Butter Boy: The New Man in My Life

“I have a confession to make.  I’m not quite sure how to say this, so I’m just going to say it…I’ve found someone new.  No, no…it isn’t you, it’s me.  Over the course of our long relationship, you’ve been good.  You always got the job done and for that, I am grateful.  But let’s be honest…you’re messy.  At the beginning you were fresh and new and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on you, but after awhile, you just let yourself go.  It’s time for me to move on to bigger and better things.  I’ve found someone who is cuter, more efficient and, most importantly, cleaner.  And that someone is…Butter Boy.”

 

You have just read the break-up letter I wrote to the stick of butter currently wedged in my fridge door.  It’s not just any stick of butter, though…it’s that random stick that is reserved solely for buttering corn.  You know what I’m talking about.  That smashed down, half-melted then re-formed stick that still has the impression of corn on the top and maybe even a kernel or two still leftover from the family barbecue last weekend.  Like many of you, I would drag that same stick of butter out every time we had corn on the cob.  And each time I did, I would think to myself, “there has to be an easier way to butter corn on the cob.”

 

After many sleepless nights and lots of prayers, my wish came true.  As I was strolling the produce aisle of my local grocery store, I had a chance encounter with Butter Boy.  His package called to me: “I Butter Corn!  Glides easily onto warm corn on the cob and holds and dispenses ½ stick of butter.”  I picked up the package and could’ve sworn I heard angels singing Halleluiah!  Reality set in when I realized it was a little old lady behind me asking if I was going to buy this because it was really just an infomercial trap.  How dare you relegate Butter Boy to the ranks of such products as the Eggwave or Salad Fingers?  No way…as far as I’m concerned, they’re not even in the same league.  And with that, Butter Boy found himself a front row seat in my cart.

 

When I got him home, I realized he was dressed for any occasion.  His red and white, picnic tablecloth-like kerchief can easily go from an intimate, special occasion meal to a casual family barbecue.  A man ready for anything…I like that.  I put the half stick of butter in and proceeded to butter the corn on the cob that I bought specifically to test this product.  Just push up as much butter as you need, swipe it on the corn and you’re done.  In a word: perfection.  The corn was evenly buttered and there was no mess.  He’s not just eye candy…he actually works!

 

The sting of breaking up with the traditional butter stick is still with me, but I know in time that Butter Boy will make that melt away into a summer full of bliss…and perfectly buttered corn.

 

Food Companies Meet Obesity Half-Way

The food industry did itself proud today by announcing a commitment to reduce the calories in its foods by 1 trillion by the year 2012. Speaking from the White House and partnering with First Lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier American, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) pledged to develop and introduce lower-calorie options than the foods currently available, lower the calorie content of current products, reduce portion sizes of existing single-serve products and to reduce fat and sugar in foods.

And lest you fear that the food industry capitulated by taking on all of the blame for obesity in the country, the HWCF noted that these product changes will account for ½ of the “energy gap” (the amount of calories consumed vs. the amount of calories expended), which was cited as the cause of the obesity epidemic. The other ½ will need to come from consumers themselves – by expending that additional energy.

With the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named as the watchdog that will ensure that food companies are complying, we can expect that the 80 member companies (including retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, sporting goods and insurance companies, trade associations and nonprofit organizations) will be touting their progress along the way. For food companies, this means that developing healthier products may no longer be news – it’ll be what’s expected. It also means that companies and organization that have not yet signed onto the coalition will need to figure out how they will respond – quickly.

http://www.healthyweightcommit.org/news/1-5-trillion-calories-by-2015

Seduced by Seattle

Seattle has always been one of my favorite cities.  It is the perfect mix of a cosmopolitan city with an indie flair.  Well-known for their coffee, grunge-music roots and fresh seafood, Seattle is also home to some of the biggest companies in the U.S. from Microsoft to Starbucks to Amazon.   The city’s setting is spectacular – from the waters of the Puget Sound to the dramatic Cascade Mountains and Mt. Rainier – Seattle is a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts.   I could go on and on about my infatuation with this great city, but I’m here to talk about the food.

