BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Market Fresh

Saturday mornings are the highlight of every week, bearing the promise of exciting adventures around this fine city, without arduous classes encumbering an already overloaded schedule. No matter where the day takes me, each new exploit always begins in the same place: The Ferry Building farmers market, arguably the most renowned year-round source for fresh produce in San Francisco proper, drawing locals and tourists alike. It would be easy to make a full meal of the generous samples, ranging from buttery avocados to sweet dark cherries, but there’s so much more than just fruits and vegetables on offer. Time your visit correctly and you’ll cross paths with some inspiring bay area chefs, freely divulging secret recipes thanks to CUESA‘s Market to Table program.

Featuring the season’s best and freshest offerings, it’s always a treat to see what the innovative food luminaries in the area bring to the plate, and even better when you can get a free taste. The Plant Cafe is a common stop on my market trips, since their Embarcadero outpost is a mere two piers away, so I was especially thrilled when reigning chef Sascha Weiss appeared on the demo schedule.

Presenting chickpea panisse in a whole new light, Mr. Weiss has elevated the concept from french fry-alternative to an elegant plated hors d’oeuvre. Piled high with tender asparagus and mushrooms singing with umami flavor, the whole composition is a shining example of why eating fresh and seasonal is always best. That said, if you make just one part of this dish, it must be the pistachio-pea purée. Somewhere between a pesto and a sauce, the richness of the nuts boosts the sweetness of the tender peas to create a creamy, sublime experience. Rather than reaching for the standard hummus, I think I’ll just call this a dip next time a snack craving hits.

Chickpea Panisse with Pistachio-Pea Purée, Asparagus, and Maitake Mushrooms
Adapted from Chef Sascha Weiss of The Plant Café Organic

Chickpea Panisse:
4 Cups Water
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 1/4 Cups Garbanzo Bean Flour
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Lemon Zest
1 Teaspoon Whole Cumin Seed, Toasted and Ground
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
Neutral Vegetable Oil, for Frying

Mushrooms:
8 Ounces Maitake Mushrooms, Cleaned and Halved Through the Stems
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Asparagus:
16 Stalks Asparagus, Trimmed and Bottom 1/3 of Stalks Peeled
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Pistachio-Pea Purée:
2 Cups Sliced Leeks (Washed, Cut 1/4-Inch Thick)
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Shelled Pistachios
1/2 Cup Shelled English Peas, Blanched
2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes

Garnish:
1 Cup Arugula, Pea Tendrils, or Other Tender Greens
1 Radish, Sliced Very Thin
2 Teaspoons Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
1/4 Cup Vegan “Goat Cheese” (Optional)

For the panisse: Bring the water, salt, and olive oil to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Add the garbanzo flour, whisking so it doesn’t form lumps. Ass the lemon juice, lemon zest, cumin, and pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens and pulls away from the sides of the pan; about 10 minutes. Pour the batter into a greased pan and allow it to cool to room temperature. Slice into desired shapes and pan fry in oil until golden.

For the mushrooms: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toss the sliced mushrooms, olive oil, salt, and pepper together in a bowl. Lay the mushrooms out on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan and roast for 15 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. Leave the oven on and set the mushrooms aside.

For the asparagus: Toss the asparagus together with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Lay the spears on a sheet pan or baking pan and roast in the oven until soft but not mushy; about 5 minutes. Set aside.

For the purée: In a sauté pan over medium heat, cook the leeks in olive oil until softened; about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until golden. Remove from the heat and transfer to a blender. Add the remaining ingredients, thinning with water as needed to achieve a purée that is silky-smooth and can be spooned on a plate without turning into a soupy puddle.

To finish: Place 2 – 3 stalks of asparagus on each plate. Top each with a piece of chickpea panisse, spoon some of the purée on top, and add a piece or two of roasted mushroom. Toss the greens with olive oil, sliced radish, salt, and pepper. Add the dressed greens to the plate and crumble a small amount of the vegan cheese on top, if desired.

Makes 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Meals of the Millennium

It’s truly the end of an era as Millennium closes its doors for the final time in downtown San Francisco. After more than two decades of sharing space with Hotel California, this eminent establishment of vegan fine dining has outgrown its original outpost and is ready to leave the nest. Relocating to Rockridge in preparation for a June re-opening, it won’t be long before San Francisco will be treated to Chef Eric Tucker’s unique take on fresh, seasonal produce once again. I’ve had the incredible fortune and privilege of eating my way through a serious portion of the ever-changing menu, each dish a thoughtful composition of flavors and textures, sparkling under the romantic, warm lights. I’d like to think that this first twenty years is only the very start, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of the new East Bay kitchen.

Some of the specifics may have fallen victim to my terrible memory, the details lost in time, but the flavors and experiences are all utterly unforgettable. I, for one, am looking forward to a brand new Millennium.

