Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Favorite Street in San Francisco - Delfina Pizzeria, Tartine Bakery and Bi-Rite Creamery

I've gotten in the habit of making a beeline for this little strip of 18th Street near Guerrero as soon as I arrive, and today we actually came straight from the airport. Though I've been a few times now, it was James' first trip and I think he was impressed. We were really hungry when we got there about 2 PM, and when we still had to wait for a table he jokingly said to me "This better be really good, or you're going to be in big trouble." Nice, huh!
V. Good Vino Blanco at Delfina Pizzeria

There's nothing better when you're on vacation (or pretending to be on vacation) than splitting a bottle of wine over a leisurely lunch. We ordered a bottle of this on the recommendation of the girls who were sharing one next to us - it was very Viognier/Albarino-like and we enjoyed it quite a lot.
Olives at Delfina Pizzeria

The first dish to arrive at the table was this little ramekin of warm olives - aren't they pretty? The green ones were my favorite.
Tuna Conserve Salad at Delfina Pizzeria

They brought the dishes at a nicely staggered pace - the next to arrive was the tuna conserve salad. It was tossed in a garlicky lemon-olive oil dressing with white beans and served with fresh baby arugula. The tuna itself was tender, with a very light flavor. I was on the phone when it arrived at the table, and I had to start scooping some onto my plate when it looked like James might eat it all before I could finish my call. (Clearly, I was not in "big trouble" on account of this dish.)
Bubalis Ricotta at Delfina Pizzeria

One of my favorite dishes on my last visit was a baked ricotta cheese served with peppers. It wasn't available this time, but that was just as well, because this turned out to be even better. Fresh slices of creamy ricotta drizzled with oil and served with grilled piquillo peppers - it was downright luscious and bit of the dried chile flakes they provide on the table set it off nicely. The salumi sampler provided a good sized serving for two. We really liked the large disk, which was Framani Toscano. The lardo and prosciutto were interesting too - very flavorful (they are house-cured.)
Salumi at Delfina Pizzeria

The pizza was delicious too, but I really think some of their best offerings are in the starter categories. They're often a little bit unique, despite the simplicity, and the flavors and quality are just spot on. The pizza's crust was particularly good this time though, with just the right amount of chew in the crispy edges.
Quattro Formaggio Pizza at Delfina Pizzeria

After we polished that off, we toddled (literally, I think) down to Bi Rite Creamery, where James indulged in a single scoop of Salted Caramel, and I downed a Malted Vanilla with Peanut Butter Toffee with Mint Chip. I don't know what they do to their ice cream to make it taste so good, but it really is fabulous - especially the mint, it just has so much flavor. After this feast, we picked up a few pastries at Tartine for breakfast tomorrow, and came back to Tommy's place to take a nap. One hour's sleep never felt so good.

Dinner tonight was at Orson. It was interesting - some good and some bad. We did get to meet Elizabeth Falkner and she is quite striking and charming in person. I will write more later.

I'm really excited about my dinner date tomorrow night with Sean and Paul of Hedonia and Anita and Cam of Married With Dinner! (James will already be at the rehearsal dinner.) Luckily I don't mind being the fifth wheel. If they are anywhere near as cool as they seem from their blog posts and "tweets" I'm sure we'll all get along swimmingly!
Roasted Cauliflower with Peppers and Garlic at Delfina Pizzeria

Pizzeria Delfina
3611 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 437-6800
recommended dishes: salumi, tuna conserve salad, anything with the fresh ricotta (hear the mozzarella is good too) and any of their vegetable sides -esp. the cauliflower! (above) As for the pizza - the best I've tried is the quattro formaggio - the white clam and the spinach ricotta pies look good too though.

Bi-Rite Creamery
3692 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 626-5600
don't miss the mint chip or salted caramel!

