Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Pleasures of a Small Kitchen

Growing up, we celebrated holidays in my grandmother's apartment, which was parked above the red brick grocery store she and my grandfather, a butcher, built in the 1940's. My grandmother was a lousy cook, but not for lack of trying. Until she died, she brought my uncle a buttered hard roll wrapped in wax paper each morning. Her workaday specialities were paste-like oatmeal and chili made with old beef pushed through a hand-cranked grinder that clipped on to the kitchen table.

For holidays, she turned up the heat, roasting gigantic turkeys or dozens of cabbage-wrapped golumpki in the oven. As seemed to be the habit with her generation, she baked everything slow and low. Ever smelled cabbage baking for four hours in a 200 degree oven? Don't.

But the greatest marvel was that she turned so much food out of her little apartment kitchen. We lived in Connecticut, where nearly everyone we knew lived in a house. An apartment was an anomaly, as was a small kitchen. Many Italian families in our town had two kitchens: one on the main floor and one in the basement.

My grandmother was the oldest daughter of a large farming family. I called my sister to double-check the number of our great-aunts and uncles, but neither of us could remember: Tadeuz, Stanislaw, Piotr, Helka--and who was that guy who lived in the attic? Alfred? Albert? A-something. Adolf!

On holidays she cooked for her children and grandchildren as well as her siblings and their children. We lit candles set into painted metal wreaths and woke up early to roll out sweet potato dough.

So it never seems like much of a feat when I cook for five or ten or twenty in my tiny San Francisco apartment. It feels normal, even preferable to one of those weirdly spacious kitchens with a dishwasher or, godforbid, adequate counter space. Cooking with friends like Sonya is a symphony, but not honeyed Debussy, more twangy, abrupt Elliott Carter, full of bumps and starts. Messy, like love, like friendship, like anything worthwhile and good.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Persimmon Jam with Sonya

Now a caveat: when I said in that last post that San Francisco pulled into its orbit good cooks and good eaters, and that my friends were both, one exception came to mind, and that is my very exceptional friend Sonya, with whom I cooked tonight.

Sonya is my closest friend here, and one of the dearest people I know. She is not, however, a foodie, which is one of her many charms.

Some time after we met, but before I learned that she cooked infrequently and detested sweet food, I assigned her to provide the dessert portion of a meal we were cooking at my old apartment on Liberty.

She showed up with a paper bag stuffed with two or three cartons of milk from McDonald's and a jug of Torani pumpkin syrup, the type Starbucks squirts into your latte 'round October. She scalded the milk on the stove, tipped in a bit of syrup, and served the hot, sweet milk in mugs. It was both totally insane and strikingly avant garde, a fast food version of Ferran Adria. Last week we met at a bar where she brought her dinner: two sticks of jerky wrapped in a paper towel.

So it was a surprise when tonight Sonya asked to make persimmon jam for a Montana-bound relative. She bought about eight persimmons, both Fuyu and Hachiya, from the Ferry Plaza farmer's market(which locals know to visit Tuesday, not the turista-crazed Saturday version. I asked her to pick up some lemons, sugar and canning jars, which she found at Rainbow, the co-op grocery in our neighborhood.

The sugar she bought was Rapunzel Organic Whole Cane, which imparted a dark brown color and molasses-like flavor. I read in other recipes that the persimmon's delicate flavor didn't hold up well to cooking, which was certainly the case here, though I'm not sure if it was the fault of the assertive sugar.

The night, however, was a resounding success. We bound ourselves in blankets against the weird cold--San Francisco dipped into the high 30's at night, and my windows are stuck open, so the scene's a bit like an 1880's Brooklyn tenament. Where's Jacob Riis when you need him?

Sonya gave me exactly the Christmas gift I most desired: chocolates decorated with the face of Cordozar Calvin Broadus, Jr, known to the world as Snoop Dogg, formerly of Death Row records, currently a high school football coach, and always in my heart the man who delivered the best-ever musical hat-tip to leafy greens on The Chronic:

Fallin back on that ass, with a hellafied gangsta lean
Gettin funky on the mic like a old batch of collard greens

Herewith, the recipe:

Persimmon Jam
8 persimmons (about 2 cups pulp)
1/2 c sugar (white! none of that hippie bs!)
1/2 lemon, squeezed

Peel, pit and chop persimmmons, then place in a nonreactive pan. Stir in sugar and lemon. Cook over medium heat for about 25 minutes. The mixture should boil and reduce by about 1/3. Bottle.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mastering the Art of Fucking Up Your Cooking

All of my friends eat well, and most cook well. It makes sense: San Francisco is a city that pulls hedonists into its orbit. Last week I listened to a pick-up quartet play Brahms at a bar in the Mission District. A man with a silver moustache tapped his sneakered foot and leaned close to inspect the sheet music between movements.

