Thursday, September 30, 2010

Restaurant Review: Magpie Cafe

If you are ever in Sacramento and you only have time to stop at one place, here is my suggestion:
Magpie Cafe. It's downtown, it's excellent, the food is almost all local, and the ambiance is charming.

The locals just park their bikes out front, take a glance at the daily specials, and walk on in.

Choose from their baked goods, but in my book, there is only one choice: the carrot cake cookie. A perfectly crisp yet chewy pair of cookies with creamy cream cheese frosting holding it all together. Irresistible! Below, best friend Allison models said cookie.

Magpie always offers a fine selection of local dairy products and cured meats, along with 6 or 7 fresh salads that change seasonally.

Grab a seat and soak up some sunshine while you wait for your food. Maybe try to figure out what the posters on the wall mean... I haven't yet.

Your meal will arrive shortly. If it's lunch, it will likely involve absolutely perfect bread and simple, fresh, local, seasonally appropriate fillings, along with a thoughtful,
complimentary side dish. Examples:

Goat cheese and fig sandwich with side salad

BLT with heirloom tomatoes, watercress, quality bacon, and a side of tangy purple potato salad.

Maybe you can see why I love this place. I don't know anyone who hasn't enjoyed the food, although if you go on certain nights, the flocks of foodie fans can get a bit noisy.

Winter Gardens

Here are some shots of my very first winter garden, taken last week. I have planted many spring vegetables, but never winter varieties. I decided to try my hand at:

Leeks (just barely starting to push their green shoots up through the earth)

Beets (I love beet salad)

And bok choy, also pictured below. These guys got in first, so they're the furthest a long. I love boy choy, which is a great side dish to almost any Asian dish. I stir fry it with olive oil, garlic, and dress with a little soy or oyster sauce. Yum!

Have you ever grown winter vegetables before? What's in your garden this winter?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Guess What Concert I'm Going To...

Muse performs in Toronto

Tonight, we are going with some good friends to see British band Muse, along with their opening act, Passion Pit. Muse is said to be one of the great live acts touring now, and with their dramatic vocal falsetto and stirring guitar riffs (often compared to those of Queen), I can see why. I was first introduced to the Muse album Absolution a few years back, and found it to be apocalyptic, terrifying, meaningful and incredibly impressive. Now, with their prominent position on every Twilight soundtrack (author Stephenie Meyer worships the ground they walk on), they are finally gaining popularity in the US after already doing so in England, Australia and Japan.

I am also looking forward to seeing Passion Pit, who hail from Massachusetts. Their extremely catchy and upbeat track "Little Secrets" has been a regular on my work out music lists for some time. Who have you seen recently in concert, or who would you love to see?

Passion Pit in 2008

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Best Homemade Tomato Soup

Sometimes I have technical difficulties when taking pictures of food. A photographer I am not. I am limited by an ordinary camera and my apartment's general poor lighting. Still, I do make an effort to capture an image of the food I make, although it often fails to convey the goodness thereof.

The deliciousness of this tomato soup could not be capture by a photo. It bears no resemblance to the Campbell's soup version. It is the perfect texture and boasts an awesome flavor that far outshines its humble appearance. I call it a perfect way to use up the last of summer's tomato crop. You can also freeze those tomatoes and they will work in this recipe equally well.

Note: This recipe is dairy-free, and if you substitute vegetable broth, it could be made to be vegetarian.

Garden Fresh Tomato Soup

4 c. chopped fresh tomatoes
1/2 c. chopped onion
4 springs fresh thyme
1/2 tsp. dried basil
2 c. chicken broth
2 T. butter
2 T. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. white sugar

In a stockpot, over medium heat, combine the tomatoes, onion, spices and broth. Bring to a boil, and gently boil for about 20 minutes to blend the flavors. Remove from heat, remove thyme springs and discard. Blend mixture in blender or with an immersion blender.

