Thursday, January 21, 2010

Staying local, keeping it real

We spent a recent weekend in beautiful Morro Bay, enjoying the hospitality of our good friend Dave. Due to a number of storms that would prove to continue through the following week, a good amount of time was spent at his home, which is a warm, comfortable, beautifully appointed single level house just adjacent to the hiking trail that leads to the beach. It's close enough to the shore that it sounds like the waves are breaking in your back yard, which technically is the case. Reminds me of our home in Bend, with the Deschutes River's proximity providing the same sort of soothing backdrop that seems to help every mood.

No trip to Central California is ever complete without visiting several of the great wineries in the Paso Robles region, as well as our favorite little haunt on the Central Coast ... Cambria by the Sea. Two extremes hit me over the course of the weekend, and have gotten me thinking ... no, obsessing about the whole concept of buying locally made products and food. The "locavore" concept is open to interpretation, and true believers commonly impose anywhere from a 100 to 250 mile radius as being considered "local" when buying food products. But regardless of the radius you choose to choose, the idea is that residents of central Oregon shouldn't be buying their berries from Mexico ... they should get them seasonally from the surrounding farming communities. Consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area should be getting all of their fresh products from within Central California's fertile farm and ranch land. If something's out of season and can't be purchased at the Farmer's Market or local Whole Foods or Mollie Stone's, figure out a substitute that's regionally produced, and serve it instead.

We visited several wineries, many of which are regulars for us ... Zin Alley (my very favorite wines, currently), Denner, Jada, Tobin James and Eagle Castle are always on the Paso Robles tour. But we always try to hit a couple new ones, and this trip found us at Dover Canyon and Le Cuvier wineries, and both had some wonderful new wines. It was at one of the new wineries that I spotted a really cool looking gadget, but quickly decided that twenty-two bucks (plus California's current 9.5% sales tax) was too much for such a toy. The gadget was basically a large corkscrew with a foldout bread knife, housed in a beautiful wooden handle, made by one of my favorite knife makers, LamsonSharp. It caught my wife's attention too, and after reading the beautiful description, she bought it for me. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful knife and corkscrew and I'm sure it will get lots of use. I plan to keep it in the car for the next time I find myself at a winery with the need to cut up a baguette of sourdough, slice up some great cheeses, and open a bottle of zinfandel for an impromptu picinic lunch.

Back to the gadget ... Lamsonsharp's home page proudly proclaims "American Made Cutlery and Kitchen Tools since 1837," so I naturally thought I'd be getting another fine American-made product from the nice people at Lamson and Goodnow. One of my very first "good" knives, and one that I still used quite regularly, is a Lamsonsharp Chinese Cleaver, which was a gift from my wife, back in the early 90's. I subsequently picked up 6", 8" and 10" chef's knifes from them as well. While not the work of art that a Shun may be, they're in fact beautiful and reliable knives that any chef would love to own. The inside of the box for what they call a "Batard Folding Picnic Knife" goes into a lot of detail as to how they came up with the design, and of course the quality and tradition of their wonderful knives which are "still manufactured in the USA," according to the description on the box. It appears to be Lamsonsharp's typcially very good quality; the blade works well, the corkscrew's set at a perfect angle, and the wood is gorgeous. But this one's not made in their factory in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts ... if you look closely on the back of the box, and then again on the back of the blade, the small print says "China." I don't like being misled, I don't like our businesses outsourcing to foreign locales, and I'm absolutely sick of virtually everything you buy saying "Made In China" on it.

J.C. Penney's carries a line of blue jeans called the "Great Arizona Jean Company," and you've no doubt guessed that they're also made in China. Virtually everything in front of me as I write this, comes from China. The computer and virtually everything in it, the monitor, Logitech mouse, and even the Microsoft keyboard. Dell speakers ... China, Western Digital hard drive, the lamp in the corner, the printer on the table, the fan across the room ... you get the picture. We've quite simply outsourced our entire commodities production to China. Stetson Hats should come from Texas (they do) and Levi's should come from San Francisco (they now come from China too).

