Hugging My Insides with Nettles

Mariquita Nettles that I dried

Mariquita nettles that I dried

I first encountered nettles when I was taking a course in herbalism. As part of my herbalism class, we would take trips to harvest medicinal plants. It was 10 years ago this spring when we went up to Sea Ranch and I got to harvest nettles in the wild. We went into forestry land armed with elbow-length calf-skin gloves and shears, and found a large patch. They were so majestic, so green and so beautiful. I harvested enough plants to fill my little bag and when I got home I hung them up to dry, to be used later for tinctures and teas. It’s amazing to me how green the tea and the tinctures become. That depth of color made me feel like I was taking in something magical.

Nettles have many healing properties. They have astringent and diuretic properties, which make them great for healing urinary, gastrointestinal and renal issues. They have also been used topically to treat skin ailments and dandruff. I was interested in them because their anti-inflammatory properties are believed to help fight allergies. So I would drink tea from the dried leaves or add tincture drops to my water bottle during allergy season. Maybe it’s because I’ve had issues with asthma and allergies my whole life that my body knows that nettles can heal it. All I know is that when I drink a cup of nettle tea, a sense of happiness and peace spreads over me and through me. It’s almost as if the feeling is on a cellular level – I feel it physically.

018When my herbal instructor introduced nettles as medicine, she also pointed out that many cultures treat nettles as a green similar to spinach. At that point in my life, I wasn’t nearly the connoisseur of produce that I am now. I had never heard of nettles before that class, let alone known that they could be eaten as a vegetable. Nettles are full of nutritional value in addition to their healing properties. They are high in vitamins C, A and B complex as well as potassium, iron and sulfur. They are also a good source of fiber. But more importantly, they taste good.

My first opportunity to have nettles as a food was at a lunch at Farallon. Nettle ravioli were on the menu and as soon as I saw that, I couldn’t imagine ordering anything else. The ravioli were perfectly cooked and I thoroughly enjoyed my first taste of nettles. There was something so lovely about the flavor. They was a sweetness and a brightness that made me feel like I’m was getting hugged from the inside.

Nettle, Dungeness Crab & Egg White Scramble

Nettle, Dungeness Crab & Egg White Scramble

That was over a decade ago, and I was still a neophyte in the kitchen. I hadn’t really started shopping at the farmers markets yet and I didn’t truly understand the seasonality of produce. So, other than dried nettles at Rainbow Grocery or Scarlet Sage Herb Co., I didn’t encounter fresh nettles again until a few years ago. I was so excited the day I spotted them at Knoll Farms at CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. I grabbed a one-pound bag and took them home. I just did a simple sauté with garlic and olive oil. Holy cow were they good! I couldn’t wait to get more. However, I must have found them late in their season because I didn’t find them again until the following year.

Happily, the farm from which I now buy the majority of my produce, Mariquita, offers nettles every spring as well. Now I have a great source and I can get nettles all through their season. I also freeze a bag so I can have them long after their season is over. I love experimenting with them, using them as a pesto, in risotto, in soups, etc. I’ve even added them to deviled eggs to make a lovely St. Patrick’s Day treat. Nettles are great as food, as a tea and extracted into alcohol as a tincture. They are an amazing and versatile plant.

??????????Nettle Deviled Eggs

1 dozen eggs (my tray holds 18 halves (9 eggs) and I inevitably ruin a few, so I always start with a dozen eggs)
1 lb. nettles
½ cup crème fraîche
1 tbsp. Marcona almonds, finely chopped, plus whole almonds for garnish
salt & pepper to taste

Place room temperature eggs in a pot and add cold water to cover up to an inch above the eggs. Bring to a boil. As soon as the water reaches a rolling boil, immediately cover; remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes remove eggs from pan and place in large bowl of ice water for 15-20 minutes, until they are cool.

Using gloves or tongs, wash the nettles and place in a pan. Put on medium heat and cook until fully wilted, about 10-15 minutes. Turn off heat and allow to cool. Once cooked, nettles no longer have a sting. When they are cool enough to handle place cooked nettles in cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. You want the nettles to be very dry or the yolk mixture will be too runny. I squeeze the juice into a bowl and turn it into iced tea later. When you have squeezed out as much water out as you can, place nettles on a cutting board and chop a few times, so they are not long and stringy. Then place into the bowl of a food processor.

