January 30, 2007

Do you do fondue?

If you don't, you really should! It's fun for one thing. It's casual and incredibly simple. It is also a highly rewarding experience. Less time is spent in the kitchen, and more on the table with your friends or family. And instead of having just one or two main courses, you can have as many as your heart desires what with the variety of meat choices and dipping sauces available.

The best part about it though is the bonding experience. We are all familiar with the joy of breaking bread with family and friends but sitting together and cooking our food from a communal vessel can take that experience to a whole new level.

During a recent family picnic in the park, we reminisced old family traditions and the meals that were always the focal point of every gathering. After waxing nostalgic for a while, we began to talk about reviving ancestral recipes. I'm not exactly sure how this led to the fondue party idea but it did. My dad, whose Swiss heritage is most evident in his diet of soup, cheese and bread, cheered the idea on.

So it was that we planned Fondue Friday, which is what I insisted on calling the event. As we were handing out assignments, I called dibs on the cheese fondue. My sister took on the seemingly daunting task of putting together the meat and seafood fondue. She was eager to try out the recipes from Jean Pare's fondue recipe book from her Company's Coming series. My Tita offered to be in charge of the dessert fondue in the form of a chocolate fountain, while another relative pledged the chocolate dippers.

The chocolate fountain and dippers: mangos, bananas, apples, strawberries and marshmallows

The wheels were set in motion. Lists were drawn and checked as ingredients were bought throughout the week. My sister busied herself with marinating duties the night before while I bought everything I needed 2 hours before dinner time. I picked-up the cheese from Santi's, freshly baked bread from Le Coeur de France and veggies from Rustan's, all conveniently located next to each other.

Good thing the kitchen was big enough to accomodate the happy chaos that ensued. We opened a bottle of wine, rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Everyone lent a helping hand in the prep work, even some of the kids. They were like Santa's elves; grating cheese, cutting up the bread, sneaking a bread stick or marshmallow here and there.

Out in the garden, the rest of the gang was busy with the table settings. Long, color-coded forks were arranged neatly side by side fondue plates on the main dining table. In the center we lined up the 5 fondue pots: 4 contained boiling broth or oil and the 5th was my cheese fondue (which turned out fabulous if I do say so myself ;-) ). The dippers and dipping sauces were laid out buffet-style on a separate table, except for the bread which we passed around in a basket. Beside this table was the chocolate fountain station, where gooey delicious chocolate flowed invitingly.

What happened next was a blur of spearing, dunking, dipping, scooping and guzzling. Everything was delicious and as expected, the chocolate fountain was the perfect sweet ending to the night. I enjoy long meals but I enjoy long meals under the stars even more. It was truly an enjoyable experience that left many of us wondering why we didn't do this more often. Now I'm sure we will. :)

Swiss Cheese Fondue

This is adapted from 3 different cheese fondue recipes which I've had on file for years. Next time I'd like to try it with Appenzeller or Gorgonzola, another 2 of my favorite cheeses.

3 cups shredded Gruyere (about 12 oz.)
2 cups shredded Emmenthaler (8 oz.)
3 tbsp. flour
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1/4 cup milk
2 cloves garlic; 1 to rub on the inside of the pot, & the other minced and to be added to the cheese
2 tbsp. cream sherry (or kirsch)
freshly grated nutmeg (about 1/4 tsp)
ground white pepper to taste

Sprinkle the combined cheeses with flour, toss and set aside. Rub the inside of the fondue pot with garlic.

Heat the wine in the fondue pot over medium heat. Just before it boils, reduce heat to low and slowly stir in the cheese mixture, stirring constantly. Make sure the cheese is melted before adding more. Keep stirring until mixture bubbles gently.

Stir in milk, sherry, nutmeg, and pepper. If mixture becomes too thick, add a little more warm milk. Serves 12.

Dippers: Cubes of French bread and Farmers bread toasted just right, steamed broccoli, boiled potato wedges, apples and garlic bread sticks.

Fondue Bourguignon (or Hot Oil Fondue)

My sister bought beef tenderloin, rib-eye, pork tenderloin, chicken, shrimp, scallops, ham and sausages. Everything except the seafood was marinated overnight in different marinades. My favorite was the Teriyaki marinade she used on the beef. It had just the right amount of sweetness to it. She then prepared 8 different kinds of dipping sauces. Here are some of the recipes she used.

