{SF} A Foodie Weekend in Three Acts

October 14th, 2010 · 8 Comments · Events, San Francisco, SF Events

Act I. “Pour Yourself a Stiff Drink, There’s a Lot More to Come.”

The kickoff party for Scharffen Berger’s annual Chocolate Adventure Contest has become an Orson tradition. Exotic drinks, whimsical nibbles, and a whole lot of chocolate cupcakes. The theme this year for the Chocolate Adventure Contest is cupcakes – devise a cupcake made with one or as many of the 14 “adventure ingredients”, including beets, adzuki beans, stout beer, and bee pollen. Elizabeth Falkner, one of the judges, led the way with a bartop full of cupcakes.



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{SF} A Soy and Chocolate Pairing with Michael Recchiuti

September 9th, 2010 · 18 Comments · Events, San Francisco, SF Events, Sweet Spots


A week ago I got the opportunity to attend a most intriguing presentation and I'm eager to share the experience with you! The event was a Soy and Chocolate pairing, part of Michael Recchiuti's Taste Project where he combines his renowned chocolate with another unexpected ingredient, such as cheese, beer, or salt. As Michael explained to us, he loves learning about other food artisans and he enjoys the challenge of turning his master chocolatier's skills to a new and unknown product.

His latest discovery was Hodo Soy Beanery, an Oakland-based company dedicated to making fresh tofu. This tofu is completely different from the chalky white slabs you see in stores – its shelf life is only days long, and it tastes astonishingly rich and fresh. I've grown up eating tofu, but even I was surprised at how much of a difference there was in the flavor of fresh tofu, and how little I actually knew about the making of tofu! The founder of Hodo Soy, Minh Tsai, was also on hand at the the tasting to talk about his product.

We arrived at the Recchiuti kitchens in San Francisco to a candlelit table scattered with soybeans – elegant but whimsical, the tone of the whole event. As the guests chatted, a steady drumming we initially took to be background music grew louder and louder until we realized it was live drumming – by Michael! Michael Recchiuti is a drummer! With a guitarist husband and drummer brother-in-law, I could totally appreciate this!

I think everyone at the tasting was curious to see what Michael and Minh would do with soy and chocolate. Tofu is not an easy product to pair with chocolate, because of its high water content. Tofu will shed water as you work with it, and of course water is the natural enemy of chocolate. Michael admitted he did a lot of experimenting to discover how best to use all of Hodo Soy's soy products – tofu, soy milk, and even the rarer side products like okara and yuba (which I'll discuss below). The following is the tasting menu we experienced that day:


Soy beans given the Michael Recchiuti treatment: lightly caramelized, then dusted with wasabi and matcha. Devilishly poppable.


This was my favorite of the tasting: a custard made with soy milk, topped with a financier and fresh cherries. The financier was actually created with a "flour" of the dried pulp from pureed soybeans, called okara. It had a nutty flavor and lovely pillowy texture – all in all a really tasty combination. The custard was so silky too – reminded me a little of Japanese chawanmushi.


This appears to be a shot glass of chocolate milk, but in fact is a more complicated concoction – a mixture of hot soy milk and chilled chocolate milk swirled with caramel. The soy milk was poured over the chocolate milk right before it was served to us, resulting in an interesting ever-evolving layering of flavors. Very fun.


We then got to visit the room where Michael's chocolates are created. The majority of the space is occupied by the enrobing machine: you can see Michael and the rest of us gathered around it and a portion of the conveyor belt. A veritable yellow brick road, upon which chocolates travel, to be covered in chocolate and blow-dried to a perfect shiny finish.


Squares of tofu topped with a marzipan made from okara (who knew it was so versatile?) and ground almonds, ready to be enrobed. I think this is so emblematic of Michael's approach: he doesn't just dip tofu in chocolate, he thought of a multi-component concept that used several soy products. The soft, mild tofu against the richer, denser marizpan. Reminiscent of the chocolates with pate de fruit on top of ganache – a nice play of textures and flavors.


The tofu squares, now covered in dark chocolate and topped with a nougatine disk. Gilding the lily indeed.


This is Minh Tsai, founder of Hodo Soy Beanery, talking about the process of making tofu. He then proceeded to demonstrate how to make tofu, an eye opening process that took just minutes.

