Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Bowl of Nostalgia

Though I still have my day in Napa to document, I am going to take a quick hiatus from the NorCal posts and turn to Passover. I have a slew of leavening-free recipes and photos to share with you, and I wanted to share at least one before the holiday is technically over.

Matzoh ball soup is one of the few items of traditional Jewish food that have really caught on in North America. It’s ubiquitous and recognizable to people all over, regardless of how many Jews they actually know. Kreplach? Kugel? Tsimmes? If you don’t have Jewish friends, it’s likely that you haven’t seen, or even heard of this stuff, but matzoh ball soup has made a name for itself, and deservedly so.

Though much Jewish food gets a bad rap, there is no denying that there is a place for matzoh balls in almost everyone’s heart. If you’re sick, homesick, or in any way feeling nostalgic, it’s pretty likely that a steamy bowl of matzoh ball soup will relieve your aching heart.

I spoke with my Grandmother last weekend about the Seder I was hosting. She gave me a few words of wisdom about matzoh balls, namely that I should never trust the recipe on the back of the matzoh meal container, since it calls for far too few eggs. And seltzer, seltzer is the key to incredibly light matzoh balls.

I’ve made matzoh balls before, and I’ve used seltzer in making them, but they haven’t been stellar. They’ve been good, but I want that ethereal lightness and lingering salty taste that the matzoh balls of my youth possessed. There’s a pretty standard formula to matzoh balls: 2:1 ratio of matzoh meal to fat and seltzer. Then a couple of eggs, some salt and pepper and you’ve got yourself some matzoh balls. It’s really that simple.

Since the back of my matzoh meal box didn’t even have a recipe, I turned to a trusted source, where I found a recipe that looked pretty much like the one I used last year to some success.

But then I stumbled upon a recipe from Mark Bittman from the Best Recipes in the World. He suggests that, for incredibly light matzoh balls, to beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and mix them in after all of the other ingredients were combined. Soft peaks mean that there are a lot of little air bubbles in the egg whites from the beating, which is what makes for lightness. It made logical sense, so I gave it a go.

I combined the two techniques and was rewarded with fluffy, light, gorgeous balls of deliciousness that managed to sit in the soup, soaking up just enough of its salty flavor, without becoming a sponge and sucking the bowl dry. The matzoh balls were light, tasty, and didn’t weigh the stomach down, nor did they fill you up before the brisket even made it to the table.

This is a classic recipe that is much more simple than you’d imagine it to be. So often we fear replicating the dishes of our youth, worried that the products will fall so far short of those our family miraculously composed all those years ago. Though you might need a recipe, at least at first, you’ll make it all your own, and you’ll be able to bring your love to the tradition that graves your table at holidays and year round. Yours might not be as great as Bubbie’s the first time you make them, but believe me, you’ll get there, or at least close to there. Eventually.

Matzoh Ball Soup

This classic recipe is something that I’m convinced everyone should attempt making at some point. It’s so simple, almost to the point of foolproof, really. This recipe produces super light matzoh balls, if you prefer a smaller, more leaden type matzoh ball (a “sinker”), then you’re probably best served to look elsewhere, thank you very much. The matzoh balls are served in a simple stock, with a few carrots and sprigs of dill thrown in for good measure. It’s a great recipe to have in your arsenal, be it Passover or not, be you Jewish or not.

The Stock

As far as the chicken soup goes, it’s just a basic stock. There are infinite interpretations and combinations, but what I did was this: I threw some chicken backs, necks and thighs into a large pot, added some vegetables (in this case carrots, parsnips, leek tops, a few cloves of garlic (skin removed) and two small onions, but you can use any combination you desire) and a few sprigs of thyme, a few peppercorns, some parsley and a bay leaf. After the pot has been assembled, the directions are the same, no matter what’s inside:

Fill the pot with water until the chicken and vegetables are just covered (for me, probably around 3-4 quarts of water). Bring the water to a boil. After about 20 minutes you’ll see scum forming at the top, skim that off and discard. Once skimmed, lower the heat so that the liquid is at a simmer. Cover and let simmer for about 2-4 hours. Drain the mixture through a sieve or colander back into a storage container or the pot. Discard the vegetables, herbs and chicken parts (I saved the thighs and shredded them up into the soup before I served it). Chill the stock in the fridge overnight. Before reheating, remove the layer of fat that has formed at the top of the container and throw that away.