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero St
(between 18th St & 19th St)
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 487-2600
methinks breakfast pastries are the way to go here - there are better chocolate chip cookies elsewhere.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Weekend in the Inferno Palm Springs

We just returned from a couple of days in Palm Springs, and while I like the heat, I have to say - 110 was a bit much even for me. (That discounted rate makes a lot more sense now!) We stayed at the Korakia, which is an interesting place - though I'm not sure it's worth what it would normally cost. We had a pretty sweet room with a private jacuzzi/plunge pool and french doors that rolled back to make an indoor/outdoor sleeping porch - but they normally charge about $700. per night for it. We paid just a little more than half that, which was plenty, given the downright spartan level of service provided, and the fact that there were condo buildings flanking the place on either side. I think we'll try someplace else when we go again - maybe the Movie Colony,the Viceroy, or the Horizon - which I spotted driving down Palm Canyon, and has nothing but compliments on Tripadvisor.

On the second day, we had breakfast at Norma's at the Parker (which I've heard referred to as "The Poseur." The hot chocolate and churros we started with were amazingly decadent. I really enjoyed the "Wa-zaa" waffle on my last visit - an over-the-top combo of a belgian waffle, blueberries, banana slices and custard, bruleed with a torch. This time we went with some Mexican inspired dishes - "Normalita's Huevos Rancheros" for James, and the Arepa for me. The Arepa was a corn cake topped with two eggs and salsa, served with some pan-fried chorizo, and the Huevos Rancheros was a quesadilla topped with eggs, salsa and guacamole. Between the two dishes, the french press coffee and the churros, we left happy and full. After breakfast we walked the grounds of the Parker and snapped some photos of the gardens - I've already been to City Farmer's Nursery to buy some plants for the yard based on what I saw growing there - I figure anything that can thrive in Palm Springs can survive in the East County.

For our dinners, we went with one fine dining - Le Vallauris - and one casual, Matchbox Pizza. Both were decent, but nothing I'd look forward to on a return trip. Strangely our entrees at Le Vallauris were vastly better than the starters - though the bad luck returned with the dessert. Here's a hint, don't order the Tarte Tatin. It was the worst I've ever tasted. The two starters we tried were the foie gras and something called a "Lobster Cocktail" - trust me, just avoid it. The sweetbreads and especially the duck were really phenomenal though - the sweetbreads were sauteed in a lemon butter sauce with capers - piccata style, and the duck (a whole half) was crisp like confit and served over an orange glaze laced with strips of zest. They also have a way with the deep frier - both my dish and James' had exceptional fried potato garnishes - mine was a potato nest cake, his a row of pommes souffle. Given the sky high prices we might have thought of complaining about the bad parts of the meal - but we were so happy with the entrees and the $40.00 bottle of Tavel Rose the Sommelier recommended that we chalked it up as a wash. The beautiful outdoor dining area under a canopy of trees lit with fairy lights didn't hurt either. They were doing Restaurant Week out there, and the menu they were serving looked quite good.

Matchbox offers pizzas, salads and a few entrees. I ordered a burger - craving one, and the meat was cooked perfectly - but strangely flavorless. Even the gorgonzola and the pickled red onions couldn't liven it up. The accompanying fries were perfect though - skin on, greaseless and crisp. The pepperoni pizza was large and thin and pretty tasty, but incredibly greasy. If you're nearby and need a bite to eat it's ok, but probably not worth crossing town for.

After our breakfast at Norma's, we tripped back down Palm Canyon to the Aerial Tramway, which I'd never done before - it is pretty spectacular, and must be even more so when there's snow up there in the winter. It goes from 2000 feet elevation to over 8000 feet in a matter of about ten minutes. At $12. per person for a ticket up it's a great way to kill some time and escape the heat. I was a little surprised by the number of foreign tourists we saw there - French, German, Chinese. The lodge up top has a great mid century feel, with enormous floor to ceiling windows, and a dual sided fireplace. They serve both lunch and dinner, and the last tramride down is at 10:30 pm. That rotating floor must be really fun after a few cocktails. Even sober it's a little queasy-making - fair warning if you get motion sickness.

Another popular past-time out there is browsing the second hand and vintage stores, which I would have loved to have done - but after two steps on the sidewalk, I think I would have dropped dead of heat exhaustion. I will have to save that for a return trip.