He combined a coagulant (calcium sulfate) with water and then carefully poured hot soymilk over the mix. Tsai likened the process to pouring tea – you need to pour the milk from the proper height so the force of the milk hitting the water will properly disperse the coagulant.


The mixture is stirred for a while until it begins to clump up.


The mixture is poured into a box lined with cheesecloth and covered. Then Minh pressed down on top to push out the excess water and get the tofu to consolidate. Here's the excess water coming out of the box.


In a few more minutes, a b lock of still-warm, very fresh tofu is unwrapped from the cheesecloth. Minh cut it up and we all got to have a piece – an experience very similar to eating freshly made mozzarella. I had never seen tofu made before so this was a really fascinating demonstration.


Back in the dining room, Michael enlisted the help of pastry chef William Werner to make his next dish, a take on crepes Suzette with sheets of yuba standing in for the crepes. Yuba, or tofu skin, is a soft, pliable skin that forms on top of steaming soymilk – I know it may sound strange to the Western palate but it's a delicacy – soft and richly creamy. It can be eaten fresh, as is, or cooked – often it's used as a meat substitute just like regular tofu. 


Here is the yuba "crepe" wrapped around late summer peaches with a scoop of soy milk ice cream – yum! MIchael admitted this was one of his favorite dishes of the day.


I guess this tasting truly had a "Dessert First" philosophy since the savory course was served last! I really loved it though – a slice of fresh Purple Cherokee tomato topped with some silken tofu and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with cacao nibs. Very fresh and summery.

We were also sent home with some of Michael Recchiuti's burnt caramel hazelnuts and Hodo Soy's tofu as treats; so generous!

It was a thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable afternoon. I just really loved being able to hear two food enthusiasts talk about the passions that move them  – the depth of their dedication and mastery of their craft was evident in every bite we took of their creations. My next post will be about my visit to the Hodo Soy Beanery, so I want to mention how amazing I think Michael Recchiuti is for creating these Taste Projects; they are truly wonderful experiences. If you get a chance to attend one, I highly recommend it – Michael is a great guy with so much knowledge to share. Another reason to go is that all of these dishes are one-offs for the tasting and you can't get them at his retail store – although I'm hoping for a reappearance of those wasabi-and-matcha soybeans in the future!

If you're looking to try some of Michael's Recchiuti's chocolates, I highly recommend anything with burnt caramel – one of his signature flavors, or one his takes on classic favorites, like his whoopie pies or peanut butter pucks. San Francisco is a great place for the chocolate lover!

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{SF} Sweet Things from the San Francisco Street Food Fest

August 23rd, 2010 · No Comments · Events, San Francisco, Sweet Spots, Sweet Spots


Peach Basil Madeleines from Knead Bakery

Knead Bakery at Local Mission Eatery

3111 24th St
San Francisco, CA 94110


Gobs (Whoopie Pies) from Gobba Gobba Hey


Lemon Cookie Ice Cream and Roasted Peach Ice Cream from Three Twins

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Food and Light: Best Workshop Ever

July 2nd, 2010 · 21 Comments · Events, Photography, Travel


I've been playing hooky from work and blogging the last few days to enjoy bucketfuls of sunshine, outrageously good food, and the company of some of the most talented bloggers around.

The Food and Light Photography Workshop, organized by Jen of use real butter in collaboration with Helen of Tartelette and Todd and Diane of White on Rice Couple, was hands down the best photography workshop I went to. It really didn't feel like class…more like summer vacation with some great friends.

Although food bloggers are a wonderfully friendly and giving lot, Jen, Helen, Todd, and Diane stand head and shoulders above the rest. I have never met more generous people, so ready to share their knowledge and experience with others. And they are also FUN…see the dinner Jen threw for several of us out-of-town bloggers the night before the workshop (Yes, the workshop also sort of felt like a overachievers' convention).

When I talked to Jen about the workshop, she told me that her goal was to create a class that offered more than the average photography class: a class that gave real, practical advice to photographers on how to take photos, and would give them the tools to let them continue improving their skills on their own after the class.

I think she and the other instructors succeeded fabulously; from the moment the workshop started we could tell how much preparation had gone into organizing everything, and how passionate the instructors were about photography and food. We had lectures that covered the gamut of concerns that many a food blogger has: photography basics, equipment, lighting, and styling.

