Monday, August 31, 2009

Good and healthy food is for everyone

The weekend Eat Real Festival at Oakland's Jack London Square successfully pushed the idea that eating healthy, with locally grown and sustainable foods, can reach the masses. As well it should.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the three-day festival drew 30,000 people a day for the good eats being peddled by local vendors, farmers and brewers. That's significant, and it rivals the number who attended the Slow Food Nation eat fest last year in San Francisco. The Eat Real Festival's price of admission -- free -- obviously was a major factor.

The success in Oakland this weekend shows the demand for healthy eating for all. With obesity among Americans at an all-time high and sugar intake under siege by the American Heart Association, the timing is perfect.

Credit some of those involved in last year's Slow Food Nation for working to extend the movement via the Eat Real Festival.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

SALSA SUNDAY: The basics

Salsa cruda, meaning "raw sauce," is the most basic and one of the most easily prepared salsas. No cooking is required, just lots of dicing. The key to this and all salsas is use of fresh ingredients. Don't be duped by recipes that call for canned tomatoes or tomato products of any kind or other canned products. Use fresh.

For salsa cruda, dice four medium ripe red tomatoes, three or four scallions (whites and greens) or one medium white or yellow onion, one or two cloves of garlic (depending on your desire for stronger garlic flavor), a handful of cilantro and, most important, one or two good-sized jalapeños. The number of jalapeños used depends on how hot you want the salsa to be. Jalapeños should be stemmed, sliced in half lengthwise, then quartered lengthwise. Remove seeds and spines before dicing.

(Use caution not to touch the eyes or other parts of the face until thoroughly washing your hands after handling jalapeños.)

Combine diced ingredients in a glass or ceramic bowl. Add a dash of white vinegar, the juice of one lime, a couple of pinches of salt and pepper.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let set for an hour before serving. It may be refrigerated. Letting it set allows the flavors to combine like a marinade.

Serve with tortilla chips (making your own is easier and healthier than buying them), tacos, fish, meat, eggs and any number of other main dishes.

When storing in the refrigerator, it is best to cover tightly in a glass bowl. The strong odor can permeate other foods in the refrigerator. Salsa in plastic containers can seep in and leave a permanent odor.

(Next week: avocado salsa)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Get ready for Salsa Sunday

A new "feature" of this blog, starting Sunday, will be salsa recipes, one a week. We'll call it Salsa Sunday.

Included will be recipes from a standard salsa cruda to the best replication I can come up with of my Tia Lily's fabulous chile verde. I'll borrow recipes and components of recipes, and when I do, the source and/or originator will be credited.

In all instances, fresh ingredients will be at the core of the recipes. That means for me adhering to my religion -- going to the Fillmore Farmers Market Saturday mornings. At the core of the fresh ingredients will be chiles, with the notation that there will be some recipes that call for dried chiles.

For this Sunday's recipe, I will buy a lime, cilantro, ripe red tomatoes, scallions, garlic, jalapeños and a milder chile like an anaheim. On hand, I will have salt, black peppercorns and vinegar.

¿Listo? Entonces, te veo en Domingo.

(Photo credit:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another great food fest not to be missed

In Oakland this weekend:

Smuggling the goods, right under TSA's nose

The Transportation Security Agency officers were in a serious mood at Tucson International Airport as they pulled aside my stuffed black backpack for further inspection.

This isn't looking good for me, I said to myself as I acceded to their polite yet firm questioning. I readily admitted to "smuggling" six pounds of frozen chorizo and five dozen flour tortillas.

The chorizo is from American Meat Co., maker of the best chorizo in Tucson since 1953. The flour tortillas are from La Estrella Bakery Inc., a South 12th Avenue institution since 1986.

(Disclaimer: American Meat was founded by my uncles and is now owned and run by my cousins; I spent part of my youth elbow-deep in vats of chorizo, but that's a blog for another day).

"Why shouldn't we just confiscate this chorizo?" asked the Mejicana TSA officer, a hint of a smile beginning to show.

"I'm under strict orders to bring home the goods," I said in a pleading voice. "I may not be allowed in the door without them."

With that, she and her fellow officer allowed me to pass.

