Sometimes They Write Themselves

Images1From one of my food e-newsletters this week.

The headline: Wingstop Serves its billionth chicken wing

The quote from the CEO in the article: “We know that both customers and critics have responded well to our product, but a milestone of this magnitude is still a dream come true.”

My reaction: Not for the chick…

Oh, I can’t do it.

It’s just too obvious and easy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Except I’d never shoot fish in a barrel; that would be cruel. Speaking of fish in unnatural confinement, have you read about the pollution that intensive fish farming causes? And how they get sea lice? And how they have to use antibiotics, just like in other types of factory farming?

Editor’s Note: This joke is just as much at my expense for being a strident humorless self-righteous vegetarian as at the expense of the organization celebrating having dispensed with half a billion chickens (assuming both wings of all chickens were used, and with the machinery in slaughterhouses, you know…)

Oh, there I go again.

Anyhow, this article reminded me – do you remember the Cluckin’ Chicken commercial parody on SNL? The celebratory tone of the article made the bit seem appropos for this post somehow. Ah, Phil Hartman, I still miss you.


What You Missed at the Market

I arrived at about 9:45 this morning. The parking lot was just chockablock with cars and the market just as much so with people. It was crowded enough that I had to wait just about everywhere, which hasn’t been the case for a while.

I’ll admit, I had one of those seasonal eater snob moments in which I thought to myself, “Ah, now that the tomatoes are out you’re all here. Where were you people all winter? I was here every week when the choices were greens, greens, or greens.”

And that’s not really accurate – there were other brassicas to choose from too. (I kid, actually – I think November might be one of the nicest months of the year for the farmer’s market here – once the heat goes, the variety increases incredibly.) And thinking that way is not really helpful either – I am just happy to see the market really busy again.

I nearly walked into Fred Smeds of Savage Island Farms, whom I haven’t seen all winter. He was there to check that he’d be able to get his slot next week. I told him I’d been about ready to hunt up his card and call him, it’d been so long. He said the citrus just wasn’t worth bringing this year, which was what I had figured. He’ll be back next week with apricots, to which I say hooray.

The entrance sign pretty much sums it up, but there’s more of what you might have missed at the market, including a Chefs at the Market appearance by Cracked Pepper’s Vachte Moukhiarian, behind the cut. His recipe for Sweet Ginger Vinaigrette for this farmers’-market-born mixed greens and strawberry salad is there too.

Continue reading “What You Missed at the Market”

CSA Box #6

I had to grab my box on the way out to a business dinner this week at Jonathan’s in Kingsburg. We have group dinners there every so often, and he closes the restaurant for us for the evening.

When I walked in on Thursday evening, he said a gracious hello, and leaning into the pass-through to the kitchen, said, “Do you buy at the farmer’s market at Shaw and Blackstone?”

“I do,” I said. “And I’m also getting a box from T&D Willey now.”

“I thought I saw you at the market a couple weeks ago, but I wasn’t certain. You had a hat and sunglasses on, I think.”

“Probably a scarf – I don’t bother with my hair on Saturday mornings.”

“Ah, that was it. It looked sort of Caribbean, the way you had it tied up.”

“Yep, that was me. And in fact, I have my box from T&D with me – could I please put it in the fridge? Is there room?”

“Of course!”

I fetched it from the car.

“Wow – you must do some serious snacking on that commute of yours! I’ll put this in the walk-in.”

Jonathan is a character – a confirmed, dedicated meat-eater, he never fails to rib me a little bit about my herbivorism, but he always makes something good for me as well. His offerings for the evening, he described to the group, were a choice of a grain-fed 24 ounce porterhouse or a lobster tail, both with saffron orzo and summer squash.

“And something special for you,” he said, motioning in my direction.

I’m not usually much on eggs, but he’s made me a caramelized onion-and-goat cheese custard before that’s been the envy of the rest of the table. I had that, and beautifully grilled and seasoned zucchini and tomato.

About dessert: “We were originally going to have poached peaches tonight,” he said to the group, folding his hands together a little apologetically. “I was here at 5:30 this morning, trying to get the fruit off the pits, and swearing, and…well…there were peaches thrown in the kitchen.”

