Archive for the ‘baking’ Category

Professionals by Day Pursue Culinary Arts by Night

March 12, 2010

This is the first in a series of occasional posts profiling people with regular day gigs who pursue their culinary passions after hours.

This week, two Bay Area men who hold down demanding day jobs and craft high-end sweet treats in their down time.

Meet Anand Chokkalingam, UC Berkeley professor by day and chocolatier by night.

This cancer epidemiologist pursues his passion for high-end confections in his off hours and puts his scientific sensibilities to sweet use by hand-crafting artisanal chocolates with top-notch ingredients. He says the skills he brings to his day job — scientific rigor, preciseness, attention to detail — also stand him in good stead in his chocolate-making operation.

Anand is a Sanskrit word that refers to a state of pure joy and divine bliss, which is an apt description of Anand Confections.

Parlaying a fondness for making sweets into a chocolate following that started by word-of-mouth, Anand’s small-batch business got a boost last December when Town & Country paired one of his exotic candies with a tawny port.

This writer discovered his inspired offerings at a recent bakesale benefit for Haiti. Anand enjoys playing with flavors from his Indian heritage, which give his concoctions their signature tastes, such as cardamom and saffron, and Darjeeling tea.

He cites legendary local chocolatiers Michael Recchiuti of San Francisco and Alice Medrich of Berkeley as early influences on his own creations.

Anand, 37, concedes it’s tough to find extra time to devote to his nascent chocolate business. A father of two young children, early on his wife set ground rules around how many hours he could spend in the kitchen to protect both his health and family time. These included not working past 1 a.m. more than three times a month during high production times, such as in December’s busy holiday period, when he made some 5,000 pieces, each one cut by hand. They sold out.

And it’s also a family affair: His youngest daughter is a taste tester; his school-age child likes to help in the production process. His wife helps with all aspects of the business. Family and friends lend a hand during peak production times. Sometimes, like prior to Valentine’s Day this year, traditionally a chocolate makers prime retail period, life and work intervened and scaling up production just wasn’t possible.

Anand is mulling over what business model could work well with his current life. He’s toying with the idea of a chocolate club, similar to a wine club, shipping his tasty tidbits to subscribers every month or two. That way he could have some control over the hours he devotes to his chocolate obsession, experiment with new flavors, and continue to enjoy his craft. Currently his confections are available online.

“I love working with my hands and the sense of order I feel creating chocolates,” he says. “My desire to create sweets trumps everything else in the kitchen.”

Read more about Anand in my Berkeley Bites column today over at Berkeleyside.

During a routine business day Michael Winnike works long hours as a paralegal specializing in patent law for top San Francisco firm Fenwick and West.  Off the clock, the 26-year-old churns out goat milk caramels under the Happy Goat label.

These unique goodies with all natural ingredients were a big hit at the recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and can be found in upscale confectionery stores around the Bay Area and beyond. Happy Goat caramels are also available online.

“I fell in love with goat milk as a confectionery ingredient. It elevates a simple treat into something more complex and savory,” says Michael, who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District and describes himself as the founder and chief executive goat of his fledgling business.

Another self-taught sweet chef, he began focusing on his cooking hobby about three years ago after falling for a friend’s sheep milk truffles. He started gearing up on the goat milk caramel front about a year ago.

Michael and his partner Kyle Pickering (he calls himself a strategy dork by day and director of marketing, media, and, ah, braaaaanding by later that day) have outsourced the making of their tangy treats to keep up with demand. But Michael still presides over the batches of bubbling caramel to ensure quality control. By year’s end he says he hopes the caramels will be available in 100 stores nationwide.

Michael admits that being single and unencumbered helps with his second job, as he’s free to keep his own schedule with little time for extracurricular activities. It’s not uncommon for him to quit his “day job” around 10 p.m. and then work in the kitchen until 2 a.m. on Happy Goat business.

He doesn’t hide his budding after-hours business from his employer as he’s careful to make sure one doesn’t interfere with the other.  And he reaps the rewards of making tempting morsels at his workplace. “Sure, it can be tiring, but I get a lot of pleasure out of creating these delicious indulgences — and my coworkers love them.”

[Photo Anand Chokkalingam: Radha Seshagiri. Photo Anand Confections: Guy Poole. Photo Goat Milk Caramels: Courtesy of Happy Goat.]

