Posted by: reginelee | August 1, 2012

Love and hot chorizo…Borough Market blog competition

Borough Market had a blogging competition last week.  The theme was to choose any ingredient from the market and write whatever you’d like about it.  The winner gets a gourmet hamper bag and has their post published on Borough Market’s blog.  Although I didn’t win, I came close and got a nice shout-out from them about my post.  Here’s the link to it:

http://blog.boroughmarket.org.uk/?p=714

My entry to the competition:

In the autumn of 2002, I came to London on a study abroad programme with my university in the States.  I had the incredible fortune of being placed in a student hall located a short walk away from Borough Market.  Starting from my first trip there, the market became a haven to me.  It was an escape from the grey, overcooked meals at the student canteen and the cheap sandwiches from the campus deli.  In another stroke of luck, less than a month after classes started I met Adam, a fellow student who quickly became a companion during my Borough Market treks and a partner in crime for other gluttonous activities.  Our weekly market lunch was a ritual that fit perfectly into a student life blessed with time but not much money, and which also revolved around eating. 

Many of our trips involved queuing for Brindisa’s grilled chorizo rolls while having the hot paprika smoke blow into our faces, taunting us.  We loved how the piquancy of the sausage contrasted so wonderfully with the sweet red pepper and fresh rocket.  We loved having to be careful when we bit into the sandwich so that the chorizo’s warm, flavoursome oil oozed onto the crusty bread rather than on our shoes.  It also inspired us to cook paellas which we’d make in my dormitory’s stark, spartan kitchen. 

Almost a decade on, we are now married and live further south of the river.  We aren’t able to go to Borough Market as often as we used to and when we do, we buy just a few special things which we can carry back with us after a day out.  Brindisa’s own brand chorizo is usually one of them.  As an ingredient, it offers maximum depth of flavour with very little effort involved.  Although chorizo tends to dominate whatever it is cooked with, this actually makes it a good way to add layers of complexity to the simplest things.  Only a few pieces can transform a dish by adding a savoury smokiness to it. 

One of my favourite ways to cook chorizo is in a Spanish-inspired stew which I first made for quick weekday dinner.  In a heavy bottom pot, I fry slices of chorizo in olive oil with onions and diced pork.  After the pork browns, I stir in a spoonful of tomato paste and add a tin of diced tomatoes.  I simmer this for about a half hour until the pork is tender and then add butter beans and black pepper and serve with simple boiled potatoes.  To drink with it, we discovered that Australian shiraz goes particularly well as it has a smoky tinge to its ripe plum aromas.

Much has changed over the years and Borough Market has changed a lot too, but a getting a whiff of chorizo smoke while walking around the market stalls or cooking in our kitchen at home assures us that what we love about the market still remains.

 

 

Posted by: reginelee | July 28, 2012

Gelato flavour contest success!

Last week Borough Market had a contest on Twitter to come up with a gelato flavour for a new Italian ice cream shop called 3BIS, which opened up next to Neal’s Yard a few months ago.  The only rule was that it had to be inspired by the market.  My idea – Eton mess, with strawberries from Chegworth Valley, meringue from Comptoir Gourmand, and cream from Neal’s Yard.  My rationale was that it’s summery, English, simple to make, and people visiting London from other countries would be intrigued.  Plus, for personal reasons, Eton mess is a close to my heart as it was one of the desserts that was served at our wedding dinner.  And…it won!  3BIS started making the flavour this past week and will be offering it during the summer.

I went down to the market after work yesterday and bought a scoop.  While in line, three other people were ordering it and when I chatted to the lovely gelateria girls, they confirmed that it was selling really well.  I bought one scoop, but since they were making a fresh batch, I had to buy a second.  3BIS makes a gloopy, melty kind of gelato, which is really satisfying to eat.  As a flavour combination, the cream was rich, the strawberry ripple sweet and tangy, and the meringue crisp and chewy.  Check it out if you’re in Borough Market this summer

 

As a wedding gift from our lovely friends Joe, Krish, San, Magnus and Richard, we were given a case of wine with instructions to drink one bottle at each yearly anniversary.  For our second year, we hadWild Boy Chardonnay 2007 from Santa Barbara.  This wine showed the classic style of California Chardonnay – rich, full and oaky with bright lemon aromas.  

