Archive for October, 2009

San Francisco’s Street Eats Scene

October 30, 2009

magic.curry.kartOkay, so I’m a little obsessed with street food right now. First it was Oakland. Then Sydney. Last night it was time to check out the sidewalk scene in my old stomping ground San Francisco.

It was the call of the Creme Brulee Cart that beckoned me across the Bay on a night when there was no crossable bridge. (Anyway, it’s probably more authentic to show up for cart food via public transit vs. driving into town, don’t you think?)

But the venue for the street eats forum struck me as incongruous at first. I mean, The Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco is hardly a renegade, fly-by-night kinda operation, is it? Turns out a division of the club, Inforum, is designed to appeal to 20- and 30-somethings and spark “provocative dialogue and debate.”

Who knew? While the crowd skewed older and the discussion was thoughtful if relatively tame, it revealed some intriguing details about pavement cuisine.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Charles Phan looked into opening a street cart in Oakland, got put off by all the bureaucracy, and opened a Vietnamese restaurant on Valencia Street in San Francisco instead. Good news for devotees of Slanted Door, Out the Door, and newcomer Heaven’s Dog.
  • News accounts have focused largely on the assumption that the street food trend is booming because the economy is not and so folks are in search of cheap eats. That’s only part of the story. The street cart scene is also growing because lots of talented cooks — some professionals, some not — are un- or underemployed.  Steven Gdula, the freelance food writer behind Gobba Gobba Hey, turned to making baked goods (gobs are portable round cakes filled with cream originally from Phili and a little like a whoopie pie) because the bottom fell out of the media biz.  The man behind the Magic Curry Kart, Brian Kimball, announced he’s being laid off today from his job as a psychotherapist.
  • There’s a mighty fine sense of community among many street cart folk. They often band together to share their goodies on the go and generate some buzz and bucks at one location and readily promote each other’s offerings. The Gobba Gobba guy started flogging a fellow cart pusher’s pickled beans in a story shared last night. (At this point in the conversation, a jar of beans emerged from the audience and was immediately passed around for a taste test.)
  • In perhaps the ultimate display of street solidarity, at the post-discussion sample fest down at 111 Minna Gallery, street vendors sported t-shirts and signs that read: Free Murat: Street Food is Not Terrorism, in support of their fallen comrade, Murat Celebi-Ariner, the vendor known on the street as Amuse Bouche, by all accounts a charming French guy who sold muffins at 24th Street BART in the morning.  Murat Celebi-Ariner, was picked up by Homeland Security’s ICE agency on a visa violation and his deportation is imminent, according to a visibly distraught Gdula, who counts Celebi-Ariner as an early supporter of his sweet street treats.
  • While not every food hawker is a master chef, some gastronomy professionals like Mission Street Food‘s Anthony Myint, clearly pride themselves on showcasing their  techniques and talents in nomadic restaurant settings. We’re talking fancy food way beyond what the typical taco truck dishes up.
  • For some gourmands on the go, it’s important to give back to the community they serve. Mission Street Food contributes all profits to programs feeding the hungry. Kimball plans on reaching out to low-income communities and disadvantaged kids.
  • It’s tough out on the street, dodging health inspectors and police (who mostly want to make sure that sidewalks aren’t blocked and who, true to stereotype, appreciate the baked goodies), dealing with permits, insurance, and health & safety concerns.
  • Without Twitter, Facebook, and food blogs, this beloved food movement probably wouldn’t have taken off so fast or grown so large. Every cart vendor on the panel was helped along, early on, by social media. The Creme Brulee guy has 8,575 Twitter followers and counting as I type.
  • This bricks-and-mortar-less business looks like it’s not going away any time soon: Each week a new cart starts making the rounds In San Francisco, says panel moderator Tamara Palmer, a contributor to SF Weekly‘s street cart coverage.
  • Sampling street eats in a crowded bar/gallery with other cart-crazed folks is a lot of fun. Loved the caramel ice-cream from relative newbie Smitten Ice Cream. The delicacy of the Brussels sprouts canape from Mission Street Food was divine. Curry and creme brulee brothers didn’t disappoint. And the Soul Cocina concoction, that a couple standing in line willingly shared with me (thanks you two fellow food lovers), sung with so many different flavors it made me happy. Exactly what was in those little paper holders? Dried lentils, puffed rice, tamarind, pickled veggies, maybe? Can anyone fill in the missing ingredients for me?