"I see this all the time," the male officer said. "Must be something about chorizo and tortillas from Tucson."

Indeed. My "smuggling" efforts will allow us to eat like the true South Siders that we are for the next while.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Now THAT'S a tortilla

Like a true Mejicano, I opened the package of tortillas from La Estrella Bakery in Tucson as soon as I got to the car and ate one. OK, I ate two. Delicioso. And they were still warm, just off the comál!

Now that's divine. I splurged and purchased five dozen -- three of the large (10 inches across) and two smaller (six inches) -- to take back home to San Francisco later this week.

The big challenge will be keeping them intact -- that is to say, uneaten -- before I depart in two days.

Ask a true Tucsonense about the best flour tortillas, and you will get an argument about whether they come from La Estrella or St. Mary's or Alejandro's or the late great Grande Tortilla Factory.

For my money, La Estrella is the best. But I will take one from any other of the above-mentioned tortilla factories over anything I can get anywhere else, including my newly adopted home of San Francisco.

Next stop: Tucson's American Meat Co. for the world's best Mexican chorizo.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Just a dash of cooking, but a big dollop of inspiration

The documentary film Pressure Cooker, which opened in San Francisco Friday, may disappoint if one is looking for a food and/or cooking movie.

But if one is looking for inspiration -- true life inspiration -- see this movie. The inspiration it offers and the real-life drama of the students' lives more than make up for the relatively limited screen time devoted to actual cooking.

Pressure Cooker is the story of a culinary arts class at Philadelphia's Frankford High School, an inner city institution whose students face an array of issues from their grinding urban life. Culinary arts teacher Wilma Stephenson is their mentor, surrogate mother and whip cracker.

Stephenson knows that the way out for her students is learning to cook so well that they take top honors at the area high school culinary competition and earn college scholarships. See the film to find out if they do.

This is a true-life version of To Sir With Love and the many other lesser films that show gifted, dedicated teachers inspiring their students to achieve beyond their own and many others' expectations.

(Photo credit: Lauren Feeney/Bev Pictures)

Going hunting for chorizo, tortillas

Heading to my hometown of Tucson, Ariz., for a few days to visit family and friends, handle some personal business and eat good Sonoran food.

Oh, and I will be certain to bring back as many dozen big flour tortillas and pounds of American Meat Co. chorizo that I can fit into a back pack.

San Francisco's food scene is glorious, but it does lack for the food we grew up on. Oh, there's plenty of Mexican food here, some of it even very good.

But the unique flavors and textures of Sonoran Mexican cuisine don't seem to make it out of the dessert, unless strapped to the back of a traveler.

That will be me in the middle of next week.

Hasta pronto, y que aprovecho.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Like Shiva, Dosa is auspicious and bold

Sometimes a restaurant's reputation precedes it, often leading the reality to fall short of the expectation.

We had heard nothing but good about the food at Dosa on Fillmore in San Francisco, and we often had taken in the aromas of Indian curry and the rich chutneys when walking past (it's just two blocks from our house).

So we were thrilled to discover in dining there Thursday that the cuisine exceeds the hype.

A six-foot bronze statue of a dancing Shiva, the most auspicious of the Hindu gods, dominates the back end of the big, open room. And his presence is metaphoric, for the food is auspicious and dominates the palate with bold, deep flavors.

From the masala, chutneys and the utter genius of dusting chile powder on ears of roasted corn to the delicate assembly and perfect cooking of the crab cakes and the contrasting sweet and savory sauces, the experience was delightful. Oh, and the dosa was prepared perfectly.

We had a sweet beet and tapioca dessert that didn't quite match the dense and rich flavors of the other courses.

A bonus: Dinner for two, including two glasses of wine, was $63 before tip.

We shall return.

There's no food like street food

Looking for something delicious to do this weekend? Click here:

The San Francisco Street Food Festival 2009

¡Viva Rick Bayless!

Reversal of the long-time dumbing down of Mexican food by the likes of Taco Bell and Chili's may have momentum with Rick Bayless' victory in Top Chef Masters.

