Tagged: Californian

CR | Tacolicious

Ladies and gents, we’ve found a new restaurant that we are completely and totally, head-over-heels in love with.

It was touch-and-go for a bit. This restaurant joins several good ones on Chestnut street, which are all plagued with the same problem. On a weekend, they are impossible to get into without a reservation or a long wait. Tacolicious is no different. It’s great for the restaurant but awful for the people who just spent forty-five minutes finding parking only to find that a table is another forty-five minutes away. This was in its second open week. San Franciscans sure know how to welcome restaurants with open arms and wallets.

The next time we got in through the door, but were nearly blasted right back out by the sheer wall of sound and people that greeted us. The music was intensely loud and I found myself screaming at the hostess about tables and the bar. Finally, we grabbed a couple of tacos, guacamole and some fried plantains to-go and blew out of the place. Conversation of any kind was impossible in there. Call me crazy, but I like discussing the food and other world events with my dinner companions as I eat. Not that I would have gotten to rest on even half a bar stool that night. Tacolicious was living the very high life.

It might have been a to-go order, but it was packed with the same care and precision that I was to later realize that they put into all their food. The fresh tortilla chips and salsa that arrive at your table for you to nibble on as you peruse the menu had been thoughtfully included. So were the three different kinds of salsa that arrive with the tacos. You can tell a lot about restaurants serving Mexican food from their salsa and guacamole. Tacolicious scores flashing high numbers in this regard. They have this tangy green tomatillo salsa and smoky brown chipotle salsa, along with a searing yellow habenero one that set the soul of this chilli lover ablaze. The guacamole was easily some of the best I’ve eaten in a restaurant, with a creamy consistency, sour but not too much. We were hooked.
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Annie Somerville’s Polenta in a Gorgonzola cream sauce with Walnuts

Today, I woke up to a cat. Not my cat. I don’t have a cat. I wish I had a cat. Or a dog. I’m not particular on that point. I just wish I had a pet.  You may be wondering “Why is she making a big deal out of this? Cats, they’ve been around humans for millenia, haven’t they? It’s not like she came face-to-face with a dinosaur!” (That would have been some conversation starter, wouldn’t it? “Today, I met Barney. The real thing my dear! And you know, he’s more vivid mauve than purple, positively fuchsia!”)

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, on with the tale. As I was saying, on waking today, I came face-to-face with a cat. The sighting at close quarters was strange for a couple of reasons. First, I’d just woken from a strange dream involving Superman, the Incredible Hulk, the Cheshire cat and the Mad Hatter cooking together (I suspect this had something to do with watching too much TV and consuming some questionable leftover pie much too late last night, but I’m always glad when Johnny Depp shows up in my dream life, especially since he will never be there in the waking one…sigh). The last elusive image I had in my head was a cat grinning over a steaming pot, just before I woke from my weird shallows of slumber. I stumbled drowsily into the kitchen for a warm cuppa and rolled up the window shades to see a calm, grey tabby just sitting there, staring at me with perfect equanimity. As you can imagine, the feeling was surreal. Second, this would be an absolute first cat sighting for me in the environs of my apartment building. I’ve seen them sitting at windows as I pass by other places in the city. But, to my chagrin, these places are never around me. Not one person in the vicinity has ever had a cat as far as I can see. (I live around some pet-hating landlords.) Yet here was this one, an honest-to-goodness, fluffy grey cat with white socks, pale green-grey eyes and a lovely grey-white-black tail curled comfortably around her.

We stared at each other for a bit, motionless and silent. The cat kindly let me get a hold of my scattered senses; she seemed to have decided that any sudden moves might send me over the edge. Then slowly, deliberately, she lifted her paw in a half-greeting and then proceeded to give it a thorough washing. When she was done, she looked up and seemed a bit miffed that I still hadn’t moved. Her feline gestures seemed to suggest a slight impatience with the human. She got up gracefully, stretched in that mind-bogglingly flexible way that only cats can, and padded her way on silent paws to the edge of the lobby roof where she sat, giving me a reproachful look and a plaintive miaow. “Here I am,” she seemed to say, “out in the cold at your window and you won’t even offer me some milk! What would your mother say?” (My mother, while assiduously denying animals room and board, is nevertheless a famous feeder of stray cats. Famous. Ask any of our neighbours.) That look jolted me right out of my stupor. It was reminiscent of my nephew when he was younger and was told he couldn’t have any chocolate. Just so woeful. I looked about for some milk for her, but realised that if she had it, then me and Amey would have to do without. Telling my husband this early in the morning that he can’t have any milk (“because the cat asked for some”) might cause him to look about on how to get me committed. He’s a bear when he hasn’t had his morning coffee. So in the interest of my well-being, I tentatively offered her the last bit of the questionable pie.