"Are you a musician?" I asked him.

"No," he said, "I love beauty." That's how I feel about food.

So when I happen across someone who doesn't enjoy cooking, I am in disbelief. Andres, my roommate in Boston, boiled spaghetti to death each Sunday afternoon at our walk-up in the North End, spooning the limp noodles into a giant tupperware container he'd parcel out for each workaday lunch and dinner.

Obviously I cook because I like to eat. But also I cook because I like to experiment. I cook because I like to make a mess. I cook because I like to fail.

Failure isn't an acceptable option in many realms of life. It's unsafe and shunned. Who wants to fail at raising a kid or on a project at work?

Failure makes you learn, sure. But failure also makes you laugh at yourself. Failure makes you less of an asshole.

On the first night in my new apartment, I invited a few friends over for celebratory snacks and drinks. In the three hours between the movers leaving and the guests arriving, I baked green-frosted cupcakes and paved white bread with butter, cukes and truffle salt.

When you assume you'll have a 50% acceptance rate for a party with free food, you assume wrong. Everyone showed up and most brought friends, arriving directly after work and hoovering the limited supply of edibles before addressing the liquid portion of our meal. Reviewing the circle of drunk people sitting on the floor in my furniture-less living room, a dear friend ran to Safeway and returned with a canned ham and a microwaveable packet of fondue cheese. It was both hilarious and horrifying. Someone threw up in the sink. Someone was me.

I try new things always, but that spark of discovery sometimes burns into a full-on fire. Last week I roasted a chicken with a new recipe and set my pink vintage apron (yes, that one) on the stove for a minute while I ran to grab a lemon from the dining room table. In the minute gap, the apron hissed and curled like a Shrinky Dink tongue, with that same plasticky smell.

So here's my failure list: the apple butters from last year were dreadful; sometimes I buy food but then obsess over writing some story and let the fruit compost. If you wend down the trail of "I'll post the recipe tomorrow!" notes followed by silence, I was probably eating take-out noodles on the couch, wondering "How DOES George Saunders do it?" while the plums rot on the white counter. Also, I've heard from several sources that my marmalade's too sour (but that's how I like it).

Just today I melted some lovely pink rubber gloves accidentally left on the stove while I baked a marmalade tart. All the time I make messes, experiment, fail and learn. But that, also, is how I like it.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fall Not In New England

I'm from Connecticut. I say that and people think:

Admit it. You read "Connecticut" and thought: mansions, autumn, an image of the society perhaps drawn from a 1940's film starring America's favorite crooner, Bing Crosby.

When I tell people, especially out here in California where few of my brethren live, I can see those exact images pop into their heads. Being from there is funny, because when I think Connecticut, I think:

New Haven-style pizza, especially Frank Pepe's exceptional pie, and the colorful Sicilian community in my hometown, where I actually went to junior high with a kid named "Sebby Italia." And in some ancient lizard part of my brain, there's still that imprint of autumn in New England, despite my distinct memories of clogged sewers and slippery roads.

So San Francisco autumn is, frankly, a disappointment. Fall is less a season than a bellwether of winter, when rain charges across the Golden Gate and spreads across the sky in a suffocating gray pillow that soaks us from December through April.

One recent year--was it 2007 or 2006?--it rained every single day in March. You try: you buy knee-high rubber boots in pink, think of finding a sturdy parasol when next in London, book a weekend in Mexico as a last gasp.

In October you see the faces of people on the street, and you think: it's coming. You do not think of leaves, harvest pies, that hollow weight and prickly smell of pumpkins in a field. But you know what we've got on you, New England? This:

It is still 70 degrees, warm enough to wear only a scarf to the market at 7 a.m. Autumn fruits and vegetables are fantastic: fresh almonds, weird squashes, misty cardoons. We never had to invent something so morally repulsive (and secretly delicious) as gelatinous canned cranberry sauce.

This time around: persimmons. If you've seen them before, you may be more familiar with the squat, pumpkin-shaped fuyu variety. When ripe, the hachiya melts into a custardy texture that seems interesting to cook.

We'll see when they ripen later this week...


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Food, Folks, Funds.