On this trip, it was all we could do to lay out on the cast iron lounge chairs (I was almost branded by an armrest) and sip cold beers out of an ice bucket. The private little villa we stayed in was perfect for that - and though the service was spotty (on the last day they took all of our towels and robes at turndown and left us exactly one of each) it did have some cool things going on - including fires lit at night by the pools, and movies projected on a wall right near our room.

On Monday night, they showed Singin' in the Rain, my all time favorite movie. As I watched Cyd Charisse do the Broadway dance number, with her long silk scarf and the gangster flipping his coin, I marveled at how gorgeously she moved and how fantastic she looked - and how sexy the whole thing is considering it was 1952. The following day, when I heard that she had passed away, I realized how serendipitous it was that we had seen the movie on that particular night. Despite the drawbacks of Korakia, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have happened anywhere else.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Even Better Less Butter "Nutter Butters" for Jimmy

Chewy Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies
You KNOW you have to be an inveterate recipe tinkerer to start messing with Thomas Keller's recipes. First it was the Bouchons - the little cork-shaped chocolate brownie-cakes served at the Bouchon Bakeries in New York, Vegas and Yountville, and now the Nutter Butters. I tried them when I was in New York at the Gourmet Institute, but I'd kind of forgotten about them until recently, when James asked me to make him some peanut butter cookies. He had seen the recipe that won this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off - which called for refrigerated peanut butter cookie dough wrapped around balls of peanut butter and powdered sugar. (I know what you're thinking, and the answer is yes, that recipe won a MILLION dollars.)

Peanut Butter Cookies with Molasses and Oatmeal

I didn't want to use tube dough, so I started looking for a recipe - and then I remembered these. The ones at the bakery are crunchy but soft textured - they have to be to allow you to bite through without squeezing the filling out. I liked them, but when I saw the four sticks of butter called for just for the cookie - with another for the filling - I just couldn't do it. In my book, one pound of butter should really be enough for two dozen cookies - including the filling. My first thought was to replace one stick of butter in the cookie dough with just a little molasses - to preserve the softness while reducing the fat slightly. A quarter cup turned out to be a little more than I had bargained for, and the flavor was good but the dough was actually a little too moist. Another cup of flour worked in with the Kitchen Aid did the trick, producing a cookie that spread without going limp, with a nice chewy crispness. The molasses adds a little depth of flavor, and the sandwiches put together reminded me of one of my favorite candies - the peanut butter filled molasses taffy Mary Janes. They're very different from the original cookies, but I liked them even better. They actually probably shouldn't even be called Nutter Butters - but I think it sounds better than "Chewy Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies."

Keller recommends Skippy, and I've seen several recipes that recommend against natural peanut butter elsewhere, but I forged ahead with the organic chunky salted stuff I had on hand and it worked just fine. I like the natural salty flavor it gives, especially in the filling. If I were doing a lot of these, I'd probably use creamy though - the little chunks make it more difficult to spread on the cookies neatly.
Cookies with Molasses, Peanut Butter and Oatmeal

I tried several different sizes for these - Goldilocks style. The ones on the sheet above are pretty big - the size they serve at the bakery. I also tried some smaller bite sized ones - but they were too thick, once sandwiched together with the filling. The "three bite" cookie, as James called it - was just right. Satisfying, but not overwhelming. In fact, he proclaimed them the best cookies I've ever made and jealously guarded them as "his" - refusing to let me give them away. Yes friends, my husband is six years old. These are also (relatively) safe to feed to the dogs, who loved them almost as much.

The trick to these is to not overbake them - since they're brown already - you can't rely on that trusty Maillard reaction to tell you when they're done. If they're crisp they're not quite as pleasant to eat because they sort of mash down when you bite into them and squeeze the filling out. The best hint I can give is to take them out as soon as the tops are dry. If you're not comfortable with that, try setting the oven time for 9 minutes and let them finish outside the oven - it's better to err on the side of slightly under rather than overbaking.
Chewy Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies


Even Better Less Butter "Nutter Butters"
loosely adapted from this recipe by Thomas Keller printed in the New York Times.