She sniffed at it with suspicion, then proceeded to consume it with a rather browbeaten air, as will a guest when his hostess insists he try something he can’t stand, but is too polite to refuse. The deed done, she licked her whiskers clean and then proceeded to chew her tail in a gentle, abstracted fashion for a few minutes. Then, quite suddenly, with the air of the end of a performance, she stretched with an athlete’s commitment and took off, gracefully jumping onto a tree from the roof as she proceeded to make her way to the ground. Then, with a slow blink of those green eyes, she was gone, quite as suddenly as she had appeared into my life. No forwarding address, no P.O Box Number. Disconsolate, I could only hope she made her way home safely before the traffic picked up for the morning. This early morning event left me craving something warm, comforting and nourishing for a meal. With daydreams of having my own cat (or dog) someday, I thumbed through the books for inspiration. That’s when I spied this little recipe for polenta.

Polenta came into my culinary horizon fairly recently. There was a grilled version of polenta I ate as an appetizer at Greens restaurant that I fell head-over-heels in love with. The way you feel when you meet the one and wonder where they’ve been your entire life. Polenta is made rather easily from cornmeal and has a way of firming up as it cools down. This porridge is then sliced and browned on a skillet or toasted in the oven until its outsides crisp up a bit. It tastes of mushed up corn and is a blank palette for any number of flavours that you can throw at it. At Greens, I ate it with some mushrooms and it was one of the most delectable things I’ve ever eaten. This recipe was different. It called for the gentle poaching of ingredients in cream while you cooked, cooled and grilled the polenta. Some gorgonzola cheese and walnuts rounded out the flavours. A warming gem of a dish. It leaves you with the same contentment you get from having a warm and purring cat sitting on your lap.

Polenta and Walnuts with a Gorgonzola and herbed cream sauce
Adapted from Annie Sommerville’s Everyday Greens
Serves 3 to 4 as an entrée, maybe twice as many as an appetizer

For the polenta:
Water – 4 cups
Cornmeal – 1 cup
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Parmesan cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
A quick two gratings of nutmeg and cardamom
Salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce:
Half-and half OR skimmed milk – 1 cup
Cream – 1 cup
Red onion – 1/2, sliced fine
Garlic cloves – 3 to 4, smashed with the flat of a knife, paper skins left on,
Bay leaf – 1
Fresh Thyme sprigs – 2
Fresh oregano sprig – 1
Sage – 3 leaves
Gorgonzola cheese – 3/4 cup, crumbled
Kasseri or Fontina cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
Walnut pieces – 1/2 cup, toasted
Basil leaves – a half-handful, chopped into a chiffonade

To make the polenta:
– In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Salt the water, then add the cornmeal. Lower the heat a bit to gently cook the polenta until it smoothly thickens, about 20 minutes or so.
– When the polenta is cooked, take it off the heat. Stir in the pepper, nutmeg, cardamom and olive oil.
– Pour into a 9″x15″ dish and allow it to cool. Upon cooling, slice the polenta into  six or eight squares (which can be cut into triangles if the dish is to be an appetizer).

To make the sauce:
– Combine the cream, milk, onion, garlic and herbs in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer the sauce. Allow the sauce to reduce slightly, cooking for about 15 minutes.
– Strain the cream sauce, then return to the saucepan. Add half the Gorgonzola cheese to it, whisking it in to melt, over low heat. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

To assemble the dish:
– While the sauce is cooking, pour a little olive oil onto a skillet. Lightly crisp the polenta slices on the skillet until golden brown. Alternatively you could place the slices with some olive oil into a pre-heated oven at 325°F for 15-20 minutes.
– Place a couple of square (or a couple of triangles) on a plate . Sprinkle some Fontina (or Kasseri) and some of the reserved Gorgonzola on the slices, then ladle over some of the sauce. Sprinkle with some of the walnut pieces and a generous amount of basil. Enjoy right away!

Cook’s notes:
I like lots of basil. So I didn’t didn’t bother with a chiffonade. Annie Sommerville suggests plating the polenta on a plate of arugula. I might have used it if I had it, or I would have used some watercress. Turned out I didn’t have any, so I just made up for the lack of it with lots of basil. (After the pictures, the dish went all green). The cooking of the sauce threw me a bit. I’ve never poached onions in cream before…to be frank, I’ve never poached onions in anything before. I’ve always browned them in oil or had them raw. The poaching here gently brings out the essence of the onion, herbs and the garlic. Sure, it all gets discarded but it has passed some of its soul onto the cream. It leaves behind a very luxurious, fragrant sauce that’s a real treat with the crisped polenta.

This is certainly a rich dish, but satisfying and very good with just the salad. As an appetizer, I would serve small individual portions to ensure that my guests save some room for the main course. A couple of pieces stacked together should do. The polenta can be made a day ahead, sliced and placed into the fridge. When required they can then be crisped on the skillet before assembly. One bite of this takes you to a warm, happy time. Mine I imagine, would be curled up on a sofa, with a book and my cat, if I had a cat.

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Kickpleat’s Cinnamon-Banana bread with walnuts, raisins & butterscotch chips

4th of July. Independence day here in the United States, day of siege for those of us who happen to live anywhere within a few blocks radius of the Bay. For it is the day hordes of people descend upon the city. Some are tourists involved in long weekend travelling, others just live around the city and decide that is the day they want to visit. It’s the day when city inhabitants head out while the ones from without try to get in.