The outcome on Bravo TV Wednesday surely surprised many people and, one would hope, began building long-overdue respect for Mexican food. Bayless was taken aback by his victory. The judges expressed open surprise that the food Bayless laid before them was superior to the competing classic French and Italian dishes. Give them credit for recognizing it and overcoming their biases.

Chalk it all up to two equal factors:

* Rick Bayless' relentless attention and faithfulness to the details of regional Mexican cooking. He visits Mexico frequently, and on those excursions, he has learned the recipes and the techniques it takes to carry them out, how to use the wide array of ingredients and a genuine respect for the people, the culture and the food.

* The nearness of Mexican food to its indigenous roots. It is closer to its roots than French and Italian are to their roots. It is fundamental cooking with ingredients that are consistently one, two, three steps closer to their original states than what other classic cooking presents.

Note that I said other classic cooking. Those of us for whom Mexican food has been our life-long nourishment always knew it was classic and had a place beside the world's great cuisines. Now it can be declared.

That Bayless defeated a classically trained French chef, the delightful Hubert Keller, and a classically trained Italian-American chef, the volatile Michael Chiarello, in the finals of Top Chef Masters is further testament to his skills and the cuisine.

In doing so, he won over a panel of judges whose palates and prejudices had seemed to favor the classics of the French and Italian kitchens. Judge Gael Greene was openly amazed that Bayless' winning black mole had 27 ingredients and took him 20 years to perfect. Her reaction to how it tasted: “You set off sky rockets tonight.”

The best part of Top Chef Masters was watching all these great chefs in action, their passion on full display. Here's how Bayless characterized it in a post-competition interview with the Los Angeles Times:

"At this point in my life, I’m 55, and what I really want to do is prove to myself that I can still cook at all. I don’t work on the line anymore, but I miss it! I cook all the time at home. I love it! I just want to cook."

(Photo credit: Google Images)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where salsa comes from (hint: not jars)

Epicurious is a regular stop for me in my Internet food prowl. But this week's Epicurious stopped me cold. It published Taste Test: Salsa, with the testing limited to jarred salsas.

From the article:
Store-bought salsa should be chunky enough that it dresses up a tortilla chip but does not run down the sides. It should be multidimensional, with the sweet flavor of summer tomatoes, some element of onions, and a subtle kick of hot chile peppers to top it off.

"Store-bought" is code for "in jars". One must make accommodations, even concessions, in many circumstances, but salsa from jars?

That's just wrong.

Most especially in the middle of summer, which is the middle of the growing season and the harvest, with fresh tomatoes and other ingredients available most everywhere. Would an Italian buy jarred pesto? Or a Frenchman buy jarred beurre blanc? Or an Indian buy curry in a container?


I was reared in my mom's and my tias' Mexican kitchens, where chopping, dicing and combining tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, garlic, cilantro and other fresh ingredients led to salsa. Many of the ingredients were grown in our back yard.

That's where salsa comes from.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's gonna be a long four weeks

The owner of Patisserie Delanghe at Fillmore and Bush streets, a few doors from my house, has gone to France for his summer holiday. The shop is closed until Sept. 15.

More's the pity. While I don't often partake of his delicious pastries, I delight in walking past the window two, three or more times a day. I always walk slowly to take in the marvels of his magic as he creates cakes, fruit tarts, custard-filled puffs, cookies and other edible decadence.

In fact, one of his popular pastries is boldly called La Decadence. It's dark with chocolate and bright with a fresh strawberry on top. Decadent, indeed.

Haven't partaken of La Decadence -- yet. For my money, his chocolate croissant still hits the sweet spot, literally.

Is it Sept. 15 yet?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Elvis had it almost right

Made myself a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich today for a snack. It led me to think of Elvis Presley, who made a version of the sandwich famous. He died 32 years and one day ago.

Elvis made an unhealthy, fat-laden version of the sandwich. Here's how I go about it, with annotations on how my version differs from The King's.

Start with two slices of untoasted whole wheat bread (Elvis used white bread, which he grilled after the sandwich was assembled).

Spread crunchy peanut butter on one slice of bread (Elvis used smooth peanut butter; smooth is for babies).