Dyan’s “Whole Lotta Lovage” Limeade (left); cucumber, lovage, mint, lime, soda. Steve’s “Wanna Meet that Dad” BBQ Negroni (right); mezcal, gran classico & sweet vermouth, aged with oak and chipotle chile, fried onion

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Kombu, Hidden in Plain Sight

Situated right in the heart of downtown on Market Street, you’d think Kombu would have snagged a prime location, and for all intents and purposes it couldn’t be in a better place. Stumbling distance from both the Powell and Montgomery BART stations, you’d be crazy to walk by without grabbing a seat… Except that if you’ve been in downtown San Francisco recently, there’s a strong chance that you already have, and multiple times at that, because it’s nearly impossible to find. There might be a menu stand out front if you’re lucky, but there’s no sign on the street, and the address is better known for housing an outpost of Equinox Gym. Even after making it up to the fourth floor, you must still suspend disbelief and walk past the casual takeout counter, because what you’re really looking for is just around the corner.

Each item on the menu is clearly composed with intention and care. Numerous vegan options appear in each section, handily labeled, making it easy to dine out with eaters of all stripes here. The views are stunning, especially midday when light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Quiet, aside from the incongruous mix of 80’s and 90’s pop music, Kombu is like an oasis high above the traffic below.

Falling firmly into the New American category, the menu features locally grown and organic foods in what could best be described as unfussy, elevated comforting cuisine. Each dish is clearly composed with care, from conception to cooking, and I can confidently say that after tasting almost the entire vegan menu, there isn’t one lackluster selection amongst the ever-changing seasonal options.

Appetizers kick off any meal in style, but these introductory gems are tempting enough to draw one in off the street for a quick snack in their own rights. When it comes to the Carrot and Beet Hummus, no beans need apply, because these are actually vegetable-based purees, much lighter and more refreshing than the traditional dip. They’re brilliant alone and even more fabulous mixed together, swirling into a an edible watercolor painting on the plate. Each has a unique earthy sweetness, nicely complimented by the buttery points of toast provided on the side. Truth be told though, all I need is a spoon, since I’d like to order these up by the bowlful.

Providing a bloodless answer to the classic steakhouse starter of steak tartare, Kristin’s playful interpretation of Beet Tartare is much more than your average beet salad. A duet of citrus in the form of orange and grapefruit creates unique nuances in each bite, some more tart or tangy than others, anchored by the tender cubes of red beets. Both earthy and bright, sweet and sour, it’s a bold study in contrasts that ultimately comes together to create an implausible harmony on the tongue.

Moving on to the main event, the Seared Tofu might not sound like much by name alone, but this is not your run-of-the-mill tofu stir fry. Seasoned with finesse, you can really taste the tofu without feeling overwhelmed by the earthy, beany aspect of it. Accompanying vegetables remain crisp and vibrant, featuring a rare example of sautéed kale that hasn’t had the life cooked out of it. The tomato jam-infused rice hidden underneath posseses a firm bite, and the silky miso sauce adds just the right touch of richness and saltiness, like a refined version of dengaku.

What constitutes the ideal veggie burger is a point of contention amongst herbivores and omnivores alike, but I’m happy to report that the Kombu Burger (slider sized as seen above) would definitely pass muster with even the most discerning of eaters. A dense, buttery, brioche-style bun caps off a savory, satisfying patty, seated atop creamy cabbage slaw. It’s very rich all told, but guarantees that those who partake have no chance of walking away hungry. The firm burger holds itself together remarkably well, refusing to crumble under pressure, which is the downfall of all too many lesser vegetable patties.

Tempting fate and testing my eggplant intolerance, the rich eggplant caponata crowning the velvety Polenta was flavorful enough to be worth any amount of pain. Delightfully salty thanks to briny little capers hidden throughout, the dish wouldn’t be the same without them, as they brought out just the right meaty, savory notes to make it feel like a complete meal. Incredibly soothing, easy to eat, but never coming close to approximating a bowlful of gruel, you can truly taste the corn of the polenta base, accentuated by rich vegetable broth undertones. Shatteringly crisp squash blossoms are real gems here, worth of a menu slot all their own. I would gladly order them up by the plateful and munch through them with a drink at the bar.

A glowing, golden mountain of creamy rice, the Saffron Risotto readily flaunts its riches, showing off a treasure trove of spring delicacies at the summit. Morels, maitake, wild asparagus, and impeccably seared fiddlehead ferns all sparkle with a subtle hint of charred flavor. Thick enough to easily eat with a fork, the risotto itself boasts ideally al dente grains thoroughly infused with saffron and cooked to a comfortingly sticky consistency. I only wish there were more of those glorious vegetables found throughout the towering mound and not just on the peak, as it’s a whole lot of rice once the garnishes have been devoured.

