I made a quick trip to San Francisco last week to check out a couple of food-centric destinations that I’ve been reading about. After years of experience making day trips to the city, I’ve learned not to try to overdo it—just picking a couple of places I must visit, then adding a few spots to my list in case I have time.
I haven’t spent much time in the Western Addition neighborhood, but wanted to check out The Mill, a bakery on Divisidero Street. Parking was surprisingly easy in this area in the middle of the city between Japantown and the Haight. The Mill is a bright and airy coffee house featuring Four Barrel Coffee and Josey Baker Bread. The pistachio croissant was a little heavy on the pistachio mix, but tasty none the less with a nice little hit of sweet blackberry jam. Next time I’ll try to get there earlier for a better selection of pastries. However, the real draw of The Mill is the bread. Many of the flours for the house-baked breads are milled on site (hence the name). My favorite was the Cornmeal Rosemary. The crust was pleasantly chewy with a hint of caramel/char. Inside the loaf, the crumb was stretchy, chewy and pocketed with uneven holes in just the right way. The flavor was nutty with a hint of rosemary and tartness from the sourdough culture. The Black Pepper Parmesan loaf was also delicious. I enjoyed it the next morning lightly toasted with a smear of mashed avocado and smoked flaked sea salt (more on that later). Dark Mountain Rye, in a traditional loaf shape, was dense and hearty and perfect for a ham and cheese sandwich. They even offered a gluten-free loaf called Adventure Bread made with seeds and nuts and held together with psyllium husks.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a new Bi Rite Market just down the street. I learned that it opened at around the same time as The Mill–about two years ago. Like the Mission District branch, this market does urban grocery right. There’s a great selection of local produce, house-made prepared foods and charcuterie (I got some delicious lamb merquez sausage), carefully selected wine and beer, coffee and a multitude of distinctive local products like bread, baked goods, chocolates, salsas and jams.
At the crest of a hill in the neighborhood just a block from The Mill sits the large, green, dog-friendly Alamo Square Park. Bordered by iconic Victorian row houses, the park offers great panoramic views of the city–from the top of one of the Golden Gate Bridge’s towers to the downtown skyline. The beautiful weather made the park the perfect place to break bread (literally) and enjoy some cheeses and house-made duck pate from Bi Rite Market
Spice Ace, a source for hundreds of spices, herbs, salts, spice blends, chilies, flavored sugars and extracts is just a few blocks away on a quiet, residential street. This place is amazing! Tester jars of everything on offer are available for smelling and tasting. You could spend hours exploring this neatly organized shop. However, your nose and palate get exhausted after a while. Some highlights from the shop include a huge selection of curry blends from all over Asia as well as the recently trendy Vadouvan blend used by French cooks. The selection of salt varieties and blends was mind-boggling. I couldn’t leave the shop without the Halen Mon smoked flake sea salt from the UK. It’s lightly smoked and delicately flakey with a slight sweetness—delicious on avocado, fried eggs or a just about anything.
With my top spots checked off the list, I had time to tackle the “if there’s time” list so I dashed across the Bay Bridge toward Berkeley for stops at two old standbys: The Spanish Table and Berkeley Bowl West. After that and knowing that I wasn’t going to beat rush hour traffic anyway, I decided to treat myself to some ice cream at the Oakland branch of Smitten Ice Cream. Smitten features made-to-order ice cream using a kitchen mixer-like setup with an injection of liquid nitrogen. In addition to creative, delicious flavors featuring local ingredients, it’s entertaining to watch your ice cream being made in just a couple of minutes while a haunted house’s worth of fog rises from the mixer bowl. Freezing the ice cream at such a low temperature (-321° F.) in such a short period of time makes an incredibly smooth and dense final product. I had the seasonal flavor of the month—Blood Orange with Pistachio Cookies. It was light in flavor with a tart kick from the blood oranges and little crispy texture from the cookies. An excellent way to end a great day—fortified to face the traffic.
I’ve always loved asparagus season in Central California. I like that it’s a finite season, and it’s an agro-culinary treat you can really look forward to. Resisting the urge to buy those nice looking spears that come from Mexico a month or so before the California season begins, I patiently wait for the local product to finally arrive. I’ve been enjoying this year’s crop in the usually ways: grilled, sauteed, broiled, in salads, etc. , but wanted to create a recipe that included some of my other favorite flavors. While asparagus has a distinctive flavor, it lends itself well to a variety of cuisines and applications. This recipe for lasagne has lots of steps, but isn’t difficult to make. Enjoy!