In the now empty stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour to make a roux, cooking until the roux is a medium brown. Gradually whisk in a bit of the tomato mixture, so that no lumps form, then stir in the rest. Season with sugar and salt, and adjust to taste.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Spanish Tortilla

After making Portuguese green soup this week, we had leftover linguica, and I decided to make a Spanish tortilla, using Portuguese sausage in place of the Spanish chorizo.

When I announced my intention of making a Spanish tortilla, my husband became excited. "You won't like it," I responded. "Of course I'll like it!" he insisted. "You won't mind the eggs and the potatoes?" I queried (he despises both foods). Puzzled, he said, "Huh?"

Obviously, my husband had the Mexican tortilla confused with a Spanish one, which is more like a fantastic omelette, layered with potatoes and onions. I found a recipe online and tweaked it a bit. I used a cast-iron skillet, which works wonderfully for browning the tortilla and the meat, and can easily be used on both the stove top and oven.

Linguica made a wonderful substitution for the chorizo. I stuck with fresh parsley for the herbs and accidentally substituted fennel for the leek, but it still tasted amazing. Here are the basic stages of the process, followed by the recipe.

Once all of the ingredients have been combined, the tortilla will cook in the skillet,
first on the stove, then in the oven to brown the top.

Finally, you turn it out onto a plate...

Slice it up (here's the cross-section view)...

And serve it up. It will be gorgeous, brown and crusty on the top,
with delicate layers of egg, potato, sausage, onion and leek underneath.

Spanish Tortilla

Few dashes red pepper flakes
Small handful of chopped herbs (parsley, chives or chervil, or combination)
Olive oil
1/2 Spanish onion, thinly sliced
1/4 lb. potato, VERY thinly sliced
1/2 leek (white part), washed well and finely sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Kosher salt and ground pepper to taste
1/4 lb. dried chorizo or linguica, sliced and quartered
6 free-range eggs

Preheat the oven to 450F. Place the red pepper flakes and herbs in a large bowl. Meanwhile, heat a cast-iron or saute pan over medium low heat and saute the onions until soft. Add the potatoes and leeks to the pan and when soft, add the garlic and cook another 2-3 minutes. Place ingredients in the bowl with the red pepper flakes and herbs. Wipe out the saute pan with paper towels and return to the heat. Saute the sausage for about 5 minutes or until crisp, then add to the bowl of ingredients.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork and season with a little salt and pepper. Add eggs to large bowl with other ingredients. Heat a little more olive oil in the pan and swirl to coat. Add all of the ingredients to the pan. Cook on one side until the eggs are set (the top will be runny still). Then, place pan in oven until the tortilla is light brown and firm to the touch (check after 5 minutes). Leave to set for 5 minutes, then turn onto a serving platter.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Restaurant Review: Cafe Rolle

I am passionate about trying new restaurants, so I thought I might begin blogging about some of my most unique dining experiences with you. One restaurant that I have been meaning to try for some time is a local French spot called Cafe Rolle. Located in East Sacramento lies this informal, moderately priced gem where locals find authentic French dishes.

You can expect to be greeted by a charming French waiter as soon as you arrive...

When the weather is mild, do take advantage by dining out front on the patio. The smiling girl is a friend of mine, by the way, and not a stranger who I randomly asked to photograph. Phew! I'm not a complete weirdo blogging nut yet.

The tables are adorned with red and white checkered tablecloths, dotted with postcards from French destinations and carafes of water.

The croque monsiuer is my friend's favorite dish here. Others rave about the fois gras, pate, and sandwiches. Below, you will see the poached salmon sandwich topped with dill creme fraiche and the spring salad, topped with carrots, lentils and an assertive Dijon mustard dressing.

If you ever make it to my neck of the woods, stop by Cafe Rolle, and expect to hear many friendly wishes of "bonjour" and "merci". You will be living La Vie En Rose in no time!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mahimahi with Bacon-Tomato Butter

Photo Courtesy of Cooking Light

We are still chipping away at the enormous pile of fish that the male members of my family caught in Mexico this summer. My favorite by far is the dorado, which I just last week discovered is more commonly known as mahi-mahi or dolphinfish.

