Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Spring Rolls as the fog rolls in

My love, E, partaking of a spring roll (and a vodka tonic).

Portland on the way down-low

Sorry I haven't posted for the last week. E & I took a little excursion to Portland to visit family. E's father just had surgery and is, with difficulty, recovering. The challenge is not that he isn't in good health but rather that he is. Though he's in his 70s, he hasn't been a sick man in his life. I think it's tough for him to suddenly be somewhat incapacitated, at the whim of his slowly-healing body and the goodwill of others around him.

Because the trip was so family-centric, I had little time to taste the cuisine of the Rose City. We did manage, however, to catch the downtown Farmer's Market on Saturday morning. The produce selection was impressive. I kept salivating over the tomatoes and wanting to do something with all those squash blossoms! There were several flower stands, too, with dahlias galore. I don't think I ever knew how much I liked dahlias until I saw such a nice variety in a number of interesting colorations.

It was a sampling marathon, too. Lots of bakeries offered up bites of cookies and other pastries. Cheese makers tempted with their wares. I even got a yummy bite of a peach sorbetto by a local gelateria, Alotto Gelato. But the most exciting things that I tried were the jellies made by the Rose City Pepperheads. They were sweet, like jellies, but had the delicious razor-sharp edge of spicy peppers. I mean, I've had savory-sweet jellies before, but the combinations of pepper flavors that these folks made were divine. After trying several flavors--like Holiday Jalapeno, Smokin' Margarita, and Ginger Garlic--I opted finally for the Holy Habanero. It so perfectly captured the complexity of the habanero pepper.

However . . . I must be quite spoiled. The produce at the farmer's market was not cheap! Red bells were offered up at $4 per pound. That's a whole lotta money for a few red peppers. They've been reduced to 89 cents per pound at Monterrey Market. Nevertheless, all those bells and tomatoes were still calling out to me. We put together a nice salmon with a gazpacho-esque salsa to top it. Simple but very delicious. E's sister gave me rave reviews, and I knew she'd be the toughest critic. And for dessert, a peach and blackberry cobbler. True to its name, I cobbled it together without a recipe--an amalgamation of oats, brown sugar, flour and, of course, butter. The essence of summer love.


A few days later, I cavorted about the downtown, mostly window-shopping. I didn't buy anything special aside from a card and a small gift for a friend. I also cruised Powell's briefly but was too overwhelmed to buy anything there, either. Suddenly, I became famished. I must have eaten a light breakfast because by the time noon rolled around, I wanted to eat anything in sight.

E's sister and I happened upon the square (whose name I did not note!) where all the food vendors set up their stalls, catering to the downtown work crowd. Thai sounded good, so we choose the kiosk with the most customers. We stood in line at Sawasdee Thai Food and were greeted immediately by a very friendly Thai woman, who was remarkable speedy at taking orders. I was in a noodle mood and opted for the Pad Sa Ew. There were other things on the menu, though, that looked fantastic. My stomach was beckoning, and I wavered, almost changing my order to a pumpkin curry.

In the back of the food hut, there was a large, open-air window for ventilation. Under the awning, we watched the cook, a lone woman (apparently the other cook couldn't make it that day), make food at an ungodly speed. The prep had already been pre-done, and the woman who took the orders prepared bowls of vegetables for the cook while giving her a number of all-verbal orders. Very high heats and flames that flitted upwards of a foot did not phase the cook. She was intrepid. She worked like a maniac.

The noodles I got were spectacular. For $5 a pop, they were quite possibly the best version of Pad Sa Ew that I've ever had. Not too greasy, a good number of veggies, piping hot and just the right blend of sweet and spicy. And judging from the happiness in the desirous eyes of the repeat offenders around us, I know the rest of the stuff was just as good. If that little kiosk had a permanent location on the Berkeley campus, I'd be feasting from it daily.

Friday, August 05, 2005

I'm a sucker for tarts

Friends called at the last minute yesterday, visiting from Seattle and wondered about our plans. "Come on over!" I said and promised a meal. I knew I wanted to cook an I'll-miss-you-sweetie meal for E before he embarked on a camping trip this weekend. Suddenly, with more people to cook for, the plans came together. I was justified to spend hours in the kitchen putting something delicious together.

