Simplicity Itself

It forever amazes me how it is so frequently the simplest things that make the grandest impressions. Take a simple homemade vinaigrette, for instance. A little lemon, some thyme and shallots, champagne or white wine vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil, and all of a sudden you've got the dressing that takes some basic mixed greens to a salad of dizzying heights. Or perhaps a roast chicken, with crackly golden skin and a hint of rosemary. So simple, yet so incredible. This is precisely how I feel about flavored butters.  Mix butter with herbs, garlic, and freshly grated parmagiannio reggiano, slather it on a baguette, and you've got the makings of a delicious garlic bread. Mix butter, lemon zest, and chopped capers to take an ordinary filet of fish to a restaurant-worthy entree. Or mix butter and honey to server to guests so they can dress up biscuits at brunch. 

It takes almost no time to whip up a batch of flavored butter, and yet the end result always elicits praise and satisfied lip- smackings of delight whenever I serve some up. It's awfully fun to create new ones to go with whatever I'm cooking that day, and I do secretly love getting the compliments from my pleased guinea pigs I get to practice on. 

The other night we were having a small barbeque, and I'd just picked up some incredible corn from the farmers market. I decided to make up a new butter to go with our Southwestern-themed dishes to give our farm fresh corn some pizzaz. 

I like the clean tasting quality of fresh herbs, so I used some chives for their crisp sharpness and some cilantro for some Latin bite. I also used a heavy hand with the smoky chipotle chili powder , and since I use cayenne in just about everything, I applied a few liberal shakes of that too. 

Slathered on our in-husk grilled corn, it was pure heaven. It took five minutes to make and it elevated the meal to an even greater status. Next time perhaps I'll add a finely chopped and seeded habanero for even more heat. For that is the fun part about flavored butters-- they're almost impossible to mess up and so easy to enjoy! 

When cooking, putting together a meal to be shared among ourselves and others, it is often the smallest touches that spark a smile. Though our busy modern lives have cut down on our time to prepare and even to eat our meals, it's almost always possible to add a little extra touch that can turn our ever-present need to eat into something much more special.

Southwestern Butter

2 Sticks of softened (room-temperature) butter

1 small handful of chives

1 small handful of cilantro

1/2 - 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 - 1 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili pepper

Finely chop herbs. Add to a bowl with the softened butter and mix well with a fork. Make sure the butter is very soft, otherwise it will not incorporate well. Mix in spices as well, adjusting if you like more or less heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Be careful is you use salted butter-- you may not need to add any salt at all! 

* A note about recipes:

Unless I am baking something, I tend to shy away from using exact measurements or following a recipe exactly. If I am making something totally new, I'll canvass multiple recipes of the same dish to get the general gist of it. My recipes that I post here should also be used as guidelines--feel free to substitute something if you feel it might work. After all, how else do you think those master chefs create new dishes!

*A note about ingredients:

I always try to use organic ingredients from local sources whenever possible. It's always worth the extra effort to seek them out or just a little more money to know that what we eat is better for our bodies and the environment. More on this soon.

Wine Country Chronicles: The Beginning

Living in busy, compact San Francisco, sometimes I forget that we've got the gorgeous sprawling wine country for a backyard. As a child, my parents always dragged me along to tastings, where of course I couldn't understand why they wanted to sip that vile stuff in dark cellars. And I've been up there as an adult for weddings, events, or on my way up to Oregon or the coast for vacation.  wine country hill2

And though I do love wine now, somehow its never occurred to me that I would actually enjoy wine tasting. So the wine country remained a far-off place in my mind -- something for tourists or people with suitcases full of money to spend on huge crates of Pinot Noir. 

But then the other night we were at Chris' parents house in the North Bay, and we tried some delicious wine that was a blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery was in Sonoma County, and all their wines were apparently just fantastic. As Chris had some business to attend to in Santa Rosa, we thought it might be nice to drive the extra twenty minutes and cruise by this land of delightful grapes. 

domaine carneros flowers

The resulting adventures have sparked yet another time, money, and imagination consuming passion of mine. This post marks the beginning of a series of posts about our experiences in Napa and Sonoma Counties and other wine country locales. There will be posts about biodynamic and sustainable wineries, local restaurants and shops, wine varietals, tastings, tours, bottling, and more. I hope to take you on the trip with us as we explore and learn more about wine and the lives of those who live among the grapes. Hopefully it will prove interesting, whether you are a certified oenological expert or a wine neophyte, or even if you're somewhere in the middle, like myself. And if you don't like reading about our adventures, well, at least we'll have enjoyed some good wine.

