Friday, August 27, 2010

ah-ha moment

Early morning, as the ferry pulled away from the pier in Larkspur, I got out my notes. I knew I had little time to get my message across, maybe 35 minutes, before we’d disembark at the port of San Francisco. We were about to spend a day together on an adult field trip at the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace.

In a quiet whisper, so as not to disturb the commuters, I began telling a little about myself and giving a rough idea of the day ahead.

“This is an abbreviated version of what I do in Tuscany, Provence and the Rioja with my students. We visit cheese makers, winemakers and olive oil producers... We eat great lunches and drink fantastic wines. But it seems when my students are in Italy or Spain or someplace away from “home,” their perceptions are so much keener and they value the experiences more. Why is that?”

I continued, “Have we gotten so busy with our daily lives and crossing things off the list that we don’t stop to notice what’s right in front of us?”

“Today, I want you to notice the little things. Really use your senses... Maybe one of you will notice the sounds of busy foot traffic at lunch time, or someone else might be struck by the colors of the bay as we cruise towards San Francisco. Perhaps someone else will love the peppery, green taste of olive oil at McEvoy Ranch or the spicy hot fish tacos we’ll have for lunch at Majita. And I know many of you have tasted cow's milk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, but have you stopped and taken a moment to smell the pungent aromas of the all the different cheeses there? I know for me, I'm looking forward to heading straight to Boulette's Larder for the best rich, creamy hot chocolate."

I was surrounded by seven eager food writers and bloggers who were part of the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference. As the ferry pulled into the dock, I could tell, they were with me, they got what I was saying. And we had a whole day to explore it together.

I gave them a choice, they could write down their perceptions or keep them in their head. But most importantly, what I wanted to know at the end of the day was what was the inspiration for their ah-ha moment. It could be a thought, a paragraph or a page. I loved them all... And here's what they shared.

It was a surprisingly difficult decision: deplete my savings by another large-ish chunk and join the Joanne Weir-led group to the Ferry Building, or consider the cost of the Book Passage Travel (and Food!) Conference investment enough. I've been to the Ferry Building so many times, dashing through on lunch hour errands, grabbing a quick sample or making a fast purchase on the way, so why this trip? I decided to take the leap and anticipated a great day.

Our small band of committed foodies spent a glorious day of exploration and discovery, guided by an enthusiastic and charming Joanne. We tasted so many fantastic products; it was real treat was to hear directly from producers, owners, and vendors.
What I hadn't anticipated was the sense of renewal and joy I came away with. Taking the time to slow down, to sniff and savor instead of scrambling around tourists, worrying about getting back to work - that was refreshing! Taking the time to enjoy being a tourist at home with a group of interesting & like-minded people - the shared joy will be remembered and recounted. And to reconnect with the core notion that preparing food is an act of love - always to be held dear.

Mary Beth Brown

At the prodding of a friend who lovingly said, "I'll kick your butt if you don't do this," here I am, crossing the bay on a ferry, revisiting the highlights of an absolutely amazing day. Assigned with the task of sharing an aha moment after touring the Ferry Building Marketplace with Joanne and my fellow foodies, I found it difficult to focus on any one thing due to so many stimulating sights, sounds and aromas. I have been to the marketplace many times before, but never with an assignment. Fortunately, my revelation finally came while listening to Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery speak on the art of cheese making and tasting. I love cheese probably more than any other food on earth, which is actually rather funny – I am allergic to dairy. But, I eat cheese anyway. It is my candy.

I was fixated on Peggy's every word and eagerly gobbled up her samples. What I was the most surprised to hear, however, was that the Mt. Tam Triple Cream Brie actually tastes different with each season. Also interesting to note was that within each herd a lead cow intuitively selects a different pasture each day for the other cows to eat from. This, too, has an effect on the flavor of the cheese. I'm probably a lot like a cow. I don't want to eat the same things every day. I want variety, and I want to check out the other pastures. So, yes, the grass is greener (and sometimes browner) on the other side of the fence, especially when it comes to the world of cheese.

Sharon Landon

It was a morning for the senses. A sensation overload nearly. Drab and overcast outside, we stepped into the cacophony of Boulette’s Larder and wham. We were hit with the clatter of cups and saucers echoing off slick concrete floors and high hard ceilings.

And the smells. Garlic. Spices of cinnamon and pepper. Baking bread. All mingling, warm and heavy. And the larder itself, richly stocked: black rice, fried quail, marrow bones and black eyed peas.