FOR THE COOKIE DOUGH:

3 cups all-purpose flour
2½ cups quick cooking oats
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup crunchy salted natural peanut butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
scant 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup coarsely chopped peanuts

FOR THE FILLING:

¼ pound (1 stick) butter, softened but still cool
½ cup salted crunchy or creamy all natural peanut butter
1 2/3 cups confectioners’ sugar

1. For cookie dough: preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix together the flour, oats, baking powder, and baking soda; set aside. Using a mixer with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and peanut butter. Add sugars and beat at medium speed for 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl twice.

2. Add the molasses and incorporate. On low speed, add eggs and vanilla. Add flour mixture and beat at low speed until well mixed, frequently scraping down the bowl. Add peanuts and mix well.

3. Roll dough into balls about 1-1.5 inches in diameter and place on lined cookie sheets (a silpat is ideal). Wrap the bottom of a drinking glass in saran wrap, and flatten balls of dough to about 1/3 of an inch thick by pressing down with the bottom of the glass. Bake until cookies spread and are just dry on the top - about 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool and firm up, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely before filling. The cooled cookies should be slightly flexible - if they are hard, bake the next batch one minute less. ( They'll still taste good - you just might want to eat them plain instead of filling them.)

3. For filling: using an electric mixer, cream together the butter, peanut butter and confectioners’ sugar until very smooth. Add more sugar if it seems to be too soft - or place in the refrigerator to firm up.

4. To assemble cookies, use a spatula to spread a layer of filling on the underside of a cookie and sandwich the cookies together.

Makes about 3 dozen 2 inch sandwiches.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Best Chicken EVER - 40 Clove Chicken a la Barefoot Contessa

40 Clove Chicken ready for the oven
And I don't say that lightly. This is literally THE best chicken dish I've ever made. I'd been knocking around the idea of trying James Beard's recipe for 40 Clove Chicken for a while (you braise the chicken with vermouth and whole unpeeled garlic cloves) - when I ran across this one, and just thought it looked and sounded so much better. I do still want to try the original, but it will be hard to resist the temptation just to make this again.

It's so easy - much easier than the Spanish braised chicken dish I made a few days earlier with almonds and olives (though that was pretty good too.) I browned the chicken pieces (I recommend legs and thighs) in my Le Creuset in a little bit of butter and olive oil - then removed them from the pan and added the garlic cloves - sauteeing them in the oil and pan juices until they were nice and golden colored. You just have to keep them moving around to prevent anything from getting too brown.
Frying Garlic for 40 Clove Chicken
When the garlic cloves were nice and golden - I added some wine and cognac (Courvoisier, since that's what I had) - put the chicken back in the pan, and topped it with some chopped fresh herbs. The recipe calls for thyme, which I'm sure would be great - but I used some chopped sage and parsley since that's what I had. I also tucked a couple of bay leaves in among the chicken pieces. The recipe then said to cook it on the stove top until the chicken is tender - but I put it in the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes - just like the Spanish recipe I'd made a few days earlier, and that other French recipe I did a few weeks back.

When that came out of the oven - I removed the chicken and put it on a baking sheet and heated the broiler - then turned my attention to the sauce. I brought the juices in the pot to a boil, and took about half a cup and whisked it with 2 Tablespoons of Wondra in a separate bowl, then added that back to the pot - whisking until thickened. I then added another couple of tablespoons of cognac, some salt and pepper, and a little splash of cream. When this was close to done - I popped the chicken under the broiler to brown a little - since the skin had become a little flabby during the braising process. This also worked great for reheating it without having to keep it warm. Again - soooo easy.
Barefoot Contessa 40 Clove Chicken
During the cooking process, the garlic sort of melts into the sauce - the cloves become incredibly sweet, but strangely not too strong. The flavor is amazing with the wine, cognac, cream and garlic. With a green salad, more wine and bread? It's just like the best chicken and gravy you've ever had.