Teriyaki Marinade
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp finely grated gingerroot (0r 1/4 tsp ground ginger)
1/3 cup sherry
1 garlic clove, minced
Combine all 5 ingredients in a small bowl.
Makes 2/3 cup, enough to marinade 1 1/2 lbs of meat.

Cracked Pepper Sauce
8 oz. cream cheese softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp cracked whole peppercorns
1 tsp finely chopped shallots
1/8 tsp salt
2 tbsp milk
2 tbsp finely chopped pecans (optional)
Beat cream cheese and butter together in a small bown until smooth. Add garlic, peppercorns, shallots and salt. Beat until well combined then beat in milk and pecans until well mixed. Makes 1 3/4 cups.

Orange Sauce
1 cup orange juice
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp ground cloves
Combine all 5 ingredients in a small saucepan. Heat & stir on medium-low until thickened. Makes 1 cup.

Raisin Honey Sauce
1 cup seedless raisins
1/2 cup apple juice
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp chili sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Process raisins and apple juice in blender or food processor until pureed. Put into a small bowl and add remaining ingredients. Stir and serve at room temperature. Makes 1 cup.

Bearnaise Sauce
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 tsp dried tarragon, finely crushed
1 tbsp shallots
3/4 cup butter
3 large egg yolks
freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat wine, tarragon and shallots in a small saucepan on medium until reduced by half. Cool then strain into blender.
Heat butter in saucepan to bubbling point but do not brown. Cool.
Add egg yolks and pepper to wine mixture and process for 3 seconds. With motor running, add butter in a steady stream through hole in lid. Process for about 3o seconds until smooth. Serve warm. Makes 1 cup.

Spicy Cocktail Sauce:
1/2 cup chili sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
1 1/2 tsp horseradish
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar
sprinkle of pepper
Measure all 8 ingredients into a small bowl. Stir then let stand for at least 3 hours to allow flavors to blend. Serve at room temperature. Makes 3/4 cup.
Ready to cook: Fill fondue pot to no more than 2/3 full with a cooking oil of your choice. Heat the oil on the stove to 375F before transferring it to the stand. Make sure the heat underneath is high enough to mainintain the temperature.

~ ~ ~

This is my mom's old fondue pot. It's so retro I love it. It was always such a treat when she took it down from it's proud place on the shelf, usually for a special occasion. I remember how to my young eyes it looked like a decorative centerpiece instead of functional cookware. :)

Here are some tips that could help make your fondue party more enjoyable:
* Don't double-dip. That means, don't take a bite off what it is you're dunking and then return it to the pot.
* Use fondue forks for dipping only especially when having cheese fondue. Using a table fork, pry the morself into your own plate
* Variety is the spice of life. Have at least 2 dipping sauces for your meats.
* Have one fondue pot for every 4 or 5 people. When there is too much food in one pot at the same time, the temperature will drop below recommended levels. Not to mention, if there are too many forks in there at the same time, sometimes the food gets tangled and lost in the pot.

January 24, 2007

Marin County & Muir Woods

There is an abundance of scenic drives and picturesque destinations in the Bay Area. A favorite route of mine is south along the wind-swept coast of Highway 1. The magnificent vistas are enough reason to get behind the wheel but there are also many charming towns along this way which are irresistible.

I fulfilled one of my dreams in Half Moon Bay many years ago: to go horseback riding on the beach. Boy, was that an exhilarating and unforgettable experience! Further along, is the Santa Cruz boardwalk (where my favorite pair of sunglasses flew off my head while I rode the roller coaster, never to be seen again). And how can I forget the lone cypress and seal island at Pebble Beach or the aquarium at Monterrey and the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea with that adorable B&B that’s made me want to run my own B&B someday too. All this and more awaits you along the scenic 17 Mile Drive stretch of the highway. And I plan to take this on again someday.

This time though we went north, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County. Our first stop was Sausalito, small quaint waterfront town that has a Mediterranean feel to it. We chose to have brunch at Scoma’s. just because I thought it looked so pretty sitting on the water like that. Inside, the ambience was that of old-time charm. The view of the SF skyline from our table by the window was beautiful even on this cloudy day. Not having had enough of seafood, we feasted on crab cakes, oysters, scallops and prawns. The food was excellent and the service was gracious and friendly.

