Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Fish Called Gefilte

Photo courtesy of Manischewitz
"Does anyone actually know what's in gefilte fish?"

Amazing. In over two decades of attending Passover seders, this was the first time I heard anyone ask the question that no one knows the answer to. During a holiday where we sing a song about Four Questions, it seems appropriate to delve into one culinary one:

Gefilte fish is one of those acquired tastes, which is a a polite way of saying it's abhorrent to anyone who didn't grow up eating it.  Most American Jews recognize it as beige football-shaped lumps that slide out of a Manischewitz jar. Packed in translucent jelly or liquid, each has the texture of finely ground meatloaf with a flavor that's unmistakably but nonspecifically fishy. You pile on as much fiery white and red horseradish as your taste buds can tolerate to mask the smell and inject a semblance of freshness.

Before gefilte fish swam through the industrial food complex to become a pantry item, it was conceived in the kitchens of poor European Jews as early as the Middle Ages. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, peasants "purchased ground scraps of bottom-feeding fish and mixed them with matzo meal or egg, oil and sometimes onion." A different article from the Forward says the Yiddish word "gefilte" means "stuffed" and refers to the early practice of cramming the ground fish mixture back into the skin of fish before being sewn and baked. That explanation contradicts the idea that shoppers were buying already ground fish and therefore wouldn't have the skin. Perhaps the latter method was preferred but reserved for wealthier families.

Modern jarred gefilte fish contains carp, mullet, whitefish, and pike.  It's prepared with a little sugar which conforms to the version favored by Western European and Polish Jews. Those living in the former USSR liked it peppery. The fish met the jar in the 1960s and parked itself in the "ethnic foods" aisle ever since.

Making it from scratch is an allegedly time-consuming and stinky process, but there are several recipes to guide fearless cooks. If there is such a thing as elegant gefilte fish, it may be this highly-rated one from Epicurious composed of halibut and salmon. See the recipe. The rest of us will spend the next week unscrewing lids

Happy Passover!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Chocolate Wasted at the Fall Chocolate Salon

Chocolate-covered marzipan from Nuttyness
If you're going to host a chocolate festival where oozy truffles are the treat du jour, you ought to provide napkins. Nonetheless, my sticky fingers had a marvelous time nabbing salted caramels (yes, they're still trending), pรขtes de fruits, and plenty of chocolate bon bons at the Fall Luxury Chocolate Salon at Fort Mason.

Socola and Charles Chocolates went boozy with the former offering a potent cognac truffle and the latter infusing his ganache with small-batch bourbon.

Just as I was getting bored with chocolate-covered nuts, I popped a hazelnut from Feve. Each one wore a thin armor of crunchy caramel under a dark chocolate overcoat. Owner Shawn Williams dry roasts the nuts in a copper pot, swathing them in sugar which slowly caramelizes to produce a candy shell.

Fire is still hot, and the sriracha truffle from Socola blew my lips off.  The name "Socola" is Vietnamese for "chocolate," but the company's flavor palette is cosmopolitan, wandering from chai to stout beer to guava. Prepare your waistline for their new store opening in SOMA in January 2014.

Despite their dainty appearance, Cocotutti's sleek truffles punched with whatever flavor they advertised. That lineup included blood orange, lemon lavender, and Yunnan tea.  Find them at select small retail stores.

I declared my affection for Nuttyness's chocolate-covered marzipan in an earlier piece on Bay Area candy bars, but when I spotted Kristian Salvesen at the chocolate salon, I couldn't resist snatching a few soft, almondy pieces shrouded in Belgium chocolate and jazzed with coffee, ginger, or pistachio.

I saved the most unusual treat for last -- the Marakesh truffle from Quail Point Chocolate. Located in Napa, chocolatier and owner Daniel Galvin uses thirty one spices to create his version of ras el hanout, a North African blend that includes coriander, cardamom, turmeric, and ginger. The ganache is intense and familiar, savory and surprising. It compels you to take just one more bite -- and then another -- as you hopelessly try to figure out what exactly is in it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Farmers Marketing, Outer Sunset Supping, and More Recent Eating Exploits

Time flies when you're feasting. A look at where I've been and what I've been ingesting:

My secrets to navigating the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to score the best items and most free samples.

On non-market days, here's where to eat inside the Ferry Building. And check out a rendition from 2011 that points out some other wonderful spots.

Hard time and homemade bread? Why Alcatraz inmates ate so well and a look at how today's San Quentin prisoners fare.

When eating sushi, do you mix wasabi into the soy sauce? Do you know the right way to dip your nigiri? Learn the etiquette of eating sushi.