Oakiness in a white wine can make pairing it with food slightly tricky.  Oaky whites will be deeper gold in colour and more mouth-fulling than non-oaked wines, and have vanilla, butter and toast aromas.  These characteristics tend to overpower foods you’d normally eat with white wine – fish, shellfish, vegetables, and mild sauces.  These delicate foods would make the wine taste flabby as well.  The trick here is to have the food be robust and substantial, with some buttery richness so that the wine’s own aromas are highlighted.  

We decided to do a roast chicken, which I rubbed with butter and thyme, and serve it with a mustard, tarragon, and creme fraiche sauce.  On the side, we had soft polenta with corn, mange tout, and french green beans.  The sauce was the keystone of the wine pairing since it was rich like the wine, but the sharpness of the mustard and anise-like tarragon cut through the wine’s fullness and body.  

Other good food pairings would similarly entail butter and cream, but with some element of acidity and zest – firm, white fish (like halibut) with a tartare or lemon-butter sauce, fettucine alfredo, or roast pork with buttery mashed potatoes.

Wine nerd section: a brief summary of how oak is used in a wine and the principles behind oak flavours

When a wine is in contact with oak, there are certain aroma elements that the oak imparts to the wine.  The most dominant of these are: lactones  which have round woody, oaky and coconut notes, and vanillins which are unsurprisingly vanilla in smell.  These phenolic compounds literally leach form the porous wood into the wine.  Oak also gives the wine a fuller body and a more concentrated colour. 

Generally, there are two steps in the wine-making process where oak is used.  The first is during one of the initial phases – a winemaker may choose to put their pressed grape juice in large wooden vats during the fermentation process.  Since the young wine is only in contact with the oak briefly – a matter of a several hours or days – and since the large  size of the vats mean that much of the wine’s volume is not in contact with its surrounding wood, the effect of the oak on the wine is minimal.  Some say that oak fermentation makes a difference by ‘softening’ the wine.  In contrast, fermenting the wine in stainless steel preserves the raciness and sharpness of a wine.  

The second way oak is used is to mature the wine.  Since the wine will be resting in oak barrels for a more significant amount of time than during fermentation (several months if not years), this is when oak makes most of an impact on the wine.  There is a lot of variation in the length of time a wine ages in oak and the size of the barrels.  But in principle, the longer the wine matures and the smaller the wood barrels its held in, the more the wine will smell and taste of oak. 

What does ‘oak’ actually smell like?  It took me a while to figure this out.  As oak smells aren’t immediately around our every day life, it’s hard to to isolate this aroma in your mind as you taste a wine.  It was only after I did a winery tour and stood in a cellar surrounded by oak casks that I realised what it smelt like.  Apart from this, I would recommend smelling freshy cut wooden planks if you’re ever around a hardware store or sniffing some bourbon whisky or aged golden rum.  Both of these spirits are aged in heavily toasted oak barrels and so will really smell of the wood.  Once you realise what oak is like, you’ll start identifying it much more easily in red and white wine, and even in scotch.

 

Posted by: reginelee | July 16, 2012

2nd Anniversary – Part 1 Champagne

Since we’re celebrating an anniversary, we are drinking Champagne.  This is definitely a cliché, and clichés make me sceptical as a reflex, but this is one that I happily ascribe to because champagne is so freaking good.  It’s expensive shelling out for the good stuff, but I think it’s completely justified.  We pay highly skilled chefs a lot of money to cook fancy, complicated meals so why wouldn’t we also pay that much for equivalent skill in winemaking?  Champagne has one of the most laborious, lengthy, and complicated production processes where, at a multitude of points, things could go disasterously wrong and ruin a whole lot of wine. However, with the requisite obsession with quality and attention to detail, Champagne can be outstandingly great and definitely worth the price.