Dairy-free dessert choices are a bit limited, but one would never feel restricted once a perfectly chilled glass of either Mango or Mocha Chia Pudding arrives at the table. Rather than approximating tapioca with soaked, whole seeds, this interpretation finds them roughly ground, creating a smooth custard that still boasts a bit of texture. The bright mango flavor is every bit as juicy and sweet as the whole fruit, making it a perfectly refreshing, light finish to any meal. However, chocolate-lovers would be foolish to pass on the mocha version, no matter how filling the preceding meal. Full-bodied 90% chocolate, deep, dark, and intense, shares the spotlight with the bold espresso flavor woven inextricably throughout the creamy melange, managing to compliment one another and not compete.

The true sign of a chef’s skill is their treatment of vegetables, from the most humble to rarefied. Few examples of more perfectly cooked greens, roots, and legumes alike can be found in all of the city, and even fewer opportunities for vegans to partake in those culinary exploits. Don’t be afraid to ask about vegan options should you stop in for yourself; beyond the numerous options that are clearly labeled for every meal of the day, many of the other dishes can be easily converted as well.

Chef Kristen was kind enough not only to share these incredible dining experiences with me apropos of nothing, but offered to extend that generosity even further by giving her recipe for that luscious polenta, in case readers far from San Francisco wanted a taste of their own. Though nothing could compare to the flavors wrought forth by the skilled kitchen staff at Kombu, I’m delighted to have this summery main dish on file to soothe any inconsolable cravings that may strike. It’s worth whipping up in your own kitchen, and ideal for featuring the freshest produce of the season.

Creamy Chive Polenta with Eggplant Caponata and Roasted Tomatoes
By Chef Kristen Thibeault of Kombu

6 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
4 Roma Tomatoes, Halved
1 Teaspoon Herbs de Provence
1 Shallot, Finely Minced
1 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1/2 Cup White Wine
2 Cups Rough Chopped Japanese Eggplant
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 Clove Garlic, Crushed
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Cup Dry (Uncooked) Polenta
1 Cup Unsweetened Coconut Milk Beverage
Black Pepper
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
Sea Salt


1. Roasted Tomatoes

Place halved tomatoes on baking sheet with silpat or parchment paper. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. sprinkle with herbs de provence and salt and pepper. Roast at 350 until golden brown and caramelized. Set aside.

2. Eggplant Caponata
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in medium saute pan. Add shallots. Saute until translucent. Add tomato paste and saute until browned. Add chopped eggplant and saute until soft. Add 1 clove minced garlic and saute briefly until just translucent. Deglaze pan with white wine and scrape browned tomato paste from pan to enhance flavor. Reduce by 1/2. Remove from heat and add capers, red pepper flakes (optional) and black pepper to taste. Set aside.

3. Creamy Polenta
In medium sauce pan bring 2 cup vegetable stock, 1 cup drinkable unsweetened coconut milk, 2 tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of salt to a boil. Slowly whisk in 1 cup polenta. Continue stirring until starts to thicken and bubble. Fold in chives. Season with salt to taste. If too thick stir in additional coconut milk to desired thickness. Serve immediately, dividing the polenta amongst four plates. Top with eggplant caponata and roasted tomatoes on side. Finish with drizzle of good quality olive oil.

Makes 4 Servings
Printable Recipe


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Spring Produce Spotlight: Green Almonds

Standing tall and pert in rows a dozen deep, forests of asparagus cover the tables at farmers markets as far as the eye can see. Classic harbingers of spring, their appearance signals a definitive end to winter, as though the slender green stalks had slain the seasonal demon themselves. Deep green, royal purple, ghostly white; all colors were represented on this early April day, each bundling growing more enticing, glowing more vibrantly in the rising morning sun than the last. With a heavy bag straining under the weight of this spring plunder, it would be easy to call it a day, feeling quite content with a delicious, albeit rather predictable haul. Don’t make that mistake. Delve further into the booths, interrogate the farmers if you need to, and seek out rarer treasures. For a window of about three to four weeks, green almonds may be hiding in plain sight at your local markets, amassed in humble little piles or collected in small baskets, just behind the more popular fare. Off-putting fuzzy exteriors belie a firm, crunchy texture, wholly edible and entirely delicious from the outside shell to kernel. Their short window of availability is dictated by the maturation of the almond, transforming the fresh fruit into the crunchy nut we all know and love. Leading with a pleasantly bitter taste, the overriding flavor is that of lemons and cucumbers, sometimes with a hint of tart grape in the background. Juicy yet crisp, they’re impossibly addictive when eaten with just a light pinch of salt. Sure, you could chop them up and add them to salads, use them for garnishes on chilled soups, or otherwise toss them into any raw or cooked preparation you see fit, but they’re best when allowed to shine solo. At most, go ahead and cure them in a lightly sweet and sour brine, and you’ll have the stuff of pickle plate dreams. One would never mistake them for the roasted almonds they may one day become, which is part of the appeal. You may think you know the common nuts, but catch them on the unripe side and you’ll have a whole new snacking sensation in store.