It's a foggy trek to Ocean Beach, but the culinary rewards are worth it. See 7 Dishes Worth Traveling to the Far Outer Sunset.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bare Fruit Apple Chips: Betcha Can't Eat Just One

Nothing but apples in this bag

If I could only eat one category of food for the rest of my life, it would be fruit.  I'll take a barrel of any species, fresh or dried, and contentedly munch until my stomach feels like it's going to pop off of my body like a loose button on a tight jacket. Until recently, I only gorged on two forms,  fresh and dried, but now I've discovered a third contender -- baked-dried.

The organic apple chips from Bare Fruit are crispy and crunchy without any of that puffed airiness of the dehydrated kind.  I'm so hooked on both the sweet Fuji and tart Granny Smith varieties that I can down an entire bag in one sitting. That's equal to four apples.

In an effort to slightly curb my consumption to a more reasonable half-bag (aka two apples), I've been mixing the apple chips with other ingredients to create more complex snacks. Here are some of my latest creations:

PB and A
Dip the apple chips in peanut butter. Alternatively, you can spread peanut butter onto the apple chips, but that takes longer and the chips at the bottom of the bag are invariably broken. If I'm feeling decadent (or mad or sad or happy or tired), I add a flurry of chocolate chips.

Party Mix
Mix the red-rimmed Fujis with the green Granny's in a large bowl to make the base of your party mix. Add toasted walnuts, peanuts, and raisins. If you're feeling decadent (or mad or sad or happy or tired), add chocolate chips too.

Turkey, Brie, and Apple Chip Sandwich
You know those people who like to crush potato chips inside their sandwiches? This is a healthier version (the healthfulness is directly proportional to the size of your slab of brie). Roasted or smoked turkey, butter lettuce, and a little Dijon makes a nice combo, but chicken or roast beef would also work.

Find Bare Fruit apple chips at Whole Foods markets.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Yatsuhashi Cookies for (Green) Tea Time

The curved shape represents the koto, a Japanese string instrument

During a recent adventure in San Francisco's Japantown, I discovered some crunchy cookies that deserves a spot on your saucer. They're called "yatsuhashi," and they come from Kyoto.

According to one origin story, they were created to honor 17th century musician Kengyo Yatsuhashi and shaped to resemble his instrument, the koto. A different story claims they were made to look like a bridge, since "yatsuhashi" means "eight bridges" or "eight-planked bridge."

Basic yatsuhashi consist of rice flour and cinnamon. Toasted soybean flour adds nuttiness and a scatter of baked-in poppy seeds provide additional crunch. The cookies are crispy, delicate, dainty and a tad sweet. While you won't want to dunk one in your cup of green or oolong tea because it would muddle the balance of flavors, you should keep a plate alongside your pot for intermittent nibbling.

If you visit Kyoto, you'll also find the unbaked version called "yatsuhasi nama." These are triangles of soft dough  made from rice, spiced with cinnamon, and filled with red bean paste.  They're too perishable for export.

Find yatsuhashi at San Francisco confectionary shop Nippon-Ya in the Japantown mall. You'll also find green tea, coffee, and sesame varieties.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Chocolate Kale Chips, What?

Half-eaten bag of one of my other favorite flavors, Quite Cheezy.

It sounds absurd. Chocolate and kale?  But don't dismiss the latest incarnation of kale worship.

Alive & Radiant Foods, my go-to brand of kale chips, introduced Chokalet Chip Kale Krunch over a year ago.  Lately, I've been seeing it less and less on the grocery store shelf, so here's my pitch to save it from extinction.

Coconut palm sugar imparts a touch of sweetness, but don't mistake these chips for cookies. The kale's grassy flavor makes them taste more bitter than sweet, though chocolate saves them from being categorically savory. They're a legitimately healthy, kinda-sorta treat.  And while I was a fan at first munch, I know a couple of folks who had to try several bites before becoming devotees.

If you can't fathom a chocolate and kale combination, try one of Alive & Radiant's other flavors.  Cheezy Chipotle and Hibiscus and Pink Peppercorn are two of my favorites.  Whichever  you choose, you'll appreciate the following characteristics:

1. Crunch
Some kale chips taste limp. These ones are real noisemakers due to a low-temperature dehydration process. That process also helps the chips retain nutrients, the very nutrients responsible for kale's propulsion to produce fame in the first place.

2. Size
Too often, kale chips crumble in their packages leaving you with a bag of crumbs.  Alive and Radiant's are large, jagged shards that stay intact.

3. Cost
These are a few dollars cheaper than the other brands.  Price varies by store, but expect to pay between $4 and $6. Be on the lookout for frequent sales on one or more flavors.

Find the Kale Krunch line at Whole Foods, Real Foods, and other similar organic/health food markets. You can also purchase them online.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Product Alert: Worthy Granola Lives up to its Name

Reusable jars are a worthy idea

Once upon a time in the 19th century, granola was a health food. It consisted of whole grains  baked until crunchy.  It later became associated with hippie culture and the revived interest in natural foods. Now, most granolas are so saddled with sugar  it's hard to characterize a bowlful as anything but dessert.