Tonight, we’re drinking Charles Heidsieck 1999 vintage rose champagne.  A hallmark of aged Champagne is a yeasty, toasted buttered bread note which develops because the wine is matured on its lees (the yeast’s residue after it finishes fermenting the wine’s sugars into alcohol).  With expensive aged vintage champagnes, the winemakers will mature it on the lees longer to enhance and highlight this toasty character.  Another facet is that it is a declared ‘vintage’ champagne, which means that it was made in a superlative year (aka ‘vintage) in which the weather was perfect for growing quality grapes with lots of concentrated flavours.  This means that the wine will be a lot more intense in aroma and flavour than non-vintage (aka ‘undeclared’) wines.  Adding to this is the fact that it’s rosé, which means that it was made with a proportion of red wine in the blend (made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes).  Apart from the colour, this entails it having a ‘red fruit’ character in addition to the regular citrus aromas of a white champagne – flavours of strawberries, redcurrants, red cherries, etc.

In summary, the wine is:

Full bodied + pretty concentrated in aroma and flavour + characteristics of red fruits but with a velvety, baked breadiness as if you were eating a thick slab of toasted brioche with a swipe of strawberry jam

What will this pair with?

It will need to be matched with dishes that are similarly rich in texture, with the same sort of butteriness.  However, it cannot be too intensely flavoured otherwise the complexity of the champagne would be overwhelmed (and it’s the wine that’ll be starring tonight).  To start, we’ll have a goat cheese and herb soufflé and a citrus salad.  The oranges in the salad highlight the champagne’s citrus notes, but the soufflé will complement its savouriness and creaminess.  

We’re having salmon en croute for the main course– a rich, butter pastry encasing a delicately flavoured salmon fillet with a tarragon and butter filling.  Some roasted asparagus in season will balance it out and add some freshness and greenness.  As a dessert, we’ll have English strawberries that match the wine’s red fruit aromas and Adam’s flourless chocolate cake. 

Posted by: reginelee | July 15, 2012

The Ardent Eater returns

This morning I decided to revive the Ardent Eater from the webosphere’s blog graveyard.  After two years of neglect, I’ve been inspired by tonight’s dinner to create the first new post in two years.

 

What’s happened in the last two years?  I finished my Cordon Bleu course, and didn’t continue further from the Basic Cuisine classes.  I thought cooking was a lot of fun and I learned a lot of good kitchen techniques, but I quickly realised that being a professional chef was not the career path for me.  I wouldn’t mind the hard work of professional cooking, or the physicality of it, but rather more the unsociable hours that challenge even the most stable of relationships.  I wasn’t ready to sacrifice other parts of my life to try my hand at working my way up through restaurant kitchens.  Plus, I made one too many retro-tastic dishes at the school like this one:

 

That’s what didn’t happen, but what did?  I decided to jump into a career in the wine industry instead.  I worked for Liberty Wines, a wonderful independent wine importer and distributer, small but growing rapidly.  I enjoyed the staff discounts immensely and built up a little wine collection, which although humble, nevertheless justified buying a wine fridge for our apartment.  I left Liberty after a little over a year and am now working at a wine education company called the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.  They have an international footprint and my job is to oversee the growth in their greater China markets in particular.

 

But the most important thing that happened is that Adam and I got married July 16, 2010.  And, two years later, we are celebrating it this weekend by cooking a special meal, which is the inspiration for the next blog post.