Carefully peel the eggs and slice in half the long way. Gently remove the yolk and add it to the food processor. Put the empty whites onto your serving dish. Do this for all the eggs until you have filled your tray. You may have an egg or two left over. Save them for a salad Niçoise for dinner.

Once you have all the yolks and nettles in the food processor, add the crème fraîche and puree until smooth. Remove the puree from the food processor and place in a mixing bowl. Stir in the almonds and add salt and pepper to taste. If the mixture is too thick, you can add more crème fraîche to thin it out. Just be sure to taste again to see if you need to add more salt or pepper.

Once your mixture is to your taste and texture, spoon or pipe it into the yolk wells in the egg whites. Top with a halved Marcona almond and serve.

The leftover yolk mixture also makes a great dip for asparagus and radishes.

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Volunteering Heals My Soul

I am not sure when I first heard about 18 Reasons, but I do remember the first class I attended. It was a blue cheese tasting with Neal’s Yard Dairy from London. The 18 Reasons space was tiny. There were about 25 of us crammed around these amazing wood tables cut from the same tree with shellac filling any holes and knots to create a smooth surface. The guys from Neal’s Yard Dairy stood at one end of the room talking about the cheeses they had brought from England. And the 2 volunteers gingerly stepped around them as they refilled glasses and cleared detritus. The room quickly got warm, but there was a lovely sense of intimacy in that tiny space. (They have since moved to a larger, but still intimate space next door to the Bi-Rite Creamery.) I felt like I became friends with the hosts during those two hours. It was magical. I still have the menu from that event.

Because of that event, I became a member of 18 Reasons and took quite a few classes. A few months later I got an email asking for volunteers. Sure, I would be happy to do that. I love being around food, had tons of experience with events and had recently ended my tenure as a culinary assistant at Sur La Table. So I signed up. In the beginning I wasn’t completely dedicated; I was spread pretty thin with a day job that was pushing 60 hour weeks and I had other volunteer commitments.  Last year I realized that I needed to simplify my life. I was over-extending myself and I was burning out. I was not happy and my health (both mental and physical) was suffering.

I don’t know if it is just part of what makes me me, or if it was being raised in a Catholic farming community, but I am someone who always has to give back. I am not rich by any stretch of the imagination, some months I am living paycheck to paycheck. However, I still find it necessary to be philanthropic with my money and my time. Last year I sat down and looked at how I was spending my time and my money and I made some changes. I gave up my membership to a volunteer organization because my heart wasn’t in it anymore. Rather, I realized that my heart and soul need to be around food.  Being involved with food events, food philanthropies, and food justice were the things that energized me and ignited my passions. So I recommitted to 18 Reasons.

Current art exhibition at 18 Reasons: "Over the Table, On the Fridge, In the Kitchen" photo by Susanna Chau

Current art exhibition at 18 Reasons: “Over the Table, On the Fridge, In the Kitchen”
photo by Susanna Chau

Interestingly it was around this same time that Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market and founder of 18 Reasons, was finalizing his talks with Sarah Nelson, founder of Three Squares.  The organizations merged and 18 Reasons became an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, with a new mission statement: 18 Reasons is building a healthy community of cooks, gardeners and eaters of all ages empowered to create social change through food.  Now all of 18 Reasons’ classes and events are fundraisers for their program Cooking Matters, which offers free classes in cooking and nutrition to low-income families, the curriculum for which was created by the national non-profit dedicated to ending childhood hunger in America, Share Our Strength.

Ok this is all great, but what’s your point? (Yes, I have had many people in my life compare me and my stories to Rose Nylund.) My point is that now, more than ever, I realize how important my time is for 18 Reasons. By utilizing volunteer staff instead of paying for help, they are able to devote more resources to Cooking Matters. But for me it goes deeper than that.

Michelle McKenzie talking to students about cooking techniques. photo by Susanna Chau

Michelle McKenzie talking to students about cooking techniques. And you can see part of that gorgeous wood table.