I eyed a recipe from the most recent issue of Bon Appetit: an oven-dried tomato, goat cheese, and black olive tart. The contents of it looked right up my alley but I was wary of the puff pastry crust. I must say that I'm not a huge fan of puff pastry for savory tarts. They seem like an unnecessarily greasy shortcut to other, more appropriate crusts. I spent time looking around and finally found a black pepper and parmesan crust that seemed a good match for the tart. I also found this on as part of an heirloom tomato tart recipe. The following two recipes, with my edits, are exerpted from the magazine.

Here's what I put together:

Crust Ingredients:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water

Filling Ingredients:
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
6 medium tomatoes or large romas, cored, halved crosswise, seeded
2 small garlic cloves, thinly slivered
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme, divided
1 cup coarsely grated skim-milk mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup soft fresh goat cheese (about 4 ounces)
2 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1/3 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Making the tomatoes
Preheat oven to 300°F. Line rimmed baking sheet with foil; brush foil with 1 tablespoon oil. Place tomato halves, cut side up, on baking sheet. Sprinkle garlic and 1 tablespoon thyme over tomatoes; drizzle remaining 1/4 cup oil over. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Bake until tomatoes begin to shrink and are slightly dried but still soft, at least and an hour and up to 2 hours. Cool tomatoes on sheet. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Store in single layer in covered container in refrigerator.)

Making the tart crust
Blend together flour, butter, shortening, parmesan, pepper, and salt in a bowl with your fingertips or a pastry blender (or pulse in a food processor) until mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-size lumps. Drizzle 2 tablespoons ice water over and gently stir with a fork (or pulse in food processor) until incorporated. Gently squeeze a small handful: If it doesn't hold together without falling apart, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring (or pulsing) after each addition until incorporated, continuing to test. (Do not overwork dough, or it will become tough.)

Turn out dough onto a work surface and divide into 2 portions. With heel of your hand, smear each portion once in a forward motion to help distribute fat. Gather both portions of dough into 1 ball, then pat into a disk. Chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface into a 12-inch round and fit into a 9-inch round tart pan with a removable rim. Roll rolling pin over top of pan to trim dough flush with rim. Lightly prick tart shell all over with a fork. Line shell with foil and fill with pie weights, rice, or dried beans. Bake in middle of oven 20 minutes. Carefully remove foil and weights and bake until golden, about 15 minutes more. Cool in pan on a rack.

Making the filling:
Meanwhile, using fork, mash mozzarella cheese, goat cheese, and remaining 1 tablespoon thyme together in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add eggs and milk and stir until mixture is well blended. Spread cheese filling evenly in crust. Arrange tomato halves in filling, cut side up. Place olives between tomatoes. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese evenly over top.

Bake until filling is puffed and set, about 35 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Push up pan bottom, releasing sides. Serve tart warm. Makes 6 servings.

The tart was an incredible hit! The oven-dried tomatoes are what make it out-of-this-world. You might be able to get away with using sun-dried tomatoes, but I can't imagine that the taste won't be compromised. The way this recipe is written, though labor intensive, ensures that you'll lock in all the flavor of fresh, delicious tomatoes. If the task of cooking tomatoes for two hours doesn't appeal, though, make sure to use Romas or other non-watery varieties of tomatoes and shave an hour or so off the end of the cooking time. I cranked up the heat a little and took out the tomatoes around the 1 hour and 15 minute-mark, and they were still quite incredible. If you do this, however, you'll just have to watch them to make sure you don't burn them.

Also, I amended the original recipe a bit because I didn't have whipping cream or whole-milk mozzarella, which is what the recipe calls for. What I used, whole milk and skim-milk mozzarella, worked out incredibly well and didn't pose a problem for the texture or the taste of the tart. Last but certainly not least, the original recipe says that it offers 6-8 servings, but our dinner party of 4 devoured the whole thing. Yup, what can I say? It was that bad-ass.