8 ounces Lasagne Sheets
½ small Onion – small dice
3 Tblspns Flour
1 ¾ cup Milk
½ tspn Salt
¼ tspn Pepper
1 Tblspn Olive Oil
1 Tblspn Butter
8 ounces Crimini Mushrooms
½ tspn Salt
¼ tspn Pepper
2 tspns Fresh Thyme (1 tspn if using dried)
1 Tblspn Olive Oil
8 ounces Spinach
8 ounces Piquillo Peppers – diced
12 ounces Asparagus
1 cup Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
4 ounces Goat Cheese
1 tspn Lemon Zest
2 Tblspns Basil—chopped
1 large Egg
½ tspn Salt
¼ tspn Pepper
- Cook lasagne according to package instructions. Cool and set aside.
- Melt butter in medium sauce pan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until soft and butter is just beginning to brown.
- Reduce heat to low and add flour. Stir with a rubber spatula to combine and break up any lumps. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, for 2-3 minutes.
- Slowly add milk while stirring constantly to prevent lumps from forming. Add salt and pepper and stir frequently until mixture is thick. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Trim tough ends from asparagus. Add asparagus to water and cook just until crisp/tender—about 3 minutes.
- Drain and immediately dunk in ice water to stop cooking. Drain again and set aside.
- Cut mushrooms into wide, chunky slices—about 3 slices per mushrooms for medium-sized caps.
- Add olive oil and butter to a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and salt. Sauté for 5-7 minutes or until mushrooms have softened and released their juices. Add pepper and thyme and cook one more minute. Remove from pan and set aside.
- Wipe out pan and add 1 Tblspn olive oil to pan over medium-high heat. Add spinach and sauté until just wilted, but still bright green in color. Remove from pan and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, goat cheese, egg, zest, basil, salt and pepper.
- For lasagne assembly, spray a 9” square baking dish with cooking spray. Place a layer of noodles in the bottom of the pan. Top with about 2/3 of the béchamel sauce. Add mushrooms in an even layer.
- Add another layer of noodles and top with sautéed spinach and about 2/3 of the piquillo peppers.
- Add another layer of noodles and top with 2/3 of the ricotta mixture. Lay in the blanched asparagus spears in an even layer and top with remaining ricotta mixture.
- Add another layer of noodles and top with remaining béchamel sauce and piquillo peppers.
- Cover with foil and bake in a pre-heated 350° oven for 30-40 minutes or until heated through and bubbly.
- Allow to cool for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
Tapioca pudding is a comfort food classic and an all-American favorite. Since it’s sugaring season in the Northest, I thought it would be nice to make a version of tapioca pudding using maple syrup.
On the farm where I grew up in Vermont, my brothers still make maple syrup. The method for gathering the sap and boiling it down into syrup has changed over the years, but the result remains the same—a delicious product that has many uses beyond a sweet topping for pancakes and waffles. Try substituting maple syrup in marinades and dressings (like balsamic vinaigrette) that call for a small amount of sugar to add an extra depth of flavor. It’s also a great ingredient for experimenting with cocktails.
The key to making a good tapioca pudding is to cook the pearls until they’re just cooked—not crunchy, but also not mushy and falling apart. Soaking the pearls in water before cooking helps to achieve the perfect texture, and it shortens the cooking time.
(makes 4-6 servings)
2 medium Apples—tart and crisp (Gala or Granny Smith work well)
2 Tblspn Butter
½ cup Maple Syrup
½ cup Tapioca
¾ cup Water
1 ½ cup Milk
1 large Egg – lightly beaten
½ tspn Cinnamon
- Place tapioca and water in medium sized heavy bottomed pan. Let tapioca soak for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, peel and core apples and cut into small dice.
- Melt butter in sauté pan over medium heat. Add ¼ cup syrup and bring to a simmer. Add apples and toss to coat. Cook for about 5 minutes or until syrup has thickened a bit and apples are just beginning to soften.
- Add milk and egg to tapioca, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce to a low simmer and cook until tapioca pearls are completely opaque and have lost all of their crunch, but still hold their shape.
- Add apples, remaining ¼ cup syrup and cinnamon and stir to combine. If too thick, add a bit more milk or water.
- Serve warm, at room temperature or cooled.