Sprouts Cooking Club: Growing the Next Generation of Chefs

February 1, 2010

It took a teenager from Wyomissing, PA who had never heard of Alice Waters to figure out what was missing on the culinary scene in Berkeley.

When Karen Rogers landed at UC Berkeley in 2005 she couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a cooking club on campus.  So she started one.

But the Cal Cooking Club wasn’t just about student potlucks, recipe exchanges, and cook outs. Drawing on her success in high school with a similar program she spearheaded, Karen made it her mission to forge relationships with local chefs. (Presumably she learned who Alice was pretty quickly.)  She invited culinary professionals on campus to teach cooking classes and took club members into local kitchen restaurants.

She even arranged a “Big Cook-off” between Cal and Stanford, tapping into the simmering rivalry between the schools. (Cal prevailed at the pots.)

Today, the culinary arts club has some 600 members, making it one of the largest clubs on campus, according to Karen, who graduated last year and resigned from presiding over the group in 2007 to focus on launching a local food-oriented business.

And what a thriving biz it is. While still in school, the international business major kicked off Culinary Kids (which has since morphed into Sprouts Cooking Club) for the next generation of chefs in Berkeley and beyond.

The organization allows Karen, 23, to pursue her passion for good food and fills another void in the Gourmet Ghetto’s food chain by offering young children the opportunity to cook real food with real chefs in real kitchens. “I enjoy working with kids because of their raw enthusiasm, open-mindedness, and fascination with food,” she says.

Not surprisingly, her classes fill quickly. For the past three summers, Karen has corralled young campers, ages 7 to 13, in and out of some of the fanciest restaurant kitchens in the Bay Area, including Chez Panisse, Boulevard, and Slanted Door. And these kids aren’t just baking cookies. They’ve made butternut squash ravioli with chef Cindy Deetz at Venezia, whipped up hummus at La Mediterranee, and learned how to “cook” raw at Cafe Gratitude, where they made an unbaked avocado chocolate cake.

You can read about the culinary adventures of one of her students, Sam Siegel, in an earlier post.

Prior to graduation, Karen spent time abroad, living in France and Japan; she also found time to squeeze in an internship at Chez Panisse.  In all three locations she worked in restaurant kitchens where the emphasis was on eating locally-sourced food cooked from scratch. She’s also volunteered on a farm in Ecuador, taken cooking classes in Peru, and toured coffee farms in Costa Rica to learn about fair trade and organic farming. These experiences, coupled with her family background — at one time her mom ground her own wheat and made bread for the family of 9 — informs the slow-food, sustainable, authentic cooking sensibilities she hopes to pass on to her young charges.

Sprouts receives sponsorship from Whole Foods, Strauss Creamery, and Alter Eco Fair Trade.  The group also partners with Kaiser Permanente, offering healthy meals cooking series targeting employees and their families. As a non-profit, Karen reaches out to a diverse group of kids in the community; she offers scholarships to families in need for camps and series classes, teaches cooking in Oakland schools and at the Senaca Center, a live-in treatment facility for emotionally-challenged children in Concord.

This spring, Sprouts will take its first international culinary tour, to Parisian Cyril Guignard’s country estate and historic chateau for seven days of cooking classes, authentic French cuisine, and provincial living. (Um, can I come?)

The trip to France is intended to give children and their parents first-hand experience in the culinary and cultural mores of another corner of the globe. “People in France don’t have big refrigerators or large supermarkets,” Karen notes. “Instead, they regularly visit their patisserie, charcuterie, and market and have relationships with the people who grow or make their food. It’s a completely different approach to the culinary arts that I want to expose the kids to.”

Accompanying her on this culinary tour is Jed Cote, sous chef of Pizzaiolo, and former line cook at Chez Panisse, who is very familiar with Provencale French cooking and rustic Italian fare but has never left the country. Armed with his recently acquired passport, Jed, 32, is keen to convey to the kids the pleasure of cooking, along with teaching them knife skills and how to make the perfect crepe.

Jed, who has a degree in criminology, planned on becoming an FBI agent, until every single person he interviewed who chose that line of work told him they regretted their decision. “So many people hate what they do. I think it’s important for children to see an adult who loves what he does,” he says. “I get up every day and go to a job that I love. I think that’s a really important message for children to learn.”