Spargel Zeit!

There is a time in Southern Germany that is the highlight of any two weeks in a true Bavarian's calendar year. Oktoberfest, you say? The international celebration of all things oh-so-Bavarian: Beer in huge mugs, pretzels, lederhosen, and girls overflowing out of their lacy, aproned dirndls? Ah, no. Or possibly it is at Christmas time, during  Nuremburg's famous Kristkindlmarkt, where one can enjoy hot mulled wine, full of cloves and brandy, or snack on a wurstchen and a little roll while watching the snowflakes float down all around? Charming, but no, not quite. No, the time I am referring to is a time of anticipation, of rebirth and new beginnings. It's a time known fondly, simply, as Spargel-zeit.  As the time of the asparagus is painfully brief, the Bavarians celebrate it to excess for the entire fortnight or so. You know the magical time is at hand when the ladies begin whispering its predicted arrival date over their baskets at the outdoor maret in the fresh May mornings. 

"Perhaps in the next week or two, leastways that's what Frau Meier said."

"Really? Well, I've heard from Hanna that Frau Beck said it might be in as little as five days!"

Chefs and home cooks begin dreaming of recipes both new and old, and debate the merits of the arguably most perfect preparation of these tender white stalks.

Spargel
Spargel

Though it is possible to discover green asparagus here, it is far more likely that you will encounter the more delicate flavor of the white variety. You can find either type year-round in the grocery super-store, but you'll have to be content with the tinny, slightly off flavor and mushy texture that comes from  canned produce. No, best to enjoy the Spargel like a true Bavarian: seasonally, locally, preferably with hollandaise.

Ah yes, the hollandaise. While the pale yellow sauce may have originally been a French creation, I have no doubt that the Germans would take the lead in any competition of the hollandaise-making persuasion. They consume it with a staggering variety of dishes; over meats, chicken, fish, potatoes, "foreign" foods like dolmas or Spanish rice, and vegetables, of course including the near-holy asparagus. In fact, most Spargel enthusiasts will argue that a simple presentation of lightly steamed asparagus, with salt, pepper, and a generous ladling of smooth, rich hollandaise is the ultimate way to enjoy the perfection that is Spargel-zeit. 

This magical two-week mini-season is truly feted. Every restaurant of any decency will offer a special separate menu, the Spargel Karte, in addition to its regular menu.  The Spargel Karte can have as few as three or as many as thirteen items on it, all dishes featuring the glorious white asparagus. Asparagus soup, asparagus salad, asparagus pizza, asparagus with local fish, asparagus with eggs and ham, and of course, asparagus with hollandaise. 

Home cooks and hausfraus will scour the local markets every morning searching for the finest most delicate spears. Once they've selected their favorites, they'll scoop them up in kilos. With a glass of crisp riesling, or a small mug of beer, the glorious Spargel is the toast of spring. 

And then, as quick as it began, the asparagus begin to disappear from the markets, and the Spargel Karten become scarcer or with fewer selections. The time of the asparagus is over, and the Bavarian, sated and peaceful, begin to gear up for morning hikes and afternoons at the local swimming pool. The brief summer of Central Europe is at hand, hot and sticky and full of sun. Bearing the standard every year is the mighty and glorious asparagus. 

Stilettos for Spatulas

I used to be completely and totally obsessed with shoes. I was the typical Sex and the City watching, Manolo Blahnik fiending, girly cocktail drinking chick. I spent large portions of my paycheck on gorgeous strappy stilettos and chunky wedges. I loved shoes.

I'm not sure exactly when I stopped caring about shoes so much and started caring about kitchenware. It didn't happen suddenly, but one day I noticed it had been a year since my last shoe expenditure and I still didn't have and money in my savings account. Where, pray tell, was all my money going?

I glanced around my cluttered kitchen and and spied the new magnetic knife rack we had yet to install. I saw the jars of anchovies and capers lined up next to a plethora of vinegars and oils. I thought of the new tea strainer nestled in the drawer, alongside the new egg timer and the new cheese grater. And then it dawned on me: I had unconsciously traded in Jimmy Choo for Cuisinart!