The Matzoh Balls

A mish-mach of recipes from Smitten Kitchen and Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything

1 cup matzoh meal
4 eggs, separated
4 T rendered chicken fat or vegetable oil
¼ c. grated onion
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons seltzer

Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a medium-sized bowl and setting aside the whites in a large bowl. Mix the remaining ingredients together with the yolks. Set mixture aside. With an electric mixer, beat the eggs until soft peaks form. You can test for soft peaks by stopping the mixer and lifting it out of the eggs. Two small peaks will form where the mixer has been lifted out and the tips will tip over, resembling an ocean wave. Those are soft peaks. Take the egg whites and spoon them into the bowl with the matzoh meal mixture. Gently fold in the whites until combined. Try your best to remove any clumps of matzoh meal in the mixture, since those will probably stay hard throughout cooking, which is not what you want. Be gentle though, since you want to preserve those tiny air bubbles in the egg whites to keep your matzoh balls light. Once incorporated, cover the mixture and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour, up to overnight.

Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Remove the mixture from the fridge. Using very wet hands, gently form the mixture into balls about one inch in diameter.

After forming each ball, immediately ease it into the boiling water. Once all the matzoh balls are in, lower the heat to a simmer. Cover and let simmer for about 35-40 minutes.

While the matzoh balls are cooking, heat the stock up over low heat. If you’d like, peel and finely chop some carrots and place into the heating stock. About 10-15 minutes of cooking time for the carrots should ensure they get soft without turning to mush.

Place a couple of matzoh balls in each bowl of soup. Ladle some of the stock over the matzoh balls, garnish with some fresh-snipped dill and parsley, and serve immediately.

Serves about 8 people generously

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Lazy Saturday

The plan all along was to go to the Ferry building for the farmers market, then take our haul to Golden Gate Park, since we never made it there on Thursday, and lounge in the sun all day long, slowly eating, reading and just being.

This was by far one of my most enjoyable days of our eight. We spent close to two hours at the Farmer’s market, before deciding that we couldn’t wait to get across town to the Park to tear into our goodies. So we parked ourselves down on the lawn across from the Ferry Building and laid out our spread.

But this was not before we got was my travel companion dubbed the best sandwich he’d ever had in his entire life. Or maybe it was at least in recent memory. I don’t recall the precise superlative used, but I know it was a hefty one. We arrived around 11:30, already rather hungry. Passing by one of the restaurant-tents, my boyfriend was stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of a stuffed leg of lamb being sliced and served on sandwiches from Roli Roti. The lamb was presumably being featured because it was Easter weekend. After standing on line for close to half an hour, we were served the most simple of sandwiches. A hefty slice of lamb was cut from the leg, which was stuffed with garlic, mint, and so much deliciousness, and marbled with so much gooey fat that it could hardly be contained by the slices between which it was eventually stuffed. Before placing the lamb on the bread, the crusty ciabatta, not in the slightest bit dense, was used to wipe up the drippings that had poured out of the lamb when it was sliced. Both halves of the roll were treated to this same luxurious coating. The flavors of the juices, the tenderness of the lamb itself and the crustiness of the bread proved that sometimes a simple sandwich is so, so much more than the sum of its parts.

Since we were temporarily sated, we were able to wander around the market with no distraction from the rumbling in our tummies and survey the scene with many pass-throughs. We were looking essentially for a meat, a cheese and a bread for our picnic. What we eventually ended up with was fantastic.

We tasted many, many cheeses from the few cheese stands set up before settling on the Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk. It was creamy, supple, mild, milky, amazing. We had to retreat inside to the permanent Cowgirl Creamery shop because the tent was already sold out of the Red Hawk, bur we managed to tear through the crowds and get our share, which we each greedily smeared in chunks on the sourdough.

Along with the cheese, we purchased a Duck Liver Mousse from the Fatted Calf. It was one of the few animal products available at the market that did not require cooking before it could be eaten, so we first felt as if we were settling. Once we opened up the package though, and spread some on the crusty bread, that sentiment quickly subsided. It was enticingly rich and exceedingly enjoyable.

We splurged on some Prosciutto de Parma from Mastrelli’s Delicatessen inside the Ferry Building. It was totally worth it. Each bite, lovingly draped over the levain was a bit of salty, cured-pork paradise.

We also picked up a smoked salmon spread from Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoke, which largely went ignored in favor of the pate and cheese and prosciutto. It was quite good though, and I pitied it a bit, sitting there idly while its neighbors were quickly being dissipated.

