Wednesday, February 28, 2007

John Mackey, Michael Pollan & Real Sustainablility

Last night I got a chance to hear John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma at UC Berkeley. It was a fascinating evening of discourse mainly about the future of food and less about the ongoing debate between the author and CEO (which has been well documented in a series of letters posted in the blogs of Whole Foods and Michael Pollan).

While I was encouraged to hear so much discussion of issues such as fair trade, sustainability, animal welfare, biodiversity, local and organic, I was dismayed at how none of the conversation was spent on dealing with the issue of hunger.

The charge of elitism is sadly given short shrift by many leaders in the debate about the future of food. It seems if you are middle class the question of how much you should spend on your eggs is more worthy than the question of how we can make sure the poor get any eggs at all.

I'm glad I have the resources to make enlightened decisions about the food I buy and eat, but it disturbs me to think of how many people do not share that same luxury, they struggle just to get any food on the table. For them the question is "what eggs?" not "which eggs?". Surely education can help all consumers, those with and without means, make better food choices. But any discussion of sustainability ought to include at least a mention of how we make life more sustainable by making good food affordable and attainable for all.

Over at Bay Area Bites is my recap of the Michael Pollan & John Mackey discussion at Zellerbach Auditorium.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Oldways Table

Everything old is new again. That could easily be the subtitle for The Oldways Table, which is actually subtitled essays and recipes from the culinary think tank. I am a newcomer to Oldways. I only recently discovered the organization and their website. But once I did I was intrigued. It is focused on the principles of nutrition, tradition and sustainability.

Oldways which was founded in 1988 to advocate for "better eating and drinking" presents a veritable treasure trove of articles and recipes that are surprisingly accessible. The articles are written by authors, farmers, food writers, chefs, all kinds of people who have something to say about food. It's a funny kind of book, not quite a cookbook, or a reference book, or just a collection of essays. It's a bit like a magazine but of the most timeless sort with a little taste of many things.

What will you find inside? Cracked Green Olive and Walnut Salad recipe from Paula Wolfert, Pasta Rings with Cauliflower and Bread Crumbs from Julia Della Croce, Barbara Lynch's Creamy Vanilla Bread Pudding with Cherry Compote. Articles like Marian Morash's Hunter-Gathering, Deborah Madison's Farmers' Market and Its Web of Connection, Ari Weinzweig's On Choosing Olive Oil, Melissa Clark's Babas and Lemons. So many treasures! Each chapter on a type of food such as grains, fruits and vegetables, cheese and yogurt or wine will inspire you next time you are in the kitchen or at the table.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

When you go away you miss a lot of stuff. When you get home you notice little things and wonder, when did that happen? Barely a year ago the redesigned Cooking with Amy launched. Now I look around and see lots of wonderful redesigned food blogs and some new ones to boot. Here are a few that have caught my eye recently:

1. Bits and Bites
This is the newish food blog from our local 7x7 magazine (if the name sounds odd, keep in mind San Francisco is seven miles square). Like the Gourmet magazine blog, Choptalk, Bits and Bites has got lots of wonderful observations from the magazine's food and wine editors. It's a bit like hanging out with foodie friends who tell you about the dinner they had the other night at Piperade, or their favorite food finds at Costco, or how to make that fabulous cauliflower "couscous" style that chef James Ormsby used to make (oh James, how we miss you!). This blog really makes you feel like an insider.

2. Cook Think
First up in the redesign category is Cook Think. I raved about this blog back when it first launched but now it's really hitting its stride. At this blog you'll find thought-provoking pieces on vegetables, cooking techniques, you-name-it. Just this week I learned about marjoram, why to heat butter "until the foam subsides" and weighed in on the cabbage debate. And now there's a newsletter to sign up for called Root Source. I've signed up and can't wait to see what's in store.

3. Delicious Days
This gorgeous blog just gets better and better with every tweak. I'm not sure when it got this latest styling but it just makes me want to give Nicky and Oliver a big bravo! for their efforts. The recipes, photos and design inspire me on a regular basis.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Favorite Things: Yuzu

Does this ever happen to you? You read about some interesting ingredient, the next thing you know it ends up in your shopping basket. I'm sure it was Thy's post about yuzu that got me on the lookout for all yuzu related products. I spotted yuzu fruit spread at Trader Joe's, and the next thing I knew I was opening the jar at breakfast the very next day. I have to admit, I knew yuzu was an Asian citrus fruit, but I'd never come across it fresh or even in juice form, reading Thy's post was the first time I realized it was also known as "citron".

