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A Wine and Cheese Party

March 10, 2012 Leave a comment

I realize that winter break was almost 3 months ago now, but I still feel I just have to make a post describing the amazing wine and cheese party I hosted for my friends. Wine and cheese parties are great for many reasons: 1) you can do something very elaborate or as simple as you wish; 2) they provide plenty of opportunity for socializing; and 3) you get to try many new things and expand your palate without the risk of buying a whole bottle you might not like! I held my first wine and cheese party with my friends four years ago after our first year of University and even though none of us really knew what we were doing back then, we still had an amazing time! The party we held back in January was a little more elaborate than the first time, but the fun times and memories were all the same. I think everyone should try a wine and cheese party at some point, and here are some basic guidelines and tips to help you get started planning your own.

The General Outline

The basic structure of our wine and cheese parties is quite simple. Everyone is asked to select one wine and one cheese (or other food item if they wish, for some variety) to go with it. I usually have everyone e-mail me their selections in advance so I can make sure we have a nice variety (i.e. reds, whites, roses) without having to spoil the surprise for everyone else. At the party itself, we all take turns presenting our wine and cheese to the  group, and then everyone tastes a bit together. After everyone has had a chance to go (this usually takes a little while, ~7-10 min per person) we bring out the remaining wine, cheese, and other food and just sit around sipping and eating our favorites for the rest of the evening.

The table setting

Personally I think this is the best structure for an event because it allows everyone to show off the work they did in picking a wine, while not being overly formal or “stuffy”. So far I am sure this sounds pretty simple right? I mean  it seems like all your guests are doing the work, so what is your job as the host of the party?

The Role of the Host

As I mentioned before, one of the best things about a wine and cheese party is that there really is no prescribed formula for how elaborate the party has to be. You have some wine, you have some cheese and boom presto a wine and cheese part is born. While this simple party concept works and is lots of fun, there are many things that you as a host can do to spruce up the evening a little bit. I have hosted two wine and cheese parties so far and they were both wildly different in what I did as the host, yet both were still a lot of fun. I would recommend starting simple for your first attempt and getting these key basics down:

  • The Safety of Your Guests: The number one priority of the host is always the safety of their guests. Since it is likely that most of your guests will be consuming a fairly large amount of alcohol throughout the evening, take precautions in advance to make sure everyone gets home safe. Ask people for their keys at the door, make sure you have sufficient parking space available for people to leave their car overnight, have taxi numbers at the ready, etc.
  • Decor/Atmosphere: If you are the host the party is probably happening at your place, thus you are responsible for setting up the party space. Make sure you have a space where all your guests can fit comfortably (preferably with chairs for everyone). There should be at least one table for whomever is presenting their wine and cheese to serve from and a second table to hold some kind of snacks. A dining room table also works well for a smaller more intimate group. Two things that will spruce up your party atmosphere are 1) real tablecloths and 2) candles. It is amazing how these two simple items can help transform a space and make it look classy and inviting
  • Music:I suppose this falls under the atmosphere category, but I decided to give it its own space because I think it is very important. The right background mix for a party can really help elevate the mood and set the tone. For a wine and cheese party, think more subtle and classical. This is not the place to be blasting out the latest top 40 mix, but instead would be better served by more subtle tunes that can sound nice in the background while promoting easy conversation. Some ideas are artists like John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Adele, Miles Davis…you get the idea

    Spanakopita

    Golden brown spanakopita

  • Fridge space: You will probably have a fair bit of cheese and at least a couple of bottles of white wine coming your way tonight, make sure you have the room to keep them cold!
  • Wine glasses: This seems pretty obvious, make sure you have at least one glass for each guest, and definitely have a few extra on hand as well; glasses have an odd propensity to break right before you need them the most. You should also have some easy way for your guests to rinse out their glasses between wines; a simple pitcher of water on the table and large bowl works well and keeps you from having to run to the kitchen after each round
  • Simple food: In addition to the cheese that your guests will bring, you should at the minimum provide a range of simple food for your guests to munch on. This is especially important given that you will most likely be drinking a fair bit of alcohol tonight, and it is good to have something other than heavy cheese in your stomach. My suggestions here are to have fruits and veggies arranged nicely with an assortment of crackers. Make sure you have pitchers of water out as well
Adding Some More Food

All of the points listed above will let you throw a wildly successful and fun wine and cheese party. However, if you want to take things to the next level, the main thing you can provide as a host is some more elaborate food options. This past January, we were hosting a smaller and more intimate group (~10 people) so my girlfriend and I decided it would be fun to cook up a few cheese-themed party foods for everyone to enjoy. We chose to make three dishes: spanakopita (greek; phyllo dough filled with a mixture of spinach and feta cheese), brie en croute (baked brie with jam, cranberries, and roasted almonds all wrapped in puff pastry), and an amazing pizza with roasted butternut squash, garlic, goat cheese, and rosemary.

