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El Toro Restaurante, Progreso

Although we’ve been back for over a week, I’m still wishing we were in Mexico. It’s been difficult for me to sit down and write this post for some reason, maybe because on this cold New England evening I’d so much rather be in Mérida, where there is no doubt music playing and a warm breeze blowing. In order to make writing easier for me, I’m going to just post a little at a time. This is pt. 1 of a multi-part post on the wonderful food of the Yucatan. I know it doesn’t really fit entirely with the theme of my blog, but bear with me; it’s worth it.

In case you couldn’t figure it out, our trip was inspired by this awful winter that New England has been having. A friend of ours from college lives just south of Mérida with his lovely wife, and we decided that we needed to leave the toddler with my mother-in-law and go visit them for ten days. Another friend joined us for a week in a beach house near Progresso, and then we spent a few nights in Mérida before heading back home. We visited four Mayan ruins (Dzibilchaltun, Uxmal, Xcambo, Edzna), went caving in the Grutas Calcehtok (this was a truly amazing if not frightening experience), swam in cenotes and ojo de aguas, and of course lounged on the beach. But the food! Yucatecan food is in a class by itself. Thanks to our local friends we had the inside scoop on what and where to eat.

We quickly learned that in this part of Mexico the main meal of the day is lunch, which can be eaten early or late. You can definitely find a hearty breakfast, but most people enjoy pan dulce with cafe con leche (the selection is amazing), a big lunch, and a light dinner. So, if you want to go to the real local hang-outs you go out for lunch. Most of the dinner places are really just for tourists. Our first major culinary destination was El Toro restaurante in Progreso. This unassuming local restaurant is a typical seaside joint. We were the only gringos in there. As with most places in Mexico, there was a man playing music, lots of families, and good food to be had. It’s pretty basic stuff, fried fish by the kilo (that day it was grouper), ceviche, etc.  Reasonable prices and all of it very fresh.

Ceviche Mixto

Ceviche Mixto

Pescado Frito

Pescado Frito

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Los dulces

This guy caught my attention fast. Look at this delicous tray of goodies! The merengues were especially yummy, and sweet! He carried his tray around the restaurant, and lucky for us hung around so we could catch him after we were finished eating. I love the picture below; check out the kid. Instead of putting him in a high chair they just stacked a bunch of chairs up until he was high enough to sit at the table! Apparently they don’t worry about lawsuits too much in Mexico. He looked safe enough; I actually thought it was quite clever.

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El hombre de los dulces and a Mexican high chair

After lunch, we stopped at an ojo de agua, which is part of the underwater rivers that run throughout the Yucatan. They pop up as cenotes and ojo de aguas. As best as I can tell, the latter occur in the mangrove swamps and bubble up as little streams. The former are more like big sink holes. Someone correct me if I’m wrong. Anyway, they had dammed this one up to create a couple of pools. One had a rope swing and boy was it fun! I haven’t jumped off a rope swing in ages. Luckily we were all a bunch of rednecks from Mississippi (except for Shirley, who sat dantily by the shore) and we reverted to the hicks we are and exercised our God-given right to hurl ourselves through the air into a pool of crystal clear water. It was great fun.

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My favorite nugget from the trip. The sign to the bathroom (which was just a port-a-john on stilts with cardboard walls):

el bano

el baño

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My in-laws arrived in town last weekend with an SUV packed to the gills with stuff from Mississippi. Along with some rugs and furniture they brought two boxes of my grandmother’s cookbooks.

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I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books; I didn’t realize there would be so many! She says she has more, but they couldn’t fit them in the car. So, I’ll just start with this. They’ll keep me busy. It’s probably half community cookbooks, half more popular, “classic” books, like Simca’s Cuisine, Joy of Cooking, Beard on Food, etc. Looking through these cookbooks made me realize that food really does go through fads; just like fashion. And unlike fashion, it’s not really easy to get nostalgic about them. Some of the stuff in these books makes me feel kind of gross. Among the recipes you’ll see a great many that call for tuna, cottage cheese, cream of mushroom soup, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce. Many of them are then formed into a ring. Although I scoff at some of these recipes you have to admire the hard work that went into putting them together. I love this one, that has an introduction by the author. Like any good Southern cookbook, the lion’s share of recipes are for sweet things, cakes, cookies, frostings, and pies. Entrees are shoved in the middle almost as an afterthought, and Vegetables and Salads are tacked onto the end after “This and That.”