One stroll around Pike Place Market in Seattle and you’ll know why the Pacific Northwest is known for their incredibly fresh and enchanting fare.  From oysters to berries, you’ll find almost every type, taste and texture of food.  Interested in tasting dry chocolate linguini pasta?  Need your fix of sugary mini doughnuts?  Want to ooh-and-awe over fish that’s just been caught that morning while being entertained by young, strapping lads?  The market truly houses it all, plus directly across the street you’ll find the amazing Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which offers an assortment of artisan cheeses and claims to serve the “World’s Best” Mac n’ Cheese.  A few doors down, you’ll find a coffee shop where a global empire began.  Yes, one can’t miss a visit to Seattle without purchasing a cup o’ joe or double non-fat vanilla latte at the original Starbucks. 

At night, the Seattle food scene is alive and kicking in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.   Loaded with many artistic venues, nighttime revelers can fill up before a late night out at one of the many great restaurants or street vendor carts peppered around the neighborhood.   Tempted by a vendor’s gourmet hot dogs, I ended up enjoying one of the best hamburgers I’ve had in a long time at the hip and happening Quinn’s.  Not only was I impressed by the food, but the service blew me away.  Was everyone in Seattle this nice?  According to my Seattlean friend, the city prides itself on its super friendly service.  So refreshing to find Midwest manners on the West Coast! 

The cherry on top of my recent visit, ended with not one – but two – visits to the out-of-this-world,  Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream.  I first experienced the joy of Molly Moon’s in my friend’s Wallingford neighborhood (where a few weeks earlier she waited in line behind Dave Matthews and his daughters for 20 minutes), and later enjoyed my last cone in Capitol Hill after our dinner at Quinn’s.   As an ice cream lover, who is surrounded by incredible shops in the Bay Area, at first I was skeptical that any ice cream shop could compare to the ones that I knew and loved back home.   But after just one bite of my scoops of Meyer Lemon and Vanilla Bean in a fresh-off-the-waffle-iron cone, I was sold.   Everything about Molly Moon’s – from the simplistic store design, the sweet tunes, to the stylish merchandise – has made this foodie’s list of U.S. favorites.   Needless to say, my recent visit to Seattle ended with very sweet dreams. 

 

 

Delectable Dungeness Crab

During the winter along the Northern California coast we typically do not have a “snow season,” but we do have an incredible Dungeness crab season. 

The delicate and slightly sweet meat in Dungeness crabs – one of the meatiest crabs available – can be found in the legs, claws and body.   Purchased either live (steam for 15-18 minutes or boil for 10 minutes) or pre-cooked, tools from a crab cracker to a mallet to bare hands are used to dig out and enjoy the delicious meat. Typically dipped in melted butter or cocktail sauce, my favorite way to enjoy Dungeness crab during the winter season is in cioppino. 
So what is cioppino, you ask? Cioppino is typically a hearty tomato-based seafood stew that has been a staple of California cuisine since the arrival of the first Portuguese and Italian immigrant fisherman more than a hundred years ago.  Back in the 19th-century, California fisherman would make their cioppino with whatever fresh fish and shellfish they had on hand, add tomatoes, red wine, onions, garlic and parsley – and out came a delicious (and nutritious) “catch of the day” stew.   
The tradition of making cioppino in California is alive and strong – and Crab Cioppino feeds are a very popular annual fundraising event for local CA Portuguese halls. Every year I look forward to the annual Crab Cioppino feed at the Portuguese Hall in my husband’s hometown of Hollister, CA. My in-laws, who are active members of the SDES Portuguese Hall, always alert us months in advance of when the tickets will go on sale for the January feed (tickets typically sell-out by December!).   The $40 ticket includes all-you-can-eat Crab Cioppino, salad, garlic bread, wine and ice cream. Similar to the original 19th-century fisherman recipe that features tomato-based sauce with plenty of onion, garlic and parsley, this cioppino highlights the in-season Dungeness crabs and shrimp (no additional fish or shellfish included).   Seated in a crowded dining hall with approx. 350 people wearing bibs (it gets messy!), everyone digs in to the cioppino with whatever tool they’d like – the most common tools being bare hands. Can’t get enough Dungeness crab at the feed? You can keep asking for more until the kitchen is all out! 