40 Clove Chicken "a la Barefoot Contessa"
from this recipe from the Barefoot Contessa, as adapted by Adam, a.k.a. the Amateur Gourmet

40 whole cloves of garlic, peeled (I bought the pre-peeled garlic cloves in the refrigerated section at Trader Joes and they worked great - if you are using heads of garlic about 3 should do it - dunk the unpeeled cloves in boiling water for about 1 minute to remove the skins.)
8-10 Chicken thighs and legs - skin on
kosher salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons Cognac, divided
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh herbs (I used sage and parsley - the original recipe calls for thyme)
2 tablespoons Wondra or All Purpose Flour
3-4 tablespoons heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350. Dry the chicken and season liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

In batches, brown the chicken in the fat, skin side down first, about 3 to 5 minutes on each side. Turn with tongs or a spatula; you don't want to pierce the skin with a fork.

Remove the chicken to a plate and add all of the garlic cloves to the pot. Lower the heat and saute for 5 to 10 minutes, turning often, until evenly browned. Add 2 tablespoons of the Cognac and all of the wine, raise the heat to bring to a boil, and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Boil for one minute.

Return the chicken to the pot and sprinkle with the herbs. Tuck the bay leaves in with the chicken pieces, cover and braise in the oven for about 45 minutes, until the chicken is extremely tender.

Using tongs, remove the chicken to a rimmed baking sheet. (Be careful, it might fall apart.) and turn the oven up to broil. Place the dutch oven on the stove and raise the heat to high. Remove half a cup of the liquid and whisk in the Wondra or flour, then whisk it back into the sauce in the pot. When the mixture boils, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of Cognac and boil until it starts to thicken. Meanwhile, run the chicken under the broiler for about 3-5 minutes. Whisk the cream, salt and pepper into the sauce. When the sauce and chicken are ready - place the chicken on a plate and pour the sauce over. Pass additional sauce on the side.

Serves 4-6.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Long Weekend of Dining, Part II - Saturday at Aqui es Texcoco and Oasis in the South Bay

Aqui es el Texcoco and Oasis in S. Bay

If you like lamb - hoo boy, do I have the place for you! This new restaurant in Chula Vista specializes in just that, and like many other places that do just one thing, they do it very well. I was fortunate to be invited along for a Chowdown here with Alex, Josh, Candice and Pat last Saturday with the promise of a "whole lamb's head." I was a little worried that having followed lambing season religiously on Farmgirl Fare this Spring I wouldn't be able to do it - but my carnivorous instincts won out. (It helped that they didn't serve the head on the bone like I was afraid they might!) In addition to the cabeza, the offerings include costilla or lamb rib meat, barbacoa - traditional barbecued lamb, lamb consomme, guacamole with nopales, and corn tortilla quesadillas filled with squash blossoms or huitlacoche and white cheese.
Aqui es el Texcoco and Oasis in S. Bay

The consomme is a rich lamb stock with a sweet spicy flavor. Laden with stewed chickpeas, it's redolent of lamb but not overpoweringly gamey. At $1.60 a cup it's a great starter for a chilly morning.
Huitlacoche and Squash Blossom Quesadillas @ El Texcoco

Even if lamb isn't your thing, the squash blossom and huitlacoche quesadillas are worth the trip - especially the huitlacoche. Huitlacoche, or "corn smut" is a fungus that grows on corn, creating mushroom-like tumors. It tastes like a cross between corn, truffles and mushrooms - sweet, earthy and nutty all at once. Cooked with onions and served with mild white cheese on a corn tortilla, it transforms a simple quesadilla into a fine-dining caliber dish.
Lamb Cabeza at El Texcoco

The cabeza, pictured above, combines the cheek meat, brains, tongue and connective tissues of the entire lamb's head. Most of it was a bit gamey for my personal taste - but the cheek meat was succulent and tender. At $10.00 it feeds at least two people.
Pancita Taco @ El Texcoco

I was a little afraid of the pancita tacos, seeing as how they include stomach and I'm not generally a fan of organ meats - but I tasted these and the flavor seemed mild, especially with the seasonings. I ordered a costilla and a barbacoa taco to compare - the costilla was a little greasier than the barbacoa, but the mild flavor of the meat was much the same. One of the group's favorite items was the barbacoa rolled tacos - which we ordered after seeing them on just about every table. There were three large, crisp, flauta style tacos served with lettuce and crema. They were crisp and light on the outside and filled with juicy meat - unlike the dry dense specimens you get at most taco shops around town. There were bottles of salsa verde and roja on the on the table when we arrived, along with chopped onions and limes - but they brought us different ones for the tacos - also a verde and a roja. The taco sauces were a bit richer and thicker than the table sauces and I actually preferred them.

