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August 2008
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October 2008

On Why I'll Always Remember My Trip to San Francisco


Not because of its beauty, its dramatic bridges and sweeping vistas (a nighttime drive up Twin Peaks took my breath away) though I couldn't stop gaping at every corner. Not because of the romantic fog and bright, bright sunshine, both in one day - one minute - from corner to corner of the city.


Not because of the food, even though - my goodness - it was good (from morning buns at Tartine to the first burrito I ever liked at Taqueria Cancun, from house-cured sardines at Zuni to the chili oil dabbed on burrata at A16). And not because of the donut muffin from Downtown Bakery, the best cake for breakfast you'll ever have.


Not because of the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, which. Blew. My. Mind. I mean, seriously? Every single mayor of every single town in America should go to that market just to see how vibrant and healthy and wonderful something like that is for municipal spirit (even if it has to be just three tables instead of, oh, 50).


Not because of the way that San Francisco kept reminding me of Berlin, the city I grew up in, with its independently owned businesses and quiet, residential blocks, even in the middle of town. With its efficient public transit and its lack of commercialization (relative - I live in New York, people). With its gorgeous architecture and clean streets and quiet cafes.


But because on Saturday morning, as a surprise, Ben flew out to San Francisco, drove me up to Napa, and asked me to marry him.


I said yes!

Nancy Silverton's Roast Potatoes, Onions, Fennel and Bay Leaves


dear readers am in undisclosed location STOP it is hot here so very very hot STOP

we eat bright orange papaya for breakfast STOP and fried fish for lunch STOP and smell wild sage in the hot air that blows off the desert STOP

in a few hours this indolent lifestyle comes to an end STOP i make my way to san francisco STOP

but i miss my kitchen STOP and that tall guy who often hangs about in it STOP


before I left i made the fussiest roast potato dish ever FULL STOP it involved halving potatoes and dipping them in seasoned oil fer chrissakes and sandwiching bay leaves between them and putting them in a roasting pan and cursing them as they fell apart STOP

onions and fennel helped prop up those potatoes but i still put the dish into the oven feeling twitchy STOP

turns out roasted bay leaves give potatoes lovely flavor haunting even STOP but i am lazy STOP what else is new STOP and this was all too much work for me STOP also the oven temperature situation was weird STOP aren't i eloquent STOP

still haunting potatoes is a good thing STOP you agree STOP so see below for my notes in bold while i go regret my choice to write this post entirely in telegram-style and cram a few more papaya chunks in my cheeks before my flight STOP

Roast Potatoes, Onion, Fennel and Bay Leaves
Serves 4

2  teaspoons coarse sea salt, divided
1/2  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
2 pounds new potatoes (about 12), cleaned
12 bay leaves, or one for every potato
1  1/2  pounds small sweet onions (about 6), peeled and trimmed
1 large head fennel, trimmed (reserve 2 sprigs from the top)

1. Heat the oven to 500 degrees (if I made this again, I'd only go to 450). Lightly oil a 9-by-12-inch baking dish. Pour 3 tablespoons of the olive oil into one corner of the dish. Season this puddle with 1 teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper (you'll use it to dip the potatoes). (Just lightly oil the dish for now.)

2. Halve the potatoes. Dip each half into the seasoned olive oil, then put the halves back together with one bay leaf sandwiched between, leaving the prepared potatoes in the dish. (No, for Pete's sake, no! Wouldn't you rather be screaming at the television or saying hi to your partner or filing your nails? Life is too short, my friends. Halve your potatoes, prepare your onions and fennel and throw everything into the oiled dish. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle liberally with the oil then toss everything together so the vegetables are coated with oil. Tuck the bay leaves hither and thither among the vegetables - don't just plop them on top.)

3. Cut the onions into 8 lengthwise wedges. Separate the layers of the fennel bulb and cut the pieces into 1-inch strips. (See above.)

4. Arrange the vegetables in the dish, alternating seasoned potatoes with onion and fennel pieces. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper. Top with the sprigs of fennel, and cover lightly with foil. (Yes, the sprigs of fennel are sweet and the foil is fine, too.)

5. Place the dish on the middle rack of the hot oven and reduce the heat to 450 degrees. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes, until the potatoes are almost tender. Remove the foil and continue to roast an additional 15 minutes. (Just put the dish in the 450-degree oven. Follow everything else as written.)

6. Remove the dish from the oven and turn the potatoes, onions and fennel so the other sides caramelize. Return to the oven and roast another 10 to 15 minutes, until the bay leaves are charred and brittle, the onions brown and molten, and the fennel pieces papery and crunchy or molten. Serve immediately.(I'd keep an eye on the pan during this period, because it's a fine line between "brown and molten" onions and onions charred to an inedible crisp. And one more thing: don't eat more than one or two of the bay leaves or your tongue will go numb.)

David Tanis's Saffron Carrots


Of course this is how it goes. I get sick and tired of all my archived recipes in my "to try" folders. The newspapers stop printing recipes that look appealing to me. I find myself getting in the car and driving to Flushing to eat incendiary noodles (this book makes it damn near impossible to do anything else) rather than going to the grocery store and getting dinner on the table myself.

