Thursday, August 26, 2010

SF Chefs 2010 aka Food & Wine Orgy 2010

Last week I was lucky enough to get away to attend SF Chefs 2010 in San Francisco.  It's a food and wine extravaganza held over several days under a huge tent in Union Square.  The city's top restaurants and chefs offer tastings of their fabulous food, wine flows freely, cocktails are freshly made, and live music fills the air.  Food and wine classes are also offered along with chef demos.  I attended last year's inaugural event (see post 8/12/09) and had so much fun I wanted to go this year to see if the organizers could repeat their initial success.  Well, they did!

Now admittedly SF Chefs is not inexpensive but it's such a treat and you get to sample so much food and wine that going out to eat is completely unnecessary.  It's also structured so that you can pick and choose which events you'd like to attend and keep it within your budget.  Since it falls right around our wedding anniversary my husband and I go all out and consider it a lovely gift to ourselves.

We started our anniversary celebration on Friday morning by attending our first class - Nature's Blueprint:  Pairing Food & Wine with Your Eyes.  Presented by Gilian Handelman, Director of Wine Education at Kendall Jackson Wines, the class explored how to pair foods with wine by color.  One of my favorite pairings was fresh corn with chardonnay ... oh my!  They're both golden in color with soft, round flavors and are just magic together.  It was a really interesting class and I'd like to visit their Wine Center where they maintain both red and white wine sensory gardens devoted to this concept.

The Guest of Honor
Aren't they beautiful?
Later in the evening we headed over to the tent for the SF Chefs Opening Night Celebration:  Hog in the Fog.  There were pork dishes as far as the eye could see, including rilletes, terrines, porchetta and pork belly, but thankfully none of the sliders that were so prevalent last year.  I don't know about you, but it wouldn't break my heart if sliders fell out of favor ... I'm so tired of seeing them everywhere!  Gary Rulli of Ristobar was one of the few chefs offering non-porky dishes, and his chocolate-dipped cape gooseberries were exquisite.  The live band was fantastic and really worked the crowd, even getting some party-goers up on stage with them ...

Can you dig it?

A chaser of aspirin & I was good as new!
The next morning we attended our second class, The Evolution and Revolution of Gin, presented by Simon Ford, International Ambassador for Plymouth Gin.  Now I love Plymouth in my Long Island Iced Teas, but sampling six gins and three gin cocktails at 10 AM is not something I've ever done before.  I paid the price with a headache, but it was fun!

Grilled Sourdough Ice Cream
We spent the afternoon at the tent getting food in us to absorb the alcohol, then followed that with dessert at the Sugar Party at the Westin St. Francis hotel.  It was an ice cream social put on by some of the best pastry chefs in the city, including Emily Luchetti (Farrallon) and Elizabeth Falkner (Citizen Cake).  Elizabeth did a Grilled Sourdough Ice Cream with Concord Grape Syrup and Salted Brazil Nuts and Spanish Peanuts that was amazing!  It really tasted like sourdough bread and it was my favorite dessert at the party.  We ended up back at the tent for the Fork It Over Foodraiser, where the evening's highlight was the show put on by the very entertaining and talented ladies from Harry Denton's Starlight Room.  I have got to go there the next time I'm in the city.  What a blast!

It was a bit painful to get up on time the next morning, but we made it to the Chef's Challenge pitting Tyler Florence (Wayfare Tavern) and Elizabeth Falkner against Chris Cosentino (Incanto) and Jen Biesty (Top Chef).  The secret ingredient was lamb, and Chris and Jen won by a narrow margin, but I admired Elizabeth's chutzpah in making lamb crepes with a chocolate sauce.  Oh, I wish I could have tasted it!  We followed that with another afternoon at the tent, where the most beautiful dish was a gorgeous black-eyed pea salad presented by Eddie Blyden of Henry's.

Yes, those ARE cupcakes on their heads!
The grand finale was Project Open Hand's 10th Annual Dessert First fundraiser at the InterContinental San Francisco.  The party was preceded by a reception where five bartenders competed to see who could make the tastiest cocktail from a table of secret ingredients plus their own ingredient of choice that they brought with them.  The winning cocktail from One Market was a delicious blend of blackberries, jalapeno peppers and chocolate bitters (their secret ingredient).  You could actually taste the chocolate bitters in the drink, and since we make our own at Grange I'm now on a mission to incorporate it in a dessert.

Spectacular sweets were presented by the pastry chefs from Boulevard, Michael Mina, Baker & Banker and others.  My fave?  I loved Lori Baker's Fig Newton with Malted Milk Ice Cream and Blackberry Caramel.  It was perfectly balanced, simple and scrumptious.  I noticed that several chefs offered variations on macarons which seem to be trendy this year, much like sliders were for the savory chefs last year.  In fact, Elizabeth Falkner did only macarons at this party, with flavors ranging from chocolate to citrus to curry, and yes, they were all quite tasty!