A sourdough levain was snapped up from Acme Bread Co., and a wheat baguette from Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Company. The sourdough was great. I really liked the whole-wheat loaf as well, though something just felt so right about eating sourdough across from the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

And what a lazy, gluttonous Saturday it was.

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
One Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94114

Acme Bread Co.
(415) 288-2978

Cap'n Mike's Holy Smoke
(707) 585-2000

Cowgirl Creamery
One Embarcadero
(415) 362-9354

Fatted Calf
(510) 653-4327

Mastrelli's Delicatessen
(415) 397-3354

Noe Valley Bakery & Bread Co.
(415) 550-1405

Roli Roti
(510) 780-0300

Monday, April 14, 2008

San Francisco, at Last (part I)

A week ago today I woke up for the first time in eight days in Chicago (note: this proves how long I’ve been writing this post, I arrived back on the 27th of March, which makes it just about, oh, forever . Please forgive me! I had a paper! About Banking Law! BANKING LAW! I knew you would understand). I had been in San Francisco, stuffing myself to the gills and walking up and down (but mostly up) countless charming streets. The weather was beautiful (I got a tan!), which was quite fortuitous considering that this food wasn’t really going to walk itself off. We were there for long enough that we didn’t have to take a “let’s do EVERYTHING right NOW” approach to our trip, but sunk into Bay Area life and let it take us around.

It should come as no surprise that the main focus of this trip was food. While I was ecstatic about good weather, the Pacific Ocean, and a generally more relaxed attitude, I was thrilled at the multitude of dining options that lay before me. Caught up in the deliciousness of it al, I neglected to take pictures of everything I ate, and for this, I am deeply sorry. I hope you will bear with me and read along anyway. After all, it's not like my pictures don't suck anyway.

Our first stop along the San Francisco dining train was at A la Turca, a small Turkish place recommended by the friendly dude sitting next to me on the plane. He said his wife was Turkish, and this is her favorite place to eat. So without delay, we dined. The space was bare bones and casual. The kitchen featured an open grill visible to the street as well as the dining room. Having dealt with the requisite delays and airport difficulties associated with a flight out of O’Hare, we were both quite famished. So we started with the appetizer combo platter, which featured myriad vegetarian delights - I believe eight in total. I particularly liked the white bean salad and the baba ganouj. For my main course, I ordered the beyti kebap, which is ground lamb wrapped in Turkish flatbread and baked, topped with “special” sauce and fresh yogurt. The special sauce was essentially a spicy marinara sauce, but the yogurt, generously placed in the center of the divided beyti so complemented every aspect of the dish, bringing it all together seamlessly into one of the better bites in recent memory. Reenergized, we headed down to the Mission to drink some local microbrews and play Ms. Pac Man.

The next morning we set out walking, our ultimate goal to cross the Golden Gate bridge and head down to Golden Gate Park. We left our Union Square hotel and ascended Grant Street towards the gates of Chinatown. Before crossing the threshold though, we sat outside and drank cappuccino at Café de la Presse. It had been too long since we’d felt the warmth of direct sunlight for us to not merely sit, relax and enjoy it before we did anything else. I really took to that little Café, it was charming, quite Parisian in its décor, and while the cappuccino was expensive, it was really, really good.

And so we embarked, walking in and out of multiple bakeries in Chinatown until we found one that fit the bill. When we found what we were looking for, we got rather overzealous and carried away six Chinese buns to take along with us on our journey. We wasted no time though, and dug right in. I went straight for the char siu bao, a yeasted bun enveloping sweet, tender barbequed pork. The Chinese buns had been a matter of discussion for days leading up to our departure, and I had been quite excited to gorge on them as a result. The curried beef bun was rather good, though I prefer the pork. We also had a scallion bun, which, though initially untouched came up in the clutch on Friday morning when our stomachs were calling for something, anything, solid. I had been told tales of the coconut bun, convinced that the sweet, crunchy topping was what memories were made of. It was good, but I preferred the savory buns, and I am not a huge fan of dried coconut, so the paste on the inside really did not appeal to me.