Last week was my birthday. In San Francisco, it's typical to pile into a restaurant with 12 of your closest friends, and last year that's what I did. We wore funny glasses, ate too much, and drank. And drank. And drank.

Way too much.

I really nail the disapproving glare when I'm stone sober or incredibly drunk. What can I say: it's part of the genetic hope chest gifted by my Puritan Yankee ancestors.

Think you'd toss back vodka sodas in front of that guy? Think again.

To the matter at hand: this year I wasn't feeling the party circuit, in part because I wanted all of my friends to join in, not just the ones who could afford to commit to a $60 share of the tab. What with this depression we've got on, about half of us are unemployed or struggling.

Instead I cooked for them.

What's that? Huh? Oh. Yes. That is a pile of bacon on a paper plate. We're not in grilled squirrel territory yet. I turned my head, and like a puff of smoke the bacon was gone. I love my friends.

The sweet tomato jam, developed from this New York Times recipe, went well with a zucchini frittata; next time I'd add some bitter greens as well. On its own, the jam seemed a bit too saccharine, but paired against vegetal sharpness, the flavor peaks and mellows. Fig and strawberry-rhubarb jam I set out to serve with biscuits, but in the rush to fry chicken and semi-clean my dusty apartment, they also evaporated in a puff of smoke, but one that set off the fire alarm.

Luckily my friend Marco brought some raspberry muffins and homemade butter. Because of course if you were going to a brunch at noon on a Saturday, you'd wake up early to start churning your own butter. Right? The wheaty muffins were delicious with strawberry jam.

So there it is. The ideal birthday brunch. I'm off now for a trip to Laos and Vietnam. Maybe I can smuggle some pandan leaves back with me to finally make coconut-pandan jam?


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tomato Jam in the New Apartment

Cooking, for me, is a function of mood. I can cook when I'm busy or bored, when I'm tinkering with a story or desire to follow instructions slavishly and eschew thinking altogether. Fever-addled, I once mixed up homemade marshmallows at 4 a.m.; at 20 I nervously roasted a shank of pork to impress my boyfriend's aunt, a Jew, who proved more gracious than I was cultured.

However, I can not cook when I'm unhappy. When I stopped cooking in my last apartment in a sad neighborhood in outer Mission, and would neither invite friends to a meal nor cook for myself, it was clear I needed to find a home that felt more like home.

But now I'm in a new apartment I love. And I'm cooking. And I went to Slow Food Nation.

On a sunny Saturday in front of San Francisco's City Hall, I had the best biscuits I have ever tasted--ever--and tried to shake the recipe out of Scott Peacock, but he was busy turning out a new batch. Curses! Guess I'll have to buy the book.

I decided to check out the scene at the Ferry Building market, where the wait for a Blue Bottle cappuccino looked to be about an hour long. I bought gorgeous Early Girl tomatoes at Everything Under the Sun (which specializes in sun-dried products).

Today I'm cooking a batch of tomato jam, which I've never made or eaten. Recipe to come...


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More True = Less Funny.

Marco is becoming (deservedly) famous for his work on Cook Here and Now. And I'm one of the lucky few who will climb aboard his coattails all the way to the top of the San Francisco food chain.

Soon the doorman at Gary Danko will call in my drink order when he sees me slide out of a cab! Alice Waters will ring me for advice!

Well...not quite. But it's nice to see my friend reap the rewards of a project in which he's invested so much of his time.

At this weekend's food-fest, a magazine photographer will shoot the event, focusing in on a couple of participants who were asked to submit recipes that may be featured in the magazine.

I'm one of those people, so I've cooked my way through double blackberry pie (rejected because it had too many blackberries), pashka with lime marmalade (rejected because it was too complex), and finally a lime pie with a layer of blackberry jam.

I made three iterations, with the same crumb crust and blackberry jam layer: one chilled pie with whipped cream folded into lime juice and condensed milk; another souffle-like baked version with egg involvement; and a third that's a take-off of Shaker lemon pie, which uses the citrus peel.

"This looks like Slimer from Ghostbusters," I said, pouring the whisked eggs over the pale green peels.

"Your face looks like Slimer from Ghostbusters," my roommate said, which was not true, but funny.

And I was like: "Your grandma's face looks like Slimer from Ghostbusters," but I realized her grandma died and was buried last week. Sometimes things that are more true are less funny.

Tonight we're feasting on the three contenders. Each roommate gets a vote and they take the responsibility seriously.

Who will win? Who will be the next American pie-dol?


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lard: A Brief Interlude

This morning I woke with a mission, and that mission did not include a steamy kitchen or sticky pans.