Posted by: reginelee | March 29, 2010

Le Cordon Bleu

Outside the school

In an unprecedented move for a very risk-averse ardent eater, I decided to finally make the big move to London to permanently be with Adam and see whether I could plant a career stake in the restaurant or wine industry.  In a few deft strokes, I both completely changed my life professionally and personally, but I have a quiet confidence that things will turn out for the best and that I will look back at what was a period of ambiguity and realize that it all made sense in the end.
However, to give myself some credibility – at least in my own mind – and to have some sort of plan, I decided to take Basic French Cuisine classes at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in London.  The school itself is tucked away in a narrow brick building in a small alleyway in the quiet, genteel Marylebone district of the city.  Possibly extending off of the halo of the culinary school, there is grouping of little French cafes, pastry shops, and a cheesemonger called Le Fromagerie around the corner.  But as a little reminder that we are in fact in London, right across the street is possibly one of the best fish and chip shops in the city – The Golden Hind, which resolutely serves little else than battered seafood, thick fries, mushy peas, sarsaparilla, and tea since it opened in 1914.
Prior to my first day last Friday, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of what the other students were like, if my teachers are nice, and how my schedule would pan out.  My fears that LCB is a little disorganized weren’t immediately dissuaded.  At 10 am when the new students were supposed to arrive, there were a ton of people milling around the front.  When they finally opened the doors, there was a bum rush to get in and they haphazardly started letting a few people in at a time.  When we got through the doors, we were directed to a room where we were to meet our groups and start the orientation.  I was pointed to a kitchen demonstration room with about twenty other Basic Cuisine students and when I got there we were handed black knife bag from a pile sitting on the counter and bags with our uniforms and orientation materials.
Not being able to help myself, I unzipped the knife bag as soon as I found a seat and put down my other stuff.  I was totally stunned by what they provided us – a full set of Wusthof knives including a cleaver, nine-inch chef’s knife, serrated knife, honing iron, and the little knives for boning, paring, and filleting.  Astoundingly, also packed into each bag’s various flaps and little compartments were a whisk, three different kinds of peelers/zesters, two sizes of palette spatulas, a thermometer, timer, bowl scraper, pastry bag, kitchen shears, and three types of corers.  For a person whose pulse quickens when in the vicinity of nice kitchenware, it was a Christmas morning-like state of agog.  To ensure we are properly clad, we also got a three chef jackets, three checked trousers, two hats, an apron, and a handful of dish towels and oven mitts.

The standard LCB student kit

Our cold, sharp steels

After we were organized, our head chef instructor went over our schedules and how our classes will work.  We talked a little bit about what we’d be covering, including all the French basic techniques like making stocks, sauces, cutting things properly, and the core French dishes like beef Bourguignon, onion soup, trout mueniere, etc.  The best part is that we can take home to food we make in class in tupperware if we don’t eat it all after we’re done cooking.  We’ll be graded on not only if we can execute the technique correctly, but also our organization and timing skills.  Our first classes will have us begin at the beginning with learning the classic cuts of vegetables and the fundamental stocks for French sauces.

I was worried that my classmates would mostly be right out of high school, but it turns out that the majority of students are around their mid-twenties and looking for a career change like me.  They’re also a very international group.  We have people from Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, Greece, Venezuela and Argentina just in my section.  I grabbed lunch with two other girls, who were really friendly and I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to meet some interesting people during these weeks.  I can hardly believe that this is my life now.  It seems strange that after almost four years of having a level of familiarity with what I’d be doing during an average day or week at work, I’d suddenly be spending my hours doing something so radically, amazingly different.

Posted by: reginelee | November 1, 2009

Debacle with Dough

It all started innocently enough.  I had an urge to cook, since I hadn’t in a long time and I felt like I needed to do something constructive with my day.  Inspired by a picture of homemade gnocchi in “Gourmet”, I steadfastly decided that my goal for the day was to make perfect little nubs of potato pasta for dinner.  I wish I could have said that everything happened the way that I imagined – that by the end of the morning I would be nonchalantly flicking uniform balls of glossy dough off a fork to make the ridges for light and fluffy gnocchi.  I also decided to make pesto with the last of the summer basil from our yard.  The pesto turned out well enough.  The bright green basil, garlic, toasted pinenuts and cheese made for a homemade pesto with vividity.

Pesto 1

The gnocchi, however, was a different matter entirely. First, I peeled 4 large potatoes, plonked them in boiling water to get soft.  Realizing that the recipe calls for a potato ricer or food mill to run the potatoes through, I Googled the improbable string of words “potato ricer substitute”, but nevertheless come upon a solution – squish the potatoes through a plastic colander with small holes.  Can do.  I’ve got one of those.  The plastic colander, I found out, was too flimsy, so I switched to a metal one which had holes that were too big.  This takes about three times as long as I originally thought and both the counter and I are covered with potato.

I eventually stirred the mashed potato with flour and egg to form a gloppy ball, and kept adding flour until I have something similar to a solid mass. I had to meet my dad to go to the gym and for lunch, so left the dough unattended for a few innocent hours.  I figured that it wasn’t too hot or cold in the house and that it would be fine covered with a tea towel and tucked away to rise a bit more.

When I returned, the dough was liquid.