As we were walking down Chestnut, popping in and out of stores as we saw fit, we stumbled upon A16, which I had read much about. Since it was about two o’clock and we had done a ton of walking already, we felt a glass of wine (or a half carafe) was well deserved. But what is afternoon wine without cheese and sausage? Nothing, I tell you. Accordingly, feasted on fennel sausage and burrata cheese. Now, I must admit - I have a borderline obsession with burrata. Gooey, creamy, chewy, soft, burrata is a being all its own, the mild cheese succumbs to the weight of your tongue, enveloping it with its milkiness. It’s sometimes hard to find, but I suggest that if you’ve never had it before and you stumble across it, whether in a store or on a menu, order it. You won’t be sorry. We ate and drank at the bar, conversing with the bartender the whole time, asking for advice on where we should go, what we should see. The sausage was great, and plentiful, as was the cheese, and though we didn’t order any of the pizzas, we watched as one was placed further down the bar and it looked great. Though I cannot attest to the main courses or dinner-time atmosphere at A16, which I know is busy every night of the week, our hour at the bar was entirely pleasant and the food was simple and of great quality.

The next morning we went to try out Ti Couz before a walk around the Mission and the Castro on a gorgeous day. We arrived expecting a wait, especially since we wanted to sit outside and enjoy the sun for the first time since last October. We waited. And waited. And watched as four tables sat empty for a good 30 minutes before anyone bothered to clear them and sit other people down. Our wait probably ended up being 45 minutes or so. And once we sat down we were fully ignored, we had to ask the host (who I’m convinced was superman, as he was carrying plates, bussing tables, seating guests, wiping down tables) to ask our waitress to please help us. We ordered drinks, then a few minutes later we requested a salad and crepes, one with mushroom, gruyere and crème fraiche, and one complete, with ham, cheese and a sunny-side up egg for me. Our salad came rather quickly, and was in fact quite good, as were the crepes, if you like that sort of thing. The complete was far better than the other, as the salt from the ham provided much of the flavor. What about our drinks, you might ask? Oh, those came after – after the salad, after the crepe. And the bread we were promised with our salad? Well that never even made it to the table. Now I’m not fully hating on Ti Couz, I really liked the atmosphere, and when the food made it to our table it was very good, not great, but I guess I’ve yet to eat a transcendent crepe. I didn't mind the relaxed attitude the wait staff exuded, and I appreciated that we were allowed to linger after our food was taken. I mean, its not like I was really in a rush to get anywhere, but almost two and a half hours for a couple of crepes and a salad seems a bit ridiculous, even in hindsight.

What came as most of a shock to me about the San Francisco culture was how early everything got going, but more importantly, what time everything got wrapped up. We had been excited for a German-style brauhaus experience at Süppenkuche, though I had read mixed reviews we thought it would be a fun time to sit around, drink giant beers and feast on no-frills cuisine. Thinking we were really hedging our bets, we arrived to request at table at eight, only to be told that they were no longer taking names for seating that evening. Really? At eight? On a Friday night? Really?!? So we walked down Hayes and stumbled upon a trendy little sushi joint that I had read reviews of in my pre-departure search for culinary destinations. We left our name, departed down the street for a drink and came back when we were called. Though the food came slowly, the service was incredibly nice and accommodating, our waitress in fact gave me her phone number in case we had trouble finding trouble to get ourselves into, and the sushi was very good. We had no intention of rushing our meal along anyway. The uni I ordered was stellar. I was slow to take to the uni craze, but I attribute that to the fact that the uni I tried early on was not the freshest, not the best possible uni out there. And when you’re dealing with a substance such as sea urchin roe, it needs to be of superior quality. Something custardy, smooth, buttery and rich in its most pure form can be downright nasty when it’s not fresh. The yellowtail (I forget the precise type I tried) was great, as was the eel, which was soft and subtly sweet. Sebo was not a bad place to stumble into after all.

Our dinner at 1550 Hyde was an equally pleasurable affair. We walked in a few minutes late for our reservation, but were seated immediately. The space was intimate, reminding me much more of New York than Chicago. With no more than a quiet din from the other diners reaching our table, our conversation was held at a normal level with no need to strain to hear across the table. The menu was quite small, and in fact nothing really jumped out at me from the get-go, which usually is not such a great sign. Though dining at a wine bar, I was unable to make up my mind as far as red and white goes, so I just went for beer to make my life easier. I chose an oatmeal stout, which was heavy, but nice. We began our meal with a couple of salads, one of grilled romaine with chorizo and the other an avocado and fennel salad with citrus vinaigrette. They were both quite good, refreshing and perfect for winding down a warm day. Andrew ordered the fried chicken, in what would become a theme of the trip, while I got the seafood stew with shrimp, mussels, clams. It was good, though maybe short of great, but I managed to muster up the strength to finish it all, so that must say something. The food was all very fresh, and very carefully prepared with the utmost care and deference clearly given to the selection and preparation of the ingredients. It didn’t break the bank either, and was great for a nice, cozy Saturday night.