The other "extreme" of our recent getaway, was during another tradition whenever we visit the area ... a trip to Linn's Restaurant. We've been going to Cambria, and therefore to Linn's, for about fifteen years. We actually thought of moving there at one point, but they have a severe chronic water shortage problem, and it's not the easiest place to make a living. But a great place to visit. Linn's is a family run restaurant that features products that predominantly come from the Linn Ranch, which is a couple miles out of town, along meandering Santa Rosa Creek Road, a favorite of local bicyclists. The main restaurant had a pretty catastrophic fire a couple of years ago, which forced them to secure a couple nearby buildings for the retail business. They've rebuilt and improved upon the restaurant, and kept the adjacent buildings for both retail items and fresh and frozen food gems, most of which are either from their own farm or produced in the surrounding areas of San Luis Obispo County. I try to never be "out" of Linn's ollalieberry pies or chicken pot pies, and the latter needed replenishment so I picked up four of them for the freezer. Linn's is the real deal ... honest local products, family owned and operated, staffed by locals, and providing excellent food and food products for anyone lucky enough to frequent the restaurant or retail shops next door.

We're currently living on the San Francisco Peninsula, but our home is in beautiful Bend, Oregon. Both these locales have excellent weekend farmer's markets, as well as top notch grocery stores that strive to carry both local products, and healthy, minimally processed foods. We're fortunate to have markets like Mollie Stone's, Whole Foods, Draeger's, Andronico's and Lunardi's nearby, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Safeways (3 of them within a mile). Bend has the Newport Market and a Wild Oats, which is now owned by Whole Foods so they have similar quality and selection.

Farmer's markets are a great way to keep your money local, while getting genuinely healthy foods from nearby growers. And everything just seems fresher when it's displayed in a packing box, fresh from the ground or off a tree from a relatively close farm. Weather permitting, the Belmont and San Carlos markets are operational every weekend. Bend's market is seasonal, since the snow and very cold weather precludes them from holding the weekly sales outside in a parking lot, or next to Mirror Pond, which often freezes over in the winter.

We took a trek into San Francisco on a recent Saturday, and they also have a weekly farmer's market right on the Embarcadero, in front of the recently revamped Ferry Building shops. So it's possible to buy locally and be guranteed of fresh product, quite literally in the heart of the City's financial and tourist district. The one glaring difference in shopping here, vs. down the Peninsula or in Bend, is the parking meters that want 3.50 an hour. San Francisco should be encouraging vs. discouraging this business via these outrageous parking fees. There are no meters in Bend, and we cherish the fact. No sales tax either, while I'm on the subject. But there are actually farmer's markets all over the City, and I'm sure they don't all gouge you for parking. Worth some research, and I found the information's readily available on the Internet.

It's likely that either your town or one close by has a weekly farmer's market, and I highly encourage the reader to check it out. This is where you'll find the freshest products available, grown locally on a non corporate-size farm, with minimal pesticides, available for you and your family. The lemons aren't waxed, the lettuce and celery don't spend half a day soaking in water to make them appear prettier than they actually are, and the tomatoes are fresh off the vine. Carrots are sweeter, tomatoes tastier with less of the acidic quality they pick up in Mexican hot houses, and lemons and oranges smell like the first day of spring.

Another interesting thing I've noticed with both farmer's markets and some (not all) of the products at higher end markets, is that there's not a huge difference in prices. Sure, you can pick up fresh strawberries at Draeger's in January, but you'll pay five bucks for them. But wait 'til they're fresh and in season, and they're likely to be very close to what Safeway gets for them. I'm fond of fresh, bulk grains, and while it's always a good idea to do your homework and find the best combination of quality and price, these can also be purchased from the specialty stores at a substantial savings over the boxed varieties that your local Safeway offers. I saved over a dollar a pound on the quinoa I picked up in bulk from Mollie Stone's, over Safeway's packaged and processed variety. I don't mind doing the rinsing ... don't process my food in an attempt to save me time or energy in the kitchen. It's like frozen orange juice ... there's nothing wrong with it, but sometimes you just want fresh squeezed, and don't mind spending ten minutes doing it.

I'm trying my best to buy locally, or at the very least ... the freshest possible products. The more I read about corn vs. grass-fed beef, pesticides, and the measures taken to make your food look fresh, the less I want to eat it. And the factory farms and ranches that are subsidized by the government in the same way the banks and insurance companies have been because they're too big to fail, could stand a reality check and a re-thinking of how they do business. Bigger isn't better, small farms and ranches need a fighting chance.

