Of crispy tacos, cupcakes and breakfast pizza…

I travel a fair amount and, no matter where I’m headed, I try to always arrive with a list of recommended places to eat. While other more sensible travelers may consult weather reports in order to determine the right jacket and shoes to pack, I spend my time emailing friends and reading blogs to find out where I should eat.  The longer and more varied my list, the more eagerly I anticipate the trip.  For instance, on my recent visit to San Francisco, I had close to 20 spots on my radar that could satisfy every thing from a craving for a really good cup of coffee to a South Indian Sunday brunch.

Now the challenge with this type of planning is that there are only so many hours in a day and only so many meals one can (or should) try to squeeze into those hours. I also try to keep in mind the appetites and interests of my traveling companions. I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone wants to spend the weekend being dragged from bakery to coffee shop to deli to restaurant and market and so on. When I’m traveling with others, I try to be sensitive and temper my appetite for everything.  On this last trip to San Francisco, however, it seemed we had serendipity on our side. Aside from the big meal I had to cook on Saturday (see below), our plans for the long weekend were loose. We wanted to walk, visit a few art galleries, and explore as many neighborhoods as we could. Our little group (there were 3 of us) had decided that we wanted to eat, but we weren’t going to make it the centerpiece of our weekend. What my fellow travelers didn’t know was that along with my map of the city, I also had a number of spots scoped out where we MIGHT just stop at if we got hungry along the way, which of course we did.

We made our first food stop on our way from Pacific Heights to Russian Hill where lo-and-behold we found ourselves standing at the corner of Polk and Broadway in front of Nick’s Crispy Tacos. Now, Nick’s is not a place you’re likely to stop in unless someone tipped you off. It looks more like a nightclub/dive bar (it was daylight, so I wasn’t quite sure which) than a lunch spot, but inside, beyond the disco balls and cushy booths, you’ll find a superb taco bar. We ordered pescado, carne asado and carnitas tacos. All were excellent, fresh, and inexpensive. Not only were we fortified, but I think I earned a little trust from my companions. Maybe my “food as destination” planning thing might work out.

From there we continued toward the Marina and turned up Chestnut Street and just about the moment when we were needing a little something sweet to get us through the afternoon, we found ourselves admiring the windows at the new location of Miette, a magical little pastry shop whose original location remains in the Ferry Building.

Perfect cakes and pastries

Perfect little cakes and pastries..

Besides all the irresistible retro-candies (Violet Squares or Slo-Pokes Suckers, anyone?), Miette offers a exceptionally charming, picture-perfect and delicious line up of pastries, cakes and, our favorite, cupcakes. We sample several treats, but my favorite had to be the gingerbread cupcakes – just the right 2-to 3-bite size with just enough frosting to get a little on the tip of your nose but not enough to overwhelm the delicate cake.

The final entry on our serendipitous weekend tour came Sunday morning when, after an 8-mile walk from Pacific Heights, through parts of the Presidio, out to Land’s End, and back through outer Richmond, I realized we were right around the corner from Pizzetta 211. So I steered the group onto 23rd Street, led them the few blocks to number 211 (between Clement and California) to find a vest-pocket size storefront of a pizza place that I had heard only wonderful things about. What makes Pizzetta 211 exceptional – besides the amazing thin-crust medium-size pizzas – is the size and simplicity of it. There are only 4 tables and pizzas are made to order, so the wait can be quite l-o-n-g. But luck seemed to be on our side – within the time it took us to decide which pizzas to order (in addition to the short menu, the are daily specials), we were seated snugly in the window table, happily quaffing cold beer, and only just then realizing how incredibly hungry we were. We started by sharing an order of the daily appetizer that we had just seen the cook pull out of the oven – a deep, dense chard torta accompanied by a couple slices of ricotta salata.

Swiss chard torta with ricotta salata

Swiss chard torta with ricotta salata

From there we shared 2 pizzas. The first a light, springtime combination of asparagus, meyer lemon and fresh cheese. The second, and decidedly our favorite, Rosies’ Farm Egg, Fingerling Potatoes, Argula, Redwood Hill Goat Cheese and Prosciutto. Imagine the a classic fried egg breakfast deconstructed and served over a thin, lightly chewy, crisped edged pizza. The eggs (there are 2, sunny-side up) are perfectly cooked so the white is set but the yellow runs perfectly over the crust and you get bites of farm-fresh egg with each bite of potatoes, prosciutto and arugula. Mmmmm. I really DO love to travel…and eat.