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My friend Jen loves cooking and we have decided we are going to make some of these recipes. One of the first ones we’ll try, although we haven’t worked up the courage yet, is the Vegetable Jello Salad. You never know, maybe we’ll love it! The recipe comes from Jen’s favorite of the bunch: The American Oil Chemists’ Society Cookbook, 1977.

Vegetable Jello Salad

1 package lemon Jello
1 c. hot water
1 lb. cottage cheese (small curd)
3 medium sized carrots (grated)
1 tbsp. minced onion (grated) how do you grate an already minced onion?
1 tbsp. green pepper chopped fine
1/2 c. salad dressing does this mean Miracle Whip? or vinaigrette?
1/2 c. cream or dream whip (whipped)

Dissolve Jello in hot water. Let cool to the setting point. Mix whipped cream with salad dressing and combine with Jello then with cottage cheese, grated carrots, onion and green pepper. Pour into mold and chill until firm.

If you decide to try this before us PLEASE let me know how it goes. I know you can’t wait!

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Cakes cooling in front of the air register at Mark's One Stop in Calhoun City, MS

I don’t know what it is about gas stations in Mississippi. They are often some of the most interesting places in a small town. For an expatriate like myself I can always count on a convenience store as a place to overhear dialects that some people in New England might not understand, and stock up on some of my favorite regional foods:

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I know of convenience stores that serve up plate lunches (a meat and three sides for $5), Indian food, barbecue (sandwiches, brisket, chicken, you name it at B’s BBQ in Oxford), chicken-on-a-stick (Chevron, again in Oxford. If you are eating this you’ve likely been drinking all night.), or maybe even a red velvet cake, or chocolate pie, or a pound cake. There must be something to this; does it have something to do with gas stations replacing the general store? Or local business owners wanting to put their Southern touch on something so generic? There’s probably a more obvious business reason, something to do with overhead. Whatever the reason, convenience stores in the South are unique.

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The bakers at Mark's One Stop in Calhoun City

Perhaps my favorite of all is Mark’s One Stop in Calhoun City. A few years ago John T. Edge did a piece in the Oxford American on this place, but I knew about it before that, when I used to make the drive from Meridian to Oxford all the time. I stopped at this Texaco station once to fill up my tank and get a coke. While perusing the candy aisles I became aware that there was a sweet smell in the air, the smell of holiday baking, of birthdays. I looked around the corner and saw some women in a side room baking cakes. In the front of the store, right next to the pizza slices and fried burritos, was a display case full of cakes, sold whole or by the slice. I bought a piece of German chocolate cake for my roommate. After that I’d get a piece of cake every now and then, but this time we needed a whole cake. We were driving through Calhoun City to get to Oxford, home of the Ole Miss Rebels, and tailgating central. The ladies behind the counter were, of course, very  nice, and recommended the mandarin cake. It was a deliciously moist cake with pieces of mandarin orange and pineapple. The icing was a not-to-sweet buttercream (I think) which complemented the sweetness in the cake perfectly. Unfortunately I didn’t get the names of the ladies I met, but here they are showing off their workplace.

On our way to Oxford we stopped and got some boiled peanuts; I didn’t even really want them, I just had todsc02726 stop because, well, that’s just not something you ever see up here in New England. They were good, but really salty. Or am I just becoming accustomed to Northern food? Anyway, it was fun getting them hot from the kettle. Once we got to Oxford I had a chance to catch up with some old friends and see some local art, which was fun. My parents are huge Ole Miss fans and we got to sit through a 59-0 shut out, which was fabulous, since we were on the winning side.

I don’t think people from other parts of the country quite dsc027451understand the whole “tailgating” phenomenon as it takes place down South. People go all out for just a few hours of visiting with people. Overnight, tents go up all over the Grove on the Univ. of Mississippi (Ole Miss) campus, and with them come candelabras, vases full of flowers, flat screen televisions with satellite dishes, casseroles, bread, shrimp, jambalaya, you name it. Oh, and don’t forget the booze. Lots of that. My dad brought some scrumptious jambalaya (shrimp and andouille), and a friend made some “backyard ribs.” Apparently he’s a professional barbecue cook; he competes in professional competitions, like the one at Memphis in May. These ribs were outstanding. He’d taken them off the smoker at 1:00 in the morning; I don’t know how long they’d cooked, but it’s fair to say they were on for at least 12 hours. Probably more. He kept saying, “oh, it’s just backyard.” Whatever, all I know is backyard and this is some good backyard. It was a cold day, even for us New Englanders (we didn’t bring our winter coats!), but fun was had by all.