And the final take-away message for the night, words to live by: Follow your passion. Do what you’re good at. Do it well. Good things will follow.

Cookbook Giveaway: The Gastrokid Cookbook

October 29, 2009

This month’s book giveaway, The Gastrokid Cookbook: Feeding a Foodie Family in a Fast-Food World, comes to us from two dedicated foodie fathers who are determined to keep things interesting in the kitchen after children enter the dining picture.

Hugh Garvey, features editor at Bon Appetit, and Matthew Yeomans, who writes about eating for a slew of major magazines, have kids who eat blue cheese, grilled octopus, bibimbap, and anchovy-stuffed olives.

But don’t let that scare you away, Garvey’s son is a choosy chowhound and the recipes in these pages are simple, wholesome fare you could imagine getting on the table after a day’s work. Check out this Chicago Tribune review for more details.

I can vouch for Roasted Chickpea Bruschetta, Ravioli with Brown Butter, Sage & Parmesan, Green Beans & Cherry Tomatoes, and Violet’s Crumble. And the line notes will put you at ease, like this one accompanying the Parsley and Pine Nut Pasta Sauce recipe: “Here’s a quick sauce that came, as many of our recipes do, from necessity and an understocked pantry.” Can you relate?

The book includes 10 rules for reclaiming the family dinner table, including this one: Never call a kid a picky eater. If I had a quibble, it’s the name of the book that’s a tad off-putting to me, but that may be cultural. The dads coined the expression, which also graces their Web site, as a way to describe a child with gastronomy (the study of food) awareness, who is sometimes the offspring of foodie parents.

Where I grew up, “gastro” describes a stomach ailment (short for gastroenteritis), so a Gastrokid sounds to me like a child who has diarrhea. Sorry, guys, I don’t think I’m alone in this association.

But that’s a minor point. To win a copy of this otherwise appealing book submit your favorite, quick, easy-to-prepare, kid-approved, adult-friendly, delicious dinner dish by 10 p.m. PST on Thursday November 5 and I’ll choose an inspiring example as the prize winner. So start sifting through your best recipes.

Update: Thanks to all for sharing their go-to recipes for simple, satisfying suppers. Some great suggestions to add to your repertoire. The copy of Gastrokid goes to Cee for her Chickpea Curry (scroll the comment section for details), which sounds like a one-pot wonder. Cee: Send me your contact details and I’ll ship the book off to you.

Thanks to everyone for entering this contest and check back later this month to win a copy of the beautiful new cookbook My Nepenthe.

My Persimmon Problem

October 27, 2009

Photo by Flickr user mbgrigby used under the Creative Commons license.

So it’s orientation time for the sixth graders, a sweet and chatty bunch, at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, where I volunteer each week.

Last Friday, head kitchen teacher Esther Cook (yes, Ms. Cook is her real name) began by engaging the students in a food memory exercise.  As we mingled around the tables the talk turned to unusual fruits or vegetables we’ve tasted and one of the girls mentioned persimmons.

I resisted the urge to make a face. The very same day The Lemon Lady suggested a post on this seasonal fruit and I laughed to myself because, dear readers, I have a little persimmon problem.

Perhaps one of the biggest produce pushers on the planet, I don’t much care for this prolific fall fruit. In my kitchen, right near the beloved Wedgewood, hangs this gorgeous image of persimmons by my talented friend, artist Emily Payne.  I adore the print, and yet if I had to pick a fruit to munch on, persimmons would never make it on the list. Until now.

