Category Archives: Connie

Saving some for later: bye bye tomato season…

canned tomatoes

Every year, I eagerly await tomato season. Tomatoes, along with watermelon and corn, are a few things that makes summer (my least favorite season) entirely bearable for me, much like how Christmas sees so many people through the darkest part of winter.

I have a mad crazy love affair with dry farmed early girl tomatoes. I’ll buy pounds of them at the farmers’ market and savor them throughout the week, slicing them and eating them raw (or sometimes, with a sprinkle of sugar, a guilty pleasure)…or making them into soups, or sauteeing them with garlic and olive oil and basil and tossing them with pasta…or eating them with fresh mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar…the list goes on!

pasta with tomatoes and basil from the garden

Some people have their preferred dry farmed early girl tomato vendors–there’s, for instance, a rivalry between Ella Bella and Dirty Girl. Foodies like to debate between these two farms. I’ve done my own taste tests–but find them both so very delectable. I tried them side by side and found Ella Bella tangier, saltier…and Dirty Girl sweeter. I preferred the Ella Bellas that week. But then the next week, the tomato tastes changed again, and I found myself preferring Dirty Girl tomatoes. I presume things like the sun, temperature, soil…all the things that make up “terroir” influence the tomatoes!

dirty girl vs. ella bella

Nevermind, they’re delicious! And I will a dry farmed early girl from most any farm.

And then later on in the season, if I’ve planted early girls (like I did this year) in the garden, I’ll start eating my dry farmed early girls straight off the plant. Mrmmmm. Nothing beats a tomato fresh off the living vine. That burst of umami, the kind that tells you about every ray of sunshine that ever hit that plant and made it happy. THAT taste hits your tastebuds. It makes my toes curl with pleasure.

I had the first black krim heirloom tomato off my plant last week (yes, it’s a late bloomer) and it made me ecstatic too. Next year, along with early girls, I’m definitely planting another black krim…and will plant a momotaro to boot. Dry farmed early girls, black krim, momotaro, and odoriko are my favorite tomatoes.

tomatoes and basil

It’s officially Autumn now, my favorite time of the year. But even my favorite time of year is not without its sadness–for tomato season will soon hit its close. If you’re lucky like I am, you live in an area where that season doesn’t close for at least another month.

But even so, it’s time to think ahead. Yummy stews and crisp apples and cool and refreshing breezes lay ahead of us.

And we’ll miss the tomato. I’ll miss the tomato. Especially dry farmed early girls.

And I’m determined, this year, to not miss it TOO much. So–Connie and I got together and canned some tomatoes today.

We’re novices at canning tomatoes. I figured that even if we made mistakes, we’d make them together and have lots of fun on a balmy Autumn Sunday. We met up at the farmers’ market, where we bought about 10 pounds of tomatoes: San Marzano and dry farmed early girl tomatoes. (We also hit Blue Bottle coffee and fortified beforehand). The tomato vendors got visibly excited when we mentioned we’d be canning–they had some tomatoes in flats hidden in the truck! They could sell them to us at a discount! Then balked when we said we needed only five pounds of San Marzano.

Now WHY, we thought would we want more than 5 pounds of San Marzano tomatoes (we got another 5 pounds of early girls)?! Isn’t that an AWFUL lot of tomatoes to begin with?

canning tomatoes

Ha. We found out later, as we skinned the tomatoes and then began filling the jars. 10 pounds of fresh tomatoes does NOT make many cans of tomatoes (for us: 2 quart jars, 5 pint jars–split between two people). This may be obvious to many of you–I feel your scoffing! But it wasn’t obvious to us, two first time tomato canners. So be warned: if you want to can tomatoes and make it worth your time, you’ll want to can at LEAST 20 pounds of tomatoes.

And get the juiciest, sweetest, saltiest, most flavorful tomatoes you can find.