In the space of 24 hours, no fewer than three people--a chef at Pizzeria Delfina; my hairstylist Camilla; and Thy, a writer for KQED--insisted that lard is the only way to go for an expert pie crust. Because I was ramping up to bake around 50 pies for a benefit event, I was in need of solid advice.

"Lard is my mom's secret weapon," said the chef, who hails from Iowa. Camilla, also a native Iowan, can't attend but insists she'll send her husband with lard-laden pie. Thy, another Midwesterner, agreed.

So the day was spent researching recipes with lard and then hunting down a good local source. Avedano's, my friendly neighborhood butcher shop, doesn't carry lard, but said they'd find it for me. The butcher's assistant wrote "Colleen: lard for 30 pie crusts" on their special orders notepad.

Social media tools like Facebook recognize the need for connection and power of social networks. When I first considered organizing a gathering of people and pies but didn't have a location, I posted a query to my Facebook profile and responses filled my inbox.

And there's a lot of value in that connection, particularly if you move a lot, as I have. It's not until recently, when I hit my three year mark in San Francisco, that I appreciated the living, breathing networks in my everyday life: the hairdresser who bakes cookies for me, the cook who doesn't know my name but sent a pane pomodoro because I looked hungry, the vegetarian butcher I bumped into on Valencia when I walked home late last night.

Farmer's markets pulse with that same sense of connection and relationship, an acknowledgement of the forces that bind us. Each of us breathes, dreams and dies, but there's nothing so pleasurable as eating to discuss, fuss over, and pause to enjoy.

If you're in San Francisco the afternoon of July 13th and have $20 burning a hole in your pocket, come to the pie social at the Women's Building on 18th at Guerrero. It would be nice to see you.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Promised Day is Come

Waiting for the figs to ripen on the tree in my yard was more difficult than I supposed.

It was less like anticipating the presents under the tree on Christmas morning and more like if each present started as a pea-sized knot on the carpet and grew incrementally over the course of two months while an impatient child hissed "But WHEN WILL IT BE AN X-BOX 360?!?"

So this week I saw figs at $2 per basket, reduced from $3 because they were a bit mashed up, and I bought them, despite the fact that $0 per bushel figs will drop softly from the waxy-leafed tree in a few weeks. Mommy, I want them now.

Sean Timberlake's recipe from last year was a huge hit, so I made it again. Early season figs were a bit less sweet and more liquid, so I used the full cup of sugar and a bit less than 2 c of water.

And now in my cupboard I have three half pints of fig jam set by, which fills me with an enormous sense of well being.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Better-Than-Apricot Apricot Jam

Blackberries, raspberries, peaches, nectarines, blueberries--no tayberries yet, but I'm looking.

Roving through the market this week, it's clear that summer produce is abundant. Admittedly, it was hard to select this week's victim. Of the concoctions I've concocted over the past year and some months, only two ran out more quickly than I'd like: apricot and fig.

Fig mostly because I made Marco's basic pizza dough with fig jam, rosemary and dolcelatte blue cheese--it's even better with the truffle salt Alison recommended. I saw a couple of early figs at one stand, but they were overly dear. Plus, in my new apartment I have a fig tree, and from the looks of things I'll have ready fruit in a few weeks.

And apricots? I don't even like them. (Record screech.) Yeah, I know. 90% of the time the texture is mealy, the flavor one note. But connect the fruit with sugar and a bit of lemon and you have something exceptional: a counterpoint to tart, creamy rugelach dough; the start of a marinade for fatty roast duck; a sauce for french toast that blows maple syrup out of the water.

So this year I'm setting more by, preparing for midwinter feasts, fresh-baked bread with a layer of butter and a spoonful of jam.

Better-than-apricot apricot jam
4 pounds apricots (makes about 2 1/4 c chopped fruit)
1 cup sugar
Juice from 2 lemons

  • Shock the skins off the fruit by dropping them into a pot of boiling water, quickly fishing them out, and pulling the loosened skin off.
  • Pit the skinless apricots and cut into quarters. Drop into a nonreactive pot with sugar and lemon juice.
  • Run at a low boil until the texture thickens and pulls together, about 30 minutes. Process in sterilized jars.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

So Cosmo Says You're Fat? Well, I Ain't Down With That.

Strawberry jam at Marco and Allison's apartment today. We ate squash blossom-anchovy pizza and listened to Cuban hip-hop and Marco's rap mix. Amusingly, the only time he loses his Roman accent is when he's quoting rap lyrics. OH. My God, Becky? Look at her butt.