In the beginning of this blog I wrote that my obsession with all things food is what helped pull me out of a depression and that “this blog is my journey to find community through food.” My involvement with 18 Reasons is a clear example of that. There were days when I was struggling and found it hard to care about anything, but then I would have a shift at 18 Reasons and I couldn’t let them down. I had to go because they were depending on me. I would work hard, but would also laugh with the other volunteers and learn from the instructors. And by the end of the shift, I would be tired, but I felt ten times better.

There have been days when the day job has been ugly and I am beaten down and exhausted, and I’m practically falling asleep on the bus on my way to work an event at 18 Reasons. Within minutes of getting there, however, I am lifted up by the people around me. There is so much energy and joy in that space, that I can’t help but forget the issues at work or in my personal life and just be in the moment. And of course I am always excited to be able to try the foods made in class, or wines poured at a tasting. And when I work the 18th Hour Café they host on Thursday nights, I always get to take home some Tartine bread. Heaven! That’s one of the benefits of being a volunteer, you get the perks of the food and wine.

18 Reasons has been my salvation this past year. I give them my time, but they give me so much more. I can’t imagine my life without being a part of this amazing community.

Lemony Arugula Salad

Lemony Arugula SaladThis is a simple seasonal salad, best with wild baby arugula that you can find at farmers markets and organic markets in the Spring.
2 cups wild baby arugula
1 tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (you want the good stuff here)
1 tbsp dried cranberries
1 tbsp sliced almonds
ricotta salata
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 350º F. When heated, place almonds on a sheet pan and toast for 10-15 minutes, tossing them halfway through, until they are golden brown. Remove from oven when done and spread them out on a plate to allow to cool.

Wash and dry arugula and place in large bowl, add salt and pepper to taste. Add cooled almonds and cranberries to the bowl. Put lemon juice and olive oil in small bowl and whisk until emulsified, add salt and pepper to taste. Pour dressing along the side of the bowl and toss ingredients until almonds and cranberries are mixed in and everything is coated with the dressing. Divide among two plates. Top each with shaved ricotta salata. Serve.

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Vintage Kitchen: A Lifelong Passion

Vintage jars

Remember how I mentioned in my last post that I have a passion . . . err an addiction to shopping thrift stores? That passion (which includes yard sales, estate sales and I’ve been known to do some dumpster diving in my time) began when I was young. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Truthfully, they were the ones who instilled in me the values I hold dear. They were children of the first Great Depression and I learned from them an amazing work ethic, frugality, and respect for the earth. Whenever my grandmother went shopping, she always started at the clearance racks. Why pay full price when you can find it on sale? She also took me to my first yard sale. I loved looking through the items on the lawn and I remember buying kitschy anthropomorphized cow salt & pepper shakers for 50 cents. What a deal!

My grandmother was also a pack rat. She wasn’t a hoarder; her house was always very clean and it was not cluttered. She kept her things put away. But the coolest thing was that she would let me poke through her stored items and use anything I found that I liked. Grandma didn’t have an actual attic. My grandparents lived in a tiny house that only had 2 rooms on the second floor, tucked up under the roof. The main room had fake paneling along the slanted sides of the roof to help square it off. The panels could be slid back and behind them Grandma had stored boxes among the rafters. We had to be careful about exploring in there because the roofing nails were exposed, but once I was old enough that Grandma felt I could be in there alone, she let me explore. I still remember discovering some of Grandpa’s old shirts and ties from the 40s. I would wear his button down shirts, which would practically reach my knees, with one of his skinny ties (skinny ties were back in style in the 80s) over my pinstriped jeans and Kmart version of Chuck Taylor hi-tops. Boy did I think I was cool!

Booths "Mayfair" vintage dinnerware

Booths “Mayfair” vintage dinnerware

My grandmother wasn’t the only one who would let me poke through her storage. My grandfather’s mother lived two blocks away from my grandparents and she had a traditional attic. She died when I was 6, but I remember her letting me explore her attic a time or two before she passed. After she died, my uncle bought her house and my aunt would let me go up there quite often. One time I found a coin purse with pennies, nickels and dimes in it that dated back to the 30s. I loved them and for a time I wanted to get into coin collecting. This was long before the internet or Amazon or eBay.  Being stuck in the middle of rural Nebraska meant my opportunities to collect more coins were very limited. But for years I would look at any and every coin that crossed my hands and check the dates. Eventually I gave up that hobby and moved on to others.