In a small panic, I heaped cups and cups of flour in into the dough to make it less sticky.  The regular flour ran out, so I used bread flour.  Afraid that the gnocchi will be too tough, I also added whole wheat flour, and by this time the dough is steadily growing and growing to almost the size of a baby.

Gnocchi and Dough

Finally, after awhile, I was able to roll out something solid and cut pieces of gnocchi.  In a feeble attempt to still mimic the “Gourmet” pictures, I tried flicking them off of the fork, but they stuck to the tinges.  Pushing them off with my finger only misshapes them further.  I tossed them into the boiling water and hoped for the best, although they resemble grey wads of chewed gum.  After draining and cooling them down, they’re tough as rubber, but I end up making a batch anyways. 

By this time I still have a mountain of dough left.  I decided to turn it into a loaf of potato bread, so I added more flour, kneaded it, and stuck it in the oven.  Everything done, but nothing quite right, I slumped on the couch, laughing about the whole snafu and the towers of dishes, bowls and measuring cups that I need to wash.

The thing about cooking disasters is that no matter what, you’ll eventually end up with something edible.  Despite the need for precision and deference to certain rules about rising and proportions, baking essentially involves flour, yeast, and water or eggs.  No matter what, mixing those ingredients will yield something that can be baked, fried boiled, or else manipulated to get something on the table.  In this case, my gnocchi did turn out well, although still grey, after softening up a bit in the hot pesto sauce. My dough folly – the potato bread – was delicious with a nice crust and dense, moist crumb.  Like so many things in life, with cooking you get what you put into it, but sometimes you end up with a little bit more.

Potato Bread

Posted by: reginelee | October 3, 2009

The Best of What’s Around

If my normal attitude towards food could be described as a lingering, curious hunger, then when I travel I become ravenous.  I want to absorb as much of my destination as possible, really feel it in my bones, and my favored method for doing this is to simply eat as much of the local food as possible.  Jet lag doesn’t affect me as much as a sudden doubling of my appetite as soon as I land on terra nova.  But, every time I eat in a new country, especially one famous for a particular food or dish, I always wonder whether the local specialty really is better when you’re eating it there or whether a lot of the experience is hype.
 
Last year I went on a short trip to Brussels with Adam and some colleagues, I admit I had no picture of what the city would look like, nor an inkling of what sights we should see.  Instead, like reflex, images of feasting on moules frites, chocolate, waffles, and beer starting spinning around in my thoughts.  Sure enough, as soon as we got there Adam and I made a beeline to hunt down and eat those very things, driven by slightly obsessive impulses.
 
A Belgian waffle ("gauffre") with hot chocolate

A Belgian waffle ("gauffre") with hot chocolate

 
A beer that’s clearly happy to be Belgian

A beer that’s clearly happy to be Belgian

 
 
Something in the water? New York’s hallowed Ess-A-Bagel. Dense, chewy and with the full arsenal of seeds

Something in the water? New York’s hallowed Ess-A-Bagel. Dense, chewy and with the full arsenal of seeds

 
In another example, when I was planning to go to New York  to visit my cousin Michelle over the summer, I instantly started craving bagels just thinking about it.  Ideally, it had to be one that spent time in a jaccuzzi-sized vat of boiling water, rolling around with other bagels, and sliced and filled by a gruff New Yorker with severely limited amount of patience.  My dear, intrepid cousin took me to the original Ess-a-Bagel near the East Village, virtually unchanged since the 1970s.  Was the bagel I ate better than bagels I’ve had anywhere else?  Emphatically yes. Some people believe that it’s the local tap water used to boil the bagels that gives them that New Yawk chutzpah. A similar claim is made of San Francisco’s sourdough bread that it’s the local yeast cultures living happily in the foggy bay climate that lend it a special tanginess.  Inclined to romanticize food anyways, I readily believe this to be true.

 

The Boudin flagship bakery in San Francisco

The Boudin flagship bakery in San Francisco

 

Sourdough Loaves for Sale

Sourdough loaves for sale

So revered is the yeast in Boudin’s bread that during the 1906 earthquake, the bakers ran back into their crumbling and fire-riddled building to save the ‘mother dough’ the original sourdough starter used when the bakery first opened in the Gold Rush era.  