You’ll also want LOTS of pots of water (including a very deep, large pot for the water bath–larger if you’re using quart sized mason jars as you want the water to be at least 1 inch higher than the jars). You’ll want a huge pot to do the water bath. You’ll want a small pot in which to simmer the lids. You’ll want a medium pot in which to blanch the tomatoes (for easier peeling). You’ll want a smallish/mediumish pot to boil water or tomato juice (for filling the jars). LOTS of pots. LOTS of water.

And you’ll want LOTS of mixing bowls–to hold all the tomatoes, to rinse them, to peel them, to separate out the juices. Wear an apron.

water bath

I don’t think you need a lot of specialized canning accessories–but I do think the jar grabber is a necessity (it helps you grab those jars as you submerge them in the BOILING HOT water bath, and when you retrieve them from the BOILING HOT water bath). Before I got a jar grabber, I used a regular kitchen tong and a silicon mitt, and believe me, it was WAY too precarious a process and the canning gods were smiling upon me that day, as I did not have one mishap.

And the other thing you’ll need is some lemon juice–to bring the acidity up so that you reduce the chance of spoilage, and also to keep that gorgeous red colour. (We used the pickyourown website as a canning guide).

Our canning adventure had a good dose of giggles, as we realized, halfway through, how we really ought to have bought at LEAST twice as many tomatoes. Oops! We looked sheepishly at all the empty, sterilized jars (yes, I discovered the “sanitizing” setting on my dishwasher, and we are fairly certain it did a job similar to an autoclave–whew!)…and were like, oops. We won’t be using THOSE! Ahem. *sheepish grins*…giggle.

Nevermind the costs.  While the jars were in the water bath, we quickly calculated up the costs: approximately $10 for the jars (but we used only half so it was about at $5 investment)…$25 for the tomatoes…about $3 for the lemon juice/lemons…divided by 7…we spent over $5/jar.  Spendy.  Costwise, this project would only make sense if you were canning tomatoes out of your own garden.

I thought I might be sharing some of these canned tomatoes–but methinks that might not be happening, given the tiny yield. 🙂

But there’s something I realized that I’d definitely be doing again, go forward: I’ll be having a friend over to do future canning. My previous adventures in canning preserves have been solitary affairs–more meditative than anything. But I definitely prefer a raucous social mien around the canning! Connie and I had fun snacking during the lulls, eating a Keitt mango by the pool when the jars were safe, boiling in a water bath.

The jars are cooling now, as we keep our fingers crossed that the jars will seal properly and the lids will not budge. And I look forward to that winter day when I open a jar and get a taste of those dry farmed early girl summer tomatoes.

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream.

It’s been hot for the past week and a half or so in the Bay Area.  Really hot.  I’ve hit the pool every day, and   I’ve avoided using the stove, eating salads, bread, cheese and charcuterie for dinner instead.  Last weekend, I was going to make a watermelon, feta and mint salad to bring to a BBQ, but the mint at all the farmers’ markets looked pretty pathetic (I guess the heat got to the mint as well) so I had to ditch that plan.  I decided going to grill some peaches and make a raspberry sauce… hmmm, what else would go with that ? Ice cream!  I hadn’t made a batch of ice cream nearly all summer.  Shameful, right?  Then I remembered my mental bookmark of David Lebovitz’s salted butter caramel ice cream.  I was unsure of making an ice cream involving molten sugar, but since he declared that it was better than Berthillon’s (the best ice cream I have ever had; Birite in San Francisco makes a reasonable facsimile) and it would be some time before I returned to Paris, I decided what the hell.  Besides, the idea of finding parking and enduring the line at Birite (18th and Guerrero!) was more than a little daunting.  

Like all great recipes, this one kept its ingredients simple – just cream, milk, eggs, sugar, salted butter, salt (preferably fleur de sel) and vanilla.  I had all the ingredients on hand, except the butter (I only keep unsalted in the house).   I wanted to try Vermont Butter and Cheese Co.’s but the Kerrygold at Trader Joe’s was the most convenient option.   I also used Strauss milk and cream (I don’t like their butter, though.  Tastes like movie popcorn butter to me), and Marin Sun Farms eggs.  Have you tried Marin Sun Farms eggs?  I will drive out to the SF Ferry Building and brave all the tourists on Saturdays just to buy their eggs.  They’re that good.  The only other eggs that I have had that were better were from a really eccentric and flaky vendor at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market called B&B, but I haven’t seen them there in quite some time.