At a benefit brunch for Sprouts’ scholarship fund yesterday at Pizzaiolo, parent Czarina Good explained why she was taking her three children to France. “I see it as part of their education,” says Czarina, originally from the Philippines, whose children attend Chinese school. “I want my children to grow up knowing about all the different people and places of the world and food is a wonderful way to do that.”

For upcoming class series and information on summer camps (heads up: these fill fast), visit the Sprouts Cooking Club website.

Photo of Karen Rogers: Graham Bradley

Photo of Karen with kids: Courtesy Karen Rogers

Rice-A-Roni Co-creator Judges Ultimate Chef America, Shares Granola Recipe

January 28, 2010

Lois De Domenico knows a thing or two about food.

Lois is the co-creator of Rice-A-Roni, the iconic convenience food remembered around the country as The San Francisco Treat.

That’s why the folks at Brookdale Senior Living, one of the nation’s largest operators of senior living communities in the U.S., asked her to act as a judge for  Ultimate Chef America, a series of cook offs showcasing Brookdale chefs in several retirement facilities around the country this year.

The focus: Healthy cooking for elders. Think Iron Chef for the senior set.

The first event is today in Phoenix and you can watch the competition, which kicks off at 4:30 P.M. MST, right here.

I know Lois will return from Arizona full of stories. She’s a natural storyteller. I know this because for the past year I’ve spent most Thursday mornings interviewing her for a memoir she’s writing for her four children, five grandchildren, and great-grandchild.

It was during one of these sessions that she recounted the story behind the birth of Rice-A-Roni. She first learned the recipe for this pilaf dish (rice, vermicelli pasta, butter, and chicken stock) in 1946.

Then a 19-year-old Canadian immigrant, she had recently married Tommy De Domenico, who hailed from an Italian pasta-making family. The couple rented a large room in a San Francisco apartment from an elderly Armenian, Pailadzo Captanian, who years earlier fled the genocide in her country in search of a better life. They shared a tiny kitchen.

Mrs. Captanian made yogurt, baklava, and chicken soup. And Armenian rice pilaf. Lois learned how to make the pilaf and, to this day, still makes it from scratch. She served up the side dish to the De Domenico brothers of the Golden Grain Macaroni Company, who put it into a box and, with hard work and the help of some pretty savvy marketing, well…the rest is food history.

To hear more about the back story behind the Armenian-Canadian-Italian Treat, listen to an interview with Lois by the Kitchen Sisters as part of their wonderful Hidden Kitchen series for NPR.

A major Bay Area philanthropist, Lois is also an avid yoga practitioner and instructor. Every Monday she teaches a group of women at her home and, later the same day, she holds a class for middle school students at Northern Light School in Oakland, in what she refers to, glowingly, as hands-on philanthropy.

How many other octogenarians can claim such impressive physical feats and second acts?

She credits yoga and a nutritious diet to her continued good health.

And part of her healthy eating regimen involves starting the day with a bowl of homemade granola. Since this is Lois we’re talking about, there’s a story to go with this dish.

I’ll let her tell you the tale in her own words:

“About 40 years ago I was going on a hiking trip and I needed some hiking boots. I went to a store in Berkeley and I sat next to a young girl. Today you’d call her a hippie. Somehow we started talking about food and she gave me her recipe for granola. Well, I’ve been making it ever since and I think it’s about the best granola in the world. It has five kinds of grains and three kinds of nuts, as well as sesame and sunflower seeds, wheat germ, sesame oil, and honey. It’s just delicious.

In 1965 or so I approached Tommy and his brothers with the idea of making this granola at the plant and packaging it as Golden Granola. They said no. They didn’t think it would be a big seller. Well, look how popular granola is now. It wasn’t so well known back then. But I couldn’t convince them to try. I’m not so sure they were right.”

Golden Grain’s loss is our gain. Lois shares her granola recipe below.

What do you think: Did the De Domenico brothers pass up another surefire supermarket success?

Lois De Domenico’s Crunchy Granola

(Note: This recipe reflects revised measurements, updated on January 29, 2010. Lois says she mixes the dry ingredients and stores half in the refrigerator, unbaked, for future use.)