"When I think of this country, I think of 'Baby Got Back,'" he opined. "How do you sit down at a table and write this song? I can't even imagine it."

I tried to follow Mrs RC Moneymaker's (real name, I swear--check page 189) "8 Minute Strawberry Jam" recipe from Pickles and Preserves, but there were some complications. First, the sugar to fruit ratio is insane: 4 parts sugar to 1 part fruit. Maybe this is why they had wooden teeth in ye olden days.

Then the wording tripped me up. The recipe requires the addition of "4 cups heated sugar." Heated? Is that...boiled? Liquid? Tossed in a saucepan and warmed up, but solid? No clue, and I didn't want to discover a hunk of hardened candy in the center of the boiling fruit, so we freestyled a straightforward recipe that did the trick.

Straightforward Strawberry Jam

6 cups of strawberries, hulled and mashed
2 cups of sugar
Juice of 2 lemons

Toss the mashed strawberries and their juices into a nonreactive pot. Bring to a slow, even boil, then add the sugar. Taste after 30 minutes, add lemon, and adjust sugar if necessary. Boil over low heat until the color deepens to a warm rose and the texture is as you prefer--ours was workable after about 1.5 hours, but we cooked a full 2 hours to get a tighter texture.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cherry-Sour Plum Jam

Sour cherries, a treat of Eastern European and Russian cuisine common in East Coast and Midwest markets, do not exist in San Francisco.

At least that's what I hear from two friends who tried to find them here and then reported that sour cherries aren't grown anywhere in California.

Sweet red cherries made a triumphant return last week. I tasted samples of wildly divergent quality at three or four stalls before I arrived at the DeSantis stand, where I noticed women in headscarves handing over $20 in exchange for covered boxes. If there's one thing I love at the market, it's the air of insider knowledge.

"What's in there?" I asked.

"Leaves," Mrs DeSantis answered. She pointed to the women in the scarves. "That culture likes them."

"It's the Mediterraneans: I'm one of them," one of her helpers said. "Grape leaves for dolmas. Try the sour plums. We like them, too."

I had noticed the plums: pale green and hard, with a waxy skin. The tart flavor hits your tongue like acid as you crunch through the skin, then fades a bit, as if your taste buds deciphered some code. I decided to try them with cherries as a mock 'sour cherry' jam.

The rub? Now I had to pit over 100 individual fruits, with a mild hangover on a Sunday morning. And I had to do it early because swing dancing lessons in the park started at noon.

The most efficient way to do this is probably with a cherry pitter, which I don't own. The plums I slit open and scraped around the pits. In contrast, the soft, pulpy cherries were easy to pit by hand, pressing the pit through the flesh.

Time-consuming, yes. First I was annoyed with my lack of foresight. Then I got into the rhythm and thought--wait, isn't this the best part of cooking? Up early on a foggy Sunday morning, drinking tea, listening to This American Life, and making headway on a mountain of fruit?

The jam was pretty good. Not as sour as a true sour cherry jam, but with a pleasant tartness and depth of flavor.

Cherry-Sour Plum Jam
3 cups cherries, washed and pitted
2 cups sour plums, washed and pitted
1 1/4 cups sugar
A bit of water

Pit fruit and toss in a nonreactive pot. I added about a tablespoon of water because the cherries weren't particularly juicy and I didn't want them to stick to the pan, but if your chopped fruit yields a decent amount of liquid you need add no water.

Heat slowly and bring up to boil, then add sugar. I tasted the fruit first and determined that 1 1/4 cups of sugar worked well. Cook gently until the fruit falls apart and pulls back together.

All in all, the pitting took over an hour and the cooking about an hour and a half.


Saturday, April 12, 2008


If you were at Alemany this morning, you heard the hams from Rodriguez Farms singing out their strawberry song: two men, three long notes, sustained for a few minutes: Straw-ber-eeee!

In 2008 I swore I’d improve on last year’s cooking strategy by rejecting the impulse toward innovation (in the guise of boredom).

I’d make some particular fruit into jam once, then forgo it for the rest of the season, because I considered myself “done” with whatever ingredient: tayberries, strawberries, green gage plums.

But you know what? In December, when the wind spit frigid rain at every turn, and my cabinet revealed only one half-pint of tayberry jam, I cursed my poor planning.

So again this week it’s strawberry, this time mixed with loquat, a fruit indigenous to China that now grows on the streets of San Francisco. With texture like an apricot, it has a slightly tart flavor.