My husband made this for dinner for me and it was good stuff. Brining white fish seems to be the hip method of choice these days, as it removes the "fishy" flavor. It can be used with any similar type of fish recipe. As for the sauce, quality bacon adds a savory umami base flavor to the tomato/butter mixture. We didn't have hot smoked paprika, so we substituted regular paprika and it worked well. Happy Omega-3 eating!

Mahimahi with Bacon-Tomato Butter

2 cups water
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons sugar
4 (6-ounce) mahimahi fillets
Cooking spray
1/4 teaspoon table salt, divided
1 slice center-cut bacon, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons butter
1. Combine first 3 ingredients in a shallow dish, stirring until sea salt and sugar dissolve; add fish. Let stand 20 minutes. Drain; pat dry.
2. Prepare charcoal fire in a chimney starter; let coals burn for 15 to 20 minutes or until flames die down. Carefully pour hot coals out of starter, and pile them onto one side of the grill. Coat grill grate with cooking spray; put grate in place over coals.
3. Sprinkle 1/8 teaspoon table salt evenly over fish. Lightly coat fish with cooking spray. Place fish, skin side down, over direct heat on grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 2 minutes or until well marked. Turn fish over and move to indirect heat; grill 12 minutes or until desired degree of doneness.
4. Heat a small skillet over medium heat; add bacon to pan. Cook 5 minutes or until bacon is almost crisp, stirring occasionally. Add garlic; cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add paprika, and cook for 20 seconds, stirring constantly. Add tomatoes, and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in butter. Remove from heat; stir in remaining 1/8 teaspoon table salt. Place 1 fillet on each of 4 plates; top each serving with about 2 tablespoons tomato mixture.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How to Make Fresh Pumpkin Puree

A friend gave us a small pumpkin from his garden and inspired me to do a tutorial (mostly for myself) on how to make pumpkin puree from scratch. Start with small pie pumpkins. cut off the top and halve the pumpkin.

Remove the seeds and soft inner parts. Slice the pumpkin, then peel each slice. Now cut the pumpkin into chunks. Place the chunks in a large pot.

Cover the pumpkin with water and bring to a boil on the stove top. Continue simmering until tender, about 25 minutes.

The pumpkin will look darker in color now. Drain in a colander.

Place cooked pumpkin in blender (or food processor) and blend until smooth.

Use immediately in any recipe that calls for pumpkin puree; or, pour into a Ziplock bag or other container and freeze for later use.

I can't wait until October rolls around and the cool weather necessitates pumpkin chocolate chip bread. Other favorite pumpkin recipes/suggestions?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

To Die For Blueberry Muffins

When I was young, muffins meant a box of Jiffy brand. Sometimes it was banana nut, and sometimes it was blueberry flavored. Then, later, my mom moved on to Duncan Hines brand. But I can honestly say that I have no memory of ever eating fresh muffins made from scratch.

So when I first tasted a warm muffin made with fresh, juicy blueberries, topped with a cinnamon streusel, it came as a bit of a revelation. Also, possibly the best thing anyone has ever conceived of as a breakfast food. This is the best recipe I have ever tried for homemade blueberry muffins. Treat yourself over the weekend to something fantastic like these muffins - you earned it!

Note: You can use frozen blueberries instead of fresh. Just bake a little more towards the 25 minute mark.

To Die For Blueberry Muffins

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup white sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 egg

1/3 cup milk

1 cup fresh blueberries

1/2 cup white sugar

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup butter, cubed

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Grease muffin cups or line with muffin liners.

Combine 1 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, salt and baking powder. Place vegetable oil into a 1 cup measuring cup; add the egg and enough milk to fill the cup. Mix this with flour mixture. Fold in blueberries. Fill muffin cups right to the top, and sprinkle with crumb topping mixture.