This festive, hands-on California dining experience is one not to miss.   If you live in California or are ever out here for work or pleasure during the winter months, do some research on when the local Portuguese hall (traditionally held in cities along the Central Coast, in the Central Valley and Northern Coast regions) will be hosting their Crab Cioppino feed. Remember – use your claws to snatch up tickets well in advance.   Bom apetite!

Food Photography Tips from Two Top Bloggers

A picture is worth a thousand words.   And when it comes to food blogs, a beautiful photograph that accompanies a post can make all of the difference.  Great photography entices an audience – and keeps them coming back for more.  
I am a digital photography enthusiast. On the weekends, I always have my Nikon D70 SLR with me and my favorite subject to capture, besides my son,  is food (the photos in this post are a few of my best shots to date).  Needless to say, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in not one – but two – photography classes at the BlogHer Food conference in San Francisco this past weekend. I particularly enjoyed the class taught by Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks and Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites – both very talented photographers with great food blogs.  For anyone who is looking to constantly improve their photos (like myself!), Heidi and Matt shared the following very useful tips.

1.       Be inspired by others.
          Constantly read and review food and travel magazines (especially ones from Australia), cookbooks, food photographer’s websites and beautiful food blogs. Create either a physical or online scrapbook of favorite photos. The incredible San Francisco food photographers that inspire me include: Noel Barnhurst, Richard Eskite, and Deborah Jones.
 
2.       Time of day. 
          The best time to shoot photos is either dawn or dusk. I always prefer dusk, otherwise known by photographers as “The Golden Hours.”   Bright sunlight during the middle of the day is always the most difficult (outdoor light is just too bright).

3.       Minimalist vs. Dense
          When you frame your photo, think about it in context of negative or positive space.   Do you want to construct a very simple image with a single focus or a complex image with a lot going on? 
 
4.       B&W vs. Color
          Food shots almost always looks best in color, but consider shooting people enjoying food in black and white. 

5.       Dark vs. Light
          Are you shooting indoors or outdoors? In a dark restaurant or outside in a garden? Determine what mood, color and lighting you going for, and adjust your camera’s setting accordingly.
 
6.       People or hands in your shot?
          Adding people or hands with your food shots can add a different, interesting dimension.  
 
7.       Flash or non-flash?
          While most photographers, including myself, typically prefer to shoot only in natural light, a flash creates a whole new look-and-feel to a photo. 

Blogs mentioned during the class that feature beautiful photos included the Sprouted Kitchen  , Vegan Yum Yum and Tartelette.   One of my personal favorites is Becks & Posh, which always features simple, gorgeous shots.
Final shooting tips from Heidi and Matt included…
          Always think about your photos in context
o   What size will they be? Do you want a vertical or horizontal shot?
          Think about the type of shots you are after
o   Ingredient shot? People shot? In-process shots? Ready-to-eat shot?
          Meat can be very difficult to shoot.  To make it easier, include a garnish on the meat to add some interest, light and extra texture
          Look through the viewfinder, REALLY look through the viewfinder
o   Compose your shot, always look for shadows and really look at your background
          Read your camera manual cover to cover
o   Get to know how your camera works inside and out
          When using a point-and-shoot camera, always shoot in AV mode (not “automatic”). 
o   Matt recommends the Canon G10 as a great point-and-shoot camera.
          For still food shots, use a tripod
          Always shot in “raw,” easier to edit and manipulate in the post-production process
          Great program for editing and organizing photos: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

So after receiving excellent tips from two great photographers – I am inspired to continue to push myself with my own photography. I want to get to know my camera better, experiment with flash and black & white photography, try more “in-process” shots, use my tripod more and focus on the post-production process.  All challenges which I plan to embrace with open arms, eyes – and a digital lense.