The winery I noted above as my favorite, Zin Alley, produces two zinfandels, a syrah, a port, and a dessert wine on a small ten-acre hillside vineyard off Highway 46 in Paso Robles. Continuing east on 46 and then turning north on 101, you'll notice vineyards for as far as you can see, on both sides of the highway. These are the corporate vineyards which commonly contribute to the production of a good many of the large producers' case totals. This wasn't the case a decade ago, but the region's caught on and now the big corporate wineries have everything in sight planted with grapes of every variety. Not a bad thing, but I like the idea that Frank and Connie Nerelli dry farm and pick their grapes, and process them in oak barrels right in the tasting room. Frank produces around 500 cases a year ... small change compared to what the Gallo's and Mondavi's turn out, but this is the way he likes to do business. The wines are incredible, the hospitality is overwhelming, and they don't gouge you for the tastings or the wines. It's an honest business, and it shows ... year after year. This is the type of business I like dealing with and supporting, and will continue to do so.

As a final footnote ... We have friends who had a house outside of Vail, and we were fortunate enough to be invited to be their guests many times. I don't ski, but this is a skier's paradise in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, and the local communities have some of the best shopping and restaurants I've ever seen. Sweet Basil is one of the top 10 places I've eaten in my life, and we made it a point to eat there on every trip. Their chocolate martinis and infused vodkas alone, are enough to keep the bar packed every night. One of the most fun shops in the little village of Vail is Scotch on the Rockies. They carry a nice variety of clothing, blankets and throws, and home products, all from Scotland. Or so I thought. On one of our last trips, I saw and bought a great navy blue pullover windbreaker from the little store, and it's become my "go to" jacket for cool evening walks along the Deschutes River. And so it was with a degree of fascination, verging on sheer amazement, that the first time I consulted the tag on the collar for washing instructions for my blue windbreaker from Scotland, it read "Made In USA."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Musings has joined LSCooks!

Hi Everyone,
I've merged the contents of the other blog "Musings" into this one. Seemed simpler to keep everything in one place. The Musings blog was a place where I sort of stepped out of the food writing area and hit on some more obscure topics. So you'll now see some non food-centric writing every now and then, as topics come to mind.

Thanks for checking in!


Friday, January 1, 2010

New Years Past

Like many people, I'm welcoming 2010 with the sincere hope that it's an improvement on 2009 in every conceivable way. We just ended a horrendous decade, and last year was surely the perfect capper. For me personally, I ended up the year laid off abruptly a week before Thanksgiving, and although it's financially not the best thing that could have happened, there is one good thing that came of it ... I told my former manager as I was leaving his office that the plus side of being laid off is that I'll never EVER have to go to that horrible job again. But that's water over the bridge, a thing of the past, and life will surely go on. Hopefully in a more positive way, working at something I enjoy, vs. something that made me physically ill by mid-Sunday afternoon, anticipating that I'd have to go to work again the following day.

New Years have generally been fun celebrations, although I've always made it a habit to not drink much, and ideally to just stay home, or somewhere that didn't require interacting with the hordes of amateurs who thought it was ok to drive a car in what was surely an impaired state. New Years and St. Patrick's Day have always struck me as good nights to be home.

Growing up in Daly City brought predictable festivities each year. I'm the oldest of six kids, with five "baby sisters." My dad commonly worked two jobs to support this small tribe, but he was usually home on New Years Eve. And since he couldn't cook to save his life, snacks were generally fairly simple fare, and New Years and the annual screening of The Wizard of Oz (every March, as I recall) would always mean the same "snack," which consisted of orange soda and popcorn. No idea why, other than the fact that it was cheap and easy to fix.

My mom was a great cook ... but only dinner. Our lunches were awful, and we were on our own for breakfast, which was a rotation of several types of cereal. Corn Flakes, 40% Bran Flakes, Cheerios, Puffed Wheat, Rice Krispies, then back to Corn Flakes again. But she put on a great dinner every night, and we were all required to attend ... no excuses. In retrospect, it was quite commendable that she managed to put on meals with salad, a protein, vegetable, a starch, and dessert, every night. For eight people! Loyal readers know that I do all the cooking for my wife and myself, and I've been known to throw some fairly nice dinner parties, but to cook for eight picky eaters every night? Commendable doesn't come close ...

