Sunday, February 20, 2011

A new blog

Well I've finally got around to getting My new baking blog up and running. I've called it Sunday is Baking Day because in my house it's the only day when I have a free morning to bake. You can find it at

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Front Porch- last day in San Francisco

The last day or two of any holiday usually consist of a mad dash around shops and post offices, packing suitcases and trying to work out the most economical way to get kilos of books back to Australia. This trip was no exception but I also managed to squeeze in a wonderful day trip down to Monterey, to visit the antique shops in the lovely town.

Pacific Grove is home to Holmans,  a former department store which is now and antique market. Mostly it is full of antiques which are not my style - roccoco furniture, lots of glass and stuffed animals. But there is also a lovely basement room full of kitchen antiques.
 In 2008 I had spotted my first Hoosier cabinet in Holmans -Hoosiers are an early model of the efficiency kitchen, with lots of gadgets and storage for the modern (early 20th century) housewife.

I had sworn that if it was still there this time as it had been on my last 2 trips to Pacific Grove (when I photographed it above), I was going to find a way to ship it back regardless of the cost. Sadly (or perhaps not, it really was a hare-brained scheme) my hoosier cabinet had finally sold. There was though a gorgeous American solid fuel oven which would look amazing in my kitchen. Mmmmm now lets see....

I had a lovely browse through the Cannery Row Antique Mall, which last visit produced some fantastic kitchenalia and came through again this visit with a dozen original seed packets from the 1920s which I'm going to reproduce for my next line of greeting cards.

My visit was a flying one and by dark I was driving back into San Francisco. I parked the car at the hotel and jumped on to the 14L bus down Mission St to visit a restaurant on my list which specialises in Southern cooking. The bus ride was an interesting one. There was a real mix of ethnicities and demographics getting on and off during the 20 minutes trip. After I got off and started to walk to 29th St, I had a brief moment when I wondered if walking in this area at night was the best idea for a woman on her own. However as I have discovered over the last three weeks, 99% of people mind their own business and if you carry yourself confidently and look like you know where you're going, you're generally only accosted by panhandlers asking for change.

The Front Porch  when I reached it was dark (almost too dark - no photos of the food I'm afraid) and cosy. The menu is Southern and the decor kind of hillbilly bar room. I imagine that it would be a popular hangout for the locals with a nice long bar and a good range of drinks, but tonight it was very quiet (it was early - only 6pm) with 2 other tables occupied. Behind the open servery opposite my table, I heard the kitchen staff discussing who'd be sent home if business didn't pick up. The servers were friendly and when I explained that I hadn't tried Southern food before, more than happy to explain what was what. I decided to have 2 starters: shrimp and grits & pork and beans. I really wanted to try collard greens, because it seems like such a quintessential Southern dish, and according to other reviews I had read, their fried chicken is legendary. But one does need to recognise one's limitations!

The grits came first and were unexpected - I had imagined a polenta like base, but got instead a flavourful, almost soupy dish, spicy and a little smoky with four large juicy prawns swimming below the surface and topped with (I think) a few chunks of bacon. I say I think because the darkness of the room came into play here: it is a bit of a truism to say we eat with our eyes, but I definitely felt I didn't get a true sense of the dish because I could barely see it. While it was a good exercise of my tastebuds and sense of smell, I would have much preferred to see the dish as well as taste it.
The pork and beans followed soon after I had started the shrimp and grits, but being served in a small cast iron pan stayed warm while I finished. This dish was less unexpected. A small square of pork belly, the flesh very tender, had a thick layer of fat and sat on top of a pile of aromatic slow-cooked white beans with the sweet and sour flavours of molasses, possibly malt vinegar,brown sugar and more. The beans were studded with small pearl onions (which of course I didn't realise until I bit into one). It was a very filling dish which I could not finish and made me wish I had opted for the collard greens as an accompaniment to the shrimp and grits. Serves were ( as they always are in the States) generous, but not ridiculously large. While the desserts menu looked lovely, it was not tempting after those two dishes.

After finishing my meal I stepped out into the balmy night and decided to walk off my meal, wandering a couple of miles down the bright and chaotic Mission Street. Through the windows of Mission Pie, which I had visited a week earlier, I saw a classical quartet accompanying customers' coffee and pie. A block further down Mr Pollo was closed and inside El Farolito a mariachi band was playing ( they have followed me everywhere!). Some of the enormous shops selling everything from luggage to t-shirts and tortilla presses (I picked one up as a gift) were shutting up and on one street corner a shirtless man was sitting in the gutter with his hands cuffed behind him, surrounded by police officers. I took my last bus ride to Powell St, hopped on my last cable car to take me up the hill, sat on my hotel balcony for the last time and thought of all the places I hadn't got around to visiting, mentally planning the next trip. Goodbye San Francisco, until next time.

