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.