So I wonder what next year will bring?  You know what?  I'll let you know, because we'll be there ... again ... celebrating our wedding anniversary with San Francisco's best chefs, pastry chefs and mixologists.  Lucky us!

Monday, July 26, 2010

How Do You Make Figs Even Sexier? Add Tequila!

Mission Figs - The Angelina Jolie
 of the fruit world
We just celebrated National Tequila Day at Grange with a special menu featuring Tres Agaves tequila pairings with each course.  I had never created a dessert using tequila before, and I welcomed the opportunity to play with a new ingredient.  The dessert course was paired with their anejo tequila, which is aged in Woodford Reserve oak barrels for 18 months.  It's a beautiful dark caramel brown color, with a robust, full and complex flavor profile.  After tasting it certain flavor notes started coming to mind, such as oranges, brown sugar and warm spices.  Since fruit would also be part of the dessert, I mentally shuffled through what's in season right now, and settled on figs.  I had used some gorgeous fresh Mission figs a couple weeks ago, and although they're gapping right now I knew Turkey figs would be available.

I decided to make the main component a fig spice cake and infuse it with some of the tequila.  I combined some beautiful little whole dried Mission figs with tequila and water and simmered them until they absorbed the liquid.  Then I coarsely chopped the fruit and folded it into the cake batter, which had brown sugar, ginger and allspice in it.  I portioned the batter into individual rectangular cake molds, and while the little cakes were baking I put together a syrup to brush on them.

Tequila X 3 ...
used for the cake, sauce & figs!
I made a dry caramel with some sugar, then added orange juice, chopped fresh Turkey figs, star anise and black peppercorns.  I simmered the mixture for a few minutes, then strained the syrup to remove the fruit and spices, put it back on the stove and added a couple tablespoons of the tequila.  I let it reduce a bit to concentrate the flavors even more.  I gave Kara, our restaurant manager, a taste of the syrup and she said, "I think you just made a cocktail!"  She was right - it tasted like a delicious tequila-orange cocktail with fig and spices ... YUM!  When the little cakes were done I removed them from their molds while still warm, and brushed them with the hot syrup.

Continuing the fig theme, I decided to add roasted figs to the dessert.  I dunked more of the Turkey figs in sugar syrup, put them in a roasting pan and drizzled them with a quick glaze made with local wild oak honey and ... tequila!  I chose wild oak honey because I thought it would complement the oak barrel-aged liquor.  I baked the figs until they just softened, basting them several times.  Perfect!

It's Sexy Time ...
To complete the dessert I took a cue from the main course of the meal, which was goat, and made goat cheese ice cream.  I used a wonderful mild goat cheese from North Valley Farms, one of our great local artisan producers (see The Goat Whisperer, 6/1/09).  It made a fantastic ice cream, rich and creamy with just a slight tanginess from the cheese which went great with the rest of the components.  A drizzle of the wild oak honey on the ice cream and a splash of the fig-orange-anejo syrup on the plate completed the dessert.

It was so much fun to put this together!  I loved how the anejo tequila worked with the figs, orange and spices, and I really look forward to using it again in another dessert.  I asked Kara what liquor our next special event would feature, and she mentioned rum.  Rum and dessert? ... oh, the possibilities!

Monday, July 12, 2010

S'mall S'mores

This week I had a fun challenge.  We hosted a Tuaca launch reception at the hotel, and the night before the event I got an email asking if I could do a dessert for it.  Since Tuaca is a vanilla and orange liqueur it needed to feature those flavors and oh, by the way, could I do a s'more dessert to complement the s'more cocktail that had already been designed?

No problem!  I started conceptualizing the dessert by breaking down the components.  S'mores are simple - graham crackers, chocolate, marshmallow.  I decided to use the graham cracker sable recipe from Johnny Iuzzini's Dessert Fourplay which I knew would produce a nice thin cracker suitable for a mini dessert.  Now for the chocolate.  When I was a kid one of my favorite treats was my mom's homemade chocolate frosting on graham crackers.  I wanted to recreate that lovely childhood memory by using my favorite dark chocolate fudge icing to fill the s'more.  Mmmmmm ... bittersweet chocolate with a healthy dose of vanilla - adding some Tuaca to it was a no-brainer.  So far, so good.

Of course I needed a marshmallow component, but since we had already made conventional marshmallows to garnish the s'more cocktail I didn't want to repeat them in the dessert.  So I went with Italian meringue ... just like marshmallow, but without the gelatin.  Fast and easy to make, pipeable, toastable.  Perfect!