In restaurants I've had yuzu vinaigrettes and sauces with savory dishes, but I'd never had yuzu in a sweet form. Really, it's much more like yuzu jelly in consistency, with just the tiniest bit of lemon peel in it, and it tastes like a complex and nuanced citrus jelly. The flavor is sweet and sour with a lemony kind of tang. But it's very subtle. It doesn't hit you over the head the way orange or grapefruit does. I tried it first on an English muffin, and it melted into the nooks and crannies.

Yuzu fruit spread melts so smoothly that you could easily use it as a glaze on fish, or as the base for a sauce, a little soy sauce would balance out the sweetness. Whisking it up with a little lemon juice makes a great dressing for fruit salad. Or maybe as a sauce over vanilla ice cream. Seeing as how a 3.5 ounce bottle of the juice will cost you $10 or more, the fruit spread is a good way to try it out and experiment a bit. The 10 ounce jar costs only $2.29

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Quan An Ngon: Restaurant Review

Quan An Ngon means delicious restaurant in Vietnamese. It's a place for wimps, like me. Let me explain. Given the hot, sticky weather and the terrifying traffic it was hard to get my bearings in Saigon. I try not to be a scaredy-cat on vacation, but seeing ingredients that were sitting out in the sun spooked me out of trying more than a few street food specialties.

Fortunately we discovered Quan An Ngon on our first day. This centrally located, clean, beautiful and tremendously popular restaurant that features street food, but off the street, lived up to it's name. A large courtyard shaded by umbrellas and bamboo trees, is filled with stalls where regional specialties are made to order. You can wander around and decide what looks good. As with all restaurants of this sort, not all the dishes are outstanding but everything is so inexpensive you can always choose something else if you at first you don't succeed. Most of the dishes were only a dollar or two and very filling. Service was not the best, but some of that may have been due to language difficulties.

When we got to Hanoi we were pleased to find yet a second Quan An Ngon. Dishes we particularly liked included the banh cuon, a kind of glutinous rice noodle dumpling with mushroom or pork filling. Also the bun thit nuong cha gio, a combination of vermicelli noodles, topped with spring rolls, grilled pork and a tangy dipping sauce was fresh and well, delicious. And I should say, this is not just a restaurant for wimps, but also for locals who outnumbered the tourists at least 10 to 1. We returned several times to both locations and it quickly became one of our favorite restaurants.

Quan An Ngon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1

Quan An Ngon
18 Phan Boi Chau


Friday, February 16, 2007

La Ciccia: Restaurant

Late last year I got a chance to eat at La Ciccia restaurant in Noe Valley. La Ciccia is the only restaurant I know of that specializes in the food of Sardinia. I like to think I know a bit about Italian food, having lived and studied in Italy but when it comes to the cuisine of Sardinia, up to now, I've been tremendously ignorant.

Having eaten at La Ciccia a couple of times now, I have only begun to get familiar with Sardinian cuisine. It has many of the same elements you find in other Italian food but the ingredients are different. There is the saltiness of bottarga, a dried salted roe, the al dente chew of pasta but in the form of "fregola" large pearl shaped pasta, a distinctive crisp bread called carta musica--sheet music, and the slightly bitter almost indescribable flavor of saffron.

What else can I tell you? Sardinia has a wonderful range of wines that you are probably unfamiliar with but they are well worth exploring. And La Ciccia is a great place to explore them. Familiar ingredients include olives and tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs, but the character of the cuisine is less refined and more exotic with touches of Arab and Middle Eastern flavors including raisins, honey, walnuts, saba and mint. Not surprisingly because Sardinia is an island, there is also plenty of fish and shellfish.

I love discovering another branch of Italian food. And at La Ciccia I enjoyed the same kind of friendliness and hospitality I remember from my happiest meals in Italy.

Over at SF Station is my review of La Ciccia


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Banh Xeo: Recipe

On vacation in Vietnam I kind of missed being in the kitchen. I especially missed cooking for myself and tinkering around. In Hoi An I got a chance to dabble a bit when I took a cooking class at the Red Bridge Cooking School. The class combined demonstrations with hands-on learning. Much of the prep work was done ahead of time so I knew that once I got home I'd have to test the recipes again.

One of the simplest recipes I got a chance to make was banh xeo, pronounced bahn sow. This is a delicious crunchy chewy crepe that seems like it's made from eggs, but never is. The yellow color comes from a sprinkling of turmeric. It's filled with a combination of pork and shrimp, scallions and bean sprouts. In Vietnam it's served with sheets of rice paper but at home I've always just wrapped chunks of it up in lettuce leaves with herbs. It's messier than rolling it up in rice paper, but I think it stays crunchier that way.