 

 

 

 

 

A more difficult question: is Philly cheese steak truly better in Philadelphia?  Upon inspection, the sandwich really only consists of chopped beef in a bun, slathered with processed cheese.  My sister Taylor ate at both Pat’s and Geno’s, Philly’s two legendary, dueling cheese steak shops defiantly stationed across the street at each other like the Hatfields and McCoys.  She said that, honestly speaking, they didn’t create a “best I ever had” memory in her mind.  A lot of the enjoyment in the meal was just being there, where the cheese steak was born, and all the hubbub that comes with that distinction.  Part of the experience, apparently, is being scoffed at by the locals if you fail order in a rapid clip, mull over their cheese options, and can’t decide if you want ‘wid’ or ‘widout’ (onions, of course, though you’re already expected to know this).  You also have to not completely lose it with laughter as you go up to order and find yourself facing a cashier window proudly stacked with humongous cans of Cheez Whiz.

True Philly cheese steaks with their not-so-secret key ingredient

True Philly cheese steaks with their not-so-secret key ingredient

As for Brussels, the waffles were fantastic – hot and crunchy with the thinnest layer of caramelized sugar and served with a cup of thick hot chocolate for dunking.  While we were there we craved a beer at every meal – in its proper glass – and felt hard done by restaurants which only had ten lagers to choose from.  And the mussels…they were good, but I didn’t have any that truly stood out in my mind.  However, I did love eating them the traditional Belgian way – scooped out of giant cast iron cauldrons with lids that you flip over to put your shells in. 

All in all, I’ve come to think that usually the times when a ‘local specialty’ is truly good are when the locals themselves genuinely obsess over that food or ingredient too, essentially, whether they’re inclined to eat it after all the tourists are gone.  Perhaps the mussels might have been a little gimmicky, but those beers were wonderfully Belgian through and through, with their countrymen’s sense of pride in them crisp and clear in each sip.

To those that read this blog (hallooo out there?): I would love to hear your thoughts on “must-have” foods in various places – did they live up the hype or were they victims of their own tourist-driven popularity?

 

Posted by: reginelee | September 12, 2009

Genesis of a Farmers’ Market

The Marquis de La Fayette – Revolutionary War general and city namesake – surveying the commerce in the central plaza

The Marquis de La Fayette – Revolutionary War general and city namesake – surveying the commerce in the central plaza

 
It’s one the peculiarities of modern life that there are trends and ‘movements’ when it comes to eating food.  It seems that for most of human history, people have been largely concerned with just getting something edible in the first place, in whatever corner of the wild world they happened to have settled in.
 

Yet, however far we’ve come from thinking of food as a solely bare necessity, it is fitting that the latest and potentially most enduring food trend is an interest in eating locally grown food.  Growing up in Northern California, the communities around me are seeped with this ethos.  Champions of minimalist California cuisine, we tend to glorify ingredients as they are, eating food that is seasonal, barely manipulated by our hands, and of course, grown in our own backyard.

True to my nouveau hippie roots, I love farmers’ markets.  I enjoy walking up and down stalls, ogling at produce.  I like supporting independent farmers that, through sheer courageousness, compete with mega-agribusiness and who grow and raise better food anyways.  When I heard that my little ol’ hometown of Lafayette was piloting a market this autumn, I felt like I wanted to be a part of it.  I had heard they were battling the city council to put on three pilot nights for the market before making it permanent next year. Moreover, they ran into resistance from downtown stores who felt threatened by the potential traffic snarls and decreased business that a market would cause.  So, I emailed the Lafayette farmers’ market organizers, introduced myself, and went to the city council hearing where they were going to decide on the fate of trial program.

Darryl's Freewheelin' Farm stand and local grapes

Darryl's Freewheelin' Farm stand and local grapes

At the city council meeting, I saw the community come out in full force.  Filling the seats, there were members from Sustainable Lafayette and Contra Costa Certified Farmers’ Markets, two associations who were spearheading the market.  An old high school teacher of mine, Janet Thomas, a woman with a sense of nurturing kindness and unshakable conviction, had organized the idea from the beginning for Sustainable Lafayette.  Darryl Wong, an old Springhill Elementary school classmate, was there as well.  Now the owner of Freewheelin’ Farm in Santa Cruz, he was attending the meeting to support the market as a potential vendor.  The city council members, sitting panel-style on a raised dais, wavered and repeatedly raised concerns about minor things – the need for signage to prevent people from parking outside a nearby restaurant, for example.  Local business owners were also taking turns voicing their hesitation and resistance to the market.  The tension in the room was palpable and bubbling up inside me was a desire to say something. 