Amey and I learnt our lesson about this day the year we first moved to our apartment. We had flown out of the country and hit upon the brilliant plan of arriving back on 4th of July. The airport was like a circus with none of the fun and excitement. Getting a cab was next to impossible; the moment they heard our address, cab drivers suddenly dug their tires into the tarmac and refused to budge. As we threatened to melt into sad little puddles in the July heat, a tough old lady with green hair and a moustache took pity on our wilting forms with matching duct taped luggage and decided to drive us home, with dire warnings about how much this was going to cost us with the traffic. We could see the fog slowly inching into the city over the western hills as the cab slowly headed north at about the same pace.

An hour later we were still five blocks away. As the fireworks lit up the twilit sky, jet lag was starting to hit us both badly. But every car in front of us, behind us, next to us, was frozen in place while idiots scrambled with their cameras trying to photograph flashes of light created by distant firecrackers. As the driver’s yelled profanities reached levels that were starting to shock even my well-seasoned husband, we decided the best course of action was to get out and start to walk before some of surrounded ‘happy’ people started to hurl beer bottles at us. Just as the last firecracker lit the sky, we grabbed our luggage out of the trunk, took a deep breath and headed homeward, only to find ourselves thoroughly thwarted. From the swells that flooded towards us, it seemed like all of humanity was in San Francisco watching the fireworks. I was walked into, trod upon, and thoroughly bruised. A guy in green shorts and very questionable breath nearly shattered my eardrum with a ‘Merry Cracker day’. Amey was nearly strangled when he was given a bear hug by some girl wearing star spangled tights and a neon green tank top. We nearly lost an arm several times when out-of-breath and judgment impaired morons kept mistaking our bags for ‘something to sit on’. Bruised, bloody and heartily sorry to be alive, we finally made it to our building thirty minutes later. Amey was missing a contact lens, I was missing a slipper and my mind, at least two-and-a-half handles were broken. But-we-made-it-home, ostensibly all together. As we fell asleep on the carpet, we could hear the people and traffic outside and swore we’d never be out on July 4 as long as we lived in this apartment.

A few years later and July 4th comes around last weekend. The traffic started building up with bumper-to-bumper vehicles by 3 pm. Mothers yelled. Kids cried. Cars blared Michael Jackson through the stereo, loud enough to make the glass in my windows look like jelly. I looked out (at a safe distance from the glass of course) at the sea of people and was fervently grateful for not having left home. The fog meant it was a cool day so Amey and I celebrated in the warm embrace of an enchanting banana bread.

This is the kind of bread that is so comforting, it is magic. It can make all your woes disappear. First there is the fact that it smells like heaven when it is baking in the oven. Seriously, if Napolean or Hitler had a whiff of this bread in their day, they may have given up all ideas of world domination. This bread could bring about world peace. In the very least it brought our neighbours who we barely know knocking on our door. It smells like your favourite childhood bed is ready and waiting. It smells of misty dreams. And then, there is the way it tastes. Of bananas and fresh cinnamon, of cheery comfort. I’m sure it would bring searing warmth to cold days. It bought us an hour and a half of reigning peace, divorced from blaring car horns and yelling tourists. It brought us freedom from care.

Cinnamon-Banana bread with walnuts, raisins & butterscotch chips
adapted from a recipe via Everybody likes Sandwiches

Makes one medium loaf

Bananas – 3, very ripe.
Eggs – 2
Unbleached all-purpose flour – 1 ½ cups
Agave Nectar – 3/4 cup
Baking Soda – 1 tsp
Cinnamon – 2 tsp, ground
Vanilla extract – 1 tsp
Butterscotch chips – 1/2 cup
Walnuts – 1/2 cup, broken into pieces
Raisins – 1/2 cup
About a 1/4 tsp of sugar mixed with 1/4 tsp of ground cinnamon for sprinkling over

– Preheat your oven to 375°F and lightly butter a loaf pan.
– Mash the bananas well. Add eggs and stir in briskly to combine with the mashed banana.
– Add flour, agave nectar, baking soda, vanilla and cinnamon. Stir well to combine.
– Fold in the butterscotch chips, walnut pieces and most of the raisins, reserving a few
– Pour the mixture into the prepped loaf pan.
– Top with an even sprinkling of the cinnamon-sugar mixture and the saved raisins.
– Place in the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a knife or toothpick inserted into the bread comes out clean.

Cook’s notes:
I love nuts in sweets, and bananas and walnuts are a match made in my dream paradise. In fact, this is what they would serve there on demand all day. I was curious about the recipe having no fat of any kind whatsoever but there was no cause for concern. The bread turned out rich and delicious. It has a dense, soft crumb that breaks apart with the slightest pressure and fills you with a warm and fuzzy feeling all over. The warming tones of the cinnamon weave themselves through the other ingredients to create a richly spiced, out-of-this-world bread. I replaced the sugar with agave nectar and butterscotch chips for the chocolate the original recipe calls for. I didn’t miss the sugar at all and the butterscotch chips simply disappeared into the cake, leaving behind their caramelly hints. The whole thing comes together in ten or fifteen minutes and after that the oven does the work. Bake this on a weary day and you will feel your spirits rise with the bread. It gave us our Independence Day.