And we.....a motley crew of food lovers led by this ebullient character, this ginger haired Mr. Rogers, so obviously in love with her craft and grateful to share her joy with us. Then, as if to bring me back into my body, someone handed me a tiny glass of hot chocolate with a delicate froth on top. We were here to taste after all.

I sipped. I gasped.

The first swallow hit me with such overwhelming pleasure. It was silken sweetness. It was warm grandmother moments. It was hot chocolate and marshmallows in the snow and yet sophisticated like in a European café.

This was just the beginning. This was just a taste.

“If we all drink a full one of those,” said our cheerful leader. Motioning to the tray of the fanciful chocolate saucers. “It will be..........blast off!”

That’s exactly where we were headed.

Alison Pierce VanDis

Sailing from Larkspur on a cool summer day, I was excited to be embarking upon what promised to be a passport free adventure for the tongue, eyes, nose, hands, and ears. When my eyes fixed upon the medium brown glass of hot chocolate, I knew that I was seeing what would be close to heaven in a cup. The Eastern European Hot Chocolate served as more than an eye opener, as noted on my itinerary for the day. As the delicious texture of the hot liquid floated from the front of my lips to the back of my tongue, I think I saw the thick clouds hanging over the Ferry Building part momentarily confirming that I was indeed having something poured straight from heaven. Moving toward the various shades of greens and browns of the Petaluma olives and extra virgin olive oil, my eyes danced with delight as I sampled the fresh fruit of the olives and the cut grass taste of the organic olive oils.

With my tongue and eyes fully engaged, I traveled onward following my nose to the cheeses of Point Reyes. Standing with reverence at the specially prepared cheese cart that held my favorite Red Hawk, Pierce PT, MT Tam, and St. Pat Classic cheese, I listened and tried my best to inhale every word that Peggy Smith, The Grand Madam of Cheese, spoke. Lost in my cheese tasting journey, I had no desire to be found unless it was with several Cowgirl Creamery wagon wheels tucked under my arms.

I say with my arms because the next stop of my Joanne Weir led adventure would land me at Cocina Mexican or Mijita where my hands would hold the taco de carne asada, the taco de carnitas, and eventually, the taco de pescado “Baja.” My other hand would hold onto the most delicious margarita that was near perfectly prepared, which could have been a standalone course for this writer. The feel of the soft corn tortilla and the ice cold cocktail glass would provide me with that transformative moment that one gets while taking a journey, an adventure, or travelling to someplace new. My day with Joanne Weir was something new, something treasured, something very special. She provided me with a great day filled with new and exciting experiences for all of my senses.

As the adventure came to a regretful end, the sounds of the white wine and the red wine filling the sparkling wine glasses were music to my ears. Being so caught up in the lyrical sounds of wine from a bottle meeting the wine glasses, it mattered not that I did no writing down of the names of the wines sampled. As I enjoyed every sip of my grapes from afar, I knew that all the notes in the world would not do justice to this day of adventure at the Ferry Building in San Francisco with Joanne Weir.
Melody Fuller

It’s the middle of the week. A grey, drab, foggy sort of morning on the bay. Tourists, commuters, chefs and foodies fill the grand hall of The Ferry Plaza Marketplace. The pitter-patter of feet and swishing of canvas market bags is passing me by. Herb Caen once boasted, “A famous city’s most famous landmark.”

We had arrived. The pungent aroma swirled around us. It entered my senses like liquid. In through my nose and out through my limbs. I could taste the cheese in the air. Heaps and piles of cheese. From this world and the next – our backyard and beyond. The ripeness of these artisanal delicacies was pungent and bold. Evident they had been made by hand, with care and devotion.

Could this be true? We were going to be led through a tasting by none other than the acclaimed Peggy Smith. Peggy to me is one of the matriarchs – a patron saint – of Northern Californian farmstead cheese. Out came a handcart of some of her best work – Mt. Tam, St. Pats, Pierce Point, Red Hawk, and Fromage Blanc. Of the many times I have visited Cowgirl Creamery’s original location at Tomales Bay Foods Company in Point Reyes Station I have never had the opportunity to meet the mother of the cheese. Most women my age hope to catch a glimpse of Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston or even the great Meryl Streep. That day – I felt I was experiencing a true star sighting.

I’m certain I cannot recount the story in the same tone or manner in which Peggy did so I hope you too can one day taste the cheeses of Tomales Bay through the words and from the hands of Peggy Smith. For Peggy, good cheese starts with good milk. And good milk comes from straight from the dairy.