And guess what? I got so busy with the serving and eating the tart that I forgot to take a photo. Sorry, folks!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Nothern California Coastline, Cont'd

Santa Cruz
Last weekend, E and I drove to Half Moon Bay then down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, where awe-inspiring views of the ocean are combined with the hovering summer fog. A little outside of Santa Cruz, we stopped at an unmarked beach that E lovingly termed "4 Mile." It was obvious that surfer's knew its moniker, for we asked a middle-aged man in a wetsuit where we could find it. He pointed us in the right direction.

After ambling through brush behind a family of tow-headed surfers (even the mom had her surfboard), we came upon a beautiful beach. E and I hiked over rocks to a point farther out, upon which waves crashed. The tide was low, and most likely, this spot was semi-submerged at high-tide. There must have been two dozen surfers with bellies on their boards, bobbing as the small waves came and went. All of a sudden, a big one would hit and boarders would paddle backward or forward to catch the wave at the right spot. Every so often, someone would hit the jackpot and ride the wave all the way into the beach.

After 4 Mile, we continued into downtown Santa Cruz, where we window-shopped and people-watched. E, who went to UCSC in the 80s, recalls the downtown before the Loma Prieta earthquake. It's now a semi-fancy outdoor shopping mall, but still filled with the flavor of hippie locals. We stayed only a beat in the downtown, catching a quick bite to eat at a little green kiosk which served fresh Mexican food. We ordered a bowl of warm rice, beans, and sauteed zucchini, topped with green sauce. Nice in a home-style way, but a little pricey ($7) for that sort of thing.

Later, we ended up at the Tea House Spa, only a block away from Pacific Ave., where we entered a strange little universe of bliss, seemingly far away from the downtown reality. The spa has four private rooms, each with a hot tub and a wet sauna overlooking a bamboo garden. For a few moments, before a band nearby started sound-checking for its evening set, we couldn't believe that on the other side of the sublime garden there was a parking lot. Make no mistake, though, the band did not deter us from enjoying ourselves. The hot tubs jets were loud enough to function as a white noise buffer. And, anyway, it was kind of cute. Afterall, we were in Santa Cruz and not some other yuppy locale.

After an hour of soaking and drying ourselves (what a strange thing we do for fun), E & I picked up a few groceries at the Shoppers' Corner, a nice little grocery store downtown, and headed over to Rhys' parent's home. They've been spending a lot of time at her folks' home because her brother and his fiance are about to tie the knot. Guess everyone's jumping onto the marriage bandwagon!

After a simple dinner and some nice wine, E & I headed out to the Boardwalk with our friend, Don. Let me tell you, the peeps were out in full force! E bought each of us tickets to ride the Giant Dipper, an old, wooden rollercoaster on the beach. Though I barely remember the details of the ride--the wine clouding my judgment--I remember how fun it was to suddenly have the wind blowing through my hair while my stomach fell through the seat. We ended the night noshing on a churro and taking photos in a black and white photo booth.

Big Sur

I recovered only for a day before heading out on Monday morning with Kirthi to Big Sur. We had, in our maniacal happiness of taking a road trip, a moment of thinking we'd book ourselves into a B & B in Monterrey. I don't know what I was thinking. A B & B is fine, but Monterrey is an Any Tourist Town USA by the Bay, filled with horribly mediocre seafood and stores that sell junk and t-shirts with rote sayings like "My mom went to Monterrey and all she got me was this lousy t-shirt." Luckily, we quickly nixed the idea in favor of staying at a cabin down in one of the campgrounds in Big Sur.

Given all the epic connotations of the area as the site of one of Kerouac's most loved novels, there was an entry in my Northern California knowledge missing under "Big Sur." I was happy to fill it in with "dramatic coastlines," the phrase most often used to describe each of the hikes in the Big Sur area by one of the guide books we were using. Though Kirthi poked fun at the writer, who possessed only the adjective "dramatic" to describe anything beautiful, it wasn't so far from the truth. The coastline is picturesque.