I had my plan - now I just had to execute it.  The first thing I did when I got in the next morning was make the graham cracker dough so it would have time to chill before I rolled it out.  Then I made the chocolate fudge icing, adding Tuaca to taste, and let it set up at room temperature so it maintained a glossy sheen.  When the graham dough was cold enough I rolled it very thin and baked it.  As soon as it came out of the oven I flipped it out onto a cutting board and used a small cutter to cut squares about 1.25" x 1.25".  Then I cut each square in half to make two rectangles.  While the mini crackers cooled I made a batch of Italian meringue.

To assemble the s'mores I piped the silky, shiny dark chocolate fudge icing on half of the crackers.  Each cracker then got a little pinch of diced candied orange (which we always have in the pastry fridge) to make them a little extra special and kick up the orange flavor notes.  Then I squiggled Italian meringue onto the remaining crackers and lightly browned them with our propane torch.  I pressed the little sandwiches together and voila!  Tuaca S'mores.

Fast and easy to make, these little two-bite treats are winners all the way around.  The icing and meringue can be flavored in a million different ways.  Once assembled they hold well at room temperature and have great eye appeal.  They're just so darn cute!  I like these S'mall S'mores so much they're now the latest addition to the petite dessert displays we do for banquets.  And every single time I make them I'll think of (and thank) my mom. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

Boqueria California - An Idea Whose Time Has Come

I love living in Sacramento.  I love that we actually have seasons up here.  I love being in between Napa and Tahoe, with San Francisco just to the west.  And I really, really love being surrounded by the embarrassment of riches we have within arm's reach here - fruits, vegetables and nuts, artisan cheeses, olive oil, glorious honey, even locally-manufactured chocolate.  That's why I'm so pleased that a group of people with vision are trying to make that bounty a centerpiece for our city.

Boqueria California is a year-round marketplace and farmer's market concept and one of the components of The AuthentiCity, a mixed-use complex being proposed for the redevelopment of K Street, long a neglected area of downtown sorely in need of revitalization.  The people behind The AuthentiCity include Grange's executive chef, Michael Tuohy, and Rubicon Partners and Vitae Architecture, who worked together to renovate a historic office building and turn it into The Citizen Hotel, beautiful and modern but with an old soul.

The Boqueria would feature 35,000 sf of California grown produce and products from across the state.  There would be vendor stalls offering "street food" reflecting the diversity of cultures in our area.  Can you imagine?  Any day of the week you could go downtown and wander the stalls, picking and choosing from all the gorgeous fresh food layed out in front of you, stopping to eat a hand-rolled tamale and washing it down with a craft beer or locally-produced glass of wine.  Maybe, just maybe, there would be a stall where you could get artisan pastries!  I don't know about you, but that sounds like a little piece of heaven to me.

I've seen a lot of positive growth in the Sacramento food scene since moving here almost 10 years ago.  We have restaurants like Grange, Ella's and Mulvaney's, all showcasing local, sustainable, organic produce and artisan products.  We have a downtown farmer's market under a freeway(!) that's packed every Sunday.  The Slow Food Movement has chapters in Yolo and Sacramento counties.  Many of us get a box of organic produce each week from local farms as part the the CSA (community-supported agriculture) program.  Sacramento's citizens love good food and clearly support the farm-to-table movement.  Now we have an opportunity for an amazing multi-cultural food marketplace to fuel our passion for cooking and eating with great ingredients.  Please check out the Boqueria California website to learn more and show your support for this terrific concept (  Let's make it happen!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ingredient Spotlight: Luxardo Il Maraschino Originale

I just put a new dessert on the Grange menu:  Fresh Cherry Trifle.  When I first made it for the Follow the Chef market tour, I used vanilla pastry cream layered with lemon poundcake, fresh cherries and hazelnut brittle.  It was delicious, but I wanted to kick up the cherry a bit before I introduced it in the dining room.  So I turned to Luxardo Il Maraschino Originale, a classic Italian liqueur.  I incorporated a small amount into the pastry cream and it imparted a subtle, haunting cherry note that just brought the whole dessert together in a most beautiful way.