Ingredients:

1 pound rolled oats
1 pound rye flakes
1 pound wheat flakes
1 pound barley flakes

1/2 pound bran flakes
1/2 pound wheat germ

1 pound chopped almonds
1 pound chopped cashews
1 pound chopped walnuts

1 pound sesame seeds
1 pound sunflower seeds

1 cup sesame oil

2 cups honey

Method:

1. Mix grains, seeds, and nuts altogether.

2. Bake in two pans at 300 degrees F for at least one hour, while slowly adding sesame oil and heated honey.

3. Bake until golden brown.

Haiti Bakesale Benefit Update

January 25, 2010

Kudos to Samin Nosrat and her crew for raising $22,421.09 at a bakesale for Haiti in the Bay Area last Saturday.

An outpouring of cupcakes and cash came from professional chefs and home cooks in events held at three community-minded food venues: Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Gioia Pizzeria in North Berkeley, and Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s Mission District.

On offer: Sweet treats from current and former chefs of local eateries, including Chez Panisse, Pizzaiolo, Dopo, Oliveto, Lalime’s, Cafe Fanny, Bar Jules, Bacar, and Boot & Shoe Service. Their cakes and cookies got snapped up by folks eager to find a way to help Haitian relief efforts in the aftermath of the recent devastating earthquake.

My son and I stopped by Pizzaiolo.

We said hello to familiar faces, met Samin, and did a little sugar shopping for a good cause.

We chose these saffron cardamom beauties by anand confections. Divine.

Also Ici chocolate chip meringues, Tartine Bakery shortbread, and Bakesale Betty cookies.

And (we shared, honestly) brownies with mint-chocolate chips of unknown origin, and vanilla bean creme brulee baked by Kafe Kevo. Allegedly all good, not that I tasted everything, just reporting back, you understand.

In a quick phone chat today, Samin, who had just picked up a check for Partners in Health, a nonprofit medical aid organization long active in Haiti, expressed gratitude for folks’ contributions, both big and small. She made mention of chef-owner Charlie Hallowell at Pizzaiolo, who kicked in $5,000, which included donated tips from restaurant staff. Samin’s Anusara yoga teacher, John Friend, contributed another $5,000.

Buddy Jennie Schacht mobilized a bunch of Bay Area pastry chefs through the group The Bakers Dozen, and cookbook author Romney (Nani) Steele added her trademark granola to the mix.

At the amateur end, the girls JV Soccer Team at Sacred Heart Preparatory School in San Francisco made dozens of cookies, rice crispies, brownies, and cupcakes “all beautifully wrapped,” Samin says, “with lovely little notes that read: ‘made with love.'”

Samin is not new to cooking or fundraising bakesales. She’s held similar events outside Eccolo, a favorite Berkeley restaurant (now closed) where she worked, and netted about $2,000 to help victims of both Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Asia. “I thought they were pretty good takings for a morning’s work,” she says,  “but I’ve been overwhelmed with the display of generosity for the people of Haiti.”

And for Samin, linking fundraising to food is key. “It’s my experience that people really want to help but a lot of people are stuck. They literally don’t know what to do or how to take action,” Samin explains.

“What better way to bring people together than food?  It’s such a natural community builder.”

Do you know of other similar edible fundraisers to help Haiti? Please share your stories below.

Serving People, Serving Food, Days of Service: Help Haiti

January 20, 2010

Seem to have a food-related volunteer theme emerging this week. Not my intention but just going to run with it.

If ever there was a time to ignore the imperative Think Global, Act Local, this is it. Don’t you agree?

As I explained to my son on this week’s MLK Day of Service, we’re thinking and acting globally and locally. How can you not help Haiti?

For ideas with a food focus, check out my friend Nani Steele’s blog here or Kim Severson at the New York Times. Or learn more below.

But first, some background. Not a fan of government-initiated calls to duty. It’s my rebellious spirit. Still, the Day of Service I can get behind.

Last year, the event got a huge, historic turnout, fueled by almost-Prez Obama. But we arrived home from a trip Down Under that day, jet-lagged, discombobulated, and, basically, no use to anyone.

This year, I vowed, things would be different. We’d step up and do good.

I’m not new to volunteering. I used to read to kids in hospital when I first landed here. One child, David, was in a coma following a car accident.

Notes above his bed instructed his “book buddies” to read Dr. Seuss, his favorite author. At first it felt odd reading to a kid who couldn’t respond or move. But nonetheless every Monday night I read to that beautiful little boy, even though I doubted he would get better.

Well, of course, he did. I got to enjoy his sweet smile when I tickled him, by request, with a peacock feather. And I was, frankly, a teensy bit devastated when he was moved to a rehab hospital. I never knew what happened to him. He’d be 24 now.