Monday, February 7, 2011


So the last three days have been mammoth ones where I end up coming back to my hotel room and collapsing on the bed not willing or able to spend time gathering my thoughts in a cohesive enough manner to blog them. Regardless, here goes:
On Friday I made my way around and about the place on various forms of public transport just for the hell of it. As my nearest and dearest know I am not a fan of public conveyances - give me a car any day. But there is something to be said for catching a bus that meanders up and around the hills fo San Francsico, taking you past beautiful parks and vistas like the No 31 does. And sometimes I think a bus is going to take me to a place; like the L line to Balboa Park which turned out to be an ugly terminus not a park at all. The day I visited Omnivore, I also discovered the J line ( eventually, my public transport App, did not tell me that the J ran underground where I was supposed to catch it - bit hard to find the bus stop when it's underneath your feet) which skirts the edges of the Mission district before cruising through the picturesque Noe Walley.

On Friday I also made it to BiRite and was instantly enraptured - here in a tiny tiny space was the perfect wholefoods/organic/gourmet grocery store. I spent so long there, wandering the crammed aisles and taking photos, I think the staff thought I was some kind of spy. In the dairy cabinets I spotted:

That's right folks, it's RAW MILK! Not hiding under the guise of 'Beauty Milk' or exchanged after secret handshakes in the back room of a grocer, but in the dairy cabinet in a glass bottle with a label on it. And while the USA has its fair share of food scares (almost exclusively because of massive monoculture farming) as far as I have heard there hasn't been an issue with raw milk like this.
The fruit and vege section was small but the selection vast - I bought a tiny baby cos lettuce for the grand sum of 89c for dinner to accompany the broccoli rabe salad and achiote grilled chicken breast I bought from their deli.

Birite also has an icecreamery which is a block down from the grocery. Here they make small naturally flavoured batches of icecream like salted caramel and brown sugar with ginger, which I may or may not have sampled (after waiting in a queue with the cogniscenti).

So now I have one more reason to return to San Francisco, along with all the others like:

The Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market which was Saturday's destination. The other times I've been to this big daddy of Farmer's markets, it's been early Autumn, so it was interesting to see the produce on sale. There was still the salmon, oysters and organic meats, but this time the growers were offering lots of citrus and still some apples. Little tiny brussels sprouts and multi-coloured chats were a feature and then in one small stall I spotted:

Salsify! There was a huge pile of it, and as I headed over so too did a local chef who was beside himself- he said he'd never seen this at the Farmer's Market before. Well once he had finished picking up several kilos, there wasn't a lot left, but I snaffled one alien looking root. I've never cooked it before, so am looking forward to roasting it and serving it with some free range pork and another purchase of the day: home-pickled sauerkraut.

After dropping my purchases back at the hotel I headed back to Fort Mason. It was a gorgeous day, and in a city where most people live in apartments the park was packed and it was very hard to enjoy the day without being in danger of being hit in the head by a football, rolled over by a bike or accosted by a dog, so instead I took advantage of my lovely balcony with gorgeous views to finish the day with a Corona.

Early night for an early start to head over to the Alameda Antiques Faire (sic), which turned out to be a marathon exercise. I took three forms of public transport and a 2km walk to get to this massive fair which is set on the former naval base runways which are often featured in Mythbusters. There were literally hundreds of stalls, and I spent around 4 hours wandering up and down the aisles. I found some real treasures, got some inspiration for some new lines for the shop and made a few contacts with dealers who're prepared to ship to Australia, so an exhausting but profitable day. After another mammoth public transport trip back home I went to the movies, had dinner at a diner and am now planning my last three days in this fabulous city.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Adventures in the Mission

I'm fairly sure it was intentional, but the soundtrack of the movie The Mission was playing as I queued up at Arizmendi Bakery this morning. Arizmendi is a good example of the ethical food movement in San Francisco, and was the first accidental discovery on my eating/book tour of the city's Mission district. The Mission is named for the Mission Dolores, San Francisco's oldest building, & perhaps most famous for its appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. It is predominantly Hispanic, but in recent years has begun to see an influx of uber-trendy boutiques, gift stores & ethical foodie destinations like Arizmendi. I was on a wander along Valencia St when the smell of roasted garlic assailed me. The next smell was coffee and that was the clincher. And surprise surprise it was REALLY good coffee. I was tempted by the smells from the pizza oven, but given my mission (ahem) was the food of Mexico I resisted and instead had a latte and a ginger shortbread biscuit. Arizmendi is a worker-owned cooperative bakery, along the lines of the Cheeseboard Bakery in Berkeley (and as I discovered later, was actually initiated by the Cheeseboard co-op in 2000).