The lectures were broken up by hands on sessions where we could practice shooting different food items, implementing things we had just learned, and getting instant feedback from the instructors. I really thought this was what set this workshop apart and made it so useful and rewarding. There's no substitute for learning by doing, and having an experienced professional to give you a personal critique was pretty much worth the value of the workshop. I know all the participants appreciated that all four of the instructors were willing to open themselves up and answer endless barrages of questions!

Below, a few shots I took during class. The rest of the class shots are at this flickr group  – you can see how quickly people starting picking tips and tricks from class!





Finally, all the workshop participants were asked to submit their favorite images taken during class to be judged by their fellow classmates and the instructors. We were asked to vote for images in categories such as Best Overall, Most Improved, and Most Original. I'm so thrilled that the class chose this image I shot below as Best Styling :


I call it Little Red Corvette. Thanks again to Jen et al. for awarding prizes and swag bags to the participants – I have never been to a workshop where you got so much free stuff!

Thanks again to Jen, Helen, Diane, and Todd for such a great experience. And another thank you to Lisa, who kindly let me stay with her at her family friend's home and was a blast as a traveling companion. Couldn't think of a better way to start off the summer!

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{SF} Taste of the Nation – The Best from SF's Chefs

May 13th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Events, San Francisco


Organizing the the San Francisco Food Bloggers' Bake Sale was not only hugely fun, but also made me (and all the other participants) feel good about helping out Share our Strength. I was further impressed by the breadth of Share Our Strength's fundraising efforts when I learned they also organize a series of culinary benefits around the country called Taste of the Nation.

In about 40 cities around the US and Canada, Taste of the Nation pulls together chefs, wine professionals, and other sponsors to put on a night of mouthwatering food, creative cocktails, music, and fun. All the proceeds from ticket sales go to Share Our Strength, just as with the bake sale.


I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to attend Taste of the Nation San Francisco a couple weeks ago courtesy of Foodbuzz, and I was able to give away an extra ticket to one lucky reader, Allison, who seemed to be enjoying the party as much as I was when I saw her! Taste of the Nation San Francisco took place in AT&T Park, our city's beautiful modern baseball stadium. The club level of the stadium had been transformed into a hall of delights, with chefs from San Francisco's restaurants offering up scrumptious little tidbits and mixologists pouring out some crazy libations! It was like a big, all-you-can-eat buffet dressed up as a an elegant cocktail party – with a thumpin, funk-and-disco tinged soundtrack to book (the fiance wanted me to make sure I gave props to the excellent DJ).


Calabrian salame crostino by barbacco.

I've been on a bit of a food-event bender lately, as I'm sure some of you have noticed, and in my stuffed-full-belly's opinion, Taste of the Nation was a real winner. I may be a little biased since SF is my hometown, but I thought the creativity and artistry displayed by so many local chefs just as, if not even better, than what I saw at bigger events like Pebble Beach, which showcased celebrity chefs from around the country. San Franciscans are fiercely proud of their food culture, and justifiably so after what I tasted that night.

The best part of the having local chefs as well is that if you love their food, their restaurant is right in town so there's no excuse not to have more of it! The fiance and I were able to get little tastes of some of our favorite restaurants we've been to and ones we've been meaning to go to. All the chefs were also very friendly and enthusiastic – definitely prepared for a food-savvy audience and eager to bring new customers to their places.


Smuggler's Cove, a bar in SF which resembles a cross between Pirates of the Caribbean and a mai tai lounge, was serving up some of their signature rum-based drinks.

Some of the most memorable dishes for me included: Paragon Restaurant's smoked cod and corn chowder (the portions at this event were quite generous; I could have filled up on this gloriously thick chowder alone!); Slow Club's duck rillettes with red onion and kumquat marmalades (now on the top of my list of restaurants to go to);  Aziza's chicken liver mousse topped with strawberries and balsamic (decadence perfectly executed); and Piperade's egg salad with marinated sardines (so fresh and flavorful).


Duck rillettes from Slow Club.

This shot of marinated sardines on chopped egg salad is a little out of focus because I was drooling too much to keep a steady hand on the camera.

Of course I also had to check out the sweet offerings, which didn't disappoint: a shot of Valrhona chocolate pot de creme bliss, topped with a pistachio macaron, from Mayfield Bakery; cute little mini cones of pomegranate martini sorbet and creamsicle martini ice cream from Silver Moon (they were auctioning off a chance to create your own custom ice cream flavor at the event!); and Elizabeth Faulkner's rainbow of macarons, in raspberry, dulce du leche, and blood orange.