Brooke Gray

I often wonder about people who just don’t seem to understand food. They eat whatever, and never seem to appreciate ‘better’ food. Why go to a small hole in the wall shop, when McDonald’s will do just fine. In contrast, I seem to be constantly seeking out the latest artisan creation. I ask questions, and am eager to learn more about food.

After this last Wednesday, where I was able to spend the day with Joanne and seven other foodies, I realize one of those things is thankfulness. I respect, and am thankful for, the people and labor that goes into making great quality food. It is not lost on me, and I take note when someone puts in that extra attention to make a great guacamole, olive oil, cheese, salami, hot chocolate, wine, honey… and the list goes on. I noticed that this was a common appearance in each of my travelers that day, including Joanne.
I am thankful for people like Joanne and other foodies who take joy in sharing their knowledge and experience without holding back. They labor out of love for their craft, never forgetting that they are making a product – not placed on a shelf in the living room – but to be eaten; placed inside our most precious possession, our bodies. The next time you are about to mindlessly consume some mediocre lunch, ask yourself, are you really thankful for the life you have? Do you take the time to appreciate the hard work and dedication of people who labor each day to provide quality products and instruction to you? Take the time to know what you eat and who is making it. I promise, you will find yourself a happier and more thankful person.
Timothy Snead

McEvoy was easily my favorite of the tasting spots we visited. This is not counting Mijita, where we had lunch. At McEvoy we learned about how the olives are grown and processed into olive oil. We each held a tiny cup of the olive oil in our palm and smelled it, then downed it like a shot. It felt and tasted surprisingly light. It tasted warm and grassy, with an almost spicy hotness on the back of the tongue. Our host told us of the history of the ranch and the high standards of quality and purity. We tasted their olive blend, which in my sample cup included one larger and two tiny olives, bathing in olive oil and herbs. The larger olive was mostly pit with little flesh, and tasted slightly like kalamata. The two tiny ones were fleshier and had a pleasant, candy-like sweetness. I'm not sure of the names of the olives, and they weren't either. It's a blend of various olives they grow. Then we tasted their limited edition olive oil drizzled on bread with fromage blanc (from Cowgirl Creamery) and flowering oregano (see photo). This was amazing and the flower buds of the fruiting oregano reminded me of capers, only fresher and lighter. This was a truly blissful tasting experience.

We also got to try McEvoy's hand lotion. The crushed olives leftover after the olive oil processing are used in their many body care products. They also carry honeys, jams, and things like lemon curd and cinnamon apple butter. On Wednesdays, they have an organic produce market at lunchtime. I bought a bunch of rainbow baby carrots and a bubble gum apple (pink on the inside) for my kids, and a jar of cinnamon apple butter for my parents. I will be making many repeat visits to this little shop. I will be asking my husband, who works near the Ferry Building, to pick up greens or other produce on some Wednesdays, because it doesn't get any fresher. The ranch itself is in Petaluma, very close to where I live. I will make a visit there as well, hopefully for one of their tours.

Lori Sanders

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

an italian grilled cheese sandwich

Who doesn't love grilled cheese sandwiches? After all, they're about as American as apple pie.

But how would the Italians make them?

Imagine creamy cow's milk taleggio or stracchino cheese sandwiched between layers of crispy, hot pizza dough baked to golden perfection on a pizza stone. That's my version of an Italian grilled cheese sandwich! Nothin' like what Mama used to make.

I was first introduced to a luscious focaccia al formaggio at Manuelina in Recco along the Ligurian coastline. That was years ago, probably my first trip to Liguria. I traveled to Recco just to taste this Italian Riviera masterpiece and it was worth every single calorie, every single kilometer.

I decided I liked the concept which prompted me to write my own recipe for flatbread with gooey cheese all melted inside. This is what I came up with!

Grab a glass of Barbera from neighboring Piedmonte and enjoy!


2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup (2 fl oz/60ml) plus 1 cup (8 fl oz/240ml) warm (110°f/43°c) water
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 fl oz/45ml) extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups (12 oz/350g) unbleached bread flour
12 ounces (350g) taleggio or stracchino cheese, coarsely grated
1/3 cup (1 1/2 oz/45g) finely grated aged pecorino cheese

Whisk together the yeast and 1/4 cup (2 fl oz/60ml) water and let sit until creamy, about 20 minutes. Add the remaining 1 cup (8 fl oz/240ml) water, the olive oil, flour, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Knead on a lightly floured surface until smooth and soft, 7 to 8 minutes. Place in a well-oiled bowl and turn the dough over to coat the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (75°f/24°c) until it doubles in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.