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We had such a good time, my homesickness may have only gotten worse after the visit. Driving all over Mississippi in your dad’s four-door Ford F150 will do that to you, I guess. I got to see old friends and family, go to a ho-down, listen to some damn good Cajun music, see some Mississippi art, and eat a lot of good food. What more can a girl ask for? Maybe fried pickles Katy? There’s always next time.

Well, we just returned last night from a week and a half of traveling all over the great state of Mississippi. I didn’t do any blogging from the road simply because I forgot the cable to upload pictures, and as we all know, a food blog is nothing without its pictures. When we arrived in Jackson my mom told me that she’d bought a smoked Boston Butt from a co-worker raising money for charity. For $20 she bought an entire pork shoulder that’d been slow smoked for many many hours. It was a delicious welcoming meal and the beginning of a week-long effort to clog all of my arteries. While there were many interesting Southern cultural moments I could write about, I will of course, focus only on the “eating” part of the trip.

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It didn’t take long for me to remember that Mississippi is a state whose food is without pretenses. This is a place where a gas station might serve some of the best food around, or maybe homemade cakes and pies are offered alongside bottled water right next to a fried burrito or pizza stick. It’s not about the presentation so much as the taste.

dsc02626It is an unfortunate fact that Southern food is not typically healthy fare. You can walk into a restaurant and see a buffet composed entirely of fried things and a salad bar that is only iceberg lettuce, pink tomatoes, cucumbers, and ranch. I’m not joking. While I do appreciate fried food, this is not the kind of restaurant I was looking for. If I’m going to eat fried food I don’t want everything else in the kitchen to share the grease. No, I wanted something more satisfying and, dare I say wholesome?

dsc02628Something like a meat and two veggies. Fortunately there are plenty of “plate lunch” places to choose from. The day after we arrived my folks took us to Binke’s, a restaurant in a metal building hidden in a neighborhood near downtown. Three people ate enough to last a week for something like $20; a meal comes with a meat, two sides, bread (or cornbread), tea, and dessert. I opted for the fried pork chop with gravy, collard greens, and black eyed peas. I finished it off with chocolate pie and washed all of it down with sweet tea. While the atmosphere left something to be desired, people don’t come here for the atmosphere; they come for the food, and I don’t blame them. It’s delicious. My dad got the oxtails, which I’d never had before. They were very tender and flavorful, and I’d definitely order them next time, although it’s hard to beat gravy on a pork chop

dsc02646Believe it or not, that same night we went to the fish camp. Although there are some chains that claim to be fish camps, the real deal is not much different from a clam shack in New England, only instead of clams, the main attraction is the catfish. It’s locally owned, and usually in a very small town.

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Long’s Fish Camp is in Enterprise, MS and is only open a few nights a week. The restaurant, in a cinder block building, is pristine and brightly lit. Deer heads, stuffed birds, and other animals line the walls as families sit at benches and enjoy fried catfish (although they do offer non-fried food it’s hardly worth mentioning).

After you order your drinks (the sweet tea is very good; sweet but not overly so), the waitress brings a bowl of cole slaw, a sliced onion, lemons, and some crackers to your table. This is what passes for vegetables, and is a tradition at fish camps in East Mississippi, and maybe other places as well (the cole slaw was actually really good on saltines). The drinks arrived, and so did three pitchers for each of us to fill our own drinks. I ordered the whole catfish platter, as opposed to the fillets I usually order. Although the menu didn’t specify, I ended up with four fish on my plate. They weren’t huge, but let me tell you, that’s a lot of fish. I could only eat one and a half, on top of all that cole slaw and onion. As you might expect, everyone was very nice, and the owner let me take his picture, even when he found out I live in New England.