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Eat the Weeds

While tech geniuses and high-powered CEOs across the city shell out $9.99 per pound for limp romaine and iceberg, a veritable open bar of salad greens sits mere blocks away, completely free for the taking. I’m talking about the wild foods growing in just about every corner of San Francisco, although most people would regard them as merely weeds or even invasive pests. Foraging may sound like an implausible venture in the middle of San Francisco, and yet right there on just the outskirts of Golden Gate Park, scores of not only edible but wholly delicious plants are thriving, hidden in plain sight. Furthermore, these greens are packed with more nutrition than their pale, cultivated brethren could dream of.

I’m far from an expert and was grateful for a bit of guidance myself, so if you’re new to the concept, definitely enlist an a more seasoned forager to help identify your discoveries. It needs to be said that foraging for wild foods is not without its pitfalls, of course. Before diving deep into the urban wilds, bear in mind:

1. It’s illegal, at least in California and most parts of the US, to take anything from public property. Whether or not this is enforced is an entirely different matter, and your mileage may vary.

2. It’s poisonous, at least in some cases, due to polluted soil. The best places to find wild edibles are typically in disturbed patches of earth, which often means near highways or construction sites, which can mean that there are some unsavory things being absorbed by the plants. In parks, they may be sprayed with herbicides, so be very aware of how the areas that you forage are maintained.

3. It’s poisonous– Really. There are some cruel look-like weeds that may seem benign and taste quite delicious, but are genuinely harmful or even deadly. Know what you’re picking up before you think about touching it.

Now, don’t you all want to run out there and go foraging with me? In case I haven’t scared everyone off, just take a gander at the plunder one can take away from a mere 100-yard stroll through the outskirts of grand Golden Gate Park.

Common mallow, one of the most abundant edible weeds where I began my search and a favorite new discovery of the day, they possess thickening powers similar to okra when cooked but are incredibly delicious eaten raw as well. The immature seed pods, also known as “green cheese wheels,” are the best parts. Crunchy and refreshing, just pluck them off the stem and enjoy. The whole plant, from stem to leaf, is edible and delicious.

Cleavers have Velcro-like hairs lining their leaves which gives them a slightly prickly texture, but that is minimized when crushed, chopped, or blended. Also quite tasty both raw and cooked it’s an especially good addition in green smoothies. They’re also fun to throw at your friends because they’ll stick to your clothing.

Black nightshade sounds like something you should avoid at all costs, but is actually related to the potato. In this case, the ripe fruit is the only part that should be eaten. The leaves contain solanine, a toxin that, in great enough quantity, can cause some serious gastrointestinal distress.

Oxalis has a sour, tart flavor, which has given it the nickname of “sourgrass.” Both the flowers and leaves are edible and highly nutritious. It contains an impressive amount of vitamin c, but should be used in small amounts due to its strong taste.

Miner’s lettuce is a prime salad green, juicy and with a flavor incredibly similar to good old spinach. To preserve the patch and allow it to grow back, be careful to simply pinch or snip off the leaves, rather than pulling out the roots. For anyone new to foraging, I would highly recommend you sample these leafy greens first, as the flavor is one of the most universally agreeable of all the common edible weeds.

Chickweed is another one that you’ve likely already heard about, since the leaves are very good raw in salads and are often paired with miner’s lettuce for variety. The stalk is stringy though so it’s best saved for cooking.

Wild radishes are quite different from cultivated radishes, as the root is tough and stringy. It’s the buds and flowers that you want in this case, which contain a pungent mustard flavor. The flowers come in all colors of the rainbow, and you’ll often find many different colors altogether in the same patch.

Yarrow is more of a medicinal herb rather than a purely edible one, as it’s incredibly bitter when eaten straight. I do not recommend this at all! The flowers are more potent than the leaves but all parts can be used to brew a calming, mildly sedative tincture. It also reacts strongly with yeast and can help bread rise if you’re an avid baker. Only a little bit is needed to make a big impact.

Wild plums are likely the most abundant wild fruit growing in the bay area. These pictured above are still unripe, as they’ll be in season come mid- to late-June.

Trust me, this is just the beginning of a wild food odyssey, and absolutely anyone could harvest exactly the same haul for themselves with very little effort. I didn’t spend more than hour looking or walk beyond the well-trod trail to find all of these goodies. It pays to do your research and pick very carefully, because the culinary reward is priceless.

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