The recipe comes in two parts.  The first is a basic praline (to stir into the churned ice cream), and the second is the ice cream custard. Since you have to let the custard chill overnight, you don’t have to make the praline until later.  A molten sugar incident that left me with bandages all over my face for the summer and drove me to seek the advice of a plastic surgeon has heightened my sunscreen obsession exponentially and made me hypervigilant about dealing with molten sugar now.  I studied all of the comments and links left on David’s recipe entry including his tips about making caramel, and followed every instruction to a t.  I premeasured out all the ingredients and neatly set up the mise.  I even made an ice bath, a step I had ignored in the past when melting sugar.  

As I began to make the praline, I remembered… I had actually done this many, many times before, when I went through an obsession with preparing tarte tatin.  A few years ago, I made 1-2 tarte tatins a week from the end of summer to the beginning of spring.  After the molten sugar incident, I guess I had blocked it out!  Anyways, caramelizing sugar for a praline is a lot easier (and safer!) than melting sugar to a soft ball stage for italian buttercream. Basically, you heat the sugar in an even layer over moderate heat in a large, heavy duty saucepan.  As the edges begin to melt, you stir the outside melted sugar towards the inside.  As soon as it all dissolves and turns golden, you IMMEDIATELY, without even blinking, sprinkle in some salt and pour it into a silpat lined cookie sheet.  Don’t wait around once it dissolves and turns brown; the sugar contines to cook, caramelize and burn after you turn off the heat and even on the cookie sheet.  Don’t stick your fingers in the sugar until you are certain that it’s cooled, and don’t touch the underside of the cookie sheet.  Once it is cool, break off a little of the praline and taste it to make sure it isn’t burnt.  I had to try three times before I got it right.  Luckily, this is a pretty quick and easy process, and only involves half a cup of sugar.  

Making the custard also involves caramelizing some sugar, but instead of pouring it out, you add the butter and salt to the pot.  This is actually a little easier than making the praline – there’s more of a margin of error since the addition of the butter slows down the cooking process and prevents the sugar from burning.  Once the butter is melted, you add the cream, then half of the milk.  It will definitely seize up.  So much so that the first time, I freaked out a little – “Omigod!  I ruined the recipe!  Aaah!” – and wound up sloshing the cream all over my kitchen.  So, carefully whisk in the cream, and just continue stirring it over the stove.  Make sure you scrape the bottom of the pot.  The newly formed lumps (or gigantic hunk) of caramelized sugar will eventually dissolve.  Then you temper the egg yolks, and pour the custard through a strainer into a bowl containing the rest of the milk set over an ice bath.  The strainer doesn’t just strain out the curdled eggs – remember those seized lumps of sugar?  That’s the point at which you realize, “oh, David is so smart!”.  Cool the custard in the refrigerator overnight before churning.  My pastry chef friend says that this allows the flavors to mingle, deepen and ripen.  

While the ice cream churns, crush the praline into confetti sized pieces.  David says he uses a mortar and pestle, but he suggests using a rolling pin.  I didn’t feel like dirtying any more dishes, so I crushed it with my hands by rolling it up in the silpat and cracking it as small pieces as I could.  Then, I used the butt of an empty wine bottle to bash it up some more.  Add it to the ice cream in the last five minutes of churning.  Because of the salt, this ice cream is pretty loose, so freeze it for a few more hours once it’s done churning.  You might want to crank up the freezer to help it harden.  

The verdict?  Unanimous approval, even from Zack, who doesn’t even like Birite’s salted caramel ice cream.  

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asks as he POLISHES OF THE CONTAINER.

“Like what?”