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Next installment: The best cakes in Calhoun City, and tailgating in the Grove…

I had the occasion last week to cook some Southern food for friends. My book club read Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter and I thought it would be fun to make it a Southern afternoon. I’d been a little sick so I decided to keep it simple. I whipped up some pimento cheese and served it with celery sticks a la Watershed. Then I made a caramel cake. I’ve only ever had this cake at funerals or pot luck suppers on the South. John Edgerton in Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, in History calls it “another of the South’s old favorites.” Basically, it is white cake with caramel icing. There are plenty of shortcuts for making a “quick and easy” version, but I wanted to do it the old fashioned way. That is, by caramelizing sugar in a cast iron skillet.

I decided to turn to my “community cookbooks.” Everyone has at least one of these on their shelf. I don’t know if other regions of the country rely on them so much, but every Southern cook has at least four that he or she relies upon for old fashioned recipes such as caramel icing. In Mississippi the ones that stand out to me are Bell’s Best, Come On In, Southern Sideboards, and for those of us with Southern Louisiana ties, Talk About Good. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but these are the ones that I turn to most often. I was reading M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth recently and was mildly irritated by what I considered a snobbish comment about community cookbooks:

“…to be passed by quickly are…those hideous pamphlets sold by ladies’ aid societies in small towns….whose broken covers and limp yellow pages clutter every American cookbook shelf of decent age, are utterly useless unless you know some of the women whose prize recipes are printed in them. Then, if you are feeling ill-tempered, you can curl your lip at Mrs. Sophia Jamison’s prune whip, and surreptitiously steal Cousin Annie Fink’s little trick of stirring three chopped marshmallows into the —”

How can she talk about these little nuggets of culinary wisdom like that? These home cooks are in many ways keeping culinary traditions alive. In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture “Foodways” volume, there is an entry for “Cookbooks, Community,” in which the author mentions that these cookbooks have been studied since the 1980s as cultural artifacts. If the community cookbooks are often the only place I can reliably turn to for authentic Southern recipes, then I don’t think they are “utterly useless.”

After cooking the cake I went back to Fisher’s remark and I think I see what she means now. Often these home cooks submitted recipes that had never been written down formally before. Or, they left out steps (intentionally or not) that will make or break the recipe. I realized that I could have used a little more information on making the caramel icing. Although it tasted good, it didn’t turn out quite right. I should have cooked it a bit longer so that it was more “spreadable” and less “pourable.” See how it’s kind of dripping down in the picture above? It shouldn’t really do that. Still, everyone said it was delicious, so I guess it turned out ok. I’ll let you know how it goes next time. Another important point about some community cookbooks, at least one I have, Bell’s Best, is that they are so difficult to navigate that it’s almost impossible to find what you need. The index is arranged topically with such obscure topics as “Mens, Microwave.” Something as simple as chili can be found under “Soups,” “Meat,” or maybe “Men’s,” with each recipe in each section being different.

The following recipe was found in Bell’s Best under “Cakes,” but other recipes were also under “Frostings.”

Caramel Icing

2 3/4 c. sugar
1 stick butter
3/4 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Caramelize 3/4 c. sugar in saucepan. Mix 2 c. sugar with the milk in another saucepan; bring to a rolling boil and pour it over the caramelized sugar, stirring constantly. Cook until it comes to a soft ball stage, 2 or 3 minutes (this is where I didn’t cook it long enough, I think. It bubbles up like molten lava and it took me by surprise) Add butter and vanilla flavoring; beat with an electric mixer. Spread on cake layers.
Mrs. Curtiss (Hattie) Hale, Columbus Club

My dad forwarded me a link to folo, a news-following blog that posted a “Southern 100 Foods-To-Eat” list. I couldn’t resist taking part in this.

The items in bold are those that I’ve tried, and my comments are in italics. In his original post he mentions that he left off a few things and I have to agree that tomato sandwiches should have been included, as well as caramel cake, banana pudding, cheese grits, Community coffee, Steen’s syrup, and cheese straws, just to name a few off the top of my head. I could also add stuffed shrimp, fried shrimp and oyster po-boys, and Abita beer.

Fun! What would you add or subtract from this list?