Esther joked that maybe I’d never eaten a persimmon at “just the right minute.” So, with that in mind, I decided it was time to get over my persimmon phobia.  I welcome all and any assistance in this matter. I suspect my first mistake is not eating this fruit at, well, just the right minute.

First, some research. Here’s what I learned:

Known to ancient Greeks as the fruit of the gods, two varieties of persimmons are commonly available in the U.S. Hachiya, originally from China, are bright orange globes that taste awfully astringent when not fully ripe, due to the high levels of tannin in the fruit.

They absolutely need to be soft and squishy before you even think about biting into one or you’ll pucker up and the bitterness could put you off persimmons for life. Trust me on this one.

A ripe Hachiya should feel a little like a water balloon, I’m told. Use the fruit within a few days, at most, of prime ripeness or the pulp will get too mushy. Okay, so this is a high maintenance kind of fruit; vigilance is called for. Got that?

(Conversely, if you want to speed up the ripening process, put a persimmon in a bag with an apple or banana. Or freeze for 24 hours and then use as you would a perfectly ripe persimmon.) When properly ripe, persimmon has been described as apricot-like, plum, or even pumpkin-esque in taste. The sweet pulp from ripe Hachiya persimmons is best used as a puree in cookies, cakes, and puddings.

The other kind of common persimmon Fuyu, are squatter, more tomato-like in appearance and a duller orange in color. This variety is supposed to be eaten when firm and crunchy, much like an apple, peeling and slicing recommended, but optional. First grown in Japan, Fuyu work well in salads, where they add crispness to the mix.  Both kinds are a good source of vitamins A & C and loaded with fiber.

During a quick spin around my friendly neighborhood farmers’ market I find the folks at Blossom Bluff Orchards, who seem super persimmon savvy. I especially appreciate the warning sign in front of the bins of Hachiyas. With the vendor’s help, I select a large, firm, blemish-free Hachiya that should be ready to eat in a couple of weeks.  Stay tuned.

The two giant Fuyu persimmons I pick are good to go now, although a gaggle of shoppers agree that if they’re just a tad on the soft side you’re rewarded with a little more sweetness. I sampled some and while I’d still prefer an apple or pear I can appreciate how they’d add a nice crunch to a green salad. So one variety back on the will-eat list.

Since we’re coming up to peak persimmon time, here are some recipes that showcase persimmons by folks who know what to do with this fruit:

Persimmon Pudding Cake from Romney Steele’s new book My Nepenthe

Avocado, Citrus, Jicama Salad with Persimmon Dressing courtesy of Capay Valley, California organic growers Farm Fresh to You

James Beard’s Persimmon Bread, adapted by David Lebovitz, author of The Sweet Life in Paris

Steamed Persimmon Pudding with Silky Persimmon Puree by Deborah Madison, from Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets

Persimmon Cookies, from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes

Salad of Frisee, Radicchio, Pears, Pomegranate and Persimmons, courtesy of Joanne Weir for The Food Network

Anyone out there care to weigh in on other ways to enjoy this produce?


The Lemon Lady: Feeding the Hungry, One Bag of Produce at a Time

October 22, 2009

The Lemon Lady needs a new nickname, methinks.

Anna Chan, 37, has outgrown the title, which doesn’t begin to describe the difference this anti-hunger activist has made in less than a year in her one-woman campaign to get fresh produce into the mouths of people in need in her community.

This stay-at-home mom from Clayton, in Contra Costa County, has (almost) single-handedly harvested, by her own estimates, 12,000 pounds of local produce from neighbors’ front yards. She’s also collected more than $60,000 surplus fruit and veg from local farmers’ markets, which she hauls in the back of her SUV to food pantries in her area. And she’s donated hundreds of seedlings and helped plant veggie gardens in her county in the hope that she can inspire others to grow their own row — and feed their families whole food.