Several years ago, a friend showed me the Salvation Army Family Store in The Mission and that became one of those moments that changed my life. Prior to this, I would occasionally hit the Goodwill stores in my area, but they were hit or miss and I didn’t go often. Once I found Salvation Army, it became my weekly ritual. Then I expanded my route to include the Goodwill down there; and recently I added Thrift Town and Community Thrift to my routine. There are lots of thrift shops in The Mission!

Vintage PlatesIn the beginning I was just looking for items that caught my eye and I loved vintage storage. I especially loved old clamp-lid jars and the old Ball jars with the zinc lids. I also grabbed fun hand-built ceramic bowls, mugs and pitchers. I would come across vintage dishes, but there wouldn’t be a full set, so I would walk away. And then one day the light bulb went on: I didn’t need a full set of dishes. These dishes were gorgeous and made me happy and it is totally ok to serve people on different plates. Plus I liked having different colors and styles of plates to use for my food presentations. So the addiction to vintage tableware was born and it has led me on many adventures. In fact, when I was in Florence two years ago, I happened upon a flea market and ended up grabbing two vintage English stoneware plates. Not only were they gorgeous and a good find, they became souvenirs of an amazing trip.

A couple of years ago my friend and I were driving around The Mission waiting for the Salvation Army Family Store to open when we spied a church throwing a rummage sale. We stopped in and as we were browsing I nearly peed my pants when I spotted two vintage French copper pans. Both were tin-lined and one had copper rivets. The women running the sale had no idea what they had in their possession. I also found a lovely vintage porcelain plate and as I was waiting on line to pay, several of the women working the sale came up and commented on the plate in my basket. Each time, my heart would start racing because there were signs posted everywhere that they had the right to change the price on the items for sale. But none of these women even looked at the copper pans. I paid the pittance they were asking and bolted out of there ecstatic with my purchase.

French Copper Pans I use almost every day

There are days when the bank balance is extremely low and I am stressing about my bills when I think about putting these finds on eBay. But then I’m cooking in my kitchen and I grab one of these pieces and I am suffused with a sense of peace. I love these pieces. I feel like they are connecting me to the men and women who cooked in them before me. I am tapping into the love the cooks had for those they served. I feel that love and add my own and the food I make and serve with these vintage items tastes even better.

Heirloom Carrots with Dill

Heirloom carrots with dill4 medium heirloom carrots
1 tsp olive oil
dill sprigs
pinch fleur de sel

Wash and slice carrots into rounds. Heat olive oil in sauté pan on medium heat. Toss in carrots and sauté until tender but firm, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and toss with dill sprigs and fleur de sel. A simple, yet delicious and eye-catching side dish.

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Hunting an Obsession

Cooking of ItalyI am obsessed. Several weeks ago I discovered the Time Life Foods of the World cookbook series. Beginning in 1968, Time Life put out this series of books showcasing the cuisines of the world in different volumes written by contemporary food writers. I have a passion (some would call it an addiction) for thrift shops and about a week after I learned about these books, I found The Cooking of Italy at one of my regular haunts.

While the photos have that dark hue I always associate with photos from the sixties, the book is in no way to be dismissed as retro kitsch. It begins with a history of Italian cuisine and moves into an examination of the modern trends. It then goes on to survey the different regional cuisines of Italy. Following each chapter are recipes that go with it. Each volume of the series also includes an accompanying spiral bound book of additional recipes.

These books were wonderful at the time they were produced because they were educating the public not only on cuisines most were familiar with like French and Italian, but they also included world cuisines that many had never before encountered. These books stand the test of time. Even though I am quite familiar with many different cuisines, there are many I haven’t tried or have only a superficial knowledge. So I was on a quest to find and collect every one of these volumes and recipe books.