A Passion for Pizza

I could truly eat pizza every day.   So could my husband. We are both pizza aficionados. While I love to eat pizza (favorite Bay Area pizzerias include: Pizzetta 211, The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective, Pizzeria Delfina, Pauline’s Pizza, and Little Star Pizza), my husband, Allan (the chef of the family), has been on a quest for the past five years to make the perfect pizza at home.

What sparked Allan’s quest for crafting the perfect homemade pizza? His immediate response to that question is: “…because I love to eat pizza, but I don’t want to always have to pay restaurant prices for a great pie (pizzas can range anywhere from $10-$28/per pie).” Several years ago, I surprised Allan with a gift to attend a “How to Make Pizza” class at Sur La Table in Berkeley, CA. I knew the class would be a hit since it was taught by famous bread baker and author, Peter Reinhart (we were already big fans of his book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread). At the time, Peter had just launched his new book titled, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza.  Allan was of course fascinated and inspired by Peter’s class and came home with a new passion for crafting the perfect crust (lucky me!). 
 
This past Saturday, as Allan brought out the mixer, bread flour, salt and fresh ingredients to top our pies for the night, I asked him what are the key factors in making great pizza dough. He responded, “Dough is a living, breathing creature. It seems like it would be so simple to make, but it really isn’t simple at all. In fact, dough is very complicated. Creating the perfect dough depends on many different factors such as the temperature both inside and outside, what the humidity is like on that day and the moisture content of the flour.” He added, “To make good dough, you need to pay attention to what works for you. You constantly need to play with different recipes and theories to figure out different textures to make your ideal crust." 

Fortunately, Saturday’s weather was warm (high 70’s) with a slight humidity in the air. After adding Extra Virgin Olive Oil, sautéed leeks, pork linguica sausage and pecorino romano cheese on top of the perfectly risen dough, our pies turned out just as good as (and if not better) than what we’d enjoy in one of our favorite Bay Area pizzerias. And the good news is Allan made extra dough to freeze, so we can enjoy several more of these pizzas in the very near future.  

Viva la pizza!

Two Dogs Walk Into a Bakery…Where’s the Punch Line?

I had a really nice weekend. The weather was beautiful so I finished some outdoor projects, caught up on some fall cleaning and spent some quality time at my local dog bakery. 

<insert screeching brake sound here> 
 
What? A dog bakery? Yes, my friends, a dog bakery. I should preface this whole story by first sharing that I recently became the mom of an adorable American Bulldog named Max, also known as “cutester,” or “poopster.” Ugh, it looks even worse than it sounds when I actually say it. I’ve found that I can’t even string together a coherent sentence in Max’s presence because I’m blinded by the cuteness…but I digress.
 
Anyway, Max loves treats. Go figure. And being the devoted mom that I am, I’ve made it my personal mission to get Max the best treats I can find. I started out perusing the aisles of my local pet store, but amidst the sea of doggie treats, nothing really looked good. But as I Googled “the best dog treats on earth,” I came across a dog bakery, conveniently located just 30 minutes from my house.
 
So, I prepared for my journey to the bakery like Indiana Jones in his quest for the Holy Grail…of dog treats.   I walked into the bakery and was greeted by miles and miles of glass cases filled with sugar cookies, truffles, bon bons…everything you can ever imagine, all for dogs. My first reaction was confusion: “Is it weird that I think these treats look delicious?” This was followed quickly by curiosity: “I wonder what would happen if I ate one of these?”
 
I left Max at the doggie pit stop (a bowl of water right next to a huge, 4-foot-tall pug stuffed animal). As I scanned the cases, I saw that everything is made with all-natural ingredients, hand-decorated (this week’s treat du jour was a pumpkin truffle complete with icing “stem”) and caters to dogs of all sizes.
 
I was plagued by indecision…if I were a dog, which treats would I want? The watermelon cut-outs with icing “seeds” look good, but why would I want to limit myself to one variety? I could get a sampler, but do I really want to risk binging on treats and dealing with the stomach ache that is sure to follow? In the spirit of not setting Max on the path to doggie obesity, I only chose a couple items, including the best-selling peanut butter cups and the seasonal pumpkin truffles.
 