Scoma's Sausalito

After eating we browsed the many art galleries and used bookstores. It was so quiet. So different from when I was there on a weekend and it was teeming with residents and tourists alike. Even on the weekends though, this is the kind of place where people stroll. You won't see anyone rushing around. There is enough of that in the big city.

saltwater taffy in every flavor imaginable

Much of Marin County is the same way as we were about to find out. Fueled up with coffee and armed with a huge bag of assorted saltwater taffy, we continued on to the Tiburon Peninsula. We encountered another quaint sleepy town with charming restaurants and art galleries in what was once a fishing village. Some of the Bay Area's richest live here, I can see why. Tiburon has sweeping million dollar views and a host of upscale boutiques and restaurants. It was hard to imagine any crime happening here and true enough, Tiburon boasts of having one of the lowest crime rates this side of the country.

At the water's edge

By 2:oo, we left the bay behind us and headed west to walk among giants. Giant redwoods, that is. After about 30 minutes of winding road we reached Muir Woods National Monument, a 560 acre redwood forest in Mill Valley.

The first thing that struck me about this place was how utterly peaceful it is. I walked quietly along the paved trail, careful not to make too much noise lest I disturb the peace. This was nature in it's most majestic form. I was in awe of just how incredibly tall and wide these things were! (Stretching up to over 300 feet, they are in fact the tallest living things on the planet.) Because of their strength and resistance to fire, drought and disease most have been around for over 800-1000 years.

The park has numerous trails of varying degrees of difficulty, but because of (coughcough) the lack of time, we kept to the (easy) main trail loop that led us over creeks, under fallen redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens, for the geek in you), through hollow tree trunks, inside charred trunks of live trees, and past thick ferns. The entire forest floor was covered in wild flowers, fallen twigs, evergreen huckleberry, azaleas, and clovers, among others.

Being surrounded by all that raw beauty felt almost like a religious experience. It was all at once inspiring, humbling and joyful.

The cross-section of a redwood tree trunk on display

This concludes my long overdue posts about my trip last October. As you can see, I enjoyed it immensely. The more I travel, the more I realize how little I really know about this world we live in. I love that I will never run out of new places to discover, people to meet, food to try, cultures to learn about and experiences to live out! :)

P.S. If you would like to get involved with the Muir Woods Volunteer Program, call 415-556-3535.

January 23, 2007

Ferry Building Marketplace

I am not a natural-born market enthusiast. Up until about 11 years ago, a market to me was a fly-infested, noisy place reeking of fish guts and splattered in blood and gore, a giant petri dish of bacteria. In a word, markets to me then were disgusting. I didn't know any better, obviously. But that all changed when my sister took me to the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, BC. From the moment I stepped foot into that magical place, I was smitten and the love affair began.

I like to visit local markets when I travel to new places because it gives me a sense of what the locals are like on an ordinary day, I like to see what unique produce or specialty items can be found there. You will be hard pressed to find a more vibrant and colorful spot in town.

Much has been written about the renovation of the SF Ferry Building Marketplace and it's rebirth as the premier destination for food lovers in the Bay Area that this was the only thing I listed as a must on my otherwise free and flexible schedule for SF. I had even added the cookbook inspired by the markets here to my rapidly expanding Amazon wishlist.

Ideally, I would have gone early on a Saturday morning when the weekend outdoor market was still bustling with activity but we were delayed and by the time we arrived, they were gone. We also, intended to dine at the Slanted Door but even that fell through because it was packed with a waiting list the size of China. My spirits were not dampened for long though as I knew there was still a whole building of treasures to explore.

The Ferry Building which is located along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street was built in 1898 as a transit terminal long before the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. The beautiful clock tower has come to define the city's waterfront and is an important landmark for tourists and locals alike. It's like a big X that marks the spot as a food lover's nirvana.

Saturday afternoon inside the marketplace

Top row: Kingdom of Herbs, chocolate sauces
Bottom row: Far West Fungi, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar

Inside the building is an upscale gourmet marketplace, cozy cafes and trendy restaurants. Among the many merchants you will find here are the Imperial Tea Court - an elegant Chinese tea room; Acme Bread Company - artisan bread baked fresh everyday with organic flour; Far West Fungi - a good resource for wild and exotic mushrooms; the Village Market with its array of fine wines and specialty food items and Cowgirl Creamery - incredible artisan cheese including the famous Mt. Tam cheese.

decadent Scharfen Berger chocolates

stacks of wonderfully stinky Cowgirl Creamery artisan cheese

LOVE this store!
Surely all that browsing and shopping will get you hungry, and this is truly a delightful place to be hungry! We opted for a spot in the outdoor patio of Market Bar and had a seafood platter and various appetizers. I didn't see the bill because I wasn't allowed to pay but I do believe it was quite pricey. Everything on the platter was fresh, juicy and so tasty!