At the loquat stand, a man in a leather jacket asked us about the fruit. Suddenly loquat experts, Maria compared it to a kumquat ("Well, they both end in -quat.'") We encouraged him to sample one, after which he dropped his pit into my hand, so that I could grow my own.

“Wow,” Maria said. “When’s the last time a grown man spit into your hand?”

Approximately never. But he did tell us the location of a meyer lemon tree in a public park in San Francisco. A win?

Photos courtesy of the fantastically talented Maria


Monday, March 31, 2008

Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam

Sunday Dan and I made strawberry-rhubarb jam at the Cook Here and Now dinner. Dan is one of my market buddies; seeing him and his daughter Mia lugging their cooler-on-wheels makes even the foggiest Saturdays brighter and better. Dan has taken a couple of classes from June Taylor, the Bay Area's most skilled jam maker, and has made several types of jam on his own.

Our collaborative effort is, if I say so myself, exceptional. All credit due to Dan, who bought, hulled and macerated the berries, and gave a running commentary on what June Taylor would do. He even did the math, all logical-like!

Dan: How much sugar should we add?
Me: Uh...until it tastes and smells and looks good?
Dan: Let me get a pencil.

the math

I convinced him to add a bit less sugar and more lemon than he proposed, to allow the the tart flavor of the rhubarb to match the sweet berries.I even picked the lemons from the tree in my backyard. California!

The fruit boiled down fairly quickly, but it took a while to get the consistency we wanted. It started out pinkish-red, like the blood of a baby seal that had eaten too much cotton candy, and finished as a deep rose.

By the way, I just checked with my friend Sonya, and she said the baby seal blood comparison was not too weird, so I'm going with it.

Strawberry Rhubarb Jam

3 quarts strawberries, sliced and hulled
1 3/4 quarts rhubarb, sliced into chunks about 1"
3 cups sugar
3 lemons, juiced

Macerate the sliced berries overnight with a cup of sugar. Toss them in a non-reactive pot with the rhubarb, lemon juice, and sugar to taste. Boil until you reach 220 degrees and the mix passes the freezer plate test.

This yielded 12 jars of mixed sizes. To get a more accurate estimate than that, I'd have to inquire with Dan.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hello, My Name Is

Today was the day of conversation, introductions and asides at the market.

I went with Maria, who celebrated her birthday today. Halfway through our first lap, we ran into Dan and Mia and discussed the dishes we planned to make at the Cook Here and Now dinner tomorrow and what was on the menu for Maria's ginger-themed dinner tonight.

"Where are you eating all of this food?" a stranger asked. "And can I come?"

At the Capay stand, a woman buying kale announced that she raised laying hens in the city.

"The secret," she warned, "is that chickens are cannibals! Pecking order isn't just a phrase." Apparently her hens ganged up on a sadistic rooster and plucked out his feathers. Sounds like a reasonable strategy to me.

I marched up to a guy in a Prather Ranch sweatshirt and asked if he pronounced the name Prah-ther or Pray-ther. Luckily, he was an employee and gave me the scoop: up north where the ranch lies the locals have a distinct accent, so it's Pray-ther. But he says it Prah-ther. Apparently he'd been listening in to one of our conversations as well; he wished Maria a happy birthday.

The first organic strawberries of the seasons appeared today, and tomorrow with Dan and his wife Amy, I'm making strawberry-rhubarb jam at the Cook Here and Now meal. A post tomorrow with a recipe.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Marmalade at Marco's

Saturday started off fast: we skidded over to Marco's apartment on a motorcycle, which was a hairy undertaking for two reasons:

1. I had never ridden on on a motorcycle.
2. I had an awfully bad hangover, which didn't help matters.

After a year of chat and business, finally we resolved on simultaneous bread and marmalade lessons. I'd been excited about the prospect of strawberry jam, but still the fruits of the market were unimpressive. No organics were available, and the fat, punch-colored conventionals offered little to compel. Instead we went for Lisbon lemons and crafted a pretty straightforward marmalade.

Marco and Allison's kitchen is ideal, from the light filtering through the waxy leaves outside to the smell of fermentation within. Alternating between cappuccino and Advil as fuel, I sliced lemons into thin strips, removing the seeds.

"Aaaaaah!" I moaned, still, around 1 p.m.

"You can't mix gin with beer," said the Roman. "It's like mixing Parmesan with...with...I don't know. It doesn't even exist, it's that bad. It's just wrong."

