Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dried Fruit Fantasies

Organic fruit tray from Bella Viva Orchards
Growing up, I imagined someday becoming a dried fruit farmer. By that, I meant I would be a farmer that grew fruit expressly for the purpose of drying it.  And because I don't actually like farming, what I really meant is that I would oversee a farm that grew fruit expressly for the purpose of drying it. I envisioned cloudless days when I would stroll through the fields wearing a wide straw hot, flowing skirt, and loose white blouse. I would carry a wicker basket full of chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven, which I would pass out to the farmhands. I think my dream took place in the 1800s.

As I got older and abandoned such ridiculous aspirations in favor of more attainable ones like being a food writer who actually earned fair compensation for her work, the fantasy shifted. I created a dried fruit kingdom, and that's where I go when I need a break from it all:

In a dusky square room, I sit upon my throne. It's not a chair but a ten foot-high pile of dried stone fruits. There are purple plums, pinky-red dandy dapple pluots, beige peaches, and sunny nectarines, all layered one on top of another creating a kaleidoscopic tower. Surrounding me are stacks of dried fruit varietals sourced from around the world -- kiwis from New Zealand, dragon fruit from Vietnam, sticky tamarind from Thailand, lychee from China, guava from South Africa, creamy alphonso mangos from India, plump figs from Turkey, and starfruit from Mexico.  Every type that's grown anywhere is there in my chamber. Each has been diligently dried in the sun so that the sugars concentrate and the texture turn chewy.  

From the window, I see my cheerful subjects roaming the orchards, happily harvesting apples, oranges, pineapples, and papaya. They snack as they work. It's encouraged. Real-life seasons, climates, and landscapes don't exist. Here, the world is only sweet and nourishing.  


Shopping tip:
If you are also a dried fruit fiend, you must check out Bella Viva Orchards. Located in the Central Valley in Hughson, CA, the farm produces a year-round slew of conventional and organic options. Find them at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Alemany Farmers Market on Saturdays or online.  And if you ever want to surprise me with a gift, a bag of sulfite-free dried peaches, nectarines, and persimmons will earn you my limitless adoration. 




Sunday, July 6, 2014

Born Right Here: All-American Snacks for July 4th Weekend

Photo via Ice Cream Bar Facebook Page

Other than twinkies, powdered macaroni and cheese, and canned spaghetti, most “all-American” foods came from somewhere else. The Germans brought pretzels, pizza arrived from Naples, and Marco Polo discovered a chilled custard in China that presaged ice cream. All these items, of course, evolved to become distinctly American as immigrants tailored them to local palates and prepared them with available ingredients. Putting a frankfurter on a bun, for instance, transformed the sausage into a portable, cheap meal that immigrant street vendors could sell to busy New Yorkers who couldn’t pause to sit down.


This holiday weekend, here’s a look at three homegrown favorites:


Ice Cream Cone
A few theories circulate about the cone’s inventor and time of invention, but here’s the most popular: Syrian immigrant Ernest Hamwi was selling thin, crisp pastries that may have been zalabia at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis when a fellow vendor ran out of dishes for his ice cream. Hamwi curled one of his cookies into a cone shape, birthing one of the most popular food partnerships of all time.

At Eatwell Farm's Ice Box in the Second Act Marketplace, find handmade buttery cones for the company's organic soft serve.

Sundae
First came the cone, then came torrents of hot fudge. Soda shops emerged in the 1870s and by the early 20th century, they raged amongst teenagers as socially acceptable places to meet and mingle. Some government leaders worried that soda shared alcohol's corruptive properties and banned it in several communities. Some religious leaders lambasted the ice cream soda and encouraged the pious to avoid drinking it on Sundays. A clever soda jerk responded by putting all the dessert's elements except the soda into a dish and naming it “sundae.”

At the Ice Cream Bar in Cole Valley, costumed soda jerks dish caramelized banana splits and cherry cornmeal shortbread sundaes.

Popcorn
Corn is indigenous to the New World with some evidence that populations in Peru were popping it 6700 years ago. In North America, European explorers learned about it from Native Americans. Colonists sometimes breakfasted on popcorn mixed with cream and sugar. Fame struck the kernel in the late 19th century and continued throughout the Depression offering down-and-out consumers an affordable luxury at $.05 to $.10 bag.

Check out Masala Pop at Buyer’s Best Friend in the Upper Haight and North Beach for flavors like Chai Masala and Tamarind Sesame.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Snack Alert: Sprogs Rice Scooters



Visit the Upper Haight Farmers Market to sample all the flavors
For 1000 or more years, white rice balls have satisfied Japanese snackers in search of portable, cheap sustenance. These "onigiri" became chic in San Francisco in 2012 when the restaurant Onigilly opened in the Financial District. Moving beyond traditional fillings of pickled plum and cooked salmon, Onigilly tempted the unfamiliar with spicy bacon and honey-braised ground beef.

Now we have Sprogs with its lineup of "rice scooters." Each of these hand-pressed squares relies on Haiga rice sourced from the Sacramento Valley. This Japanese-style brown rice undergoes partial milling to remove the outer bran (which makes it appear white), but it retains the vitamin-rich germ. Mild in taste and nearly creamy in texture, the rice stays soft for several days in the refrigerator, though Sprogs recommends eating the scooters at room temperature. The excellent flavors trot the globe from Jamaican jerk chicken (most popular) to peanut butter and housemade jam to kale & homemade kimchee, and the breakfast-ready bacon & egg.

The names "Sprogs" and "rice scooters" sound like they were destined for an audience of four-year-olds, which is sort of how the company started. Founder Ching-Yee Hu wanted to transform the brown rice snacks she made for her toddlers into something adults would enjoy. "Sprog" actually comes from British slang and means "child."

Check them out at select Bay Area stores as well as the Wednesday Upper Haight Farmers Market and Saturday Palo Alto Farmers Market. They're $2.50 each.




Friday, May 23, 2014

Schmacon, Seriously?

Photo courtesy of Schmaltz Products
Oh vey. Just as I thought bacon mania was beginning to subside, cows are being dragged into the smoker.  Schmacon, the newest product from Schmaltz.com (is this company begging for an SNL spoof?) is made from “whole-muscle beef.” It's doused in inventor Howard Bender’s proprietary blend of deli spies and advertises a “smoky and sweet flavor and a meaty and crisp texture” with less fat and sodium than pork bacon. It won a 2014 Food & Beverage Innovation Award (FABI) from the National Restaurant Association, which puts it in the esteemed company of pureed meats from Hormel Health Labs and vegan breaded fish fillets from Gardein.
Though the schmacon is not kosher, I wouldn’t be surprised if the company is seeking certification. Just imagine the array of holiday dishes such a move would trigger: latkes and schmacon, savory schmacon matzoh brei, potato schmacon knishes, and obviously, chocolate matzo toffee with schmacon so that Jews can finally understand  why chocolate-covered bacon bars exist and cost $7.50 each.  

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.