Despite my feelings about management consulting, three years in the field has taught me at least one thing above else – at times, what’s needed is someone to say something everyone already knows but with a sense of professionalism and persuasion.  And, due to countless hours of jamming away on PowerPoint an Excel, ‘advising’ but not doing, I felt a pent up longing to actually make a change in something I care about.  I went up to the podium and put forth to the city council that they need to have an objective assessment of the market operations and its future viability, and effectively volunteered myself to do it.  The council murmured and ruminated for awhile, and then came back to their seats and decided to give it the go-ahead.

Metropolitan Baking Company of Oakland selling their loaves

Metropolitan Baking Company of Oakland selling their loaves

And what of the market itself? 

We’ve had the first two pilots so far and they’ve been a rousing success.  Right in the heart of the city, in the Lafayette Plaza, the bustling little market drew people out to shop, chat, and eat outside, warmed by our Indian summer sun. 

On both evenings, the market had a steady stream of people from 4 pm when it started, to 8 pm when it closed.  Lafayette residents stopped by after work in their collared shirts and ties, soccer moms and their kids bought produce after practice, and high school students done with class for the day picked through corn and peaches.

“The second week was not as busy as the last week, but we’ve been selling out of a lot of things – the lettuce, for example.  It’s so nice to come back to my hometown,” Darryl said when I stopped by his stand. 

 

Pic 7 - Veggies

“The next challenge is how to grow the market,” said Jessie Neu, the Executive Director of Contra Costa Certified Farmers’ Markets, as she glanced over my shoulder to a nearby street that they cordoned off.  “There’s a lot of room along the streets if the city will allow it. We’re in talks with BART to have the market on Sundays, but that will change the feel of the market.  It would also be on the same days as many other local farmers markets.  We originally decided to have it on Thursday night because the farmers requested a weekday night.  As it is, it’s a beautiful, small market and it has a real community feel to it.”

Indeed.  After going to the market on the first day, many of the vendors remembered me when I returned the next week.

“Hey, you bought wine from us last week.  How did you like it?” asked the wine seller from Van Ruiten Vineyards in Lodi, about an hour away. The egg lady, smiling with immaculate hair and makeup, asked how I liked the dozen I bought from her from last week. “They were great!  I poached them,” I replied. She was visibly happy and mused, “I’ve never had them like that, I wouldn’t know how to do it,” and as her husband emerged from the side of the tent she exclaimed, “He’d have to make them for us!”

Steven Gentry's local honey

Steven Gentry's local honey

 Pic 5 - Pollen

I talked extensively about pollen and its salubrious effects on allergies with the honey vendor, Steve Gentry, who has hives all over Lafayette and the neighboring cities.  “Take a teaspoon a day, and it will help relieve sneezing,” he suggested, “I believe it boosts the immune system.”  I touched a jar of bee pollen on his table, which contained little pellets of various shades of amber, tan, and sunshine yellow.  He explained, “The different colors are because they’re from different types of flowers.  These are the things that the bees carry back to the hive as their collecting from flowers – the little pollen packets that’s stuck to them!”  The thought of eating pollen off of a bee’s leg sounded deliciously absurd and I asked to try some.  He twisted of the cap and sprinkled a thumbnail of grains in my hand, “People say it tastes like almonds.”  Given their sugar crystal-like shape, I expected them to be crunchy, but they were soft and melted in my mouth.  The first flavor is one of chamomile in a grassy field, floral and green.  Letting it linger on my tongue, it then was mildly sweet like apricots.  “Could you sprinkle it on vanilla ice cream?” I ventured, getting bolder. “Well,” he chuckled, “ I wouldn’t take it that far.  They’re pretty strong and you want to take it easy at first!”  He was right.  After a few grains I started to feel a bit woozy, as if I’d stuck my nose in that grassy field of flowers for too long. I’ll have to see how well the pollen works after eating it regularly (and in moderation).