I’m going to skip ahead now until Tuesday, since Sunday we were mostly in Palo Alto and Monday we hit up Napa, a fantastic day to which I will devote a different post. One of the things we realized we had to schedule into our trip at all costs was a dim sum meal. We looked at a number of different books and while they all recommended different restaurants for dim sum, there was one constant throughout – Yank Sing. We walked over expectantly and apparently just beat the crowd; we were seated immediately but by halfway through our meal we espied a dense crowd at the entryway.

Nestled within a mall, Yank Sing seems quite unassuming, though it was soon clear that this was going to be a gussied-up dim sum experience. The dim sum started rolling out, and we began with fried scallop balls. Then came crabs cakes, then pork dumplings rolled in bean curd skin, then the mushrooms stuffed with chicken, then steamed shrimp dumplings (har gau), then greens, then fried tofu wrapped in seaweed, then the long rice noodles with shrimp nestled inside. The small bites descended upon us in a seemingly-never ending string, until our table was nearly covered with white plates of various sizes and dipping bowls as far as the eye could see. They cleared our plates, one by one, and though the boy across from me had grown increasingly full, nearly to the point of sickness, he was not done. We had to have Peking duck. Indeed, we had chosen Yank Sing because one of the books specifically noted that its Peking duck was not to be missed. I have an affinity for the steamed buns in which the Peking Duck is eaten – for which I give all credit to David Chang and his pork buns at Momofuku – and while duck is not my most favorite thing in the world, I gladly laid it snugly within the bun, brushed it with hoisin sauce and a couple of greens and dug in. The duck was quite good, though I would venture to say that even scraps of paper, brushed with hoisin and nestled in a pillowy envelope would be met without complaint from this girl.

Our final meal came at Café Claude on Wednesday afternoon after a leisurely morning enjoying one of the bottles of sparkling wine we had brought back from Napa. We had been in search of something close to the hotel, since we had to make our way to the airport and this seemed convenient and potentially promising. We entered the restaurant and were the first ones there for lunch service. Hidden on a quiet lane in an otherwise busy commercial area, Café Claude is instantly reminiscent of Paris. The outdoor tables tilted precariously on the sidewalk, the zinc bar was lovingly scratched - the charming imperfections that make Europe so endearing, yet we were in an alley in San Francisco. We shared a bottle of wine, dug into some crusty bread presented in generous amount in front of us and took our sweet time deciding on our orders. I settled on the Pan Roti, a pork tenderloin sandwich with grainy mustard, greens and an arugula salad with champignions and parmagianno cheese, while Andrew took to the steak tartare with its multiple traditional accoutrements. My sandwich was simple, and exactly as advertised, the bread was crusty, with great bite and the salad was devoured in order. The steak tartare was good as well, tender and flavorful. It was a fully relaxing end to a wonderfully relaxing week.

1550 Hyde
1550 Hyde St. (at Pacific)
(415) 775-1550

A la Turca
869 Geary St
(415) 345-1011

2355 Chestnut St (between Divisadero and Scott)
(415) 771-2216

Café Claude
7 Claude Lane (off Sutter)
San Francisco, CA
(415) 392-3515

Café de la Presse
352 Grant St. (at Sutter)
(415) 398-2680

517 Hayes St. (between Ocatavia and Laguna)
(415) 864-2122

Ti Couz
3108 16th St. (at Valencia)
(415) 252-7373

Yank Sing
101 Spear St (at Mission)
(415) 957-9300

Also of note:
Katana-Ya, where we had some pretty good ramen (advice: go for the richer broth, it’s well worth it). We had a craving, it hit the spot. x
430 Geary St (at Mason)
(415) 771-1280

CocoBang, a Korean joint we stumbled into late Tuesday after the aforementioned dim sum incident. This was one of the only places still serving in our general vicinity by the time we were ready to eat again. We had hopes of the Korean fried chicken eaten religiously over the summer in New York, but we were disappointed. The bulgogi, however, was quite good, though our squid dish was disappointing as well.
550 Taylor St (at Post)
(415) 292-5144