We all laughed. At this time most years, the freestone fruit would have begun already, but with the late start that the wet spring gave us, we haven’t moved into those varieties. Everything is still clingstone, and there’s no clean, aesthetically pleasing way to liberate the flesh of a clingstone peach from its pit. It’s a shame, as I’ve had Jonathan’s poached pears before, and I can imagine how good a peach would be given the same treatment.

We didn’t suffer, though. Dessert was house-made boysenberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream with fresh local blueberries and crème anglaise. It was wonderful. One of my tablemates was away when the dessert orders were taken, and when he came back, I said, “Would you like dessert? We ordered while you were gone.”

“I’m not usually a dessert eater. Just some coffee would be fine.”

“I’m not sharing,” I said.

“It’s okay.”

When mine arrived, he changed his mind and asked for one – and finished it.

It’s about half an hour back from Kingsburg to Fresno. It had been a hot day – over 100 – but it was getting to be dusk and bearably balmy when I left, my box carried back to the car by one of Jonathan’s staff. Once I was out on 99, I opened the sunroof for the first time since the winter and cranked up the music. The travel to San Francisco had worn me out pretty well, but with pleasant company enjoyed and a good meal eaten, I felt better than I had most of the week.

Maybe it was the eggs, I thought.

Here’s what I found when I opened the box:

Green Snap Beans
Red Leaf Lettuce
Pungent Fresh Red Onions
Cuyama Pink Lady Apples
Fresh Yukon Gold Potatoes
Mediterranean Cucumbers
Foster’s Cabbage
Peterson’s Fiesta Gem Peaches

I was very happy to see the cabbage – I had something I’ve wanted to make with cabbage, and I thought I wouldn’t see it in the box for a while because it’s summer, and it’s too hot for cabbage in the Valley. This cabbage came from Phil Foster in San Benito County, where it’s cool.

Au Lac Vegetarian Cafe & Indigo – OPEN!

On the building that used to be the Tower Café, on Van Ness south of McKinley, signs went up a month or so ago.

Indigo. Au Lac Vegetarian Café.

I’ve been by once a week or so, on my rounds from Yoshi Now! and the thrift and antique stores in the Tower, hoping to see some sign of activity. Keith and Jill of Camerad, who had also spotted the place, had demanded a review from me as soon as possible.

Tonight there were cars in the parking lot. I lucked into Au Lac/Indigo on its first day open.

From the outside, I had thought that perhaps the space was to be subdivided, but once I was inside, I got it – Au Lac is the restaurant portion and Indigo is the juice/coffee deal. (I think I’m getting that right; I didn’t get a drink on this occasion.)

I chatted with Matt Bishop about the place’s first day: “We’ve had people coming through all day, it’s just great,” while Trung Tran whipped me up some Tofu Delight (special tofu, asparagus, onion, w/rice, $5.95). Matt, who is a native Fresnan with plenty of beverage service experience, has a vision for the space to also come to host live music eventually. They’ve got a good nook for it on one end of the room – I thought they might be having an opening party tonight based on the look of the setup when I came in.

Trung told me he’s been a vegetarian for 14 years, and that he apprenticed at a number of vegetarian restaurants across the country before putting Au Lac together, as culinary schools, he said, are no help to vegetarian chefs (and having considered culinary school myself, I had to agree). He ticked off cities he’d worked in, “San Francisco, Philly, Arizona, L.A….” and noted that what he was trying to do with the Au Lac menu, which has 14 items, was draw the best of what he learned from each of the places he spent time.

My asparagus was good – crisply fresh, nicely cut in long bias pieces and perfectly stir-fried, with a tangle of translucent onions and long chunks of tofu and ham-style tofu slightly crisped in places all in a light, slightly chicken-like sauce. It was exactly what you’d hope for at a fast-vegetarian place: fresh, well-executed, uncomplicated, satisfying. (Did I mention it was $5.95?)

Trung promises he has more up his sleeve, too – he asked me if I’d ever had pho, and I told him sadly that I’ve never been able to, as I’ve never come across any that was vegetarian.