Luxardo Maraschino is one of the few distilled liqueurs in the world and is aged for two years in Finnish ash vats.  It's made from the marasca, a sour cherry exclusively cultivated by the Luxardo company.  Girolamo Luxardo's wife, Maria Canevari, originally made the liqueur at home (apparently a popular "hobby" at the time) in Zara, a port city on the Dalmation coast which is now part of the Croatia republic.  The liqueur Maria made was of such fine quality and became so popular that in 1821 Girolamo founded a distillery for commercial production.   He perfected the recipe and received an exclusive "privilege" from the Emperor of Austria attesting to its superior quality.  In 1913 Michelangelo Luxardo built an enormous modern distillery, also in Zara, which unfortunately was almost completely destroyed in World War II, as was the family itself.  Much of the Italian population fled in exile to Italy and elsewhere, and Giorgio Luxardo, the only brother who survived, built a new distillery in Torreglia, Italy in 1947.  The Luxardo family now makes other liqueurs as well, including Sambuca, Amaretto and Limoncello, and has a line of liqueur concentrates, fruit syrups and marasca cherry jam.

Now, 189 years later, it's my "privilege" to use Il Maraschino Originale in one of my desserts.  The clear liqueur is beautifully packaged in green glass with a distinctive hand-fitted straw wrap.  Girolamo's name is proudly displayed on the label, although I think Maria's name should be there as well.  After all, the genesis of this lovely ingredient began with Maria and her homemade liqueur.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Now THAT'S Strawberry!

OK, I admit it ... I'm not a big fan of raw strawberries.  Too crunchy, weak flavor, most picked before they're fully ripe.  The rainy weather we had at the start of strawberry season made both conventional and organic berries watery to boot.  But when you apply heat to strawberries a wonderful thing happens.  The excess moisture evaporates, the fruit softens, the flavor deepens.  A forgettable piece of fruit becomes memorable.

And one of the best ways to cook strawberries is to make them into jam.  It's so easy  - chop the berries, add some sugar, cook low and slow and BAM ... you've got homemade jam.  And oh, is it good.  And gorgeous.  Deep red.  The pure essence of the berry with in-your-face flavor.  If you've never made homemade jam, I encourage you to do it now, while strawberries are in the market.  You don't need special equipment (just a candy thermometer), you don't need to process jars in a water bath.  Just cook the fruit, put it in the fridge and use it every chance you get for two or three weeks, until it's gone.  On bread, over ice cream, in stuffed french toast, swirled into yogurt, folded into fresh berries, or just spooned right from the bowl into your mouth.  Yes, it's that good.

I make seasonal jams and marmalades at the restaurant, but I don't process them for long storage.  I  use them right away because I think the flavor is just so incredibly vibrant when they're freshly made.  They show up as components on plated desserts, like the meyer lemon marmalade I nestle next to poached sweet-tart rhubarb.  (By the way, there's rhubarb-ginger jam in those crepes, too!)

Or I use them to build flavor in a dessert like our strawberry crostata, which I served to our Follow the Chef market tour guests a couple weeks ago.  It's a rustic fruit tart that I make by smearing strawberry jam on a lovely, flaky tart dough, piling on some fresh cut-up berries and baking them.  No extra sugar on the fruit - that just creates more liquid, which I don't want.  The fruit softens in the heat of the oven, the bubbling fresh juices mingle with the jam ... it's strawberry, magnified.

If you'd like to try making jam, here's a recipe to get you started.

STRAWBERRY JAM (makes about 3 c)

2 lb strawberries, rinsed, green tops sliced off
2-1/2 c sugar
Juice of 1 lemon, strained

Use the best berries you can find - deeply colored, no white shoulders, preferably organic.  Cut the berries into chunks and put into a medium saucepan (use a pan big enough to contain any boil over that might occur while the fruit cooks).  Add the sugar and stir it in.  Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and put over medium-high heat.  Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently.  Once the mixture comes to a full boil turn down the heat to medium and continue to cook at a slow boil, stirring every few minutes and scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent the mixture from scorching.  As the jam cooks use the back of the spoon (or a potato masher) to break down the berries to get the texture you want.  Chunky or smooth - you decide.  Cook until the mixture thickens and the thermometer registers 220F. 

Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.  Set up an ice bath by putting ice into a large bowl, then nestling a smaller bowl into the ice.  Carefully pour the hot jam into the smaller bowl and let cool, stirring frequently to speed up the process.  When the jam is cool to the touch cover and refrigerate.  It'll keep for several weeks in the fridge.

That's all there is to it.  You're now the proud owner of fresh strawberry jam.  You can increase the recipe if you want - we usually do at least a double batch at the restaurant.  And, if you must, you can add flavorings ... vanilla, spices, whatever.  But for me, this jam is the perfect strawberry.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Follow the Chef Market Tour Desserts

Here are the desserts I made for the recent Follow the Chef farmer's market tours, highlighting strawberries and rhubarb.  On the left is rhubarb-strawberry soup with milk-poached meringue, local wildflower honey sabayon and lemon cream poundcake.  On the right - strawberry crostata with a strawberry milkshake.

I think I may use cherries this week ... maybe with some roasted white chocolate.