My next destination was Mission Pie, not-for-profit whose cafe and bakery not only provide pies and baked goods produced from local sustainable sources, but also provide employment for local youth. Like Arizmendi, the focus at Mission Pie is as much about being good citizens as it is about producing good food, but the food there was good too. I bought a small pie for tonight's dinner (although given the eating schedule today, I think it might end up being tomorrow's dinner).

As I wandered the streets of the Mission, I was struck by the stark contrast between the busy, dirty and in many cases derelict main thoroughfare of Mission St itself and the surrounding streets which were quiet, clean and charming - it was like some variation of the Cone of Silence kept it contained. There was a whole block of Mission St which must have been the entertainment block with 4 former movie theatres now completely unused (except as a discount store in one case) They were very sad shadows of their former glorious selves.

I headed past a couple of Colombian and Ecuadorian restaurants, providing variety amongst all the Taquerias. One of them is Mr Pollo, which has had some really good reviews, and might be worth a visit another time. It's publicity is obviously working as there was a bit of a queue outside, mostly of trendy young things.

I kept coming across little treasures: a storefront for an importer of vanilla and saffron which directed me to the icecream store across the road where they sold the vanilla and saffron and used it in their icecream. The smell inside was amazing and they had window displays of mountains of vanilla beans.

There were some gorgeous gift shops, a herbalist, a shop called "Her Majesty's Secret beekeeper" dealing exclusively in honey and beeswax products, and I didn't even get to 18th street and BiRite Grocery and Icecreamery.

OK so now its lunch time- I had asked the lovely Samantha in Omnivore Books for a recommendation on where to eat good Mexican food. She suggested either El Farolito (which she said was a gringo take on the cuisine) or Papolote for genuine fare. I decided on authentic fare at Papolote and headed off to find it.

I walked straight past it the first time. Its a small hole in the wall with no name in the door. The food may not be gringo, but the place was full of them, probably because the previous night it had been on a tv show hosted by celebrity chef Bobby Flay. Seeing the burritos come out and that they were, like most burritos in the States, HUGE, I order instead the Chili Verde pork tacos and a watermelon aqua fresca. As is also the case with most taquerias, a bowl of corn chips is served while you wait - this time with Papolote's spicy house salsa. The filling is delicious, but I end up eating it with a fork because the tortillas fall apart when I try to pick them up.

I finished the day with some bookshops - the Mission is full of them. Mostly they stock indie, art and literature, so I wasn't really looking for cookbooks (but found some anyway!) This, I keep thinking, is why San Francisco is my kind of town. Not just great food, but conscious, ethical food (although there's lots of the other sort, I just don't eat there) not just bookshops, but a culture and an ethos that allows these bookshops to remain open, indeed thrive.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Golden diner, Cooking Class and a confession

I started off the morning at one of my favourite places to have breakfast in San Francisco. The Golden Coffee looks sad and worn but the food is always really good.I spent a comfortable hour at the counter in the sun reading a paper and eating a freshly made avocado and Jack Cheese omelette with salsa, a fresh hash brown and coffee for the princely total of $7.75. Here's the confession - I enjoyed that meal many times more than last night's meal at Chez Panisse for 15 times that amount.

Part of this is the fact that despite my being on my way to 50, I didn't feel comfortable being at the restaurant. Oh I know that the travel and dining guides say take a book, but who reads a book at the table of a restaurant like Chez Panisse?

There is another aspect to this: without wanting to sound conceited, because that is not my intention, I know that on a good night and with the right quality ingredients, I could produce a similar meal. I am equally certain that I could not have produced an omelette and hash brown as good as the one I had this morning.

Today was also the day for my cooking class at Sur Le Table. It was a beginner's class,
but I wanted to see how someone else did it and perhaps get some ideas for the classes I'll be doing this year. It was a nice group of people, and for me it was interesting to spend time with a group of locals. In the three hour class we made a spaghetti with tomato sauve, a fennel and haricot verte salad, rice pilaf, mashed potatoes and a French omelette, which only proved to me my earlier sentiments about the omelette I had at the Golden - there is a real skill to doing one well.