Place a pizza stone or tiles on the bottom shelf of the oven. Heat the oven to 500°f (260°c) for at least 30 minutes.

Divide the dough into 4 pieces and form each piece into a round ball. On a well-floured surface, roll 1 piece of dough at a time into a 9-inch (23-cm) circle, 1/8-inch (0.3cm) thick. Transfer 1 piece to a well-floured pizza peel or paddle. In a bowl mix together the taleggio and pecorino. Spread one-third of the cheese mixture on the dough, leaving a 1-inch border. Brush the edges of the dough lightly with water. Roll another ball to the same size and place on top. Crimp the edges to seal well. Pinch a hole in the second piece of dough in the center.

Bake the focaccia on the hot stone until light golden and crisp, 8 to 11 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dough and cheese filling, making 1 more focaccia. Serve immediately.

Makes 2 focaccie and serves 10

Friday, August 6, 2010

mexican penicillin

In Napa last weekend celebrating my birthday. Stopped by and visited Brian and Claudia at Fleury for a fantastic tasting of their new SB and '07 BDX. By the time we were done, we were so hungry. Where to go? And then I remembered that Joe Yonan told me about LaLuna Market & Taqueria for what he said were "the best tacos."

“How long has it been there?” I asked him.

“Years, I think! You don’t know about it?” he asked. It was kind of surprising. After all, Joe lives in Washington, DC and this is my neck of the woods.

It was now 2:00 PM Saturday afternoon. I was well past hungry, and the taco lover that I am, I was definitely up for a spicy pork taco. There on a side street in “downtown” Rutherford was this non-distinct Mexican grocery store, La Luna. I’d probably driven past this place a thousand times.

As we walked inside, I was transported to Guadalajara. Mexican music was serenading the cute girls behind the counter who were talking Spanish, laughing and chewing gum. It didn’t look like a taco joint at all but I followed my nose past the Arbor Mist, Red Bull and bars of Palmolive to the back of the store. There I found the counter filled with crispy hot tortilla chips, a menu on the wall and a couple guys cranking out tacos and burritos.

We had a few minutes from the time we placed our order so I wandered the aisles. I came across spices that were so aromatic; I couldn’t help but picking up a few, -- California chili, New Mexico chili, pasilla chili and ancho chili. A few minutes later, we found ourselves eating al pastor and carnitas tacos out on a picnic table. What the surroundings lacked in atmosphere, the tacos made up for in deliciousness!

For the next couple days I obsessed about those spices I’d gotten. They were on my kitchen counter and every time I walked past them, they called my name.

By Tuesday, I felt a little under the weather. Kind of a scratchy throat and my head felt like it weighed about a thousand pounds. I needed some penicillin, Mexican penicillin, so I made a huge pot of chicken tortilla soup. And guess what spices gave the best flavor to the broth….


1 large yellow onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 whole chicken, 3 ½ pounds, cut into 6 pieces
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon California chili
1/2 teaspoon pasilla chili
1/2 teaspoon ancho chili
1/4 teaspoon New Mexico chili
¼ teaspoon pimenton or smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
½ jalapeno, halved and seeded
Corn oil for frying the tortillas
8 corn tortillas, cut into 1/4" strips
½ pound green beans, ends removed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
2 ears of corn, husked and kernels removed
3 zucchini, about ½ pound, cut into ½-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
1 large avocado, diced

Place the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, tomatoes, chicken, 6 whole sprigs cilantro, cumin, chili, pimenton, oregano, bay leaves, jalapeno and 10 to 12 cups water in a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to low and simmer, uncovered, until the chicken is very tender, 1 to 1 ¼ hours.

Heat ½" corn oil in a deep heavy pan to 375F. Add the tortilla strips and cook until crispy, 1 minute. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.

Remove the chicken and let cool. Strain the remaining liquid and discard the solids. Place the stock back in the soup pot. Add the green beans and carrots and cook until almost tender, 5 minutes.

Remove the meat from the bones and discard the bones. Tear the chicken into 1-inch pieces and return the chicken to the pot along with the corn and zucchini. Simmer for 5 minutes.

To serve the soup, heat the soup until hot. Ladle into bowls and garnish with cheddar and avocado. Top with tortillas strips and cilantro leaves.

Serves 6