Years later, following another major life change, this time back across the pond to my homeland, I took on another volunteer gig.

I lived in Sydney and taught English to a new mom, who happened to be a former art critic for a Korean daily paper.

I don’t know if her English improved but I know she appreciated contact with a local, chats about journalism, cultural differences, and where to find food from home.

Upon our return to the States I began volunteering in Berkeley public schools, including, as noted previously, at the Edible Schoolyard.

For the record: I’m not some charity groupie with too much time on my hands and no need to, you know, earn a living. On the contrary.

I’m a self-employed writer; code for often anxious, underemployed and underpaid. Major plus: flexible schedule. Mostly works. Except the anxious part, due to under bits.

And honestly folks, it’s not a huge time investment. Less time than most people watch TV in one day. Ninety minutes at Edible; two hours tops if I stay to help with clean up.

This may be my last year in my child’s classroom. What middle school kid wants his parent hanging around? SO EMBARRASSING. And so I am savoring the task assigned by his teacher, a departure from previous years, when I’ve helped small groups of kids with the 3 Rs.

I’m working one-on-one with a child to help improve her comprehension and reading and raise her confidence so she believes she can do both these things. Small success last week had us both jazzed. When it works well, giving feels good on both sides of the equation.

While I know I’m modeling worthwhile values that I hope my son will pursue, I also want him to directly participate in charitable acts.

Back to: What to do on this year’s Day of Service? I got inspiration from an unlikely source, none other than George Bush Jr. Finally heard something come out of his mouth I could agree with: “Lots of people want to send supplies to Haiti. They need money. Just send money.”

So we did. We did the text thing. Took barely a minute, hurt a little (there goes the allowance), and that was our global contribution.

Then we bagged up pantry goods to take to a local food bank, along with a bag of Meyer lemons from our abundant tree. You know that many food banks will take fresh produce, right?

This Saturday, we’ll combine global & local at a bakesale benefit for Haiti, organized by chef Samin Nosrat and hosted at Oakland restaurant Pizzaiolo, which, as you might imagine, makes a mean pizza but also divine donuts. (Two other participating Bay Area locations: Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and Gioia Pizzeria in North Berkeley. All $$$ goes to Partners in Health.)

Because when all is said and done, it is money that matters most to the people of Haiti right now. Much of that for critical medical care to stave off death. But, equally important, for sustenance to live.

So what better way to funnel money where it’s so urgently needed than connecting cash to another basic human need. To eat. Food.

What say you?

Granola: A Sweet Start to the Day

January 8, 2010

Fresh starts. New adventures. The whole unexplored landscape that is the year ahead. I welcome January, when anything seems possible.

Except, of course, when there’s transition week. Anyone else having a transition week? Come on, you know you are.

I can see it in my son as he struggles to get back in synch with the school schedule. (And not just him; it was tough to return to the early morning, make breakfast, pack lunch, check homework hustle). I can see it in other kids at school as they squirm in their seats during reading or space out during lessons.

I can feel it in myself as I scramble to set up work systems for the year, finish writing projects that didn’t quite get squared away before the holidays, and pitch new stories for 2010.  All in a week when the Los Angeles Times reports that the freelance writer’s life is in dire straits.

But right now, just for today, I refuse to give in to doom, gloom, and ennui. It’s a new year. Ripe with potential. Let’s begin at the beginning.

And where else to start but breakfast, that first meal of the day? I’m a big fan of brekkie, though I’ve yet to embrace the au courant trend of eating lunch or dinner foods first thing in the morning.

Good luck to all those folks who chow down on pho, pizza, or korean barbecue for breakfast, that stuff leaves me cold when I’m still shuffling around in my slippers. For my money, granola makes a great early morning, gotta-hightail-it-out of the house breakfast.

Discovering granola after growing up with sawdusty muesli ranks high on my list of culinary discoveries in my move from Sydney to San Francisco. Some sniff that granola is just a fat-, calorie-, sugar-laden treat, but it’s got serious hippie pedigree: old-fashioned oats, nuts, and dried fruit, along with maple syrup or honey and oil or butter.

Of the grocery store granola offerings, I’m partial to local, handmade, unfussy Cafe Fanny Granola, and Partners Gourmet Multigrain Granola, which comes in toasty chunks of nutty-grainy goodness.