“When the weather turns colder,” he said, “not this time of year. I have the best recipe for vegetarian pho.”

Now, it’s not fair to do a restaurant review based on one dish and one visit. I’ll have to go back, but of course now my cover is blown, as I got chatting with the very personable Matt and grilled Trung on his restaurant background. So all of you Fresnans, vegetarian or not – they’re open for lunch from 11:30 to 2:30 and dinner from 5 to 8, and they’re right between the Tower and City College. Head over there tout-suite and review it yourself! They had a great first day, they said – and we need places like this to have great days – I hope Fresno can give them plenty more.

Culinary Heartbreak: The Loss of Echo

Rabbit5 I don’t take the Bee at home, so it wasn’t until today, when I picked up the Life section in the breakroom at work that I saw the terrible, terrible news.

Echo is closing.

Echo is my favorite restaurant in town, and one of my favorites of all time. We can’t afford to go there all the time, but we’ve never regretted any of the money we’ve spent. On our first visit, recounted here, chef Tim Woods made a soup with the two of us in mind. That, needless to say, was the first time that had ever happened to us.

I am not the only one who feels this way; Russ Parsons of the L.A. Times wrote a long and wonderful tribute to the place in September 2004, before the restaurant moved from the three funky blocks of the Tower District to the Piazza de Fiore Center at Champlain and Perrin in the northern part of the city, a move that was rumored, I heard at the time, to be the brainchild of the restaurant’s investors.

I have to say, I never liked the idea of them moving. I hated to see them leave the Tower and join the northward migration/Orange Countification of Fresno. I liked their old space more; I liked being in the Tower and seeing the traffic on the street and sidewalk outside; liked parking on the street myself and walking down the block to the place, loved the murals on the walls and the open kitchen in the back.

As soon as I put the paper down I picked up the phone to make a reservation. I am not ashamed to say that I started to cry. We will be there the night before the last night. We will order everything we can. We will be truly sorry to see the place go.

Edit: lots of emotion and some fur flying in the Fresno Famous fracas on this subject…

Dinner and Lunch and Dinner in San Diego

My wonderfully game co-worker and I had enough time for lunch today that we were able to leave the conference site and head into the Gaslight District. I had talked her into coming with me late Sunday night to an Indian restaurant down there, Monsoon, and today for lunch we ended up at an Afghan place, Chopahn, within a couple blocks of the Indian place.

Having hardly eaten since that dinner on Sunday night, and having had almost nothing but white flour-based foods for the past two days, (while attending a nutrition conference, oddly enough) I ordered everything vegetarian on the menu, which, at an Afghan restaurant is sometimes not that much, but is usually quite well executed, just as steakhouse vegetables usually are. (If they only do three things, they seem to learn how to do them exceptionally well.)

True to form, two enormous piles of spinach and roasted eggplant and a slightly hollowed round of pumpkin filled with yogurt landed in front of me.

I tucked into the pumpkin, which was perfectly tender and pleasantly tart from the puddle of yogurt, and only slightly exaggerated the relief I was feeling.

“Ah, Vitamin A,” I sighed.

“That’s kind of a lot of food for lunch,” my co-worker said when I was halfway through (and had no plans to stop).

“But not calorically dense, of course,” I said, applying a great deal of spinach to a small piece of nigella-seeded bread. “This is one of the great things about being a vegetarian,” I added, gesturing toward my plate. “Big piles. You get to eat a lot.”

As long as you have the good fortune to like what’s good for you, I suppose.

Tonight, after the workshops and the reception were over, I called her up. She was thinking of staying in.

“I picked out an Ethiopian place,” I offered. “Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant.”

Our parking attendant and some other people I’d seen staffing the conference center had seemed to be of Ethiopian ancestry, and that made me think there might be a place or two nearby. There was; this one described as both good and “unassuming,” restaurant-review code for “an authentic restaurant the appearance of which may scare some white people.”

“Well, okay,” she said.  She was pleased to have the adventure.  I was pleased to have the company.