In September I spent several hours watching Anna in action. We met at one of her many pet projects, a modest but thriving veggie patch in a low-income neighborhood of Concord. (Anna got involved with the garden after being approached by Kathy Gleason,  corporate donations coordinator for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, who sewed the seeds for this edible effort on her own time by getting to know the neigborhood and seeking out other volunteers.)

Out of one of the apartments popped a proud mom who gave me a spontaneous tour of the garden before Anna even pulled up. Begun with seedlings tended and donated by The Lemon Lady, the summer bounty included tomato, eggplant, pepper, and squash. When Anna arrived, the three of us chatted about the challenges of raising corn and the ease of growing Asian greens such as mizuna. We were just three moms, one Japanese, one American, one Australian, talking about the joys of making tomato sauce from scratch with homegrown produce to feed our hungry kids.

anna.chan.lemon.lady.2Before we left, Anna gave the grateful woman a seed catalog, with the promise of more seeds to come for a fall crop. Next stop: The lively Concord Farmers’ Market, where Anna distributes cardboard boxes and chats with vendors when they’re not serving customers. Farmers such as the pear purveyors from Alhambra Valley Farms and the Bautista Ranch veggie peddlers willingly pack up leftover produce for her to cart away at the end of the market to take to local food pantries, including the Salvation Army, SHARE Pantry, and Monument Crisis Center.

While the market was in full swing, I sat down with Anna to get a sense of what drives this former office manager to spend hundreds of hours volunteering for the greater good, one piece of produce at a time.

Reading between the lines, I suspect that a challenging childhood, made a little less rough by the kindness of strangers and community volunteers much like herself, serves as a constant reminder of the importance of giving back.  That’s not some pat charitable phrase for this petite and pretty woman; she knows what it’s like to encounter tough times and deal with health concerns. Now, blessed with a thriving toddler, a supportive dentist husband, and a happy home life, she wants to help others less fortunate than herself. Plus, the gal has a big heart, a passion for nutritious home cooking, and energy that doesn’t quit. (Typically she does a farmers’ market surplus run four days a week.)

Anna’s efforts add a public service spin on the au courant activity known as fruit foraging. She combines two old-fashioned concepts: gleaning and doing good, and in a time of great need (one local food pantry recently closed for a day; demand is so high it ran out of food) she simply cannot stand to see perfectly good produce go to waste.

Not surprisingly, those she comes in contact with sing her praises. “She’s a local gem,” says Jessie Neu, the director of the Contra Costa Certified Farmers’ Market. “She’s a life saver,” says one food-distribution volunteer from a local food bank. The California Garden Clubs recently honored Anna for her community service and her efforts to promote growing greens and getting fresh, nutritious food to hungry people.

And it all began way back in February, when this suburban mom was simply trying to find a way to soothe her colicky child to sleep. Anna resorted to driving her fussy, nap-fighting toddler, so Ava would drift off to the Land of Nod. (Oh, boy, do I remember those car rides from my own sleep-resistant son’s early days.)

As Anna tooled around her neighborhood she saw trees laden with luscious lemons ready to drop and rot. Where others saw potentially fallen fruit, Anna saw good food needing a way to get to the hungry.

So she worked up the courage to knock on strangers’ doors to ask homeowners if she could collect their excess fruit for local food pantries. And she left fliers letting her neighbors know that she’d noticed their bounty and wondered if they’d be willing to share their surplus by leaving a bag or two for food bank donations, or allow her to pick their extra produce. The response? Overwhelmingly positive. People have happily donated lemons, as well as oranges, apricots, plums, peaches, tomatoes, beans, and zucchini.

Anna’s on a mission to spread the word that many food banks gladly take fresh produce. “Many people don’t know where their local food pantry is located and don’t realize that food banks will gladly take fresh produce,” says Anna. A lot of people, she points out, incorrectly assume that only canned goods or government surplus food is acceptable in such places. Not so.  (Check out a revealing New York Times Magazine article for the back story on why food banks are now accepting more fruit and veg in the recent Food Issue.)