Jeanne Norsworthy, creator of Worthy Granola, was fed up with the perversion of her favorite breakfast food, so she created her own. "At first I tried (unsuccessfully--and with good reason) to make it specifically oil-free or low fat," says Norsworthy. " I eventually created granola with the "it" factor I was looking for."


The granola is barely sweetened with molasses, coconut sugar, and maple syrup, all of which counter an otherwise pleasantly salty twang. The rest of the mix consists of oats, sprouted almonds, sprouted walnuts, sprouted pumpkin sweets, unsweetened coconut flakes, raisins, and flaxseeds. With an ingredient list like that, are you surprised it's also organic?  

Norsworthy produces the cereal in 1 pound jars. She currently only sells though special order but plans to make her granola available in select San Francisco stores starting in January 2013. Send her an email to buy or request more information.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Saigon Sandwiches for the Win

My winner on election day 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sunlight, 80 degrees, and a patriotic spirit propels me toward the Civic Center (though not before stopping at Whole Foods for a free cup of I-just-voted coffee).  City Hall looks the same as always, no last-ditch pro-Obama rallies or anti-Romney tirades, just a solitary table laid out with voter information and one man in a baseball cap holding a sign that said "vote" with an arrow pointing inside.  This lack of demonstration seems very un-San Francisco.

Bored, hot, and hungry, I continue toward UN Plaza for Tuesday's Off the Grid hoping to score a cheap lunch from some yet untried truck.  The daily options all veer toward meaty with brisket sliders from Old World Food Truck and pork belly buns from Chairman Bao, all of which feel too heavy for the weather.

This day warrants something fresh, something leafy, something light but still filling. This day demands a bahn mi.

Just a few seedy blocks north of the Civic Center lies Little Saigon. There, smack in the tenderest part of the tenderloin stands legendary banh mi shop, Saigon Sandwiches.

Joining the line of devotees crammed inside, I wait only 45 seconds to place my order, thanks to an efficient system consisting of one woman taking orders without collecting payment while two others speedily stuff and wrap the sandwiches. You pay upon receiving your sandwich. And what you pay is absurd.

$3.50 scores you a toasted baguette loaded with long flat sheets of fried tofu (or pork or chicken or meatball or pate), shredded carrots, jalapenos, cucumbers, and an overgrowth of cilantro all sticking together by the faintest spread of of mayo. The vegetables and tofu are left long rather than chopped, which helps the ladies save prep time. It also proves the superfluity of chopping vegetables for sandwiches, since you tear them apart bite by bite anyway.

Note that Saigon Sandwiches occupies a dinky space furnished with only two seats by the window.  However, because it is so small, everyone orders his or her sandwich to-go, which means at least one of those two seats is almost always empty.

Election day is about winners and losers, and Saigon Sandwiches is destined for a long and popular term.

560 Larkin Street (between Turk and Eddy)

(415) 474-5698

Monday, October 15, 2012

Product Alert: Graeter's Black Raspberry Chip

A shade for wearing or eating
Fruit-flavored ice creams often taste too little of fruit and too heavily of cream, but Graeter's knows what it's doing. Its Black Raspberry Chip is deep fuschia, reminiscent of 1980s prom dresses, but there's nothing immature about it. It's not too sweet, tastes of the berry, and is gashed with dark chocolate disks.

It's also incredibly creamy thanks to the company's signature French Pot technique that churns the ice cream by gently folding it onto itself. It's that process that turned Graeter's into the darling of the Midwest when Bavarian immigrant Louis Charles Graeter opened his Cincinnati shop in 1870, selling ice cream and chocolate. The company still makes ice cream the original way, two gallons at a time.

Raise your spoons to this "All-Time Bestseller," and find pints online or at Whole Foods.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Carrot Muffin for a Good Morning

Showing off a blistered cream cheese cap 
I have a thing for muffins. No matter the bakery, no matter the time of day, I compulsively gloss over the croissants, Danishes, and scones and settle my hungry gaze on the muffin selection. I also have a thing for cream cheese baked into muffins, so when I started perusing the collection at Sandbox Bakery and glimpsed the cream cheese carrot muffin, I slapped my $2 on the glass countertop and looked away from the case.

This muffin is easy to love.  A golden crown of baked cream cheese burrows into an interior crammed with shredded carrots, chewy golden and purple raisins, and walnuts. It's a model for Morning Muffins everywhere and stays just as moist the next day.

Located in Bernal Heights, Sandbox is a favorite amongst ladies in yoga pants who sip their lattes on the sunny bench outside the shop.  The bakery plans to serve sandwiches and pizzettas soon.