Not that I don't still adore gorgeous footwear, but I've acquired a deeper love for all sorts of culinary tools and specialty ingredients. It's clearly where much of my money is going. And if Macy's Union Square's Shoes on Two is heaven for a shoe junkie, the its kitchenware equivalent is Kamei Housewares and Restaurant Supply on Clement Street.

If you owned a Chinese restaurant and you wanted to set up the entire kitchen and dining room for not a lot of money, this is the place you would go. They have ridiculously low prices on everything from flatware and plates to pots, pans, salt shakers and sake cups. The enormous space is positively packed with narrow aisles just exploding with everything you could ever want for your kitchen. 

And trust me, I want it all! I never leave without spending at least $40. Even if all I came in for was chopsticks, you'd better believe I'm coming out with a zester, a deep frying ladle, some tupperware, and maybe even a new serving platter as well. It's simply impossible to describe the overwhelming sense of joy and excitement I feel when wandering the aisles of Kamei. Perhaps this makes me seem like a bit of an obsessive food-gadget nerd, but it cannot be helped. 

Though I may not necessarily need all these wonderful tools, I feel more relaxed and confident in the kitchen, just knowing they're nearby. And you know, come to think of it, i don't need sexy stilettos either. But strangely enough, I feel more confident and relaxed in them as well. Funny how that is.

Egg Quest, Part I

I can probably trace my obsession with eggs back to my childhood summers spent deep in the heart of Bavarian farm country. Breakfasts there always included a soft boiled egg, scooped up warm right out of its shell. I was continually startled to find the bright orange yolks that tasted so different from the ones back home. And it was these rich, ridiculously fresh eggs I longed for when back in Marin County, where breakfast was a pop tart, usually inhaled in the car when rushing off to school. What I didn't know then was why these eggs were so much better than our eggs back home. Now I know that it wasn't that they were German, its that they were from chickens raised in an entirely different way from our industrialized process. Chickens here are crammed into wire cages, kept under flourescent lights and stuffed full of antibiotics and feed of questionable origin. Even our "free range" or "cage free" chickens rarely see sunshine or grass as they're packed tightly in huge barns. The pastured chicken, common throughout Germany and the not-so-distant past in the United States, eats a mixture of organic, chemical-free feed and grass. They're allowed to forage, move about individually, eat yummy grubs, and lay their eggs in peace. This is why their yolk is so rich and why their flavor is so exquisite. They're what eggs are supposed to be.

bowl of eggs

Now, I know these eggs don't just exist in Europe. They can be found here, right here in Northern California. At least I hope so. I've tried the farmer's markets in the City, and though I've found organic free range eggs, they're still not quite it. I have to go to the farm, find the source itself. The egg quest has begun. 

The best place to start seems to be Petaluma, a po-dunk town in the North Bay that is everything agrarian and quaint. It also used to be the "Chicken Capital of the World." The other day, Chris and I were up there, randomly, on a mission to find some cherries from a roadside stand. Our mission had proved, er, fruitless and we were headed back on a one-lane highway home. Suddenly I spotted a small, hand-painted sign stating "Eggs for Sale" in red paint. I instantly perked up and we turned around in search of the driveway. 

A few passes up and down the highway and we finally discovered a gravel lane with an even smaller sign, this time with just "Eggs" written on it. A short way down the lane led us to a narrow dirt driveway, marked with a sign with just a red painted arrow on it. At last here we would find some really truly farm-fresh eggs!

languid cows

We passed a few languid cows on the way in, and then we were rapidly greeted by five very vocal little dogs. Exiting the car, we spied a healthy vegetable garden with a handful of ducks waddling about. We heard the chickens before we saw them. Squawking and clucking, there they were, milling about in the coop. Utterly enchanted, I turned to Chris and breathily exclaimed, "Oh, Honey. How darling. Let's move out here and get some chickens!"

Being the imminently more sensible one of the two of us, Chris just smiled and went off in search of the proprietor of the lovely little farm so that we might purchase our eggs. I wandered about, daydreaming of my own vegetable garden and year-round sun. Rather quickly though, we soon realized no one was home. We circled the property, admiring the rusty farm equipment and an old trampoline by the fence. As the yappy dogsn hadn't ceased yapping since we'd arrived, and no one had answered our calls, we ascertained that we were alone, wandering around a stranger's property, and utterly eggless. 