My boy likes the Arrowhead Mills Breadshop Organic Vermont Maple Granola and, ever since I attended a granola tasting hosted by 18 Reasons, he’s become obsessed with the exxy and excellent 18 Rabbits Gracious Granola with pecans, coconut, and pumpkin seeds. (It was one of his fav stocking stuffers.) He likes to fix a bowl for dessert.

In our house, we prefer our granola served with yogurt; it makes for a pretty parfait, layered in a long glass with berries adding visual zing along with vitamins. And while some cafes serve their granola sprinkled on top of a generous mound of yogurt, we like to layer granola, yogurt, and fruit in equal measures. How ’bout you?

Everyone’s got an opinion about the best tasting granola on the market; for a comparison of other commercial brands check out this Serious Eats review. And feel free to let me know yours.

Truth is, though, it’s easy and cheaper to make your own granola and custom it to suit your palate. You can often significantly lower the amount of sweetener in recipes, I’ve found, without sacrificing flavor.

When I’m not feeling lazy, I make the Crunchy Fruity Granola from Mollie Katzen‘s Salad People cookbook, a simple, satisfying recipe popular with kids in the cooking classes I’ve taught.

Recently, I sampled a delicious batch of granola, recipe to follow.

But first, the back story.

I am fortunate to have a good friend, also a fellow freelancer, who covers the travel beat. Specifically, healthy, eco-travel on her blog Health * Conscious * Travel, mostly geographically centered in the Wine Country.

To do her job, my pal Melanie Haiken has the tiresome task of checking out high-end spas and resorts which she then writes about for her readers. Someone has to do it, right?

She visits said spas and resorts as a perk of the profession, and she’s often invited to bring a guest, known in the biz as a “plus one”. Do you know how delightful it is to be the plus-one person? You enjoy all the facilities without having to take the hard-hat tours or copious notes. And, if you’re lucky, you might eat some very good granola.

That’s exactly what happened recently when we stayed at the ultra-sleek Hotel Healdsburg, where we enjoyed a room with a super groovy green-tiled bathroom and — full disclosure coming — a comped breakfast that included granola that made us both happy.

It’s concocted by the chefs at the Dry Creek Kitchen, adjacent to the hotel. They graciously agreed to give me their recipe so I’m sharing the swag with my readers.

It’s very moreish. As in you’ll want to eat more of it. Trust me.

Let me know if you agree — or if you have your own granola recipe you want to add to the mix. Enjoy.

Dry Creek Kitchen Granola

Ingredients:

6    cups    oatmeal
2    cups    sliced almonds
½    cup    pecan pieces
½    cup    walnut pieces
½    cup    peanuts
½    cup    shredded coconut
1    tbl        ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp     salt

¼   cup   brown sugar

½   cup   honey

4    oz       butter

½  cup    maple syrup

Method:

1. Combine first 8 ingredients in a bowl.

2. Melt brown sugar, honey, butter & maple syrup in a pot.

3. Mix until well combined.

4. Pour over dry ingredients and toss until everything is coated.

5. Spray a sheet tray with non-stick coating.

6. Spread granola evenly on sheet tray.

7. Bake at 300 degrees F for approximately 30 min.

8. Toss granola every 10 min.

9. Bake until golden brown and all moisture has evaporated.

10. Continue to toss granola as it cools to avoid large clumps.

Photo: Courtesy Dry Creek Kitchen

Book Giveaway: My Nepenthe

November 13, 2009

It’s always tricky to write about a pal’s book, you don’t want to come off sounding like a fawning friend, frankly.

So, in the case of My Nepenthe by Romney “Nani” Steele, I’m going to let others hand out the praise. Sunset describes Nani’s cookbook-cum-memoir as “a valentine to one of the most beautiful places to eat in the world.” Michael Pollan calls it “a very special book about a very special place.” And epicurious just named it the best American regional cookbook of 2009.

If you know Big Sur, home to the iconic Nepenthe restaurant, the area and the eatery need no introduction. If you’re not familiar with this small, rural California Central Coast enclave perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean then you should add it to your list of places to visit before you die. Really.

For 60 years Nepenthe has served comfort food with a view to locals, travelers, and tourists. And so much more: for the artists, nature lovers, spiritual seekers, writers, and wanderers who stop by, this magical spot transcends what comes out of the kitchen.