I ended the day visiting, with great trepidation, a store called Cookin' in the suburb of Bernal heights. Cookin' specialises in vintage and antique kitchenware, including French kitchenware. My trepidation came from reading lots of reviews of the place which mentioned the very cranky owner. Well I met the cranky owner ( who all but accused me of stealing her mobile phone which she had misplaced while attedning to her cute dog just after I walked in) but also her lovely assistant. This place is an absolute treasure-chest ( but also Pandora's Box) crammed to the ceiling with piles of pots, pans, cutlery, baking pans, cookie cutters, signs anything you can think of related to cooking. Prices are pretty steep for most things, meaning that most of what I bought will be for display in the shop not for sale. She had a compete range of cannelle moulds in every size, the smallest of which (about a TBS quantity) were $17.95 each. An impressive collection of copper pots was tempting, but I had to rmind myself that I can't take anything too bulky back. I made a beeline for the back wall lined with cookbooks, stepping over a fallen sign on the way. I browsed for a few minuted before hearing the owner say to her assistant: "Cookbooks!" He bustled over to me and apologised that I couldn't enter that section because they were pricing new arrivals there, and the sign I had stepped over had been intended to stop customers entering. As I paid for my few purchases, I told him I was a cookbook seller here on a buying trip. "You should come back later in the week" I was told, and I'd be able to look through the cookbooks - but I should probably come on a day when he was working there and I wouldn't have to deal with Judith. Well I don't think I'll bother, despite the treasures within, I'm not sure I'm prepared to spoil my trip by dealing with an unpredictable and cranky proprietor.

Gourmandising: Omnivore & Chez Panisse

Really I shouldn't be allowed out on my own. TWICE today I have got on public transport going in the complete opposite direction from where I should have been going. Neither occasion managed to put a dampener on what was a great foodie/book day.

On impulse early this morning I decided to see if I could get a booking for the Chez Panisse Monday night dinner. I was in luck for the early sitting of 5.45. This really meant I shouldn't spoil my appetite with any other restaurant visits, so instead I set out to visit for the first time Omnivore Books on Food in Noe Valley. On the way I popped in to Bay Books - the Friends of SF Library's book shop in the main library. Some nice books there, but with luggage weight limits in mind, I confined myself to a couple of paperbacks.

I also took the opportunity to visit San Francisco's spectacularly grand and OTT city hall. With acres of marble and a dome which wouldn't be out of place in a Florentine cathedral, it really is worth a visit.

So off then to the storybook-pretty neighbourhood of Noe Valley. Omnivore Books is somewhat appropriately located in a former butcher shop, with the original pulley system and red cedar-lined coolroom still intact. Shop manager Samantha was a charming host, who managed to share her love of food and cookbooks despite a bad case of laryngitis. Omnivore's offering is small but perfectly formed and selected. Its choice scattering of out-of-print and scarce books on a range of subjects reflect owner Celia's previous occupation as a rare book specialist with a local auction house. The shop has a great range of subjects and quite a good selection of Australian authors.

Celia has recently had the good fortune to become the cookbook expert for Williams-Sonoma, the kitchenware giant. Each month WS has an "Omnivore recommends..." section and it must be great for business. I had a very pleasant, and quite inspiring, hour in the store, and came up with a couple of ideas for my own business ( although I don't think I can persuade Housei or Minimax to have a Vintage Cookbooks recommends... selection).

After a quick stop at Mission Dolores Park for some amazing views of the city:
I headed back to my hotel to get my gladrags on. d lots of time to get across the bay to Berkeley because I got on a BART train going in the opposite direction. After getting off at the end of the line I finally caught the right train and arrived at Chez Panisse right on time. I had loved the more casual, a-la-carte upstairs cafe when I visited Jonathan at Berkeley in 2008, so was eager to try the famous set menu dinner in the more formal restaurant. It's a beautiful room, warm, woodlined and accented with arts and craft copper light fittings. The staff were lovely and my server suggested that I was on my own she would match half-glasses of wine with the three course meal. First course was two delicate whole Monterey Bay squid stuffed with a breadcrumb stuffing flavoured with currants and mint. Main course (sorry 'Entree') was grilled, locally grown pork served with a mash of butternut squash, chard and two delicate crispy onion rings. The dessert was not a great conclusion to the meal - the grapefruit sorbet with prosecco gelee was too bitter for my palate and I didn't feel it suited the preceding courses.

My conclusion? Probably because I was on my own, I think I preferred the experience of the upstairs cafe. The atmosphere in the restaurant was really geared towards couples and groups. There were lots of regulars in attendance who got lots of special attention, and honestly I was glad when the meal was over and I could leave. As I left I took a  walk through the gorgeous open  kitchen, where everyone was very welcoming despite working hard at prepping for the next sitting (including Alice Waters herself who was working at a table in the kitchen.) Perhaps that's the thing - I'm much more confortable behind the scenes where the food gets cooked!

As I walked back to the station I managed to find two bookshops and a couple more books to bring home.