First the cherries and now this! Disappointed, we piled back in the car and headed back on the long road home. Chris rationalized that we could always come back another day, or try to track down their phone number. Glumly, I agreed with him, but I couldn't help feeling like a kid who'd been promised an ice cream cone only to find the ice cream parlor was closed. Sure, they'd re-open the next day, but I wanted my ice cream now! 

This is what beautiful, fresh, delicious, humanely-produced eggs will do to me. Though I haven't found them yet, I feel very certain to very soon. The egg quest shall continue. 

Chicken coop

High

beach cliff

You were not invited to this picnic.

But I will take your hand

lay you down 

and feed you cherries

overly ripe and bursting

deliciously mushy

almost rotten.

Feasting on bittersweet kisses

full of cream and honey

You can close your eyes 

And I will sit beside you.

offering nothing

but salty ground-up stories

Regurgitated memories 

that will only last so long

before you will want a cigarette. 

And then I can dance

naked sunshine

chilling my arms

that were so freshly oiled 

with love.

But you've lost the button on your coat

eaten by the grass

freckled with weeds

Not soft.

So I will sit beside you 

And soothe your aching mind

with sour cherries...

A look of longing patience

mottled and piercing...

We can finally go back. 

Heritage of Herring

For many a year I have praised the virtue of the seeming ubiquitous Russian markets here in my San Francisco neighborhood of The Richmond. These corner shops stock all sorts of Eastern European goodies: Russian spirits, Polish sweets, German mustards, and Hungarian paprikas. They also usually carry a fairly decent selection of basic corner store necessities like milk, butter, fruits, vegetables, bread, and meat. My favorite, Royal Market on Geary Avenue, has the entertaining addition of four flat-screen televisions blaring Russian variety shows and music programs at all times. And though it's loud and I understand nary a word of what is being said or sung, I feel strangely at peace wandering the aisles and fondling the strange objects on the shelves. I suppose it's something in my traveler's soul that doesn't ever feel quite at home unless I'm surrounded by the unfamiliar.  Needless to say, Royal Market abounds with a certain charm. It's bright and shiny, yet strangely mysterious at the same time. The black leather jacketed proprietor stands heavily behind the register, either yelling into his cellphone or thumbing his way through last week's Moscow Times. Little Russian ladies squeeze past each other in the narrow produce aisle, poking at the leeks, potatoes, and onions. And of course there's the young people of the neighborhood, brought out here by the cheap (for San Francisco) rents, perusing the incredible variety of jams, cookies, and naturally, liquors. Each Russian market is different in its own small ways, which just adds to the unique allure of them all. 

So for years I have been a happy advocate of these small markets, gleefully parading around my tiny culinary discoveries. Most of my friends and roommates over the years respond with indulgent smile and mild pats on the back, as if to say, " Yes, yes Kitty, it's very wonderful. Can we please go to Whole Foods now?" So imagine my slightly confused delight when my boyfriend Chris burst through the door late one evening with a huge paper bag of groceries and a beaming smile, fresh from his first solo adventure at Royal Market. As it was past nine PM and he was rather late for the dinner I'd planned to make, I thrust my hands on my hips and greeted him with my best withering stare. 

"Hi honey, I know I'm late, I'm sorry. But look, I was down at that Russian market you love and I got you a surprise! It's awesome! The guys at the store were so friendly and cool, and they said that this was the best dinner ever!"

Relaxing my stance a bit, I moved towards the kitchen to see what he was unpacking. Salami, brie, a Spring Hill pepper jack, and a bottle of cabernet came tumbling out of the paper bag. This was my surprise? We had four different cheeses and two kinds of salami in the fridge already -- though one can never have too much of either, it still seemed a bit anti-climactic, as far as surprises go. I returned my hands to my hips. 

"No Kitty wait! When I was chatting with the owner, I mentioned our trip to Eastern Europe, and he said I just had to try this before we went, so I know what I'm getting myself into. And then he made me buy this awesome stuff to go with it. So this, Baby, this is going to be great!"