A week after I grabbed the Italy volume, I happened to stop by a thrift store I don’t get to very often and lo and behold I hit pay dirt! I found 7 more volumes. I had started this hunt not knowing much about these books other than many of my food heroes considered them of great value. So, when I got home with my haul and began looking through them, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the book on Classic French Cooking was written by Craig Claiborne and the book on Provincial French Cooking was written by M. F. K. Fisher! My quest quickly became an obsession.

volume setsAfter haunting my regular thrift shops and a couple I go to sporadically, I remembered an outlier I don’t hit very often. And then inspiration struck. Just down the street from that particular thrift shop there is an incredible used bookstore called Green Apple Books. Even better, I recently found a trade receipt I got years ago that I never redeemed. After scouring the thrift shop and coming up empty-handed (ok not completely empty-handed. I did buy Frances Mayes’s Bella Tuscany. I told you people I am obsessed with all things food-related), I then headed over to Green Apple.

They had a good selection of the Time Life books there. I was able to grab four volumes complete with their recipe books and their matching box cover. I didn’t even know they originally came with box covers! Now here’s the thing about me and my obsessions. When I have one, I am crazy and I mean crazy about them. They are all I think about until I can complete them. Back in the 90s I was ridiculous about the damn Teenie Beanies at McDonald’s. Remember Beanie Babies? Well McDonald’s put out smaller versions called Teenie Beanies in their Happy Meals every summer for about 4 years. When those Teenie Beanies came out, I would haunt daily the three McDonald’s between my apartment and work until I had all the Teanie Beanies in the set. Sometimes I would get two or three and then give them away. I moved across the country with those damn Beanies in a huge Rubbermaid tub. I had them for almost a decade when I finally realized I am never going to do anything with them and I was too lazy to deal with trying to sell them on eBay. So I donated them to a great organization in San Francisco, Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, who gave them to their families for Christmas.

The point of this digression is that I cannot maintain that level of insanity for long durations of time because the rest of my life begins to suffer. Seriously, the other week I cancelled plans because I needed to go check out Green Apple again and I couldn’t wait until the weekend. I told you I was crazy. I finally decided the madness needed to stop. I turned to eBay. Thankfully, I won the first auction for which I bid. Now my obsession can rest.

Milan & LombardyI’ve begun to read the volumes I do have, giving them the time and respect they deserve. These books aren’t just guides to different cuisines, they are snapshots in time. As I read through the recipe booklet for Cooking of Italy, I am struck by the ingredient lists. In every recipe where it calls for cheese, it is always “imported Parmesan,” “imported Fontina or Gruyère.” Italian ingredients are italicized, including: mozzarella, polenta, ricotta, cannellini, and the pastas: linguine, spaghettini, lasagne, fettuccine. There is no mention of arborio or carnaroli; it is “imported Italian rice.”

Italian ingredients have become so commonplace they have become part of the American lexicon. There is no longer a need to italicize the names or to call out that ingredients are imported. There are a plethora of Italian cooking classes. In fact, just last night I assisted a pasta class at 18 Reasons. We have come a long way from 1968. But boy am I having fun time traveling with these books, especially since I can do so at leisure as my obsession has been sated.

A Twist on a Classic – Fava Green Pesto

Fava Greens in FoodProIn Cooking of Italy there is a recipe for Pesto alla Genovese, which the book translates as “Basil, garlic and cheese sauce.” Today the term “pesto” implies the basil version and no longer requires the Genovese or basil descriptors. I love making my pestos with greens other than basil and my favorite is fava greens. These are the young leaves of the fava bean plant. You can usually find them at farmers markets or organic markets in the spring.
Serves 4-6
½ lb (approx. 2 cups very tightly packed) fava greens
¼ cup toasted walnuts
1 garlic clove, peeled
¼ cup parmiggiano reggiano, grated or shredded
¼-½ cup olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste
1 lb pasta of your choice, cooked as directed
¼-½ cup pasta cooking liquid

In a food processor or blender place fava leaves, garlic and walnuts. Pureé, drizzling in olive oil until it becomes a smooth, almost liquid consistency. Turn off the food processor and put into a large bowl. Stir in the cheese, add the lemon and season to taste. Add the pasta and ¼ cup pasta cooking liquid. Toss until all the pasta is coated with the pesto, adding more cooking liquid if desired. Top with a little grated parmiggiano reggiano and serve.