1.  Appalachicola oysters
I don’t know if I’ve had Appalachicola oysters, but I’ve sure eaten a lot of Gulf oysters.
2.  souse
3.  A sazarac
4.  moonshine
5.  A Ramos gin fiz
6.  single-barrel bourbon
7.  Jack Daniels and coca cola
8.  a moon pie
9.  sweet tea
10. a pimento burger

11. whole hog barbecue
12. one of the “freak” bbq dishes (bbq sundae, bbq spagetti, etc.).
Does bbq pizza count?
13. pork shoulder in Memphis
14. dry ribs
15. wet ribs
16. a hot dog at the Varsity in Atlanta
17. a muffelata
18. what your waiter thinks you should have tonight at Gallatoire’s

Gallatoires, *sigh*, one of my favorite restaurants…
19. frogmore stew
20. fried catfish
21. she-crab soup
22. Boiled crawfish at a roadhouse in Louisiana (e.g. the Guiding Star in New Iberia)

Roadhouse? Is Richard’s in Abbeville a “roadhouse”? Anyway, I’ve eaten my fair share of boiled crawfish, I can tell you that.
23. bbq with Carolina mustard sauce
24. insanely hot chicken in Nashville
25. bbq mutton (Kentucky)
Is Kentucky the South? This is debatable.
25. burgoo (Kentucky)
26. brunswick stew
27. bbq chicken with “white sauce”  (North Alabama)
28. shrimp and grits
29. a lucky dog
30. seafood gumbo
31. chicken and sausage gumbo
32. fried okra

33. chitterlings
34. greens cooked with a ham hock
35. yellow squash casserole
36. deviled eggs
37. kumback sauce

I’ve never seen it spelled this way; I always thought it was “comeback”
38. Delta tamales
39. a steak at Does
40. red beans and rice
41. fried pie
42. Natchitoches meat pie
43. maquechoux
44. fried chicken, milk gravy, and rice
45. alligator

46. deep fried turkey
47. bread and butter pickles
48. blackberries just after they are picked
49. blackberry cobbler
50. pecan pie
51. extract pound cake

“extract”?
52. tea cookies
Does he mean tea cakes?
53. a breakfast of country ham, fried eggs, grits, biscuits, red eye gravy
54. a glazed and baked Tennessee or Kentucky country ham
55. hickory smoked sausage in a canvas poke

56. a Greek hot dog with meat sauce in Birmingham
57. pimento cheese sandwich
58. A fried fish plate from a fish shack anywhere along the Gulf or Atlantic coasts

“fish shack” I don’t know…I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of fried fish plates from dives along the coast and inland.
59. a mint julep
60. boiled peanuts

61. peanut soup
62. sweet potato pie
63. sorghum molasses
64. Chesapeake bay softshell crabs

65. Maryland crab cakes
66. Stuffed ham (Maryland or Virginia)
68. cornbread
69. cornbread stuffing
70. andouille
71. boudin
72. jambalaya
73. gumbo z’herbes
74. crawfish etouffee
75. sugar cane
76. wild duck gumbo
77. shrimp remoulade
78. bread pudding with whiskey sauce
79. barbecued shrimp

80. A New Orleans creole Italian salad
81. field peas
82. okra and tomatoes
83. skillet corn
84. a “meat and three” plate lunch in mid-to-late summer

85. a revolving tables-style boarding house meal
86. red velvet cake
87. fried buffalo fish
88. ramps
89. yellow meat watermelon
90. Food and drink at an SEC football game tailgating
91. venison
92. turtle soup

93. quail for breakfast
94. pickled egg
95. Barqs root beer
96. A home or house-made cream pie with meringue on it
97. A country church “dinner on the grounds”

98. squirrel and dumplings
99. beaten biscuits
100. hoop cheese and saltines in a country store

My husband Dru and I just got back from a terrific trip to San Francisco. I had to go for a business conference and I decided early on that I would take him and make the trip half business, half pleasure. I grew up in Mississippi, lived in North Carolina for a stint and then moved to Massachusetts. Aside from a four-week roadtrip when I was in college and a trip or two to Washington state, I’d never really explored the West coast too much. The Bay Area is so vastly different than what I’m used to; the landscape reminded me a lot of the Mediterranean, the weather was fantastic (I know that we lucked out on this one), people were laid back, and there were bookstores everywhere. It’s really ridiculous how many books we bought while we were there. I’d been on the lookout for some M.F.K. Fisher for a while now and haven’t been able to find any of her books here in the environs of Boston. But, we went to City Lights and of course they had everything she’d ever written (not really, but close). I got Serve it Forth and How to Cook a Wolf. I also got Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagan; a great cookbook which has inspired me to render my own lard. A topic for another post.

