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 (http://www.boqueriaca.com/).  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.