At least it’s spring somewhere…

On the first day of spring, I headed to the Bay Area to cook dinner for 9 people. Now, why in the world would this consummate Yankee be invited to fly all the way across the continent to prepare dinner in a town where there are more great cooks per capita than perhaps anywhere on earth? Well, long story short, it had to do with an auction for charity run by my sister and her bright idea that it would be fun to plan a party 2000 miles away. In the end, it was a blast – and dinner turned out beautifully! (I did, however, make my sister come along, to help schlep and prep, which only added to the fun.)

For starters, I travel to San Francisco fairly often and whenever I do, I head to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market  to ooooh and ahhh over all the amazing produce, meats, cheeses, dried beans, flowers, breads, and so on.

Spring at the Ferry Plaza Market

Spring at the Ferry Plaza Market

It’s a cook’s paradise, but normally, I behave like a tourist and have to refrain from buying anything beyond a cup of Blue Bottle coffee and an Acme Bakery pastry because I’m staying in a hotel with nowhere to cook. But this time, I arrived with my market bags and loaded up on pea shoots, fat asparagus, the tiniest French breakfast radishes, bundles of tender spring carrots, feathery curly cress, spicy arugula flowers, plump little all-white salad turnips, green garlic, spring onions, two amazing baskets of the earliest – and sweetest – strawberries ever, herbs galore, three kinds of mushrooms, salad greens, eggs, and, oh yeah, a cup of that Blue Bottle coffee.

At the market, I met up with my friend Daphne Zepos of Essex Street Cheese who had selected three perfect cheeses for the after-dinner cheese course. Then, we headed down to Avedano’s Meats in Holly Park Market for a few pounds of heritage pork that they had just got in. The butcher pounded slices of fresh ham into cutlets that I was planned to bread and panfry to make a sort of pork schnitzel.

By the time we arrived at the host house it was early afternoon. Over sandwiches, we planned our attack, and then set to work transforming the ingredients into a lavish dinner.

Making mushoom tarts

Making mushroom-onion tarts

The menu went like this:
Hors d’oeuvres
Deviled eggs with chives and lime
Vietnamese spring rolls with shrimp and mint
Roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto

Mushroom and spring onion tart with herb and arugula flower salad

Heritage pork schnitzel with turnips, carrots, pea shoots and Parmesan pudding

An assortment of artisan cheeses

Chocolate stout cake with chocolate glaze and a perfect bowl of strawberries

Now that’s the way to celebrate the arrival of spring!

Getting started…

As we rounded the corner into March last weekend, I realized that time was running out on my New Year’s resolution to add a blog to my website. I’ve dragged my feet on getting started for all the obvious reasons – time, commitment and, most of all, my belief that the world really doesn’t need yet another blogger.  But, in spite of these valid reasons, on this blustery, cold March afternoon, I’ve decided to make good on my resolution and get started.

My intention is simple. From time to time, I intend to update this site with ideas, inspiration and musings. I can’t promise how often I’ll post; that all depends on what’s happening in my kitchen and in my world. For instance, in January, I took an amazing 4 day trip to Tunisia to visit Moulin Majhoub, a family-run company growing, producing and packaging a superb range of agricultural products from extra-virgin olive oil to harissa, olive paste, artichoke spread and sun-dried tomatoes. In addition to watching the olive harvest and pressing, I spent 2 days in a home kitchen learning over 20 traditional Tunisian recipes. The Majhoub family has been making olive oil for generations, and their commitment to the traditional methods is impressive. In the coming weeks, I hope to share with you some of the recipes I learned in Tunisia – once I have a chance to test them here at home and make sure they’ll turn out for you in your kitchens.

In addition to my recent travels, I am mostly at home working on a cookbook on roasting. It’s an exciting project, and I look forward to sharing my recipes and techniques as I get closer to completing the manuscript – sometime this summer.

My other resolution is that I’ll keep these posts reasonably short – or at least I’ll try.