Scott Peacock

Slow Food '08 Victory Garden

Coincidentally we were there during Slow Food Nation ’08. We didn’t get to participate too much due to our flight arrangements, but we did go to the marketplace at the Civic Center Plaza. It was like I’d died and gone to heaven. It was a huge farmer’s market with amazing produce, rice, nuts, cheese, olive oil, and on and on. All of it grown locally and most of it grown organically. I bought some peaches and plums for us to eat right then and there, some almonds, rice, wheat berries, and pistachios. I wanted to buy everything in sight but knew I couldn’t fit it all in my luggage. Right in the middle of the plaza they’d installed a “victory garden” which they will harvest for the San Francisco food bank. It was an amazing garden and I was totally jealous. On the other side of the garden were vendors selling small meals. I was pleasantly surprised to find my favorite chef Scott Peacock cooking ham biscuits with jam. I stood there like a fool and watched him make biscuits. He clearly used lard and cut it right into the flour with his hands. He was making way more than I usually make, of course, but I think I’ll try that next time instead of the pastry cutter; they are biscuits after all and not a delicate flaky pie crust. There was a line, but once I got some of those biscuits I ate them pretty fast. I have to say it was incredible being surrounded by people who were as excited about local food as I am. I get a small taste of that when I go to the farmer’s market around here, but that’s not on such a grand scale.

A happy girl

What else did we eat you might be wondering? Well, I ate the hottest pepper I’d ever eaten in the Mission District. It was hidden in the “hot” salsa on this plate of Carne Asada:

I’ve gotten way too used to ordering the hottest thing on the menu here in New England. The hottest dish is never hot enough for me; if the menu has three chili peppers and warns in big letters “WARNING: This dish is very spicy,” I order it and find it just right. I have a friend whose head sweats when he eats something spicy; it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen and I always take the opportunity to make fun of him. Well, that’s here in New England where people like their dinners boiled and their food bland, thank you very much. Not a Latino neighborhood where people can actually handle a little bit of spiciness in their food. WOOWEE! I tell ya, that pepper was a-spicy. An hour later I could still feel it on my lips. Luckily I’d ordered an horchata, which cut through the spice; water would have just made it worse. The food was really good; this was at La Cumbre, supposedly the oldest taqueria in San Francisco. The Mission District is so interesting; it is definitely a place of extremes, on one block I felt like we were in a rough part of Mexico City and then the next block felt a little more like a hip street in Brooklyn somewhere. It’s definitely a neighborhood on the edge of two extremes; gentrification on one side and poverty on the other.

The last day we were there we went to Berkeley and made the pilgrimage to Chez Panisse. It was an absolute necessity for me to go to this restaurant; I couldn’t be that close and not go. So, a month ago I called to make a reservation; even then they could only fit us in for 5:30, but of course we took it. Needless to say the meal was amazing. We decided to go to the cafe instead of the restaurant. In the restaurant the meal is much pricier; like $95 for prix fixe. In the cafe it is more like $23 for an entree; still pricey for us. We started with Pizzeta with Tomales Bay clams (picture above). It had a really yummy creamy sauce on it and the clams were teensy, especially compared to the Ipswich clams I’m used to. Then I had Wood oven-roasted squid and pimientos with romesco sauce and Dru had Hand-cut rosemary pasta with Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit ragu. We were both happy with what we ordered; I have to say I would never  have ordered the squid, but the waiter insisted it was good. Of course he was right. It wasn’t tough at all and the flavor was incredible. For desert I had Meyer lemon sorbet with fresh berries and Dru had Affogato, which apparently means warm espresso over vanilla ice cream. What a perfect way to end a perfect trip!

Meyer lemon sorbet with summer berries

Affogato

Affogato

We just got back from a weekend in Maine (which is why you haven’t heard from me in a few days). Our friends have been building a house on a lake up there for a few years and we absolutely love visiting them. We go to the nearest town and catch a movie at the drive-in, buy some jam and pickles at the farmer’s market, and stock up at Reny’s, Maine’s favorite department store. Then we hit the water; we go sailing, kayaking, and canoing. To make it even better our host cooks a mean pulled pork, so we ate some delicious Southern barbecue.