“Like I’m doing something really awful, and you’re going to kill me!”

Um, sweetie, you are, and I am!

The Green Faerie

When my wonderful friend Justin took off with his partner on a 3 month backpacking trip through Europe and Africa nearly ten years ago, he asked me what souvenir he could bring back for me. “Absinthe,” I replied immediately. I had just enjoyed a Valentine’s Day meal at Absinthe in San Francisco, and was fascinated by the stuff, especially since it was, at the time, strictly illegal in the States (they weren’t serving it at the restaurant). I didn’t actually expect him to bring it back – I explained that it would be contraband, but lo and behold he simply declared it and customs just waved him through. I fantasized about planning all sorts of belle epoque themed dinner parties, but just never got around to it.

Place St. Catherine absinthe shop

A few years ago, when I was visiting Justin in Paris, we happened upon an absinthe shop in Place St. Catherine, a charming and discreet little plaza in the Marais (A glimpse of it is visible as Treadstone’s Paris branch in The Bourne Identity). In addition to selling the stuff, they also sold absinthe accoutrements. I purchased a spoon and a finger sized bottle.

Recently, the United States legalized absinthe, and as luck would have it, the only domestic distiller producing it, St. George Spirits, is right in my backyard. The first release was on December 27, 2007. Demand was high, and after customers endured 6 hour waits in the rain, the product sold out in two hours. I figured that since I already had a bottle, there was no need for me to subject myself to such insanity. But the next day, after enjoying a leisurely German brunch, the bartender brandished a bottle towards us as the busboy cleared away our glasses. “This stuff ain’t for chumps.” I looked at my husband and we shrugged “Why not?” and ordered a shot to share. It was served with a cup of ice, to be mixed to our liking.

Maybe it was the two beers beforehand, but one small sip, and we knew we wouldn’t be operating heavy machinery. “Now I know why Van Gogh went mad,” slurred Zack before we tottered home. I promptly passed out on the couch, and Zack went out to get ice cream (he usually avoids junk food, but wanted something caloric to absorb the alcohol).

When we came to our senses, we opened the bottle already in our possession. It wasn’t nearly as strong, nor were the flavors as complex. I immediately put myself on the mailing list for St. George’s next release. Last week, I received the newsletter notification that the sophomore batch would go on sale this Super Bowl Sunday.

The distillery opened at noon, so I drove up shortly after my Sunday yoga class. By 12:30, the line stretched past the building, around the fence and spilled over into the next parking lot. I dutifully got in line and waited. The view of the City was stunning, and the air was brisk. And by brisk, I mean cold, wet and windy. Although a few distillery employees cheerfully marched up and down the line, proffering cups of hot chocolate, there was not much they could do to speed up the line… which took THREE HOURS.

Yep, yours truly waited in line for three hours for a bottle of newly legalized liquor. I’ll subject myself to Tartine’s line, but the last time I waited in a line that long, I wound up in the front row of a U2 concert. I was also next to a group of drunken but generous Irishmen who taught me all manners of Gaelic toasts that I will not repeat here.

But I digress. Anyways, while I was in the line, I finished 3 podcasts of This American Life. I also contemplated how much of an alcoholic I might be to wait in a line this long for a bottle of booze. But once I got to the front, I found it didn’t concern me anymore. I had only planned on buying one bottle, but since I’d waited so long, I bought two. I seriously considered three (the limit) but decided that might be a bridge too far. I took the bottles home, where Zack was anxiously waiting with his finger on the TiVO decided to hold off on opening a new bottle we had gotten closer to finishing the initial (imported while contraband) bottle.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Go away, baby!

I consider myself a bit of a Asian noodle soup connoisseur. I could eat a bowl of noodle soup every day, and probably not tire of it, as long as the origin of the cuisine varied. Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Burmese, Chinese… I never met a well prepared bowl of noodle soup of any Asian cuisine that I didn’t like. Whenever the components are available, I like to squirt a couple circles of sriracha, a few dollops of chili paste, a dash of chili oil and two or three pickled jalapeno slices.