The seafood platter from Market Bar

The big mama of pumpkins! Look at the size of that thing!

At the rear of the building is a plaza with an expansive view of the Bay and the Bay Bridge. It's an ideal place to take your sandwich from Mastrelli's, your latte from Peet's or that Valrhona Chocolate gelato from Ciao Bella and just sit on the park bench listening to the sea gulls as you watch the boats go by.

January 22, 2007

Mission San Francisco Solano

Many people are drawn to the Sonoma Valley for it's wonderful warm climate, fertile soil and irresistible beauty. Father Jose Altimira was no exception. In July 4, 1823 he travelled north from Mission Dolores in San Francisco where he was assisting, to found Mission San Francisco Solano (or the Sonoma Mission as it is more commonly known), making it the last and northern-most of the California missions. Here the Franciscan fathers cultivated the land to make sacramental wine from the Valley's first vineyard.

Today, this historic adobe structure with its red-tiled roofs still stands at one corner of the Sonoma town square just a stone's throw away from the Sonoma Cheese Factory. The original mission was reduced to rubble after a couple of earthquakes including the big one of 1906. It has since been restored and converted into a museum. Hanging in the main room and dining room are the Virgil Jorgensen watercolor depictions of the place.

The chapel at the Mission
The California Missions are a series of outposts established by the Spaniards
to spread the Christian doctrine to the Native Americans.

Today was our lucky day. There was a group of school children on an organized field trip out in the courtyard who were learning different crafts using traditional methods. They were busy flitting about and clearly enjoying themselves. I was drawn to the candle-making process because I've always wanted to make my own. The wicks are dipped in and out of the hot pot of wax (top right photo above) building up layers of wax. This is continued until the right size is achieved. These are then hung to set, as seen in the first photo above.
Using the outdoor charcoal grills and stone ovens (bottom photos), the children made their own snacks which they laid out on the table. They kindly invited us to join them, offering us the biscuits they made and some juice. The kids were really sweet and it was fun to watch them go about their crafts.

A young girl wets the dried leaves she's weaving into a basket

Sheep's wool and knitting materials

Taking a break from all that hard work

And so this was our lovely day in Sonoma, forever etched in my memory. We saw, ate and experienced more than I imagined we could in one day. A warm hug and a big thank you to my friend M for making it all happen! :)

* * *

PS: (I had to share this with you)

After Sonoma, we met up with B2 and her husband for dinner at their favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Le Cheval. It didn't take long for me to realize why this was a favorite. The food was incredible! I've been to some great Vietnamese restaurants in SF in the past, but this was the best so far. In case you ever find yourself in the area, I would hate for you to miss this place just because you didn't know about it.

January 19, 2007

Of cheese, vegetables and figs

It was a short and pleasant drive to our next stop, downtown Sonoma, where the enormous plaza or town square with it's serene duck pond is the focal point of the town. Driving around the plaza took me back to that time 10 years ago when we stopped here on our way back to SF from a ski trip in Lake Tahoe. It was just as I remembered it...quaint and peaceful. The square is rimmed with old adobe buildings, converted army barracks, chic boutiques, restaurants, the historic Sebastiani Theater and the Mission (which I will talk about in my next post).

We pulled up behind the Sonoma Cheese Factory, the home of the Sonoma Jack. Before we sampled any of their cheeses, we chose to have lunch in the patio of the Plaza Grill. It would have been a shame to stay indoors on such a beautiful day. There were sausages and burgers already sizzling on the grill, the smell wafting up and taunting our already-grumbling tummies. I couldn't help it, all that food tasting had opened up our appetites!

I chose a turkey burger, but could not decide on what cheese I wanted with it as there was so much to choose from and each one sounded like the perfect choice. After much deliberation, I decided on the Jalapeno Pepper Jack and was very glad I did because I like my burgers with a slight kick (like the Kamikaze burger with wasabi mayo), and this had just the right amount of heat for my juicy burger.