To avoid bitterness with citrus, you can scrape out the white pith, but these lemons had little. I tossed them in a non-reactive pot, covered with water, and boiled the mess until the peels were transparent, which took less than an hour. Then I measured the fruit and added about one part sugar for four parts fruit.

Put everything (liquid, peel, sugar) back in the pot and boil down to make marmalade, tasting to see if your sugar ratio works.

Because Lisbon lemons are exceptionally tart, so is this marmalade. You can add lots more sugar to smooth out the flavor, but then why use Lisbons? Let them be as they are.

About eight sliced lemons called for one cup of sugar; after tasting I added about a third cup more. We tried and liked the finished product on wheat bread, with a bit of butter.

Now that I've finished writing this, I remember some details: the wheat pancakes we forgot to try with marmalade, the two Winesburg, Ohio poems I read. I wonder when I'll ride a motorcycle again. I wonder if I'll add more sugar next time.

Recipes are stories. You rewrite them a little every time.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Voila--A Practical Application

Usually I give away the jams I make, but I keep a few jars around the house. Last week I made a pizza with fig jam, today I was cooking for some friends and finally perfected it, with help from Marco.

Best-Ever Fig Pizza

  • garlic, chopped

  • rosemary, chopped
  • olive oil
  • dolcelatte gorgonzola cheese, chopped
  • arugula, washed and torn

Roll out pizza dough and spread a thin layer of fig jam--mine is pretty thick, so I spread it on the dough with my hands. Sprinkle chopped rosemary and garlic, then diced bits of dolcelatte (a sweet gorgonzola). Add a pinch of salt, then dose with a bit of good quality olive oil.

Toss in the 500 degree preheated oven for six to eight minutes, until the crust is nicely browned. While it's cooling on the rack, throw on some arugula leaves.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

I Made Marmalade

...because Mrs DeSantis told me to.

Not sure what to get, I questioned the matriach of the citrus stand while trying to snap her picture. She described how to candy the thick peels of blood oranges, then decided I should make marmalade from the exceptionally tart, orange-skinned rangpur limes, which are a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon. You read that right: no lime involvement in this "lime."

Charming DeSantis naming conventions usually require a bit of research. The family is from northern Italy (Istria, I think?) and often letters in the names of their strange fruits are appended or discarded. The sign said "rangpure," so I google-tested for "rangpure" and "range pure" before landing on rangpur, apparently a fruit of Indian origins discovered by Sir Joseph Hooker in the foothills of the Himalayas and transported to Florida, where someone thought it was a lime.

Only appropriate then that we transform it to marmalade through another Floridian. Adapted from a recipe by Mrs Everette Rogers of The National Hotel in Leesburg, Florida:

Rangpur Lime Marmalade
6-8 rangpur limes

Wash the fruit and slice thin, discarding seeds and pith. Cover with water and boil, covered, 20 minutes. Measure the fruit and water mixture (I got 3 cups) and add 1/2 c sugar for each cup of mixture. Over medium heat, cook rapidly until the syrup gels. Seal in hot sterilized jars.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

Alemany, the Best Market on Earth

Last week I tried to describe to a mysterious Southern gentleman the appeal of the Alemany market. Many components inform the mix, but, like good jam, the mess boils down to one idea, and to me it's the sense of community.

I grew up on my great-grandparents' farm, living cheek-to-jowl with aunts, an uncle, cousins, and my grandparents, in addition to my siblings. In fourth grade we were asked to describe our family, including their number. I said my family included 11 people, not understanding the concept of 'nuclear.' The teacher must have thought us part of some religious sect.

At the market I get a palpable sense of San Francisco as my community. Alemany feels like a real neighborhood market: representing San Francisco's diverse population in its buyers, sellers and (affordable) produce.

A couple months ago I forgot my wallet at home. The market rests flush against a highway, far from any ATM machine. I walked through the stalls to get a sense of what was available that week, and by the end of my visit I had carrots, oranges, apples and a cookie, all for free.

Of course, the best part is visiting with my market friends.

Here's Maria, my partner-in-crime, if food is a crime. Since I moved out to farther Mission, we usually head over together, which has made rainy winter shopping more enjoyable. As we saw a man binding together these pussy willows, I said "Oh, for whipping people? Is it that time already?" They looked at me as if I'd said "That Dick Cheney seems like a real decent fellow." But I am not crazy!

Marco, as you know if you've met him, is a force to behold. An amazing compendium of food knowledge, and entirely generous about sharing it, to boot. If you haven't been to one of his Cook Here and Now dinners, you should make that goal your life's work. I've been baking bread for the last few weeks, and frustrated by the results. "Don't worry," he said, "I've been baking for 12 years, and I still don't always get it right."