To learn more about The Lemon Lady, visit her blog, where she champions the work of food banks and farmers, shares the joy of growing food with her daughter, and encourages others to follow her example in their own communities.

Check out one of her favorite baking recipes: lemon bars, of course.

And if you have an idea for a more fitting moniker for this food advocate, please share it below.

Images courtesy of The Lemon Lady blog.

Six Reasons to Eat in Sydney and Beyond

October 20, 2009

crave.sydney.food

Indulge me, if you will, just one more vacation/holiday post before it’s back to regularly scheduled programming.

Well, as any of you who head home for the holidays know, spending time with your family and friends in your hometown is technically not a vacation. In my mind it’s a visit, a way to keep connected with the clan and long-time friends who knew you way back when. Does that make sense? Probably the subject of another post…

But in the spirit of the old adage, a change is as good as a holiday, six things to love about the food scene in Sydney and beyond. Print and save for when awesome airline deals fly by again — these day $600 round trip  SFO to SYD is not unheard of — and the Southern Hemisphere sunshine beckons during the rainy winter months just around the corner for those of us in the Northern climes. (Well, California hardly counts as a place with difficult winter weather and the two weeks I just spent in Sydney this spring were cool and wet, but you get the general idea.)

Even if the skies didn’t cooperate, the food didn’t disappoint.

My picks from the trip:

1. Seafood

Where to begin? It’s fresh, local, and tastes like it was plucked straight out of the sea. Prawns that actually exude a prawn-like flavor. Fleshy white fish that flakes off the fork and the tongue. Calamari with just the right chew factor. I found myself devouring barramundi in a lovely bush setting at Echo on the Marina, enjoying the inventiveness of kingfish sashimi, Spencer Gulf prawns with wasabi, and jewfish in XO sauce at the fancy-pants glass brasserie run by Sydney celeb chef Luke Mangan, and chowing down on some decent street eats — salt and pepper squid  — (what my niece used to call crunchy seahorse) at the Night Noodle Markets in Hyde Park. I’d be a full-fledged pescatarian (rather than a somewhat-lapsed vegetarian) if I lived in my hometown.

Cafe Culture

The cafe scene Down Under is simply marvelous, you get a real sense of a place’s unique personality the minute you walk through the door. I miss the Sydney cafe scene madly, hardly surprising since I dwell in the land of generic coffee shops such as Starbucks and Gloria Jeans, and chain eateries like Pasta Pomodoro and P.F. Chang’s (and these restaurants offer solid dishes compared with the ubiquitous U.S. fast food joints found the world over).

Sydney’s cafe culture runs the gamut from fine dining to cheap eats, and includes at least three distinct scenes, details follow.

2. Upscale Cafes

cafe.sopra.sardinesMy last lunch in town was spent noshing with my long-time friend and her two hungry kids at a high-end (but not exxy) cafe in an artsy and industrial neighborhood. Cafe Sopra in Waterloo, is housed in a warehouse-like location above Fratelli Fresh, one of this town’s  more interesting fruit&veg providores. The cafe boasts a blackboard menu and elegantly simple (mostly) Italian-inspired dishes with a few hearty English overtures here and there. The menu also includes an emphasis on top-notch produce (natch) and the service is pitch perfect, warm and professional, still something of a rarity in this otherwise sophisticated city.

Plus, I watched an eight-year-old plough through a plate of pan-fried sardine fillets perched on grilled bruschetta with braised tomato and a dollop of pesto like there was no tomorrow. If that’s not a ringing endorsement of this cafe’s gussied up home-style cooking I don’t know what else is. Oh, it was voted best cafe by TimeOut Sydney last year. Loved the antipasto plate with pickled beetroot and gorgonzola, along with roasted pumpkin salad and green beans with pesto. Not for the carb adverse, my galpal and I tucked into a bowl of tagliatelle brightened successfully with just lemon, chili, garlic, and broccolini.