Fava Green Pesto with Orecchiette

Fava Green Pesto with Orecchiette

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Fighting Fear with Pickles

Watermelon radish slicesI can’t remember exactly when I first heard about watermelon radishes. But I know that I first tried them because of my CSA. They showed up in one of my Mystery Boxes two years ago. Watermelon radishes are an heirloom varietal from the daikon family. In an old Chinese-American dialect they are called shinrimei, which translates to “beauty in the heart.” Considering the gorgeous pink-to-magenta interior, this rather non-descript white, bulbous radish most definitely has a beautiful heart.

When I first tried these radishes, I did as I do with most radishes and sliced them for salads. They were gorgeous additions which greatly improved the look of my salads. But, I didn’t try anything else with them until last month. The farm where I get my produce was offering them in bulk, so I decided to get some and experiment with pickling. I tried three different recipes. One was a complete failure. One was good, but better suited to the Japanese Green Heart radish. And one was perfect for the mild and beautiful watermelon radishes.

Learning about new foods, new cuisines and new cooking techniques is breaking me out of my fixed mind-set and pushing me into the growth mind-set. I have been telling myself for decades that I need to write. I have had many friends and acquaintances over the years tell me I need to write. I am so consumed by food and all things “foodie,” that my friends and colleagues were telling me I need to start a blog. This went on for years, until finally last year I pushed through my fear of failure and started this blog. I have had fits and starts. I have stumbled along the way, and I slipped back into that mentality of “if I don’t try, I can’t fail.”

Watermelon RadishesBut, what keeps pushing me forward is food. I am fearless in the kitchen. I have no hesitation with trying something new or playing with different ideas. If what I try fails, I have still learned. Yes, there are times when I feel guilty if I have to throw out a failed experiment because it seems such a waste of food, but that doesn’t stop me from trying again. Truthfully I will often still eat those failed dishes because I don’t want to waste food. Case in point: last week I was making turnip chips – quite a few turned black because I left them in the oven too long (I was watching Jaws and got distracted). I just added a little sriracha aioli, poured another glass of wine and dinner was served!

If I am so fearless and comfortable in the kitchen, why can’t I be like that in all other areas of my life? Food, again, has become my salvation. The lessons I learn in my kitchen are pivotal for everything else in my life. I need to live all parts of my life like I live in the kitchen. I’m going to try new things. I’m going to experiment. And most importantly I am not going to let the fear of failure stop me from . . . anything.

019Watermelon Radish Pickles

This recipe makes approximately 5 pint jars
1 ½ cups water
1 ½ cups white wine vinegar
1 cup champagne vinegar
½ cup white vinegar
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1-2 pounds watermelon radishes

In a sauce pan bring water, vinegars, sugar and salt to boil. Boil a few minutes until sugar and salt have completely dissolved. Allow the brine to completely cool.

Thinly slice watermelon radishes. I used a mandolin and sliced 2.0mm thick then cut in half to make half-moon shapes, which fit the jars better.

Put radishes in jars, firmly packing them down, until they reach the shoulder of the jars. Poor cooled brine into jars. Tap the jars lightly on the counter to ensure air bubbles are released. You might have to top off the jars a time or two as the brine fills the air pockets. You want the brine to be just at the shoulder of the jars, not all the way to the top. If any radish slices rise up, find something to put in the jars to keep them submerged completely. I have some large marbles that I put in on top of the radish slices and then seal in the jar. Put radishes in the refrigerator and leave alone for 2 days. After two days you can eat. If you have placed something in the jar to hold the slices down you can remove it, as the radish slices will stay submerged once they are pickled.

Watermelon Radish picklesThese pickles not only have a great flavor, they are pretty too. The pink heart of the radish bleeds out its color, making the brine and the pickles all pink. The mild sweet-tart taste make these pickles great for salads, sandwiches, even just eating by themselves, which I must say I do quite often.

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A Little Patience, Effort and Love

Making Apple CrackIt’s a sunny morning, but there’s a slight chill in the air. I’ll need a jacket to start out, but will finish my errands with it tied around my waist. I grab my collapsible cart, wallet, some produce bags and toss them into a huge tote bag. Phone goes in one back pocket, iPod in the other. Headphones in ears; keys in hand and I’m out the door.  Thus begins what has become a typical Sunday for me this fall and winter.