Contentedly wiping the crumbs and grease from our chins, we headed back inside to sample the various cheeses.You're probably wondering where I would put it on top of all that I had already sampled that morning plus the burger (and cold mediterranean pasta salad!) I had just cleanly put away. Well if there's one thing you should know about me, I always have space for cheese and dessert.

So there they were...wedges and tubs of cheesy goodness. On top of each flavor group are tupperwares containing cubes of cheese for sampling. Aside from the traditional Sonoma Jack, we tried the various flavors such as the very spicy Habanero Jack, sun-dried tomato and olive-flavored Mediterranean Jack, Portabella Jack with portabella mushrooms of course (these three were my favorites), and all sorts of cheese spreads and teleme - the softer and tangier cousin to Jack.

The store area is huge and one can find everything expected from a deli and cheese store but it also doubles as a souvenir shop. In addition, there is also a gelato bar and a coffee corner from where we bought the coffee we took outside to the plaza with us later. All this is managed by the Viviani family who carry on the time-honored cheese-making methods of Celso Viviani , an Italian immigrant who founded the company back in 1931.

Not yet cheesed-out, we walked past the Mission down a tree-lined road and turned left towards the Vella Cheese Factory, a true Sonoma treasure. The building made entirely of stone was originally built in 1904 to house a brewery but was later converted into a factory that has been churning award-winning artisan cheeses for 75 years.

As a bonus, we even met the man himself, Ig Vella! It was like a celebrity sighting. He walked into the store wearing his trademark suspenders and white paper cap and I immediately recognized him from the brochures. He nodded his hello then disappeared through a door at the back. I was star-struck. I read that he learned the craft from his father who was responsible for the popularity of aged cheeses in the Bay Area and beyond. Now anyone who makes good aged cheese is definitely a celebrity in my book!

Vella's Traditional Dry Jack is a favorite for its nutty flavor as well as the Mezzo Secco, it's softer offspring. Now for me, tasting is believing. So I tasted and became a believer. The dry jack brings to mind parmesan but with a milder taste and without all the salt. The asiago was nutty, buttery and slightly sweet, perfect in my opinion. The Mezzo Secco is tangy and absolutely delightful.After we made our purchases and stepped out into the sidewalk, I saw this sign (above) across the street and just had to check it out. It was a very simple self-serve produce stand filled with autumn's bounty. The first thing that caught my eye were the fresh figs in their crates! ( Joey can totally relate! She had even coincidentally posted about her experience on her blog on this very day.) The taste of fresh figs were a mystery to me until then. I let out a shriek and made a beeline for them.

The kind man in charge was thrilled that I was thrilled and he immediately transferred some into a little plastic basket, which is how they measure and price them, and asked me how many I wanted. I stammered something about 3 or 4, paid him and grabbed a basket from him. He said to go right ahead and try them, so I did. I bit into one and felt a little bit closer to paradise. I closed my eyes and really tasted it. It was incredibly sweet! It's unique texture is a combination of it's smooth thin skin, crunchy seeds and soft chewy flesh. It was gooooooood! And very well worth the wait. :)We stopped to check out the Fruit Basket along Sonoma Highway. It turned out to be a place to buy much more than just fruit or vegetables. There were wines for sale, assorted breads and biscuits, hordes of pre-packed nuts and candies and other miscellaneous items. Ok, so I really just wanted to stop for a picture with the haystack decorated with pumpkins, which is actually what caught my attention and caused me to swerve into the driveway. But look (second pic below), doesn't it make a pretty picture!? :)

The Fruit Basket

"warty" gourds in all colors and patterns

clockwise from top right: pre-packaged pasta in various shapes, candy corn,
nuts and other goodies, beans of all varieties, and an abundance of squash

Sonoma Cheese Factory
Sonoma Town Square

Vella Cheese Factory
Second Street East
withing walking distance from the Plaza

The Fruit Basket
Sonoma Highway

Up Next: Misson Solano

January 17, 2007

Autumn in the Valley

On this crisp autumn day in October, the short drive from the town of Glen Ellen (where The Olive Press and Wine Country Chocolates are located) to downtown Sonoma was a sight for sore eyes. The warm colors of the season were visible everywhere. These are some of the pictures I managed to take with my point-and-shoot camera, though no photography or words could do it justice.