We lucked out this year and caught the end of blueberry season. Usually all the berries are gone by mid-August, but they were abundant this weekend. My husband and I got in the canoe and picked berries along the shore from the boat. Maine blueberries are much different from the blueberries you find everywhere else. These are tiny dark blue little nuggets of sweetness. People kept talking about them when I moved here and I have to say I was dubious when I finally laid eyes on them. But they are truly delicious, especially when baked into a pie or mixed into ice cream. Since I thought we’d miss the season I had a friend bring me some when she was visiting family. Well, she brought me 3 quart bags full for my freezer, so now I have tons of these beauties! What to do with them?

OK, so I have a question. Is it acceptable to talk a farmer down on his price of beans at the farmer’s market? I mean, I know that the farmers work hard and don’t make enough money as it is, but really, these beans had clearly suffered from all the rain we’ve had lately. It was late in the day and they had a whole box of them wilting in the sun. I had to really dig just to get the bright pink color you see there on top. I just didn’t think they were worth $3 / lb. The woman behind the stand made the mistake of saying that they were $2.50, but she just wouldn’t come down from what she thought was the real price. Then, they acted pissed when I held them to it. Am I wrong? Anyway, the beans look good, the pods are just a little tepid.

Now I don’t know what to do with them. They were labeled “shell beans” but after searching on wikipedia I found out that they are borlotti beans. Apparently they are big in Indian and Italian cuisine. If you have a recipe let me know!

I’m excited because my mom sent me a box of goodies which included Martha Hall Foose’s Screen Doors and Sweet Tea and Cornbread Nation 1. She’s lucky she caught me before I bought them myself. Can’t wait to dig into these!

I currently have two gardens: the one in my backyard, and the one at my friend Diana’s house. Here at my house I have a couple of healthy tomatoes, some lettuce, kale, canteloupe, summer squash, bush beans, eggplant, and cilantro that are all doing well. But, as I said, I have a shady yard so the kitchen garden is a bit of an experiment for me. My hands-down favorite garden vegetable is the tomato, which really needs a fair amount of sun. Because I feared tomatoes wouldn’t do well in my shady yard, I decided to join forces with Diana who has a sunny yard but also has an infant and needed help with the garden.  Everything is growing really well over there. The tomato plants are absolutely bursting with several heirloom varieties, and in a couple of weeks we are going to have our hands full; I can’t wait! As you can see we’ve already harvested a few, in addition to some herbs, lettuce, beans, and nasturtium (which is edible; a light peppery flavor, great in salads). I’m already contemplating what to do with all the tomatoes we’ll have. Let me know if you have any good ideas. Tomato sandwiches and tomato tarts come to mind, but I’m open to suggestions.

On Wednesday I picked up some sugar plums from the farmer’s market that were beautiful and super sweet with a deliciously tart skin. I forgot to take a picture before I cut them up and put them in a plum tart, but take my word for it they were beautiful. I enjoyed this tart with some friends who came over last night; by the time I took this picture we’d already eaten half of it. The recipe below is from one of my all-time favorite cookbooks: Simply in Season. It’s a cookbook commissioned by the Mennonites, and as it says in the preface, is a cookbook about “foods that are fresh, nutritious, tasty, and in rhythm with the seasons.” I’m not a Mennonite, but I’ve enjoyed many recipes out of this cookbook. We served the plum tart with ice cream and it was delicious.

Plum Tart

Shortbread Crust (see below)
1 tbsp tapioca (optional) but highly recommended; I didn’t use it and the tart was pretty watery
small blue plums (halved and pitted) mine weren’t blue; just use what you have
3/4 c. sugar yes, this is a lot; you could probably cut down on it, but I promise it’ll be darn good if you use the full amount
2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Sprinkle tapioca on the unbaked crust. Arrange plums in the crust, cut side up, (I actually misread this and did them cut side down and it turned out fine), making slightly overlapping concentric circles starting at the outside. Fit as many plums into the pan as possible.
Mix cinnamon and sugar together and pour over the plums. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees until plums are soft and filling is boiling, about 45 min. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with whipped cream.

Shortbread Tart Crust
1 c. flour (may use up to 1/3 c. whole wheat pastry flour)
1/3 c. butter
2 tbs. powdered sugar

In a mixing bowl, mix together until crumbly, with no pieces bigger than a pea. Press into a 9 in. pie pan or tart pan. Bake in preaheated oven at 425 until golden, 10-12 min. Cool. Fill with favorite berry or other fruit filling. (note: for the plum tart the crust does not need to be baked ahead of time)