As I walk down to the ATM for some cash, I notice that the normally busy thoroughfare is nearly empty and blissfully calm. I may have been up for hours, but it is still a sleepy Sunday morning for the rest of the city. As I march along, my steps in time with the waltzy tempo in my ears, I look up often, enjoying the play of clouds across the sky and the intermittent glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge between the buildings. An irrepressible smile spreads across my face and happy tingles spread throughout my body. I am filled with gratitude and joy that I live here. These moments are the reason I like to walk instead of taking the bus or driving. I have an ongoing love affair with this city and all it has to offer and when I walk I have the time to truly appreciate all that is around me.

It doesn’t take long before I am in the park above Fort Mason and have the Golden Gate spread out before me. It’s going to be a gorgeous day and soon this park and all of Marina Green and Crissy Field will be filled with families, athletes, dogs; people and animals enjoying the beautiful parks that are so much a part of this city.

I love coming to the farmers market when it opens. This is the quiet time before the booths are crowded with locals and tourists. This is the time when I can have the pick of the crop and enjoy leisurely conversations with the farmers and sellers. I can slowly make my way through the uncrowded aisles, waiting for inspiration to strike. I often make a second round, just to make sure I’ve seen everything. The most important destination today is Billy Bob Orchards. This is where I find the best apples I have ever tasted. They grow organic heirloom varieties like Pippin, Black Twig, Cameo, Gold Rush, and Hauer; plus the standards like McIntosh, Fuji, Granny Smith, Pink Lady and many more. I pull out my collapsible cart and set it up so I can buy several pounds of every variety they have to offer. After a chat with the farmer on our favorite varieties and what we like to do with them, I head back home with my cart full of apples and other market goodies.

A little effort and a little patience can produce addictive results. That’s how I discovered the best snack food around: Apple Crack. A few years ago, when apples were in season I decided to try my hand at applesauce. The results were okay, but they weren’t “damn that’s good” level and I wasn’t in the mood to try again. I still had quite a few pounds of apples left and I began looking for other apple recipes. Since weight and food addiction have been lifelong issues, I didn’t want to make a bunch of desserts. In my searches I came across the idea of making apple chips. I don’t own a dehydrator, so I had to make them in the oven. Baking low & slow, my first batch was a success!

Apple SlicesNow I was inspired to experiment, so after several tries with different thicknesses, temperatures, and cook times, I found the fail-safe best way to make what I call “Apple Crack.” And let me tell you, it is aptly named. The other day I brought some into work and people kept popping into my office to get their “fix.” The best part: they are guilt-free indulgences. You can eat a handful or several handfuls and you feel like you are gorging yourself, but in actuality you are eating the equivalent of 1 or 1 ½ apples. I add nothing to them. Yet, these apples are so sweet people don’t believe me when I tell them I haven’t added any sugar.

The secret to Apple Crack is patience, effort and love. I’ve always believed that anything good needs to come from effort; that if you get something great without having to work for it, you can’t really appreciate it. And if you get something great and have it all the time, you no longer appreciate the specialness of it. So, I only make Apple Crack when apples are in season. I seek out the best apples and only buy directly from reputable farmers that I have come to know and respect. The actual process of making Apple Crack takes minimal effort in the kitchen; the true effort is in gathering the apples. With every crunch, with every sweet or sweet-tart bite, we (my friends & family) taste the love and care that the farmer put into growing those apples and the love and care I put into gathering them. And what is more addicting than love?

Apple CrackApple Crack

3-4 apples
apple corer
2 baking sheets
silicon baking mats (or parchment paper)

Place oven racks farthest away from the heat source. For my oven, that means on the top two rows. Preheat oven to 200° Fahrenheit.

Core apples and slice 3.0mm thickness on mandolin. Place apple slices as close together as possible, without overlapping, on two silicon lined baking sheets. You can use parchment paper if you don’t have any silicon mats. However, the apples will curl on parchment. So, if you like flat, smooth chips you will need silicon.

Bake for 75 minutes and then switch the baking sheets. Bake for another 75 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 15 minutes. Carefully peel apple chips off silicon mats and try not to eat them all within 10 minutes. The most difficult thing about Apple Crack is that it takes 2 ½ hours to make a batch and only 5-10 minutes to eat it. Hope you enjoy it as much as my friends and I do!