Chocolate pots de creme with pistachio macarons from Mayfield Bakery.

The Taste of the Nation event was three hours long – seems like plenty of time to pace oneself but due to all the food being so tasty and the portion size so generous I felt like I would burst! Fortunately we were able to slip outside, relax for a bit, and sip a beer underneath the stars, enjoying the cool San Francisco air and the slightly clandestine thrill of being in a mostly-empty ballpark.

Elizabeth Faulkner's crayon-bright macarons.

If it wouldn't have been the most gauche thing ever I would have totally brought some takeout containers and taken away some of the leftovers for later! However the event appeared to be a rousing success as several chefs ran out of food and shut down their stations before official closing time! I thought this was one of the best-run events I 9;d been to in a while – plenty of happy, well-dressed people but not overcrowded; beautifully crafted food and the chance to learn more about many of the stars of the SF dining scene, and the knowledge that everyone there was contributing to the same cause. I had a great time if Taste of the Nation comes around to your part of town, I think you'd have a fab time as well! See Taste of the Nation page for more information, and note you can also sign up to volunteer at the events!

Disclosure: I was given two tickets from Foodbuzz to attend Taste of the Nation San Francisco.

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Where Strawberries Come From

May 2nd, 2010 · 12 Comments · Events



Ok, a couple weeks late, but I wanted to do a recap of my visit to the land of strawberries – or, at least, the next best place – Cassin Ranch in Watsonville, a producer of berries for Driscoll’s.

The plastic clamshells with the Driscoll’s label are a familiar sight in grocery stores in the Bay Area, but as they were “supermarket berries” I never gave much thought to where they came from. All that changed when I was offered a spot on a group tour of Cassin Ranch, where I’d get to learn about what goes into growing a perfectly succulent, luscious strawberry.

Cassin Ranch is located in Watsonville, just above Monterey, close enough to the ocean to receive the fog, ocean breezes, and chilly temperatures necessary to grow strawberries. Above is the stunning view of the foothills behind the ranch – so verdant and springlike!


Our hosts were Patrick, one of Driscoll’s berry farmers, and Phil, who works in Driscoll’s R&D developing new varieties of strawberries. Although Driscoll’s grows and sells strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, the largest crop at Cassin Ranch is strawberries, so that was the berry we focused on that day.

Although the containers at the supermarket may just say “Strawberries”, there are in fact thousands of varieties of strawberries grown, and even more being cultivated and studied at Driscoll’s berry farms. Strawberry varieties are developed and chosen for several factors, including taste, shape, and shipping strength.

Phil (who, by the way, has one of the coolest job titles ever – Strawberry Breeding Manager), has the enviable task of taste-testing the results of his research. He says that he has tasted up to 180 berries a day, determining the ones that are most delicious (highly scientific criteria, he admits).

The fruits of his research were undeniable, though, in the gorgeous display of fresh-picked strawberries arranged for us to sample, every berry irresistibly ruddy, plump, and perfectly formed. Although different strawberry varieties are grown at Cassin Ranch, after harvest all the containers of berries are combined together, so which variety ends up at your store is unknown to the customer. However, at the ranch, where several varieties were presented separately for us, it was really easy to see the differences between them.

One of my favorites was the San Juan variety, a classic that’s been around for years, as Phil explained. They had the iconic strawberry shape, full and plump, tapering to a point without being too long or conical, and their taste was pure sweetness, the way I imagine strawberries taste when I’m missing them. (I asked Phil if there were specific terms for describing how different strawberry varieties taste, but he said no, so I don’t feel too bad for my less-than-technical descriptions!)

Another interesting one was the Takara variety, which was specially developed for the Japanese market. In accordance with their passion for aesthetics, the Japanese wanted a small, not too ripe berry that was very uniform in size and would not leak too much juice, for use in their desserts. Hey, there’s a market for those berries here too  – what about all of us bakers and dessert lovers in the US!

There were also mystery “test” varieties only labeled by code numbers, ones that might one day be selected to be grown commercially. It can take years for a test variety to make it from research garden to small test plot to being chosen to include in Driscoll’s crops – these people take the quality of their strawberries very seriously.