Slice the banana lengthwise, as for a banana split, and align the slices atop the peanut butter (Elvis mashed the banana).

Press the other slice of bread atop the banana slices (Elvis added butter to the concoction before pressing together; skip the butter).

That's it. Enjoy! (Elvis grilled the assembled sandwich in bacon fat).

Stick to the healthy version, and you'll outlive Elvis (he died at age 42; yes, it was a drug overdose, but he was seriously fat in his latter years. Don't you think those butter-and-bacon-sodden sandwiches were a contributing factor?)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

With a nod of thanks to Julia

Surely she would say a cook must adapt to circumstances, and thus my deviation from Julia Child's instructions for Boeuf Bourguignon.

Julia's recipe calls for the main part of the cooking to occur in the oven, in a "fireproof" casserole dish with a cover. Not possessing one, I kept it on the stove-top, using my heavy steel soup pot.

Could that be why the sauce did not thicken as Julia says it should and as we have experienced with the real deal at more than one Paris bistro?

Nevertheless, it was a major hit in my household. My wife and No. 1 fan very happily declared it my "best ever" cooking effort. I might not go that far, but it came close to Julia's description of Boeuf Bourguignon in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" -- "Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man ... "

After it stewed for 2 1/2 hours on the stove top, I boiled potatoes and pearl onions and added them to the mix for a final 20-30 minutes.

And, there are leftovers, which will taste even better tomorrow.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What to do with (ripe) green tomatoes

The Fillmore Farmers' Market provided a special treat this morning -- striped green tomatoes. They are ripe, not "green." They looked like an opportunity for something new and different in the way of a salsa verde.

Here's what I'll try: dice green tomatoes, dice red tomatoes, dice one chile, mix all together, squeeze on some lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

Using them as the salsa or garnish for fish tacos ought to provide a nice twist.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Not your mom's grilled cheese sandwiches

Grilled cheese is as simple and straightforward a sandwich as there is. So why fiddle with it? You can make it better. Here are a few ways:

* Before grilling the sandwich, crisp cook one or two strips of bacon in the pan. Drain off all but a teaspoon or so of the bacon drippings and grill the sandwich. When done, crumble the bacon over the sandwich. (I did this Thursday evening to much acclaim.)

* Throw a couple strips of roasted green chile over the cheese before grilling.

* Mix a little Roquefort or other bleu cheese in with the jack or whatever other cheese you use. Oh, and use a white cheese. Even if you use cheddar, make it a white cheddar.

* Make a "Mexican" grilled cheese, otherwise known as a quesadilla. That's cheese between two tortillas. Corn or flour? Either will work. This is especially good with the chile strips. If they are unavailable, use pepper-jack cheese.

Four ways to improve on that classic of mom's kitchen.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cuisinart and me

My new Cuisinart blender got its first workout last evening, providing the purée for a red-pepper soup for dinner. Subtly delicious, if I do say so myself.

The temptation in the latter stages of cooking was to over-season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, because it tasted bland. I added a little salt and pepper, but no more. Good thing, because the subtle taste built itself up by the spoonful to a most pleasant fullness of flavor.

The key, I believe, was buying fresh red peppers and roasting, peeling and seeding them myself rather than what so many recipes call for: buying roasted peppers in a jar. Doing it from scratch, although it is a bit of labor, allows the peppers to retain a subtle smokiness from roasting. That is lost when the peppers are stuck in liquid in a jar.

An example of why cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients is the only way to go.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It should be Julia first, then Julie

A full biographical film on the life of Julia Child would have, should have, could have been more appealing than the two-story combo now in theaters.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Julie & Julia, mostly for its entertainment value but also for what seemed to be a fact-based portrayal of how Julia Child got her start and how she became the "mother" of modern American cooking and the entire movement to higher quality cooking and eating.

(The Food Network, Anthony Bourdain and Top Chef, among many others, can thank Julia for raising awareness of good food well prepared, allowing American society to accept such an inundation of programming devoted to cooking and eating.)

What the movie paid only passing attention to were the behind-the-scenes details of not only Julia Child's professional life but of Julie Powell's. A for-instance: No one washed a pot, a pan or a dish during the film's 124 minutes. Not that such a scene would have added a lot, but let's be realistic: When the cooking and eating are done, cleanup awaits.