In the South of Vietnam the crepes are enormous, in other parts of the country they are much smaller. While we learned to make a peanut sauce to dip the crepe in, which is typical in Central Vietnam, I prefer using nuoc cham sauce. The great thing about this recipe is that you can tweak it. Use whatever dipping sauce you like, add other vegetables to the filling like radishes or jicama, make it vegetarian, add mung beans or coconut milk to the batter--whatever. But the technique and cooking couldn't be easier. Note: you can serve this as a one dish meal or as a starter. If you make it as a starter one crepe is enough for two people.

Banh Xeo Vietnamese Crepe

makes 2 crepes

1 cup rice flour (Thai versions are fairly easy to find)
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
pinch of salt
vegetable oil for frying

4 ounces small shrimp
4 ounces sliced roast pork
4 scallions, sliced
2 cups bean sprouts

leafy lettuce leaves
fresh herbs such as mint, Thai or Vietnamese basil (optional) and cilantro

dipping sauce (see below)

In a bowl mix the rice flour, water, turmeric and salt.

Heat a little oil in a 10 inch non-stick pan and cook the pork and shrimp. When cooked through, add the scallions. Add a little more oil, you may need a tablespoon or two to make the crepe very crisp and chewy. Pour in 1/2 cup batter on top of the fillings and tilt the pan to spread the batter into a crepe. Top with bean sprouts and cook for several minutes until the bottom of the crepe is beginning to turn brown and very crunchy. Fold the crepe in half and drain on paper towels. Serve with lettuce and herbs and dipping sauce.


Nuoc cham dipping sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon chili paste or a chopped red chili
2-3 Tablespoons fish sauce
1-2 T lime juice (or lemon juice)
1/4 cup water
1 clove garlic, minced

Mix all the ingredients, taste and make any adjustments you like.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Food Bloggers Wine.Dine.Donate

Back in September I was a guest at a benefit dinner for America's Second Harvest, along with a couple of other local food bloggers. Epicurious put together a wonderful program called Wine.Dine.Donate that encouraged people to attend dinners or put them on.

Sam of Becks & Posh and I wanted to do something with the local food blogger community. But hosting a dinner is difficult when you live in a city apartment. So I suggested that we donate our time at the San Francisco Food Bank and Sam suggested we wine and dine at a local wine bar.

This past Saturday around 30 Bay Area food and wine bloggers showed up at the San Francisco food bank to pack boxes of apples

pack boxes of oranges

and package corn

We packed up over one ton of fresh food. It was hard work but the most satisfying kind, where you know what you are doing is making a difference. Our blogs often focus on the pleasures of food, so it was good to spend a little time focusing on something to benefit those who do without.

And the reception?

Wonderful! At Yield wine bar Sam poured mostly organic and bio-dynamic wines. There was a generous donation of charcuterie from both the Fatted Calf and Fra' Mani, McQuade's Chutney donated three delicious chutneys and Poco Dolce donated lucious chocolates. The cheeses were a donation from Sam and me, to round things out a bit.

A big thanks to everyone who wined, dined and donated and to Epicurious editor Tanya Steel who inspired us. I look forward to the next time!

Read more and see pictures posted by the bloggers who attended:
Becks & Posh
Confessions of a Restaurant Whore
Albion Cooks
Mental Masala
The Ethicurean (Dairy Queen)
An Open Cupboard
More from Becks & Posh
Blog Appetit

(If you posted about it too, let me know and I will link to you)

Friday, February 9, 2007

Five Things About Me

The last post was a little tooting of my own horn. I wanted to share some things that I've been doing that have to do with my food writing. But now, thanks to my pal Pim of Chez Pim who has tagged me with the latest meme, I share with you Five Things About Me that you probably don't know and that have nothing much to do with anything. Considering how much I have already shared--my love of noodles, crush on Jacques Pepin, etc. it's hard to imagine I have any secrets left...but I do!

1. I once served orange juice to the Queen of Norway. Really. Are you impressed? Don't be! Queen Sonja was visiting the United States several years ago and being an art enthusiast she requested a tour of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I was volunteering with the museum at the time and was asked to serve refreshments. My other brushes with fame? I went to high school with Mayor Gavin Newsom. More exciting than that? I met Joe Strummer backstage at the Fillmore and Nigella Lawson once gave me a whisk (I even saved the box with her autograph on it).

2. My pantry is overflowing with bottles of sweet things like jam, chocolate sauce, and honey. In case of an earthquake I may run out of bottled water but I will have plenty of stuff to spoon over my rapidly melting ice cream.