Rolling out farmers’ markets will always have challenges.  There will be difficulties in finding farmers for sure, but there will also be webs of bureaucracy and groups of naysayers to divert any well intentioned effort, even in affluent towns.  But, aptly, eating locally is a movement that is perhaps best championed by the community itself, people who are most passionate about doing right by their farmers and enjoying the fruit of the land they live on.

Posted by: reginelee | September 6, 2009

The Fat Duck

It is not often that your meal has a sense of humor.  Eating at the Fat Duck, however, is an exercise in suspending belief in what we know as familiar in food and succumbing to the absurd, complex, and endearing approach the restaurant’s founding chef, Heston Blumenthal, has towards ingredients.  First, though, is the restaurant itself.  That a temple of molecular gastronomy is tucked away in quaint little English town miles outside London is the Fat Duck’s first exercise in irony.  It’s difficult to imagine the magic and psycho-scientific artistry that occurs within the walls of the humble English cottage – mustard blended into ice cream, liquorice jellifying, and meat being dehydrated and powdered in a high tech kitchen lab.

Outside the Fat Duck in the town of Bray

Outside the Fat Duck in the town of Bray

But, out come the dishes and you succumb to the discordance and start enjoying it. 

Sound of the Sea

Sound of the Sea

Perhaps the most disarming of the dishes was, ironically, the one that mimicked nature most closely.  With the poetic “Sound of the Sea”, diners are presented with a rectangular glass plate, mounted on top of a box with golden sand.  What is on the plate looks eerily like a pile of flotsam that you would find strolling down a beach.  A most elegant arrangement of ocean wash-up included thinly sliced sashimi, Japanese sea beans and seaweed, prawn foam, and fine grained “sand” made out of dehydrated and powdered baby eel.   Everything tasted fresh and delicate, with the sand and foam providing a briny flavor to pair with the mild and buttery sashimi.  We were also given a large spiral conch shell with an iPod mini tucked into its inner curves.  It piped out sounds of sea gulls cawing and waves crashing to provide an auditory element to the experience of literally eating the ocean. 

Wild pigeon was more traditional, presented with parsnips but  with a foam around it nevertheless.  It was also served with “umbles”, which a post-dinner Wikipedia search  revealed as liver, heart, and other organs/offal!  History geek note: umbles may have been derived from the word “humble” as the off-cuts of animals were considered inferior and low-class, giving rise to the saying “to eat humble pie”.
Powdered Anjou Pigeon with Blood Sausage and Umbles

Powdered Anjou Pigeon with Blood Sausage and Umbles

 

Taffety Tart (c. 1660)

Taffety Tart (c. 1660)

 

 

Taffety Tart – a 17th century English preserved orange cake – took a modern turn and was served with caramelized apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon.  Orange and fennel is a classic combination, but putting fennel fronds on sorbet gave it a slight, pleasing vegetal edge. 

 

 

 

 

 

Wine Gums, Historical Trade Routes of Britain

Wine Gums, Historical Trade Routes of Britain

 

I also really liked the Trade Routes of Britain, a sweet pre-dessert snack.  Here, the idea of a wine gum is interpreted literally – using mead, cognac, rum, and sherry to make gummy candies stuck on a vintage map.  With the several glasses of wine I had earlier in the meal, this actually pushed me a little more towards the edge of tipsiness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our favorite was the Fat Duck classic, the “Not So Full English Breakfast” with nitro bacon and egg ice cream on tomato confit and French toast, prepared tableside with a copper pot of dry ice.  A breakfast and dessert in one, it consisted of an ice cream that looks like scrambled eggs and tastes like bacon and candied bacon on top.  It was served with one of the strangest parts of our whole meal – a little glass of hot English breakfast tea separated in the cup from a cold version of the same tea by an imperceptible barrier.  This is mad genius in the best possible way.

Not So Full English Breakfast with Nitro Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream

Not So Full English Breakfast with Nitro Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream

All in all, this was a truly baffling, but spectacular meal.  On top of this, it was Adam’s birthday present to me.  Now I just have to figure out how I can possibly reciprocate.

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