Recently, I returned to an old favorite of mine, Vien Huong, in Oakland Chinatown. A friend of my then-boyfriend introduced us to it in 1994. It’s one of those bare bones, hole in the wall places that seat different parties at the same large table in order to get customers in and out as quickly as possible. You have to order quickly and clearly, or else you’ll earn a scowl and the possibility of not being served again. Early on, they used the practice of dumping hot tea on the table to wipe it down, though I haven’t seen them do this in a while. Also, if you can’t use chopsticks, you have to request a fork. Charming, I know, but these kinds of places have their virtues – the food is cheap and quick. Look to the line outside the door, and it’s a sure sign that the food is also tasty.

Continue reading

What is it about Kimchi?

I scoop up a generous amount with my chopsticks and dump it in my ramen.  I stir it around, slurp my noodles and gobble up the kimchee.  I take a few spoonfuls of the now red broth, and add more kimchee.  Still not enough.  This time, I pick up the kimchee from directly from the jar and the noodles at the same time.  When I finish the noodles, and only the broth is left, I pick up the bowl and drink the rich red broth directly from the rim.  Usually, I dump the broth.  As I gulp it down, I think to myself, hmm, this would be better with more kimchi in it! 

I am totally addicted.  Strangely enough, as a child, I couldn’t stand the stuff.  Although Little Saigon was less than fifteen minutes away, my mom would often pop into the Korean market around the corner if she needed something for the evening’s dinner and she didn’t feel up to dealing with the chaotic traffic and parking sitch on Bolsa Street.  She would always linger near the open tubs of cabbage fermenting in the refrigerator section, while I shied away, wrinkling my nose and retreating to the candy aisle.  The stench was just too strong for my eight year old senses.  It took me a while to overcome my childhood impressions, but sometime in the last few years, I’ve decided I just can’t get enough.  Now I linger in that refrigerator aisle, deciding which kind will go will go best with the noodles, the barbeque, the rice, or with dinner that evening.

 Are there any foods you love now that you couldn’t stand as a child?

Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité!

Bastille Day is this weekend, (July 14, to be
specific) and besides attending the San Francisco
Chocolate Salon at Fort Mason on Sunday, I will
celebrate on Saturday by eating cheese and
charcuterie.  The cherries and red onions I pickled
last year will make a nice foil as well as cornichons
I will pick up from the store.  Oh, and beaucoup du
vin is required.  My cheese plate is not entirely
assembled yet (so far, only a Langres).  Although I
have yet to test out my Kitchen Aid meat grinder and
sausage stuffer, I am not confident in my curing
skills to produce my own saucisson.  However, I have
decided to make my own paté.  (I was also going to
make brandade, but a miscommunication resulted in 2
pounds of fresh rock cod/snapper in fridge instead of
1 pound of salt cod.)   I’ve been curious about making
a foie gras torchon, but my friends are not foie gras
eaters.  But no fear!  The paté recipe I have is
plenty rich and smooth.   Marina, my Lyonnaise expat
friend, gave me her recipe (passed on by her
godfather).  I tried to seek out fresh duck liver with
my local butcher contacts, but it was too late.
Marina usually uses chicken liver, so that’s what I
went with.  Her recipe is amazingly simple:

Take one pound of liver and marinate it overnight in
white wine, bay leaf, onion and thyme.   Drain the
liver and sauté it until pink inside, then puree with
2 sticks of butter in a food processor until smooth
like cake batter.  Pour into a container and cover
with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

This recipe is obviously open to variation, so I
cross-referenced Julia Child’s MTAFC, and it’s pretty
similar.  I decided to incorporate a little of Julia
by soaking the livers (after rinsing with water) in
milk for two hours to flush out the blood, then
rinsing and draining again.  I used about half a
bottle of dry white wine, half a sliced yellow onion,
8 branches of thyme and 2 bay leaves.  I also added 5
or 6 crushed green peppercorns.  Since I wanted to
ensure that my pate was extra smooth, I removed the
onion and the herbs after I drained the marinade.  I
used duck fat to sauté the liver, though butter is
fine.  I also added a dash of cognac (no more than a
teaspoon) and flambéed it towards the end of the
sauté.  I drained the livers again, seasoned with
kosher salt and pepper and pulsed the livers, adding
the butter a few pieces at a time.  Once the butter
was incorporated and the mixture smooth, I pressed it
through a sieve to remove any particles.