3. I considered going to culinary school when I graduated from high school. I'm actually glad I went to college instead. I prefer being a home cook. I think cooking professionally might take the fun out of it for me. It sure did when I helped out on a couple of catering gigs.

4. I hate driving. Don't ask me why, I just do. If I could be driven around by a chauffeur I would be very happy. Not environmentally correct, but true. To make matters even worse, my husband doesn't even have a drivers license! Fortunately I live in a great neighborhood and city for walking.

5. I can't eat steamed lobster, crab, dates or fresh pineapple. Food sensitivities suck.

Here are the folks I'm tagging--all people I know, but wouldn't mind knowing better:
Karletta of Culinary Muse
Tea of Tea & Cookies
Michael of Bay Area Bites
Mary of Jalapeno Girl
Garrett of Vanilla Garlic

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

News, news and more news

Since I've returned home a number of exciting things have happened that I want to share.

1. I am a published author! The latest in the line of WinePassports from SmartsCo has been released, it's WinePassport: Portugal and I wrote it. It was a really cool project to work on and I learned a lot about the wonderful wines of Portugal. The guide features a pop-out map of Portugal's wine regions, an overview of up-and-coming regions with great values, and easy-to-use charts to interpret what's in that bottle. You can purchase a copy on Amazon or directly from SmartsCo.

2. Cooking Pleasures magazine, a publication of the Cooking Club or America published my tip and it was chosen Tip of the Month! What was it? I suggested using a Chinese soup spoon to pour batter onto the griddle when making pancakes. The flat bottom of the spoon prevents drips and allows you to shape the pancake if necessary.

3. Today the Sacramento Bee featured this site in their Cooking on the Web section. They even called my site "beautiful". Go ahead, make my day! A big welcome to all Sacbee readers.

What else is in store? A couple of things, actually. I've written the introduction to a reprint of Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book. The American edition will be available in April. I am also working on some more recipe development. When the recipes are available I will let you know more.

Thanks everyone for your continued reading and support!

Over at Bay Area Bites is a head's up on how you can shop for goodies from the Fancy Food Show.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Nuoc Mam -- Vietnamese Fish Sauce

Fish sauce. It's such an unfortunate name. If I was renaming it I'd call it "essence of the sea". But even that falls short. It's composed of just fish, salt and water. In Vietnam fresh fish, often anchovies, are fermented along with sea salt in huge wooden barrels and the resulting liquid is somehow not as salty as soy sauce but clean and fresh tasting with the essence of fish but with no "fishy" flavor. The taste is pure umami, that fifth flavor of savoriness. Visiting fish sauce factories in Phu Quoc, I was struck by the scent of the sauce which was sweet, salty and very pungent but not unpleasant.

Some of the most desirable fish sauce is made on the island of Phu Quoc (and also Phan Thiet). The first extraction called nhi is poured off after many months. More salt and water (sea water) is added and it continues to ferment. This process is repeated several times over the course of a year. The first batch is the best quality and contains the most protein. Following batches have less. The protein levels in these sauces range from 25-40%.

Like using anchovy paste, a splash of nuoc mam rounds out flavor without adding a fishy taste. It is used in Vietnamese recipes and as a dipping sauce when mixed with chiles, sugar, and lime juice. I found just a teaspoon or two in a bowl of pho makes all the difference. A good guide to purchasing Vietnamese style fish sauce in the US is available online at Viet World Kitchen.


Thursday, February 1, 2007

Floating Market on the Mekong Delta

Here's the thing about Vietnam, it still feels authentic. I mean it doesn't feel prettied up for tourists. You can easily get a view of the real workings of the country and see how things get done. It's exciting and invigorating and sometimes gritty.

In Saigon I visited several supermarkets but none of them seemed that bustling. Daily grocery shopping is still done at traditional covered markets and in the side streets that surround them. It is also done in the street. Everywhere you find people, you find women selling fruit from baskets. But how does the produce get there? Not from a distribution warehouse, but from the fields, down rivers, by boat.

Near Can Tho on the Mekong Delta we visited a floating market early in the morning. Unlike the colorful floating markets in Thailand this was a market for the locals only. We were just observers catching glimpses of commerce and life on the river. By checking the sign posts--literally posts with some fruit or vegetable attached, you could see what was for sale. Most of what they were selling was below deck but as deals were made you could see cabbages or pineapples flying through the air. Larger boats sold to smaller boats, big basketfuls at a time. Everyone seems to be an entrepreneur and I wondered what the rest of the journey might be like for a boatload of bananas...