Then, in the span of seven short days, just as I'm about to leave for the West coast, boom! The newspapers go nuts. Recipes galore! Suddenly I want to cook everything. Tea-smoked salmon! Meatballs! Coconut cookies! A tomato soup that looks so complicated it exhausts me just thinking about it! Readers, Murphy's Law is a pain in the neck.

But, to be totally honest, there's something in the air, too. A little chill, an agreeable little dip in temperature. Something that makes it okay to stop eating sliced tomatoes for dinner and that has us looking forward to an afternoon spent in the company of a bubbling pot on the stove. We're not entirely there yet. But the anticipation is an unexpected gift.

Thank you so much for your suggestions and tips for my upcoming trip to San Francisco. You've all made me quite hungry, for Californian dim sum and interesting ice cream flavors and oysters by the ocean. I can't wait to be there, even if leaving New York in September, well...if you know what I'm talking about, you know what it's like.

I'm not sure yet if I'll make it to Chez Panisse, but I've been hoarding recipes of David Tanis's like they're going out of style, when in fact they've been published in a book so that crazy people like me can stop clipping feverishly and actually buy an object that binds these slips of paper together quite nicely.

I made his saffron carrots tonight - a bright little dish that has you throw a bunch of things in a pan and gives you a glowy, glazed result in return. It's quite lovely. Since I'm easing back into this cooking thing at a glacial pace, I found it thrilling that the whole transaction took less then fifteen minutes. Are these carrots going to change your world? No, not really. But you'll find them eminently edible. And rather charming. Carrot coins, I know. But they've got a little sass from the minced garlic and a little sophistication from those darling red saffron curlicues adorning them and in the end, yes, I was charmed.

What can I say? I'm easily pleased these days.

Saffron Carrots
Serves 4

1 tablespoon butter
Pinch of saffron, crumbled
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 ½ pounds carrots, peeled and sliced into thin coins
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet fitted with a lid, melt the butter over medium heat. When hot, add the saffron, garlic, lemon zest and carrots. Season with salt and pepper. Toss the carrots in the butter to coat. Add ½ cup of water, bring to a boil and simmer, covered, until the carrots are tender, about 5 minutes.

San Francisco, At Last

I'm going to San Francisco (finally, at last, it's taken me thirty years, good grief!) in a few weeks and I need you, dear readers, to answer some important questions for me.

Is Chez Panisse worth a visit? How about Zuni Cafe? Are there holes-in-the-wall I must know about? A dim sum restaurant that haunts your dreams? Which neighborhoods should I commit myself to discovering on foot?

Tell me everything: your favorite shops, your special haunts, your cannot-miss-ohmigod-I-luuurve-this-place obsessions.

I can't wait.

How to Make Homemade Tagliatelle


I keep staring at this photo, seeing that golden tangle of fresh tagliatelle luminous in the afternoon sunlight, and rubbing my eyes. I'm used to seeing a tray like this on our table, for sure, but there's one small difference this time. This time, I'm the one who made that pasta and it's tickling me pink.

Every time I go to Italy, to the little village where my grandfather lived for so many years, our friends there keep us flush in good things to eat: like homemade tagliatelle and a bagful of fresh peaches from Franca, a freshly killed and roasted rabbit from Maria, homemade crescia sfogliata that Eugenia made and stuck in the freezer for later cooking, or a handful of black truffles foraged by Stefania's son Federico and delivered in a paper towel on an afternoon social call.


This year I decide I want to learn to make pasta myself. So one afternoon I sling my camera across my back and set out for Maria's house, walking past the shuttered houses where our neighbors sleep while the sun beats down on the fields around us. The human silence is warm and familiar while the birds swoop above with abandon and cats blink lazily in patches of shade. I've done this walk a hundred, a thousand, times but this year it's suffused with nostalgia and a faint pain grips my heart. I feel like I did twenty years ago, as my sandals gently slap the concrete of the road. The town looks as it did twenty years ago, the same weathered shutters and swaying trees. But so much has changed and no matter how hard I tried to hold on to the way it used to be, I have been forced - I am being forced - to let go.

As I walk, I see former versions of myself, walking alongside me. I see my cousins, racing me up the hill, and our friends, sitting on the curb late at night, thrilled by the possibilities that life holds for us all. I see my whole life so far, reflected in the memories that the hills and valleys around me hold. I see my grandfather, or I try to, but it's hard. His absence is flat and final. He's difficult to conjure.


Down at Maria's, she leads me into a room where she has her pasta station set up. Maria started making fresh pasta at the age of seven, standing on a chair to reach the table, and had to do so every day for years. There's an old wooden board and a long rolling pin, fresh eggs from the chickens outside, and an industrial-sized bag of flour. She measures out a little less than 300 grams of flour and tells me that the flour should take around three eggs, three of her eggs, she cautions, from the chickens outside, not those larger industrial eggs you find at the store.