Another fascinating strawberry-in-progress was a white strawberry – it may look unripe but it tastes fresh and woodsy. Phil said they were developing this strawberry for a potential market in weddings and fancy events. Once you get over the fact that these aren’t anemic berries, I can see how they could add an unusual and elegant touch to a dessert presentation. Not available yet, though!

Patrick, a third generation berry farmer, stepped to elaborate on the strawberry growing process. Strawberries are planted every year to two years, a selection of varieties based on the farm location and its weather and soil conditions. Patrick and other farmers must constantly monitor the changing environment to determine how the plants are doing and make the appropriate adjustments.

Strawberries take about 30 days to mature. Then, they are handpicked in the field and packed directly into the clamshell containers. Patrick offered a tip to picking strawberries – snap, don’t pull. He figured that on average a field workers is able to pick 6 1/2 to 7 cratefuls of strawberries in containers per hour. The fastest Patrick has seen is 20 crates an hour – that’s amazing! To ensure that quality does not suffer, the containers of strawberries are inspected after they have been moved to the chiller to make sure they are the correct weight and also do not have damaged berries.

Chilling strawberries after they are picked helps extend their shelf life. Strawberries you pick up from the store should last at least a week in the fridge without going bad. We took home a pack of strawberries from the ranch that had likely been picked that very morning; I noticed that they definitely stayed fresher for longer in our refrigerator. If only I lived a little closer to the ranch…


We also got to see some of the raspberry plants at the ranch. A lone red raspberry nestling among the leaves. At right, Phil and Patrick, our uber-gracious hosts, pose for a photo.

I left the ranch happy to have learned a little behind the boxes of strawberries I see in the supermarket, and impressed at the passion of Phil and Patrick for their berries. Although I love strawberries, I’ve not devoted my life to understanding and caring for these wonderful little berries like they have, and it’s nice to know that thanks to them and thousands of others like them, we’ll keep getting these beautiful little fruits to enjoy!


Strawberry fields forever. Thanks to Driscoll’s and Cassin Ranch for letting us get a peek at where strawberries come from!


At part of the invitation to visit Cassin Ranch, I was also generously offered the chance to attend the Grand Tasting at the annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine, just down the road in Monterey.

The third iteration of this foodie-and-oenophile event was chock-a-block with wines from around the world and renowned chefs cooking up delectable bites to sample. The tasting tent was overwhelmingly flush with the sounds of music, wine being poured, and sizzling pans.


Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park’s strawberry and rhubarb with buttermilk sorbet and black pepper; soft shell crabs being prepared for Paul Bartolotta (Bartolotta di Mare)’s dish with octopus salad.

There are already plenty of writeups for Food and Wine, so I won’t repeat them, just say that if you’ve got the spare cash it’s definitely worth trying out once – especially if you’re a wine lover. There were so many wines there it was impossible to try them all in the three-hour event, especially if you’re trying to focus on running around sampling all the food. It also helps if you know a little about wine or what particular wineries or styles you’re interested in. I am a huge dessert wine fan (surprise!), and these were a few of my favorites there:


Far Niente 2005 Dolce – A Napa winery that decided to solely dedicate part of its vineyards to creating a late harvest wine. Dolce is the local answer to Sauternes or Tokaji, a lush mix of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with citrus and peach notes, pleasantly thick but not overly syrupy.

Grgich Hills 2006 Violetta – I’ve been waiting for the Violetta to return since the 2003 release, and this one is a beauty – like pure honey, with almonds and peaches. Ambrosial.

Jorge Ordonez 2005 Malaga Victoria – I haven’t had the chance to try many Spanish dessert wines – there’s a lot of orange and caramel to this one, and very, very sweet.

Tokaji Classic (Loradona Wine Cellars) – This classic dessert wine from Hungary hardly needs more effusive praises, but I was happy to find it being distributed by local Loradona Wine Cellars. Apparently one of the owners likes it so much he wanted to include it in his inventory. Always a pleasure to get a sip of this old favorite!


Disclosure: I visited Cassin Ranch and Pebble Beach Food and Wine as part of a press trip sponsored by Driscoll’s.

P.S. I forgot to mention that the winner of the Taste of the Nation ticket was Allison Daugherty – when I saw her at the event, she seemed to be having a great time! Another food and wine event I need to recap – I know, my life’s been so rough lately!:)


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