I haven’t had a chance to have Ethiopian food since I moved away from D.C. in 2000, besides a series of pretty successful Misr Wat experiments born of an initial Berbere Sauce experiment in my own kitchen back in Michigan. I had to dispense with all my condiments when we moved to California in 2003, as there was no way to transport them without leaving them all unrefrigerated for a couple weeks, and I’ve never gotten around to making another batch of Berbere Sauce. I lost some great condiments in that move.

The restaurant did turn out to be of quite unassuming appearance; I said to my co-worker as we were about to walk in, “Either we’ll get a great dinner out of this or you’ll get a great story to tell about the time I dragged you to that Ethiopian restaurant in San Diego.”

Dinner was terrific. It was too bad we’d (I’d!) had so much lunch. Since she’d never had Ethiopian food and we wanted to have plenty to try, we ordered everything vegetarian on the menu (collard greens, yellow split peas, lentils, and carrots and potatoes – all $5 a portion). It’s too bad the hotel doesn’t have refrigerators. We both agreed we’d certainly eat more of the stuff for breakfast and lunch the next day.

While we were happily scooping up bites of stew, I said, “Since you’re getting back into the office before I am, you have to tell everybody where we went to eat.” Gesturing with injera in my hand, I indicated the escalating perceived obscurity of the cuisines we’d experienced and their respective inaccessibility in the San Joaquin Valley. “First the Indian place, then Afghan, then Ethiopian.”

We did a good job of enjoying things we couldn’t have had at home. But if we stayed any longer, I thought, and wanted even more obscure gustatory adventures, I’d have to start looking for a restaurant that serves regional Botswanian food, and after that, perhaps head for some Venusian cuisine.  And I don’t think anyone even has that outside of Manhattan yet.

It’s time to head out.  Next stop, Orange County.

Foodservice Solutions

Spotting foodservice needs through the solutions on offer always makes me feel like I’ve learned something. Some recent favorites…

French fries are not just french fries…there are fresh-style chips (Obligatory Creepy Anthropomorphized Food with Overly Large Eyes Alert! Hooray!) and unique shapes to make mealtime entertaining, plus fries designed to be especially long-lasting or both unusually shaped and higher-yielding. You devotees of roller-grill cuisine will be pleased to know there’s a product to accompany the taquito and hot dog in their endless back-and-forth journey until you show up at 2 a.m., drunk and as such, posessed of an indiscriminate palate, perhaps.

Crab cakes, too, have an enormous set of distinctions among them – six in this section, including boardwalk style and bakeable. I had a co-worker for a while who would order a crab cake at any restaurant we visited where one was available and note with detail what made it unique. She didn’t get quite to the level of specification that these product descriptions do, but I now suspect that more of the crab cakes she was analyzing were pre-made – and perhaps the same ones from place to place – than I would have originally thought.

Sometimes these solutions hurt a little bit. I know that most things come into the back of a chain restaurant frozen or at the very least pre-bagged, but I was terribly saddened recently to catch a glimpse into the kitchen of an Indian restaurant I go to fairly regularly and discover that mango lassis come pre-bottled.

I had assumed – perhaps naively – that there was something smoothie-like going on in the kitchen, with fresh mangoes or frozen mango chunks. At this restaurant I’d had a particularly good one, perfumed with rosewater, and to realize that it was a bottled drink, and as such might have contained ingredients that could have caused me to take a pass on it if I had read the label in a supermarket made me sort of sad. One more illusion of the craftwork of a professional kitchen shattered.

Then there are the problems that the home cook just doesn’t have that are a little disturbing to think about – like the need for your cooking medium to resist darkening and gumming on the grill.

Most intriguing, perhaps, are the clear descriptions of the problem with vague descriptions of how the product solves it. In reading the trade papers the last few weeks, I keep seeing a campaign for ConAgra’s Amplify with a little kid messily slurping from an enormous spoonful of soup.  This is a product that promises “salt flavor enhancement.” I’m all in favor of salt flavor – potato chips being my drug of choice – but I’m not sure exactly what “peptide and amino acid technology” means. It sounds like MSG might be involved.

I should have gone after that food science degree too.