With a triumphant flourish, Chris reached into the bag and produced his surprise. Of all the I'm Sorry For Being Late presents he's come up with, this one was truly a unique surprise. No flowers or chocolates here, no way. Chris likes to push the envelope on creativity and he certainly succeeded this time.I looked into his eyes, then looked at his proud purchases sitting on the counter, then back to his face again (I can never look into those hazel-y green eyes without swooning just a little.) I couldn't possibly restrain the laughter that burst out of me. Strong and stalwart they stood: a jar of pickled herring and a bottle of Russian Standard vodka. 

Seeing that my laugh was one of enjoyment and not one of ridicule, Chris set about making us a grand smargasboard of cheese, salami, and herring. With the bottle and some shot glasses in in one hand and the heaping platter of of goodies in the other, Chris' grand entrance just made me laugh even harder. I felt the need to warm him just a bit, however. 

" You know, this is a very Eastern European snack. Herring is beloved in Germany, Russian, even places like Sweden and Norway. You know I've grown up with it, due to my German mother and all, but I'm interested to see how you take to it. It's kind of an acquired taste for most people. " Though I didn't want to dampen his spirits, I also didn't want him to be disappointed if he didn't care for the briny, fishy, vinegared flesh. Undeterred, he replied,

" Well, I'm German and Polish, so it's gotta be in my blood or something!"

And with that, Chris took his first bite of traditional pickled herring. After a few seconds of thoughtful chewing, my fears had been laid to rest as he smiled broadly and exclaimed,

"Wow. That's exceptional! It's slippery and briny. Really interesting flavor all-around. Hey, I bet it's awesome with the vodka!"

Never one to shy away from a bit of high quality vodka, I heartily agreed. "Na zdorovye!" And so we ate and drank our way through a blissful Russian evening. Which, I might add, would not have happened if Chris hadn't have stumbled upon my beloved market and let himself be taken in. For perhaps that's the reasonwhy I hold these markets so dear to my heart-- going into one for a while to do a bit of shopping isn't the end of the adventure. When you have a real conversation with an owner or an employee, when you let yourself try something unusual, something authentically different, you are actually experienceing the thrill of the new that we usually only experience while travelling. The whole experience throbs with adventure. 

As both of our family histories are tangled up throughout Germany, Austria, Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe, Chris and I feel a sense of kinship with our Russian neighbors in the fogged-in avenues of San Francisco. After all, the taste for herring is in our blood.

Butter Brezen

When the homesickness grips me, I always find that it is triggered by food-- the strange fermenting smell emanating from behind a bar that I could swear was sauerkraut, or the sound of a crusty bread being ripped apart. It is the latter that sparked today's wave of memories, though it is not actually bread that I long for. It is for authentic Bavarian pretzels slathered with rich butter. The Butterbrezen is nothing like American pretzels. It's large, perfectly salted, with an intensely crispy exterior and an inside that's billowy soft to the touch. Sliced lengthwise while still hot from the oven, with lusciously thick pats of butter stuffed between the slices, it's a butter-pretzel-salt sandwich of insane depth. 

My favorite Tante, displaying an enormous Brezel
My favorite Tante, displaying an enormous Brezel

Wrapped in wax paper, the Butterbrezen is quite a handy snack. It seems not so long ago that I was gripping one in my fingers, trying not to let the melting butter slip onto my train ticket to Straubing. The Munich Hauptbahnhof was awash with travelers, as the summer holidays in Bavaria had just begun. Jostled by the crowds, I kept a fierce grip on my snack with trying to balance myself on my improvised suitcase-seat. I still had fifteen minutes before the train was set to pull in, but I was anxious to leave the city crowds for the achingly rural small town on the Danube. I longed for the fields, the little open air market in the city square that sold all kinds of produce and little livestock, cuddly yellow baby chicks and all. I wanted to walk the safe alleyways and visit my favorite pastry shops, the glorious Konditorei of Straubing.  While Munich's crowds and wide boulevards were appealing in a different way, eventually one longs for the simplicity of the small town. Much like the Butterbrezen I was munching on, Straubing isn't made up of much. This however, makes it all the easier to thouroughly enjoy each element and notice how wonderfully they all complement one another. 

As the train whistle pierced the shouts and calls of milling travelers, I wiped the buttery crumbs from my mouth and fingers. Already I felt calmer, even in the midst of my tense excitement, the flurry of activity all around, and the everyday thrill of the two-hour journey before me. 

It is amazing to me how a simple sound or smell can trigger such distinct memories in the fleetingest of moments.