3. Neighborhood Cafes

Sydney is also chock full of fabo spots to duck in for a quick bite for brekkie or lunch or a well-brewed coffee, especially in the inner-city suburbs (this oxymoron makes sense when you’re on the ground). I’ve always especially liked the cafes found in and around the inner west. This trip I was pleasantly surprised by what was dished up at Piccolo Padre in Rozelle; loved the salad of pan-fried haloumi with generous chunks of roasted pumpkin that I ate before taking a long walk with my screenwriter friend, who heads to the Piccolo for a post-school drop off coffee most mornings.

4. Beachside Cafes

See a theme emerging here? There’s nothing quite like drinking a freshly squeezed orange-carrot-ginger juice and eating Turkish toast smothered with rhubarb jam while you watch the waves and observe the locals at play on the sand. I’m partial to the cafes with ample outdoor seating at Bronte, Bondi, Coogee, or Clovelly in Sydney’s eastern beach suburbs. Die-hard northern beaches fans will no doubt weigh in with their own surf-side nosheries. And, of course, the perfect way to preface such a breakfast or lunch is to begin with a brisk walk. Last day in Sydney I hoofed it from Coogee to North Bondi to work up a decent appetite before I took a well-earned pit stop at Jenny’s cafe in Bronte.

5. Ethnic enclaves

turkish.golemeA trip home isn’t complete without some local Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese take-away. I’m also a big fan of the cheese and spinach Turkish Gozleme, a type of savory crepe sold at several urban markets. And for a sweet treat with a cuppa tea, a Portuguese tart does the trick, with its flacky pastry base and light custard filling. Local food blogger Helen Yee, at Grab Your Fork does a stellar job summing up the range of ethnic eats in and around Sydney. The city also boasts chic modern Asian restaurants with a sustainable food focus like Billy Kwong; along with two more recent standouts, Red Lantern and Spice Temple, that, alas, I ran out of evenings to try. Next time.

6. Regional cuisine

Regional cuisine is on the rise around Australia. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d be hard pressed to find something edible in a small country town or seaside community. That’s no longer a worry. Case in point: A small, unpretentious seaside restaurant in Port Macquarie, on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, fusion 7 serves Mod Oz cuisine worthy of inclusion in the Good Food Guide. Along with a gaggle of gals from high school, this out-of-towner was delighted to dig into some Aussie-inspired offerings such as rocket, parmesan, and macadamia nut salad, soft-shell crab with shitake-ginger sambal and peanut aoli on a bean sprout and coriander salad, barramundi with soba noddles and chilies, and passionfruit brulee.

Are you about ready to book a flight? If you live in Sydney, or will be there between now and October 31, enjoy the last week or so of the crave sydney event, which showcases local food at its best.

As for me, I’m back to hiking the hills around Berkeley in an effort to ward off any collatoral damage from my recent trip.

Fear of Flying: The Food’s a Factor

October 15, 2009

airline.food.breakfastFlickr photo by nicholas.blah used under the Creative Commons license.

I’ve recently spent 27 hours in the air, something I do on a relatively regular basis, so I think I’m well qualified to weigh in on airline food for the long-distance traveler. It’s horrible — no surprises there. But what’s to be done about it?

In the days of People Express (remember the low-cost, no-frills, no-food airline of the go-go ’80s?) I used to brown bag my own sandwich, fruit, and nuts for a cross-country trip. I gather that in these cost-cutting days, with “free” in-flight meals a thing of the past on most domestic carriers, edible offerings can be had — for a price — some developed by celebrity chefs no less.

But on a recent trip from San Francisco to Sydney, which leaves around 11 p.m., I just didn’t eat. I don’t get hungry in the air these days. In part that’s because I’ve developed a debilitating flying anxiety disorder over the past decade or so after years of winging my way across the Pacific Ocean without a care in the world.