This place had a following right from the start, probably due to the fact that they have been in business in Tijuana since 1990. Definitely expect a wait if you come at prime time - and don't be surprised if they run out of menu items. When we arrived at 10 AM, every table was filled, and by the time we left, people were waiting outside. I have heard the owners plan to expand into the next door space within the next few months to accommodate the crowds. I haven't tried it - but I think Texcoco is comparable to another barbacoa restaurant in City Heights called El Borrego. They also specialize in the lamb dishes described above - something else to consider if that location is more convenient or you don't feel like waiting.
Oasis ice cream in Imperial Beach

After the lamb feast, Alex, Josh and I took a little trip to Hogetsu Do, the Japanese manju bakery around the corner in Chula Vista. I was hoping for French-style pastries with Japanese flavors, but it seemed they had mostly traditional manju - rice flour pastries filled with bean paste. After checking that out, we moved on to the Oasis Ice Cream Parlor in Imperial Beach, about a 5 minute hop down the freeway.
Oasis Homemade Ice Cream
Located in an unassuming strip mall just off the freeway, Oasis has been in business since 1978. The ice cream is made with nothing but cream, natural fruit or flavorings and sugar. It's kind of soft, a little bit chewy, a little bit icy, and a little sweeter than some - or maybe it just seems that way without the richness of an egg yolk custard on the tongue. I chose peanut butter and coffee - the two flavors I liked best after trying quite a few. The available flavors include walnut, rice, banana, tamarind, coconut, cantaloupe, guava and watermelon in addition to several of the usual suspects. They have a wide variety of fruit flavors, particularly in the case dedicated to sorbet. Josh got the rice flavor, which tasted like rice pudding or horchata. The peanut butter was nice and salty, just the way I like it.
In the case at Oasis Ice Cream in Imperial Beach

Oasis is also a paleteria, with a huge assortment of bars in the freezer case. The bars are also available at Lighthouse Ice Cream Parlor in Ocean Beach, and at the North Island Commissary.
The vast selection of bars at Oasis

If you're in the area, it's definitely worth a stop - you might even want to bring some dry ice (or pick some up at the nearby grocery store) to take some of the bars home. I may do that this summer when it heats up out here. Somehow a popsicle seems more cooling than a dish of ice cream on a hot day, but I haven't had much luck making them at home.

Speaking of making something at home, I just received The French Laundry Cookbook as a gift, and I'm excited to try the recipes with Carol's blog for guidance. First up I think will be the Coffee and Doughnuts - coffee semifreddo with fresh homemade doughnuts - if I can only find some fresh cake yeast. I also have my eye on the brandied cherries in one of the foie gras recipes, and I'm planning to try some preserved lemons soon with the fresh crop on our tree. I just bought the giant jars and some salt this weekend.

Yet another quick note - we had an outstanding dinner at Blanca in Solana Beach last night. I really think it's one of my favorite fine dining spots right now - along with Tapenade and 1500 Ocean. They do such a great job with both food and service - even James really likes it, and that's saying something!

Aqui es Texcoco
Barbacoa de Borrego
1043 Broadway
Chula Vista, CA 91911
(619) 427-4045
recommended dishes - consomme, lamb barbacoa, huitlacoche quesadilla, barbacoa rolled tacos

Oasis Ice Cream Parlor
1832 Coronado Ave
Imperial Beach, CA 92154
(619) 429-8980
Josh's story for Citybeat - it's a few years old, but not much has changed!