I have read parts of Julia Child's biography and all of "Julie & Julia" by Julie Powell, and the essence of both is captured by the film.

I simply would have enjoyed more, much more, of Julia Child's life.

Back in the kitchen

Having passed the culinary school entrance exam, I can turn my attention to matters of greater import: What's on the menu today?

The farmers' market provided a blessing of bell peppers, including some little purple beauties, so I'll make a roasted red-pepper soup and use the purples as garnish.

But first, the stock: leeks, carrots, celery, onion, a branch of thyme.

Stop by later to see how it turned out.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Guess I'll eat a big, gourmet breakfast

How does one cram for the entrance exam at culinary school?

I will take that exam -- the Wonderlic Scholastic Level Exam -- today as part of the formal application process. I'm a bit nervous about it. No school-type exam with anything at stake has come before me in ages.

My assumption is that it will focus on language, math, geography and other basic information that any graduate of high school would know. I'm a graduate of high school AND of college, but those were in a previous millennium.

So if pi is still 3.1416 and the capital of South Dakota is still Pierre (pronounced peer, not Pee-air), I should be OK. Watch this space for an update.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Speaking of Mom's cooking ...

Los Tucsonenses know: The kitchen in heaven is where green corn tamales come from.

The unique, melt-in-your-mouth tamales are among the delicacies of genuine Sonoran cuisine -- along with menudo blanco and paper-thin flour tortillas.

That green corn tamales usually are available only in late summer, when the white corn is ripe and the green chiles are at their sweetest, makes them even more desirable and delicious.

My mom and my tias worked every August and September on big batches of tamales. We kids were the laborers, husking the corn, cutting the kernels and taking them to the molino at the Chinese market down the street. The result was masa, the corn meal that is at the root of all tamales.

From them, my mom fashioned the tamales, with a little manteca, cheese and roasted chiles. After an hour or so of steaming, we were gorging ourselves on the delicious tamales, accompanied by fresh-made beans.

For the first time ever, I tried to replicate that recipe on my own on Sunday, buying white corn, green chiles and good Jack cheese at the farmers' market. A small batch -- just four cups of corn kernels -- produced 10 tamales. They were a bit coarse, but the authentic flavor came through.

Ah, green corn tamales as my mom made them. They come from heaven's kitchen.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Mom's home cooking

My brother, probably the best cook among the three offspring of that marvelous cook Ofelia Islas Chihak, used to tell a joke about going into a café by the name of "Mom's Home Cooking." Where, he cleverly asked the waitress, is Mom? Without pause, she met the smart-ass question with a smart-ass response: "Just where the sign says: She's home cooking."

That's where and how I remember my mom the most: home cooking. A young, beautiful, vibrant version of my mom dominated my dream the other night. She died five years ago next month, and yet I think about her every day.

Most especially, I think about her when I am cooking. My mom taught me, my brother and my sister to cook, partly by osmosis, partly by direct instruction. She cooked as part of her housewife duties, but underneath, one could see joy in the creativity, passion in the preparation, satisfaction in the outcome.

My passion for cooking came from her. It is to honor her and her passionate gift to me that I dedicate my venture to culinary school.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Into the frying pan

The feeling of new life is stirring within me. New life in the form of enrollment in culinary school, with all the opportunities, wonders and ideas it carries.

Oh, and the fears -- hundreds of them. But let's keep this recipe simple, with just the Top Four Fears:

No. 4: Can I handle five days a week of other people telling me what to do after all these years of my telling others what to do?

No. 3: Can I find something in this beyond the ability to dazzle family and friends by whipping up from scratch a tasty béchamel sauce in my kitchen?

No. 2: Can I unlearn my self-taught cooking skills, reserving the creative juices for later inclusion, to adopt the proper ways of the French kitchen?

No. 1: Can I fulfill my long-held desire to be a capital-C Cook?

Fears aside, a good cook tastes what he is making before serving it to others. I have been tasting this for a long time. It is good, and I shall serve it.

¡Que aprovecho!