My dad, on the other hand, couldn't cook at all. Maybe two or three times a year he'd surprise us with some overcooked pancakes (and never enough syrup, I seem to recall) on a Sunday morning, and of course the popcorn and orange soda, but that was about it. He could boil a mean can of Franco American spaghetti (which I don't regard as food in the first place), and I believe he could handle a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. He was also known to "fry" a hot dog on a fork, directly over a gas burner on the stove. This of course did not amuse my mother, and when she found out that several of her kids had taken up this practice as well, it was brought to a halt quickly.

New Years Eve took on a whole new meaning in 1979, when I worked the first of what would be ten consecutive years for Bill Graham Presents. BGP, as it was known, was the premier producer of rock and roll shows for the greater San Francisco Bay Area. New Years would commonly mean four or five BGP shows going on simultaneously around the area, and it was an "all hands on deck" for the 150 of us who worked Security for Mr. Graham. Most of us did this part time, and it was obviously a great way to see shows for free, sometimes from enviable vantage points. And if you had any aspirations of getting one of these "good spots," you didn't want to say no to your New Years Eve assignment. Doing so would guarantee you months of no work at all, likely to be followed by a spot watching a back door at a Triumph or Christopher Cross concert at the Cow Palace, in the rain. Everyone was needed for New Years Eve shows, and virtually everyone worked them. I worked them every year, and was rewarded with spots like in The Who's dressing room area, backstage at dozens of shows, front of stage at dozens more, and on the mixer platform for two days of the Rolling Stones at Candlestick Park. For New Years, I almost always worked the Grateful Dead shows. These were the best shows to work, as the crowd was generally mellow, and they were simply very fun nights. It helps if you like the Grateful Dead, which I most certainly did, and still do. Always sold out, always memorable in one way or another, and these were the shows that Bill himself made an appearance at ... always at midnight, always as Father Time, sliding down from the rafters on some sort of a gliding mechanized sled.

One memorable year that I didn't work the Dead show turned out to be an incredible night, and I didn't expect it to be. My friend John and I had already checked in at the Oakland Auditorium to work the Dead show, when our boss came up and asked if we'd drive back over the bridge and work the Cow Palace gig instead. A couple people hadn't shown up to work, and they needed us. We were told we'd have "easy" posts, but they definitely needed our experience at the show. I'm a rock and roll fan to the core, and the thought of working this particular concert really didn't appeal to me. But if you do what you're asked, it usually pays off within the BGP organization. So we got in the car and high tailed it back over the Bay Bridge, sat in for the traditional briefing from Mark Lewis, just in time to see Earth, Wind and Fire, and The Commodores. Our "easy spot" turned out to be a perfect vantage point behind the stage, where we had an unobstructed view of everything, and virtually nothing to do other than keep fans away from the lighting equipment. For a show that we had no interest in working, it turned out to be one of the best I've ever seen, and certainly more lively than the Dead show. The crowd was totally stylin', exceptionally well behaved, and this was a real live party. Dancing everywhere, happy people, great music, amazing lights and production, and I was totally glad to be there.

The Bend, Oregon years were always fun. We'd left the Bay Area with high ambitions that never really came to fruition, but the combination of some amazing friends and "real winters" made for some great New Years. Parties in Bend would take place at our house, Bob and Chris', or Chuck and Barb's. Always fun, great food, great people, and a short ride home (although you could count on some ice and snow, just to add to the merriment!). I'm sure we're going to get back to our beautiful house and wonderful friends in Bend fairly soon, and this time we'll stay for good. We miss everything about it, other than the challenging financial conditions which were, and still are a stark reality. But since it's a challenge to live anywhere these days, I figure we might as well be happy and in our own home while we're figuring it out. Something good will develop. It has to.

So last night was the end of the first decade of the millenium we ushered in ten years ago. I remember the night like it was yesterday ... Monterey, great dinner with friends, watched the fireworks go off over Monterey Bay, drank some Middleton Irish (bless you, John) and called it a night. We all had such high hopes for the next years ... the economy was on an upswing, we were healthy, we had great friends, what could go wrong? We, along with most of the nation found out that our complacency was about to cost us dearly. We'd be saddled with eight years of a Bush administration, which will likely have the dubious distinction of being generally regarded historically as the very worst American President to date.