To Make Crumb Topping: Mix together 1/2 cup sugar, 1/3 cup flour, 1/4 cup butter, and 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon. Mix with fork, and sprinkle over muffins before baking.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven, or until done.

Miracle Berry

Last night, I attended a free Yelp event where I encountered a most intriguing new product. Miracle Berry hails from West Africa originally, and is now available in pill format in the US as a red pill that dissolves on the tongue. For approximately 20 minutes afterwards, anything sour will taste sweet.

My favorite thing to eat while "flavor tripping" was lemon slices. It tasted like drinking delicious lemonade. Also on the table: balsamic vinegar and hot sauce. Funniest moment: my husband taking a shot of the hot sauce. Sure, the miracle berry made it drinkable, but the physical effects of the heat were still evident. Moments after taking the shot, my husband was coughing, hiccuping and sweating. I guess the berry could fool his tongue, but not the rest of this body!

I don’t recommend eating other sweet things while the effects of the pill last, because the flavor will be noticeably off. The mini cupcake I had towards the end of my 20-minute experience was not satisfying because of the strange stuff going on with my taste buds.

But I would love to try Miracle Berry again, especially with lemons!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Potato, Leek and Fennel Soup

Today, I want to share a very autumn-appropriate recipe for Potato, Leek and Fennel Soup. In France, it is known as vichyssoise and served cold, but it's also perfect for eating hot on a cool night. I loved the aromatics that filled my kitchen as I sauteed the leeks and fennel, and the creamy consistency of the finished product. Amazingly, there is no dairy in this soup - instead, a final trip to the blender gives the soup its smooth texture. I paired a bowl with a slice of rosemary bread from a bakery and went to "it's-almost-fall" heaven for a minute.

Potato, Leek, and Fennel Soup
from The Bon Appetit's Fast, Easy, Fresh cookbook

2 T. butter (1/4 stick)
2 c. sliced leeks (white and pale green parts only)
2 c. sliced fennel bulb, fronds chopped and reserved for garnishes
4 14-oz cans low-salt chicken broth (or substitute homemade)
2 lbs. red-skinned potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (about 4 cups)

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add leeks and fennel and saute until leeks are translucent, about 7 minutes. Add broth and potatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer soup until potatoes are very tender, about 25 minutes. Working in batches, puree soup in blender. Return to pot. Rewarm soup if necessary. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into bowls; garnish each with reserved fennel fronds if desired.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What I Eat When No One Is Watching

Deborah Madison, former chef of San Francisco vegetarian restaurant Greens, recently came out with a new book called What We Eat When We Eat Alone. More than another vastly popular cookbook (though she has put out quite a few), the book is an exploration and study of the quirky, peculiar tendencies of solo diners, complete with select unusual recipes.

When I heard about this topic, I realized that, like many of the folks examined in this book, I do not eat the same foods when I’m alone as when I eat with others. And what I eat when I’m alone now is different from a year or two ago. Back then, my favorite guilty pleasure - don’t judge!- was spinach dip with sourdough bread with a side of Spaghettios.


Now that I’m married, when I eat alone (as I did last month when my husband took off on a deep-sea fishing trip), I’m more likely to make things my husband won’t or can’t eat. Mushrooms. Eggs. One day while he was gone, I made both- a frittata.

But I still think the spinach dip/Spaghettio combo sounds delicious. What do you eat when you’re alone?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pear Cake

A friend requested the pear cake recipe I mentioned in my earlier post on pears. This may well be the most simple cake recipe I have ever made. I didn't take a picture because it went pretty quick... It's essentially a slightly crunchy, golden, round, flat cake with slices of moist fruit throughout. Very simple and very good. You also experiment with the fruit, substituting apples or whatever is in season.

Pear Cake

3 or 4 ripe juicy pears
Peel, core and cut into sixths or eighths

1 stick butter
3/4 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

2 large eggs, one at a time

1 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Add to butter mixture

Spray an 8" springform pan with Pam. Spread the batter in it. Now, in a pinwheel pattern, press the slices of pear, peeled side up, into the batter. Cream in as many as you can. The more pears, the moister the cake will be.