 
As you can see, Max clearly enjoyed them and quickly fell into a blissful, treat-induced slumber. As for me, I’m not entirely convinced these dog treats are worth the extra bucks. But I will say that they look good enough to eat and if someone double dog dared me to try one, I just might…

The Hot Dog in Town

There’s been a lot of “barking” among foodies in the Bay Area around the 100% grass-fed beef dogs from Let’s Be Frank.   Working only with local producers and artisans that raise animals on pastures, I’ve been on a mission to try these delicious dogs. 


And I completed that mission this past Sunday by visiting their stand in Crissy Field right outside the Warming Hut, which has to be the best location for a food stand in the U.S. With the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, tourists and locals alike can enjoy a top-notch, gourmet dog while taking in a world-class view of the bridge, bay and the city of San Francisco. Although a bit pricy at about $5 a pop – I can personally attest that these dogs are worth every penny. After adding on some delicious sautéed onions and ketchup, my Let’s Be Frank beef dog was a heavenly pleasure on a foggy Sunday afternoon.
Move over Rice-a-Roni, I think San Francisco has a new treat. 

Haute Street Eats

 

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Clockwise: Lamb Pastis, Curry Frog Legs, Tomato Fig Salad, Far West Funghi

At precisely 11:11am each day, we hear the cheerful chirp of the taco truck bombing down Broadway, announcing its presence in the hood. Taco trucks are getting a makeover it seems. Roving street eats from creme brulee to cookies to cubanos are fighting for the foodservice dollar, bringing the tastiest to bites to you with little to no overhead. The Culinary Institute of America’s World’s of Flavors Conference this fall is entirely focused on Street Foods reminding us that this is not a passing fad.

I had the pleasure of patronizing one of San Francisco’s poshest rolling feasts, Spencer on the Go Laurent Kategly’s extension of his brick and mortar upscale French Eatery, Chez Spencer. Wednesday through Saturday it is parked on 7th and Folsom conveniently situated across the street from a new Frenchie wine bar, Terroir. What a genius way to build your wine bar traffic: Get the hottest french food truck to sit right aside your door, and allow guests to enjoy their eats inside along with one of your not-so-budget friendly wines.  Yes, I managed to slurp down a $23 glass of insane Pinot Noir, but hey, we were celebrating. The ambiance of the wine bar, along with the French eats was just as good as any great night out, and I did not miss the wait staff one bit. If this is a down economy’s answer to fine dining, I’m in!

 

Magazine Envy

Have you ever looked through the pages of Food & Wine or Bon Appetit and seen the photo spreads of people eating a great meal al fresco. There’s a table set up outside in a field somewhere with a colorful striped tablecloth and matching napkins, candles and lights adorning umbrellas and fences and centerpieces made from fresh produce or flowers that look like they were picked that day. The food, of course, is laid out on beautiful platters and garnished just so. The people are smiling and happy and you wonder, "Who are these people? Who eats like that?"

Well, I’m happy to say that I’ve become one of those people. And I’ve also learned that there is nothing in this world that makes me happier than the time I spend cooking those meals, preparing that table and then sharing a wonderful evening with that wine and that food with friends and family.

And what makes those repasts even more enjoyable is when that meal becomes a collaborative effort. This weekend’s repast involved my brother-in-law at the grill making ribs and chicken with mole sauce and mixing drinks; my sister in the garden cutting her flowers for the centerpeices and trying her hand at skillet cornbread; and me, in the kitchen, with a bunch of fresh produce from the local farmstand deciding on the best combination of flavors (I decided on a peach gazpacho; a watermelon, tomato and feta salad; and corn, tomatoes and red onions). It didin’t hurt that we were at their beach home and it was a warm, star-filled summer night.

Was it perfect? Well, the cornbread was a little dry and the peach pie that someone brought for dessert tasted like it had been made from canned rather than the fresh local peaches currently in season. But it made me realize that behind those beautiful magazines there’s probably some dry cornbread and some bland peach pie. And it still looks, and probably is, perfect.

So, yes, I’m one of those people. Envy me.