Folks who similarly suffer in the skies know just how crippling flight anxiety can be. Yesterday I had a full-blown panic attack, complete with whole body shaking, as I white knuckled my way through 90 minutes of turbulence thanks to a tropical storm off the coast of Australia. When the attendant told me to expect more of the same — and worse — in our approach to San Francisco (the day after the biggest deluge in the city’s past 50 years or so) I cried. Flight anxiety is irrational, embarrassing, and exhausting, especially on a long-haul journey. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

It’s also a total appetite suppressant. Probably just as well, given what was on offer in the cabin. Was that weird yellow goo resembling glue really eggs? And what was that mush underneath? Surely not potatoes. I usually stick to the yogurt and fruit plate but on the leg into Sydney the fruit was warm, ditto the orange juice. One sip and i almost threw up — and not from nervousness.  I stopped bothering to request a vegetarian meal ages ago, since the veg trays were comprised of dishes as dry as cardboard and who needs to get even more dehydrated at 35,000 feet?

So help me out here fellow travelers: How do you handle the food factor when you’re flying internationally? Are some carriers known for better nibbles than others? (I’m a slave to my frequent flyer account — aren’t we all? — so when I’m talking about bad airline eats I’m really talking about what passes for sustenance from the folks in the friendly skies aka United Airlines.)

This very funny letter sent to Virgin’s Richard Branson earlier this year about a hideous dinner served in-flight from Mumbai to Heathrow makes me think that this is a global phenomenon for those of us who fly cattle class.

Is the only answer to bring your own chow for overseas trips so when you hit that cruising altitude you’ll have something edible to eat while you watch movies you’ve already seen and can barely hear, wincing in your seat at every bit of bumpy air?

Ah, the glamor of international travel.


Sydney Street Food

October 14, 2009

On my last evening in Sydney I took a quick swing through the Night Noodle Markets, downtown Sydney’s own street food fair, and part of the Sydney International Food Festival.  Hyde Park north, a fig-tree filled swatch of grass in this southern city’s central business district, is a prime setting for stalls selling, well, all kinds of noodles from Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, as well as Japanese pancakes, Chinese dumplings, Turkish gozleme, peanut butter ice cream, and French chocolates (go figure).

Under the umbrella of the Crave Sydney event, a month-long celebration of food, outdoor art, and entertainment, the noodle markets are a welcome pit stop in a park that’s more frequently used as a thoroughfare for busy commuters, hangout for inebriated teens or odd bods, or place where couples canoodle.

As with similar events around the world, it’s smart to show up early (the market begins at 5 p.m. to catch the after-work crowd), snag a table, and take a spin around the stalls to see what looks and smells best before buying. (My friend Lou, who has spent time in Singapore, was underwhelmed by our first flat noodle dish and coveted those from another vendor we discovered later on.)

We found folks only to willing to point us to a favorite hawker’s stand, so if you want recommendations on the ground, just ask. Such due diligence means you may skip the inevitable long lines for food and drink. (This being Sydney, booze is also on offer.) Stay until dark to soak up the lantern-lit ambience as you slurp noodles and sip a local brew while bats fly overhead.  (Be warned: Travelers looking for an authentic Asian-style hawker market — and prices to match — will likely be disappointed by the whole chardy-drinking crowd.) And while there was pleasant piped music in the park, the promised live entertainment didn’t appear while we were there.

But these are minor complaints. Munching on salt and pepper squid skewers, sharing some pad see ew, and savoring a cheese and spinach gozleme fresh off the griddle with friends in an urban green oasis: Can’t think of a better way to wind up a visit to my hedonistic hometown.