It was the decade that we were attacked by terrorists from the middle east, and the realization that there's a good number of people in the world who would like nothing more than to see the fall of all of the civilized western developed world. We were in Maui on the infamous morning of 9/11, and like every other citizen of our great country, we were shocked that this could happen on our soil, as well as the notion that a group of people could hate us so much. It's scary knowing that they're out there, undoubtedly planning more attacks, while we sit and wait. We all owe the brave men and women of our armed forces a major debt of gratitude, and I don't envy what they have to go through on a daily basis.

It was a decade that saw too many good people leave us. The public figures who have died are of course well publicized, and their talents and presence are gone forever. But it's also a decade that saw the passing of some dear friends and family. My mother, my wife's mother, and our wonderful friends Trudy and Leilani, are no longer with us, and there isn't a day that passes when one or all of them doesn't come to mind. Whether it's thinking about the meals my mom prepared, the incomparable cranberry molds that Risa's mom would make once a year, Leilani's wonderful smile (and a voice as loud as mine), or Trudy's uncanny ability to make us laugh and put a positive spin on the worst of situations.

We lost two cats; my gorgeous 26 pound monster Maine Coon Cody, and our 18 year old mutt Annabelle. Our friends Barb and Chuck lost their beloved vizsla, Driver, and Bob and Chris lost their beautiful German Shepherd, Cody. Be kind to your friends and family, cut the pets a little slack. Nobody's around forever. I quote Neil Peart way too often, but there's truth to his line "We're only immortal for a limited time." Amen.

Which brings me to New Years Eve 2009. I had no intention of leaving the house and mingling with the crazy people on the Bay Area highways, and life in general is not particularly exciting currently, so the best I could do was create a good meal. It's what I do, and tonight wouldn't be any different. I began the night with an "early" cocktail. Uncharacteristically, I shook myself a Grey Goose martini fifteen minutes before the theoretical "cocktail hour" of five o'clock. Just felt like it, so I did it. Up, with a twist thank you. And for the New Years Eve meal? I opted for a variation of a recipe that comes from a small but very well done cookbook called "
Curries & Indian Foods," by Linda Fraser. The recipes in this book range from basic to fairly complicated, but it's a wonderful way to take a step into this amazingly flavorful type of cooking. I've made many of them, and they always please my audience immensely. Tonight's was no exception, garnering oooh's and aaah's from my wife.

The first decade of the new millenium is now behind us. We're only one day past 2009, but it just feels like things will improve. They have to, right? For me, I'm fairly confident that it's going to mean that I'll finally devote the time and energy I want and need to, into real estate and writing. Two things I keep gravitating to, and love doing. I also foresee a return to our beautiful home in Bend, where I'm sure it's not going to be easy and nothing will be handed to us, but it's where we belong and want to live. I'm looking forward to having the Deschutes River across the street, and the river trail available via a five minute walk. To being able to have my fly rod cast out after a ten minute walk up the trail. To seeing the Cascades in the near distance, from almost anywhere in town. To 4th of July parties at Barb & Chuck's, and Meatfest 14 in our backyard (and hopefully it won't be snowing in June!). To four seasons, dressing accordingly, dealing with snow and ice, and appreciating the long(er) days of summer. I see these things as "normal" and I'm certainly ready for some normalcy and predictablity in my life. We all are, and we all deserve it.

So with that, I bid you all a Happy New Year, and let's hope that 2010 is a good year for all of us. It's about time!

Chicken In Ginger Sauce

  • Package of 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 2" pieces

  • 2 tablespoons of canola oil

  • 6 scallions, chopped

  • 4-5 white mushrooms, sliced thin

  • 1 - 2" piece of fresh ginger, chopped fine

  • 2-3 garlic cloves, crushed, chopped fine

  • 1 teaspoon of ground cumin

  • 2 teaspoons of Garam Masala (middle eastern markets or Cost Plus/World Market)

  • Salt and Pepper to taste

  • 1/2 cup of water or chicken stock (I used stock)

  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice


  • Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat

  • Saute the onions for 2-3 minutes, stirring

  • Add the mushrooms and saute another couple minutes

  • Add the chicken, stir to coat, brown on all sides, about five minutes

  • Add the garlic, ginger, Garam Masala, salt & pepper, stir to coat

  • Add the lemon juice and water / stock, stir well

  • Cover, simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally (chicken will be tender)

  • Serve over plain rice or rice pilaf. I made a simple pilaf and it was perfect with the chicken dish. If you have access to Indian naan (flat bread) at your market, it also goes great with the meal.