In My Nepenthe Nani, 44, a writer, chef, and food stylist, reveals the colorful back story to this family restaurant, founded by her grandparents Bill and Lolly Fassett, including the unorthodox life they lived, the eclectic boho community they cultivated, and Nani’s own foray into running Cafe Kevah as a European-style eatery with slow food sensibilities located on the same site as the “House of No Sorrow.”

romney.steele.2If you’re curious to find out more, read my Q&A with the author over at the hyper-local site Berkeleyside.

To win a copy of this visually lush book, filled with 85 restaurant recipes tweaked for the tastes of today’s home cooks, leave a comment about a special place  — and a local eatery that adds to the area’s charm. Submit your entry by 10 p.m. PST on Friday, November 20 and I’ll pick a winner from the suggestions shared below.

Update: Thanks to all who entered — you guys made me hungry for places both near and far. So many great suggestions I couldn’t decide, so I put your names into a pot (my desk is next to my kitchen) and the winner, chosen at random is: Christine, for her suggestion of the worldly Vagabond in San Diego. Congrats. an autographed copy of My Nepenthe is on its way to you. Look for another book giveaway in December.

To whet your appetite, a few recipes from the pages of My Nepenthe follow.

Pappardelle with Chanterelles

Serves 4

½ pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms
1½ tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1 large shallot or small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme, stemmed
²⁄³ cup vegetable stock or water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 to 12 ounces dried pappardelle pasta or other wide pasta
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for passing

Considered gold by the culinary world, found chanterelles were a regular part of my grandmother’s Sunday night dinners and were
often featured in the Thanksgiving meal.

Gently clean the mushrooms with a dry brush. Avoid soaking in water. Trim any dry stems. Slice the mushrooms into ½-inch pieces.

Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the shallot and cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the mushrooms, garlic, and thyme and sauté until the mushrooms are browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

Ladle in the stock, season with salt and pepper, and simmer for 3 minutes, until the mushrooms are just tender. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water and then drain the pasta in a colander.

Add the pasta to the mushrooms in the skillet along with the remaining 2 tablespoons of the butter.

Cook over moderately high heat, tossing the pasta to coat and adding pasta water to moisten if needed, until thoroughly coated.

Stir in the parsley and lemon zest.

Divide the pasta among 4 warm plates and sprinkle with the Parmesan. Pass additional Parmesan separately.

Chopped Salad with Roquefort Dressing

Serves 4 to 6

Roquefort Dressing

2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried mustard
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 to 6 ounces Roquefort cheese
2/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup canola or safflower oil

Chopped Salad

2 heads romaine lettuce
1 head green leaf lettuce
4 to 6 cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper

For the dressing:

Combine the garlic, basil, oregano, mustard, pepper, sugar, and salt in a clean glass jar.

Crumble the cheese and add to the jar. Add the vinegar and oils.

Cover and shake vigorously until thoroughly combined. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

You will have more than enough dressing; refrigerate any extra.

For the salad:

Wash and thoroughly dry the lettuces, trimming the ends and discarding any bruised leaves.

Tear into bite-size pieces and place in individual chilled bowls. Top with the desired amount of dressing, making sure each salad has
plenty of blue cheese chunks. Add the cherry tomatoes and grind black pepper over the tops.

nepenthe.fabric.slice

Pumpkin Spice Cake (Bohemian Wedding Cake)

Makes 1 (9-inch) cake, serving 10 to 12

1 cup whole-wheat flour (not pastry flour)
1 cup unbleached white flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch salt
1 cup vegetable oil
1½ cups brown sugar, firmly packed
2 eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree (about 1¾ cups)
¼ cup molasses
¾ cup raisins
½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Sour Cream Frosting:

½ cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened
½ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
About 2 cups confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan, knocking out any excess flour.

For the cake:

Combine the whole-wheat flour, white flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl: stir together the oil and brown sugar, mixing well. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla. Mix in the pumpkin puree and then the molasses.

Stir in the dry ingredients, mixing until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in the raisins and walnuts.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake about 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted  in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then invert and cool completely.

For the frosting:

Mix the cream cheese, sour cream, and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth.

Sift in the confectioners’ sugar and mix well. It should be thinner than a typical cream cheese frosting.

Place the cake on a cake plate. Spread a thin layer of frosting on top and all over the side. Freeze any leftover frosting, or reserve for muffins or cupcakes.

— All Recipes From My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur by Romney Steele/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Photo of Romney Steele by Doug McKechnie

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.

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