Friendship by the Numbers

October 9, 2009

5 gals

2 become firm friends at age 8

12 the age we all get together and become great mates

4 years tanning our legs along the C block wall

7 countries, 4 continents

5 marriages

4 partners from overseas

3 exes

1 20-year union

10 babies, ranging in age from 3 to 18

1 parent gone

15 years since our last weekend away as a fivesome

10 months since we were reunited in sydney

26 years since we’ve all lived in the one country

33 years as the fab 5, together again for

1 wedding

and

1 celebratory feast at fusion 7 (more on that later), punctuated by

1 passing, 1 proposal, and 1 silly pink Akubra hat for the hen among us who refers to herself as a boiler

countless hours spent laughing, crying, listening, and talking together over plunger coffee, a good red, or a fine dining experience

here’s to many more…

The Sweet Dish on Sydney

October 6, 2009

Flickr photo by jcmurty used under the Creative Commons license.

When you pop in and out of your homeland once or twice a year, as I do, it’s pretty easy to pick up on trends since you last touched down.

I was in Sydney for a month this past Southern Hemisphere summer, that’s December-January for those of you who have a hard time getting your head around a Christmas spent enjoying surf, sun, and fresh seafood. In the past few days over endless cups of tea or glasses of champagne a few food themes have emerged among my Sydney circle since I was here nine months ago.

The country is wagyu beef crazy. That’s well bred marbled meat to the uninitiated. Even people who don’t normally talk food throw this term around when speaking steak. Reading glasses in snazzy frames are a necessary accessory for diners of a certain age, though a recently-returned food critic blames it on a trend towards dimly lit tables at some of Sydney’s top restaurants.

Veggie patches are sprouting along median strips, including the beach suburbs Clovelly and Coogee. And the TV sensation MasterChef Australia has taken this island nation by storm, inspiring home cooks to spring for kitchen equipment like pasta makers, hunt down obscure ingredients, or get more adventurous behind the stove.

Food fads come and go, but some dishes remain classics. Like sticky date pudding. My sister-in-law Alice whipped up this simply delicious dessert  for a recent family gathering. I’m from a large clan: 5 siblings, 14 nieces & nephews (and another on the way). Many of these young adults tower over me now; all have hearty appetites. So we shared warm sticky date pud accompanied by lashings of whipped cream, a scoop of ice cream, and generous drizzles of caramel sauce on a chilly spring evening and all was well in our corner of the world.

Sticky Date Pudding
(Adapted from Alice Henry’s recipe.)

185 grams (6.5 ounces) pitted dates, coarsely chopped
250 mls (8 ounces or one cup) of water
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
60 grams (2 ounces) butter
2 eggs
185 grams (6.5 ounces) sugar
185 grams (6.5 ounces) self-raising flour
1/4 teaspoon vanilla essence

1. Preheat oven to 190 degrees C (375 degrees F).

2. Grease and flour a baking tin (8-inch square, 2 inch deep) or cake pan.

3. Place dates and water in a medium saucepan and cook on high heat, bring to a boil, until mix resembles jam.

4. Sir in the bicarbonate of soda. Mixture will foam. Set aside for 10 minutes to cool slightly.

5. Beat butter, sugar, and vanilla until pale and creamy.

6. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

7. Fold through dates and flour until all ingredients are well combined.

8. Spoon mixture into prepared cake pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

Sauce:

150 grams (5 ounces) brown sugar
150 ml (5 ounces) of cream
1/2 cup butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence

1. Place all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat.

2. Cook, stirring frequently, until sauce comes to a boil.

3. Reduce heat and simmer for another couple of minutes.

4. Cut cake cut into squares or wedges. Drizzle with sauce, and serve with ice cream and/or whipped cream.

Also delish with strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar.

Pudding photo: Alice Henry

Update: My friend on the ground, Jacqui, see comment below, shares a photo of a community garden plot she spotted sprouting in Kirribilli, on Sydney’s north side. Anyone want to chime in with the story behind this movement to grow greens in urban Oz?

kirribilli.community.garden.1