While I drove South from Monterrey along the scenic and curvy Highway 1, Kirthi read about the "dramatic coastline" at Andrew Molinas State Park. We stopped for a leisurely hike to the ocean which led us to a little beach, where we noshed on some home-made bread, Haig's babaghanoush (the best!), some heirlooms and a bit of baked tofu that we had picked up at Berkeley Bowl. The fog had finally lifted as we watched a few surfers trying to catch a wave. We took the rest of the hike up over the bluffs looking out over the beach. We were filling in "damn!" under Big Sur.

Further down the road, we stopped at Pfeiffer State Park, one of the main attractions in Big Sur. It's got hikes galore, but it's also famous for a river and swimming holes. After asking campers how we could find our way to the swimming, we found the trail and hiked out onto the rocks, where we met with families in bathing suits lounging or diving (where it was deep enough) into the waters. Because it was a river, the water came from somewhere higher up and cascaded over rocks, creating little swimming holes filled with the clearest waters. Upon entry, it was chilling but after a few minutes, it felt wonderful.

Something had possessed me in those waters. I hiked up through the currents and the rocks in nothing but my bathing suit to explore all the nooks and crannies. Finally, after an hour of basking, I was curious about all the young folks who were hiking down from a place farther up the path. I crawled around, with Kirthi following behind, and found that the end of the line was a huge hole deep enough on one side that the daring hoisted themselves up a rope until they could jump into the pool from a height of 25 feet. That, I decided, wasn't for me. I did swim across the pool, enjoying the way the ravines merged around this lovely place. I was so glad to have come this far.

We went to Nepenthe later and had a glass of wine overlooking the "dramatic coastline." The place was swarming with European tourists, and I realized it must be one of those California hotspots that's written up in the guidebooks as "not to be missed," whatever the phrase might be in Italian, German, and French. Aside from the view, the dining experience itself didn't appear to be anything unique. As I said to E, it was sort of like someone plopping a Jupiter's (the Berkeley college bar with outdoor seating whose name was always followed by "to get more stupider") but placed in a location with a to-die-for view.

That night, we made dinner on a gas camping stove -- a simple pasta with blanched arugula, toasted walnuts, parsley and ricotta salata--and played Scrabble before turning in. We talked briefly to the family from San Diego camping next door to us, an Irish immigrant and single mother, her despondent 16-year old boy, and her 13-year old daughter and two friends. The 13-year olds, whose bikinis were laid out to dry on a log, wandered about the campsite, being typical adolescents who stayed as far away from the others. I could see clearly the way the family's various stages of development were catching up to them. They all played out their prescribed roles. I felt sorry for the boy and asked why he hadn't invited a friend. To that, he only retreated further inward, shrugging his shoulders in a way that made it clear that he was horrified that a couple of young woman were harrassing him about his social life. I guess you know you're old when you interrogate a teenager as if he were a 7-year old.

In the morning, we made a yummy egg scramble with leftover heirlooms, parsley, and corn. I had my fake coffee, and Kirthi had a bit of the real brew that I'd stashed in our stuff. We headed out early and took one of the short hikes into Pfeiffer to a waterfall. There were only two other people out on the trail at the time, and the air smelled of morning. We shared the waterfall with no one but each other and talked about yoga and spiritualism.

On our way back up on Highway 1, we were determined to find the Soberanes Point Trail, only a mile and a half loop, leading out to the most "dramatic coastline." Actually, the whole trip will forever be remembered by how incredible this trail was. We walked through poison oak and wildflowers until the scenery suddenly changed. We found ourselves on the edge of bluffs under which a few little beaches lay in little coves where blue waters lapped up onto the shores.

It looked like it was high tide. Regardless, these beaches, we were told by the book, are notorious for deaths. The water crashes onto land much higher than expected and washes people away. The awe in the scenery--and it kept getting more and more colossal as we kept on the trail--was in its ability to swallow us up. As one of our professors in the last quarter had written, awe is in part derived from the recognition that this awe-inspiring thing is so much larger than you and has so much more power than you will ever have.

As we ambled back, satified after having soaked in the most beautiful view of all, Kirthi spontaneously said, "Nature sure does know how to curate itself."