Bake at 350 degrees until a skewer comes our clean, 45-60 minutes. (With this cake, it's better to underbake than overbake.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Weekend Getaway: Sensational Sebastopol

I am constantly amazed by the endless possible day trips in Northern California where I live. This weekend, we chose to explore the region surrounding one of my favorite small towns, Sebastopol, which lies between Bodega Bay and Santa Rosa.

We started our trip at the popular Wild Flour Bread bakery in Freestone, which is just outside Sebastopol, located on the aptly named Bohemian Highway. Opened in 1998, this bakery has been been given many awards and has a loyal following for their moist scones, gooey sticky buns, and quality breads.

The chalkboard menu

The lady behind the counter was friendly and let us sample the breads before we bought them. We bought a Bohemian Bread (a sticky bun flavored with apricots, pecans and orange peel) and Garlic Rosemary Bread for some sandwiches the next day. Then we meandered around the garden in back, where we saw everything from rows of ripened raspberry vines to leafy green kale, apples trees, herbs, and tomatoes. They use coffee grinds from the coffee they sell, along with kitchen scraps, to make the compost that helps their garden thrive.

was our next stop. This is a quirky town, where you can find unique stores like Bee Kind, source of beekeeping supplies and all things bee-related, like candles, health supplements, and every kind of honey imaginable.

There are many vintage clothing shops, like this one, which made us feel like we were transported back to the 70's. (Always wondered why everything was so hideous back then. Theories, anyone?)

For lunch, we ate on the patio at the beautiful French Garden restaurant. The landscaping was immaculate-

The atmosphere was supremely relaxing, and the food would fit in at the Louvre as an example of fine art! See for yourself...

Vegetable tabbouleh with quinoa

Beet salad

Buckwheat Crepe with Nutella and caramelized fruits from their farm

Did I say "their farm"? I did! The restaurant grows most of their own produce on a 30-acre bio-intensive farm just up the street. Then- quelle chance (what luck)! Our waitress informed us that the farm was offering free tours that day! After falling in love with the food we had eaten for lunch, we couldn't resist visiting the farm itself. Here it is...

After soaking in the view of the ideally situated farm, we met Farmer Don. Here he is on his old 1940's-era tractor.

Don was in the middle of doing some old-fashioned weeding, but he took the time to explain to us that bio-intensive farming means that before planting their seedlings, they break up the bottom soil, add compost and then replace the top soil, thereby improving the quality of the soil. The food we eat, he explained, is only as good as the soil it's grown in. The farm uses no pesticides. Don seemed to genuinely enjoy his work, and we were impressed that he took time from his work to chat with us. He even generously told us that we could help ourselves to whatever vegetables we wanted! So we scouted out some produce....

And left with two kinds of sweet peppers, crisp romaine lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, shockingly bright yellow squash, perfect zucchinis, and multi-colored potatoes and carrots.

Everywhere we went, we met kind, friendly people, such as the people who run Rose and Thorn, a little shop that sells garden supplies, eggs, chickens, and has a small farm attached.

The chickens and roosters wander around the farm and the beautiful picnic area, mingling with the customers and posing for pictures, and sheep and goats graze peacefully alongside them.
At last, we had to move on, but made one last stop in Petaluma. This town is an antique hunter's dream, one of the biggest stores being Vintage Bank Antiques.
Another hidden treasure? Cucina Paradiso, where you can get delicious Italian food like rigatoni with sausage and roasted red peppers...
Or the Ravioli della Casa, filled with Swiss chard and topped with fried sage, butter and tomato sauce.
Right next door you will find Cocolat, purveyor of all things chocolate. Peruse their selection of truffles and chocolates, or try a dessert or European sipping chocolate. They even offer a chocolate fondue for two, although we went with chocolate cake and hot chocolate.

This was a wonderful day trip for us. What's your favorite one-day getaway destination?