This is Mrs DeSantis, who sells me my citrus, including the rangpure limes I'm using this week for marmalade. "Mrs DeSantis, I don't know what to make this week!" I cry, brow furrowed. She makes it easy.

Guisell sells the best coffee in the market, and is the force behind Sabores del Sur, and creator of what is commonly regarded as the best cookie on earth. She works with La Cocina, a food nonprofit for which I volunteer, so sometimes I'm lucky enough to run into her outside of the market, too.

Chris from Capay swears he used to model. That fact is unconfirmed, but I can confirm that he sells the best kale in the market.

I didn't find Dan or his delightful daughter Mia this week; last week she was buying strawberries to dip in chocolate for her mom's Oscar party.

On the preserved fruit front this week: rangpure lime marmalade, from Mrs DeSantis.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sicilian Blood Orange-Bergamot-Lisbon Lemon Marmalade

Finally this week I ran out of the last of the high summer preserved fruits. Through the chilly, rainy San Francisco winter, it was nice to have a physical remnant that somewhere, at some time, there was a bright, cloudless sky.

The first strawberries appeared this week, but probably I'll wait for high berry time when spring swings through the door. Instead I focused again on citrus, taking cues from the offerings at the DeSantis stand.
Tarocco Sicilian blood oranges were $2/lb; I picked up four. For the first time ever I saw bergamot in its natural state: an Italian citrus about the size of an orange with yellow skin and that distinctive smell you'll recognize from Earl Grey tea.
The price looked intimidating: $15/lb? I bought one, thinking it would be $3 or $4; it was $8. Yes, I bought an $8 orange. And then I walked around the market saying "Look at my $8 bergamot!"

Marco told me to check out the Lisbon lemons at Twin Girls Farm. I bought six of the small, dense, exceptionally tart lemons for $1.

Second verse, same as the first: I used the same basic recipe as last week, but the result is a bombastic pink concoction supporting thin strips of bergamot. Oh, you know I used every little bit of that $8 bergamot, despite the recipe's rule to toss out 2/3 of the skin.The pith on the bergamot was thicker than I expected. With my knife I scraped down the peel, pulling away the white film to reveal the oily plane below.

The taste? The flavor on the bit left over on the spoon was complex: a slow start that breaks into ecstatic, layered sourness. I can't wait to try the cooled marmalade.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

One Day, One Jar

Small batch is term artisanal producers can use to describe the food they produce. Sometimes slow, careful treatment of the best possible ingredients nets you only so much bourbon or coffee.

With my jam it's the same way. In part because I am particular about the fruit I select, in part because there is some appeal to me in bottling an experience: being able to look at a single pint or half-pint jar as representative of a particular time.

Take apricot jam, for example. That was the week I met Dan's daughter Mia, a sparky kid who was haggling with an elderly Vietnamese farmer. I remember the slight cotton candy smell of the apricots as they slipped their skins and puddled into the silver pot. Eventually I used the jar for rugelach I made for my friend Kate's open studio. Though it was probably six months ago, her boyfriend Elliot fondly recalled those rugelach last weekend.

That picture up there? That's the complete output of last weekend's work. One jar, which is probably going to the exceptionally talented Shuna Fish, who seems like she could use a love note of an edible kind.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Seville Orange-Sweet Lime Marmalade

Marmalade is the princess of preserved fruits. While most jams more closely resemble hardy farmhands inured to careless treatment, marmalade lays swathed in cashmere blankets on the terrace of a Swiss sanatorium, coughing palely and demanding a proper fish fork for her boiled dinner.

Instead of tossing some fruit in a pot with sugar and checking in every half hour or so, I started this recipe by peeling away the rind from my fruit and selecting only the most plump and flawless pieces, discarding about 2/3. Carefully I sliced the chosen pieces into thin strips, which I then boiled until soft (about half an hour). A recipe I consulted recommended replacing the water every ten minutes, but I was cooking three other dishes concurrently and hadn't the time.

Then I took the reserved fruit pulp and boiled it for about half an hour before using a sieve to extract the juice. To seal the deal, toss the strips in the juice and add a bit of sugar--I started with three Seville oranges and three sweet limes, which made one cup of (dry) strips and two cups of juice, to which I added about a half cup of sugar.

Boil down until it passes the freezer plate test and process, quickly and cleanly, so as not to kill your friends with botulism.