Trés simple, non?  So if you go to the store tonight,
you might be able to make a batch in time for your own
fête this Saturday.  Bon appetit!

Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo!

Did you know that here in the East Bay, there are two ultrapremium chocolate factories a stone’s throw from each other that you can view (and sample)?  You’ve probably heard of Scharffen Berger in Berkeley by now, and a few blocks away in Emeryville (in the former Andronico’s location), Charles Chocolates opened its retail store in February this past year.   This Saturday (June  23) marks the official grand opening of its cafe (1st 25 customers get a free gift!).  This evening, I had the honor of attending a behind the scenes tour of the factory floor and a preview of the cafe.

Charles Siegel (“Chuck”), the founder, has been in the chocolate business for twenty years.  He started Charles Chocolates about two and a half years ago to “redefine the world of fine chocolate confections…. us[ing] only the finest ingredients , including some of the world’s best chocolates, organic herbs, fruits and nuts as well as organic cream and butter from Straus Dairy”.  Unlike Scharffen Berger, Charles Chocolates does not produce its own chocolate from cacao pod to bar, but instead, crafts confections such as truffles, bonbons, fruit gelees and chocolate covered nuts. 

Now, Charles Chocolates does not offer a tour to the general public.  Instead, Chuck has decided to open up his kitchen for viewing to the general public with the goal of “demystifying chocolate”.  Modeled on the open kitchens popularized by restaurants in the nineties, the cafe offers seating in front of a wall of windows so that customers can enjoy their treats while watching the chocolatiers mix, cook, mold, enrobe and decorate their candies.   In a few months, the cafe may start offering (non yeasted) breakfast pastries.

That being said,  I was lucky enough to go behind the glass and take a closer look at the factory floor.  Chuck demonstrated some of the equipment used everyday in the factory.

 

This table has cold water piped underneath to chill sheets of chocolate, caramel, molten sugar (eek!), etc. 

This machine actually tempers the chocolate for you!  There was also a really “vacumn super cuisinart” contraption that I was too excited about to take a picture of.

This “guitar cutter” slices ganache, caramel, etc.

The chocolate enrober, straight out of “I Love Lucy”.

 As Chuck talked about the business and chocolate making, it was clear that he was very, very passionate about his craft, but still pretty laid back.  The company isn’t looking to be avant garde (no bacon/blue cheese truffles here) but instead seeks out high quality ingredients for yummy, approachable treats.  One of the most unique offerings is the “chocolate box” – a box of the bonbons inside a decorated all chocolate box!

You can even have the lids customized.  BTW, the only white chocolate they use is for the chocolate box lids.

Their top seller is the chocolate covered almonds, and one of their newest products (created by accident), the chocolate caramel almond sticks, is already their number 3 seller.  Chuck’s favorite bonbons are the bittersweet chocolate peanut butterflies (because they were so difficult to make without tasting like Reese’s, plus they make the peanut butter themselves) and the pistachio lemon clusters.  Their chocolate is kosher, though not certified (an issue with a European supplier).  Chuck says that although he tastes every batch of chocolate, he maintains his weight but just tasting.  Stress also plays an important factor.  “Remember,” he grinned, “chocolate makes you happy, not fat!”

Oh, and through I surreptitiously tried to peek in the corners and behind the shelves and trays, I did not spot a single Oompa Loompa.

 Charles Chocolates

6529 Hollis Street

Emeryville, CA 94608

tel: 510.65.4412

open daily from 11-7