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The Blog Lives . . . .

The creative juices are flowing again! It really started a few weeks ago when I was reading Inside the California Food Revolution by Joyce Goldstein for our Food Lit Book Club. What was so inspiring about this book – beyond Ms. Goldstein’s wonderful writing and insight – was realizing how much the California food revolution changed my life.

Inside CA Food Revolution

About a decade ago I decided I wanted to eat organically and more seasonally. I learned about CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture programs, where you pay a farm a nominal price ($20-$25) and you get a share of the harvest.  Since I started buying from CSAs and shopping at farmers markets, I rarely go to a retail store; only frequenting my local organic market for sundries or last-minute items. I honestly cannot remember the last time I was in Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Now I spend less money on higher quality foods and I have wonderful relationships with the people who grow and produce my food. This wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for the California food revolution. Reading Joyce Goldstein’s book was such a delight because she was interviewing chefs and farmers that I know; people who have directly impacted my life.

For me, one of the greatest things about a CSA is that I have no control over what I receive in my share. In the beginning I was often getting vegetables I didn’t even recognize, let alone know how to cook. It was intimidating but also exhilarating to have to learn how to cook with those unfamiliar vegetables and I discovered new foods that I now adore because of it. With the CSAs such a popular idea among the farms of Northern California, one amazing woman decided to take that idea and apply it to seafood. Anna Larsen launched SirenSeaSA in the summer of 2011. I have always loved seafood, but having grown up in a landlocked state, I hadn’t had much opportunity to cook anything beyond a couple of breeds of finfish and frozen shrimp. So, when I heard about SirenSeaSA I had to join.

Anna was sure to make this delivery service as user-friendly as possible. The finfish would already be filleted and when it came to mussels, oysters, squid and little fish, Anna put up tutorials on her website to guide us novices. She also included recipes and tips for cooking whatever was in the share. I had loved mussels and oysters and squid, but I had never cooked them myself before I joined SirenSeaSA. Now I feel like a pro! I’m still working on my little fish skills, however. Which brings me to my most recent attempt: herring.

2014-01-26 Herring rilletts & celery date saladHere in Northern California, we are in the middle of herring season and so of course we had to get some! Once I had cleaned the fish, I decided to divide them in half and make them two ways. The first way was a recipe I found for a lime and pepper crusted pan fry. I really enjoyed this preparation, though my fish did not look very pretty and therefore, no picture. But they tasted great and I will definitely make that again.

The other half of my herring share went into a sort of herring “rillettes.” I found a Nigel Slater recipe that I tweaked for my own tastes – and what I had in my fridge:

1/2 lb herring, scaled, gutted and spines removed
3 tbsp butter + more for toast
3 bay leaves
1 medium carrot, coarsely grated
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp pickled banana peppers, minced
1 tbsp creme fraiche
salt & pepper to taste
dill sprigs
rye bread, toasted & buttered

Preheat oven to 300° Fahrenheit

Clean the herring, removing the spine and as many little pin bones as you have the patience for. Don’t feel you need to be obsessive about removing absolutely every one of them. The bones soften when the fish is baked and the carrot in this recipe provides crunch and detracts from any remaining little bones.

Place herring in a baking dish with 3 tbsp butter and bay leaves. Bake at 300° F for 20 minutes or until fish is flaky. Remove herring from oven and allow to cool until you can handle it. Remove skin and any bones that you can as you flake the fish and place in a bowl. Allow to completely cool. I put mine in the fridge overnight.

Once the fish is cool, add carrot, vinegar, peppers, creme fraiche and salt & pepper and mix with a fork until all is incorporated.  Be careful not to mix too vigorously so the fish stays flaked and doesn’t get mushy.

Spread on buttered toasted rye bread and top with fresh dill sprigs.

Notice I didn't get all the bones out, but they are not even noticeable with the crunchy carrot.

You can see I didn’t get all the bones out, but they are not even noticeable with the crunchy carrot.

Some day I will share my journey of the past 5 months, but for now I am just happy to have the words flowing again and will continue to share my adventures with food.

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