We make a well of flour on the board, then crack the eggs into the well. The yolks are impossibly orange, they practically glow. I remember making a hole in the fresh eggs we'd get from Maria, and Gina, who lives behind my grandfather's house, as a kid, and sucking the sweet, raw egg through that hole into my mouth as a special treat. Using a fork, Maria shows me how to beat the eggs without breaking the well and then slowly begin to incorporate the flour as I beat until the whole mass comes together as a rough, yellow ball of dough.


Maria instructs me to start kneading that ball of dough, so I do. I knead for several minutes, while she observes my hands silently, then several minutes more, and several minutes after that, too. My shoulders start to tire. I look up at her, but it seems I'm not done yet and I feel a bit fraudulent. When the dough is as smooth and plasticky as Play-Do, when it feels like the underside of your arms, untouched by the sun, that's when it's ready to go.


Maria's technique for rolling out that chubby round of dough into a sheet so thin you can read newspaper through it involves that long rolling pin, the shuffling movement of palms, the slapping and rolling of the dough over the pin and onto the board and onto itself, and then back again. She makes it look so easy, of course, even though it's not, not at all.


We cover the dough with towels and let it rest for a bit. My mother comes down to the house and we talk about old times. I used to hear chickens squawking in the yard outside, but over the years Maria has landscaped her house and the chickens and rabbits are now farther away, removed by a terrace. It's quiet and a fly drones above us. Finally, it's time.



Maria rolls one side of the dough halfway into itself and then rolls the other side halfway into itself. She brings out a long, narrow board that fits snugly onto her tabletop and equips me with a serrated knife. I start to slice, watching the curls of tagliatelle emerge on the other side of the knife, suddenly marveling in the simplicity of the whole thing. Who needs hand-cranked machines or boxes of store-bought noodles? Not me, not anymore.


We say goodbye to Maria but not before I snap her photograph. She's beautiful but acts bashfully, is uncomfortable in front of the lens. We eat the tagliatelle the next night, the last meal I'll have in Italy this year. They're good, delicious even, tender and eggy and sauced with tomatoes and basil from the garden. I wonder if I'll ever make them in New York. If it will be as nice as it was in Maria's kitchen, with her standing behind me, watching.

Bruschetta di Pomodori Gratinati


This is my friend Alessandro. Yow! I know, right? My goodness. Artist, funnyman, and eater extraordinaire - he's an all-around Renaissance man. Last week he taught me, the self-anointed No. 1 Fan of tomatoes, bread and olive oil, a little something new about that holy trio. I didn't think it possible. But it's true! Hallelujah! Besides, look at that face. Would you not eat anything it told you to? Sigh.

Where were we?

Okay, now Alessandro's father, Giancarlo, happens to be the World's Expert on stuffed tomatoes. And yes, I have eaten my weight in stuffed tomatoes and I can say with certainty that he is indeed the World's Expert. He should probably be teaching classes in them. But I haven't yet convinced him of this. Don't worry, it's just a matter of time. Alessandro's mother Gabriella will also one day be on the Food Network. Keep an eye out for her.

Here's a visual aide:



Roughly speaking, Giancarlo halves those impossibly red, ribbed-bottomed, flattish tomatoes that I only ever see in Italy (sort of like these), probably salts and drains them, then dries them out in a grill basket over hot coals briefly (upside down, I think?) before filling them with a mixture of breadcrumbs, wild fennel, parsley, salt and olive oil. I'm sorry if this is all a bit vague, but you get the idea, right? Then he fills the grill basket again and grills them until their skins are wrinkled and blackened and the garden fills with fragrance.

This is the garden:


These are the tomatoes:


And this is Giancarlo (not only a tomato wizard, but an amazing talent at blowing bubbles):


Just to give you a sensory nudge. Are you there yet?

Alright, so here's where Alessandro's tutorial begins. Once you have a platter, or two really, of these tomatoes ready, you should slice a loaf of country bread and grill those slices too. Then pass them around the table. Each person gets one slice of bread. Then you pass around a peeled clove of garlic for people to lightly (lightly! come on!) rub across the bread. After that, they should drizzle a little bit of olive oil over the toast, just a bit. Like so:


Now start handing out tomatoes. Each toast gets one plopped, filling-side down, on top of it.


Remove all that charred skin. The better you are at removing it one full sweep, the more points you get, according to my friends. I failed miserably. See? That doesn't matter. Still tastes good.


Okay, you're almost there. Now give that soft little tomato another oil drizzle. And, if you're daring, a sprinkle of salt. I find this essential. Then, using your fork, mash that tomato down into the bread. Go on, it's the best part.


And you're done! Ooh, you're in for a treat. Smoky, rich, and savory, unctuous and crunchy at the same time, you will want to eat nothing but one after another of these for dinner, no matter what other kinds of dishes are offered to you later in the evening. Grilled octopus so tender it melts in your mouth? Feh. Spaghetti with clams in the most wonderful sauce ever? Who needs it. Give me more tomatoes, bread and olive oil.

Wait! I forgot something. Before you take a bite, cut the bruschetta in half. There, there. The best bites, says Alessandro, are the ones in the middle.