the Hormel and the milano cookies. But then the whole unsweetened applesauce is thrown in and I’m not sure what to make of it. I certainly don’t think it’s a meal. Mini or otherwise.

Outbound, I choose the Quick Pick. On the way back, the Rite Bite. I guess I’m drawn to the rhyme scheme. With both, I pick and choose the most edible pieces, looking wistfully at the stranger’s selection next to me, wondering if it would be too bold to ask to trade my Newman’s Own Organic Raisins for his stoned classics all natural tortilla chips. I stare too long. He hurriedly packs up his food and dons an eye mask to feign sleep while I wonder if I should have chosen the Mini-Meal instead.


what I like

I don’t know a lot about art. I haven’t studied it, I don’t often go to museums and when I do, I don’t really know what I’m looking for. And though I’m loathe to admit it, though I myself cringe when I hear other philistines say it: I know what I like. It sounds so perfectly inane, so uninformed, so ignorant. And it is. I admittedly lack the vocabulary, the study, everything else to explain why I seem to have a visceral reaction to something on the wall. Makes me want it on my own, want to look at it all the time, want to know the story behind the image.

The same is true with me with wine and coffee. I don’t know why I like something, but when it’s good, I’m going to pour myself another. The cat won’t get any leftover cream from what I’ve allotted a pot. I might feel that third glass of wine in the morning. I make my choices based on some rudimentary knowledge, a handful of mnemonics and loose associations. I’m mostly driven by instinct, and usually it pays off.

In the morning it’s Rwanda coffee. That is, coffee I pick up from Ritual on Valencia, ground for the French press I employ in the morning with the directions of a brewing guide from Stumptown in Portland. The only way I remember the coffee I like is that I know I feel oddly conflicted about it. Rwanda. There’s bad things happening there. Where does this coffee really come from? Am I somehow supporting genocide with my coffee? I go to Ritual every Sunday, remind myself that some question will go up, and I’ll remember it’s not the Kenya I like. If there was a Darfur blend available, my mnemonic would fail and I buy that one.

At night, I’ve been pouring Cotes du Rhone. I know. I know I’m supposed to list vintages and geography and everything and anything else I’m supposed to know. But I don’t know it. I can’t commit those things to memory, even though I’m damn good at Trivial Pursuit and I often have the chance to feel a palpable sense of pride when I get the final Jeopardy clue and the actual contestants on TV miss it.

I’m not sure how to start learning. I always thought I would learn by exposure, by osmosis. But it isn’t taking. For now, I’m relying on instinct, because, well, I know what I like.


beautiful disaster

In Portland, when I was at a loss for what to have for dinner, I always knew I could count on a lovely, complementary combination: chicken satay and salad rolls. In my last few months in town, I began an informal survey of sorts, finding the best skewered chicken, the freshest, snappiest salad rolls and a peanut sauce that the two handheld delights would share. Since moving here, I’ve found one great satay specimen after another, but the salad rolls, well, they have been a little more elusive. So I decided to try my own hand at them.

Just three blocks to me is another country. I’m even more of a minority there in this already minority-majority city. At 5’3, I’m tall and speaking only English, Russian and Spanish, I can’t understand a word. From what I understand Clement St is the real Chinatown of San Francisco. Monterey Park to Los Angeles’ downtown pagodas and wishing fountains.

Shopping there is a bit of an adventure. I feel like I’m taking a risk by buying shrimp that aren’t protected behind a glass case, or that I’m making the wrong choice of one kind of rice noodle from an infinite array. I’m all for choice in the marketplace, but I’ll never understand why there is an entire row dedicated solely to two kinds of noodle: rice and wheat.

I finally pulled myself away from the very, very exciting candy aisle at the market there (the big one on 8th and Clement) where so many cute cartoons beckoned me to try any and every candy there. With a big bag of fresh ingredients ($15.80!), I headed home.

It didn’t take me too long into the prep work to realize why I’ve been so hesitant to really do some hard-core cooking in my kitchen. I thought it was just the electric stove with just one big burner that was holding me back, but it turns out there’s something else amiss. I have great granite counters. Four of them. Each about 1.5 feet wide going 3 feet back. Nowhere to just sit and cut and prep. This is a problem. Still, I kept on.

I made stations. One for the soaking, draining, cooking and draining of rice noodles, a place to pluck, rinse and spin the herbs, another spot doubled as a red-pepper chopping/ rice paper soaking station and then, finally the shrimp cooking in ginger and garlic on the stove.

It was an awkward dance made more awkward by an obese cat spurred by the smell of fresh shrimp to weave figure eights around my ankles.

Finally, with all the ingredients at the ready, I laid a sticky slippery round of rice paper on a plate, lined up two shrimp, then piled on thai basil, cilantro, mint, a couple sticks of red pepper, bean sprouts, and a healthy bunch of rice noodle. I delicately pulled, folded and plied the paper over and around the little heap. Flipped it over, and well, I had something. It was certainly not the most elegant salad roll, but I found something endearing in its lopsided looseness.

I’d make them again, and I’d do it soon. I have a fridge full of fresh ingredients, a few ideas on how to make them even better (mango shrimp rolls? Dash of lime? Jicama?). Inspiration has struck, even though my kitchen may not yet accommodate me.