Baked brie with jam, almonds, and cranberries wrapped in puff pastry

Of course, the addition of all this food necessitated a more complex table setting which only helped to add to the atmosphere of the evening. We also put out plates arranged with all sorts of little treats: fruits, crackers, figs, dates, chocolates, etc. Amazingly one thing that adding all of these extras did NOT do was take away from our enjoyment of the event itself. We prepared all of the dishes earlier in the day so that all we had to do was simply pop them in the oven and wait for them to bake. We could then go back and enjoy the party with our guests. This kind of pre-planning is key to ensuring a low stress and enjoyable night for you as the host, and it starts with selecting the recipes you are going to make and giving yourself enough time to prep them beforehand.

Squash, goat cheese, garlic, and rosemary

Conclusion

A wine and cheese party is a wonderful opportunity to have some fun with your friends and try something new! As a host, this type of party places very little burden on you and the excitement of trying so many new things is sure to stimulate conversation and keep all of your guests happy and entertained. The most important thing to remember about a wine and cheese party is to have fun and not worry about making it perfect. You really do not need to know anything about wine to participate in or host a wine and cheese party. Don’t stress over picking a “perfect pairing” most of your guests won’t know the difference anyway and will enjoy it just the same. There are also so many amazing resources online these days it is very easy to find some basic guidelines on how to pick a good wine and cheese together, just do a quick google search and see. Another great place to get some advice is from the clerks at your local wine shop, they are generally very knowledgable and will be more than happy to recommend a good wine for your situation in any price range.

So what are you waiting for? Go out, grab some friends, some bottles, and some cheese and have fun!

A Romantic Dinner for Two

January 29, 2012 2 comments

As I mentioned in my last post one of the highlights of my winter break was a wonderful dinner I put together for my girlfriend and I as part of her holiday present. Taking turns to put together a great meal for each other is something we like to do every few months; it is a lot of fun because it gives you the chance to be creative and to share a wonderful meal with someone you care about. As I have mentioned before, one of my favorite things about food and cooking is its ability to foster connections between people, and this type of meal is a perfect example.

Good wine and candles, the keys to a great dinner!

Now putting together a romantic meal for your special someone does not mean that you have to pick a ridiculously complicated and fancy recipe! Of course you can choose to go all out and put together a “Terrine of Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Black Truffles and Warm Potato and Truffle Salad” and all the power to you if you do; I love to try new and exciting things as well when putting these dinners together. The key point however is that the complexity of the dish you cook should not be a barrier between you and what is really important: spending quality time with someone over a plate of delicious food. Trust me, with a simple dinner, a good bottle of wine, and a few candles for atmosphere, you will more than impress your date.

Menu:

  • Salad with homemade tarragon mayonnaise dressing
  • Grilled rib eye steaks with caramelized onions and mushrooms
  • Garlic Broccoli
  • AMAZING Roasted potatoes with thyme and garlic
  • Homemade ice cream sandwiches with homemade cream caramel sauce

The Salad

I've been working on my presentation skills....

For this meal, I chose to stick to simple dishes but added a slight twist in order to have some fun. I knew that I wanted the main course to be centered around steak, because really you can’t go wrong with a perfectly grilled rib eye on the plate! For the starter I decided to do a simple salad with some different types of lettuce including Belgian endive and Radicchio that I hadn’t used before, as well as some cold green beans. For the dressing I decided to try something I had been itching to make for a while: homemade mayonnaise. After hearing the awesomeness of real mayonnaise expounded upon by many other blogs I follow I knew I had to give it a try and boy was I not disappointed! I chose to follow a simple recipe from Gordon Ramsay’s Holiday Special for Tarragon Mayonnaise that he used for making a salmon nicoise salad. Mayonnaise is actually ridiculously simple to make, the main ingredient being a lot of elbow grease as you whisk together the egg yolk, oil, and vinegar. The result is a deliciously creamy and light mayonnaise, the flavour and texture of which simply blows the store-bought kind of out of the water! I highly recommend making some yourself as it is truly a delicious condiment that will add amazing flavour to your salads and sandwiches.

The Steak

Clearly I used up all my presentation skills on the salad...

As I mentioned, the center of the main course was two beautiful rib eye steaks I picked up the same day (lucky me, they were on sale!). Ribeyes are one of my favorite cuts of steak for grilling; they have amazing flavour and enough fat to keep them moist and tender throughout the cooking process. I always cook my steaks to medium rare as I think this gives the best flavour and texture to the meat. One of my favorite accompaniments to a steak is a mixture of caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms to put on-top of it. The most important thing to keep in mind when caramelizing onions are: 1) use a large pan so that you can spread out the onions and give them equal access to heat and 2) be patient! The results are well-worth the wait!

The Broccoli and Potatoes

As side-dishes for the steak I prepared a simple dish of broccoli sautéed with garlic and the most amazing roasted potatoes I have ever had in my life. I have to thank another of my favorite TV chefs, Jamie Oliver, for this amazing roasted potato recipe, as featured in his 2011 Holiday Special (ya that’s right I watched a lot of Food Network over the break). The secret innovation in this recipe is to use a potato masher to gently squash the potatoes partway through roasting, this increases the surface area in contact with the roasting pan and allows the potatoes to develop a beautiful golden crust. The recipe also has you par-boil the potatoes before roasting which both helps to speed up cooking and creates a fluffy interior. For the seasoning, I went with olive oil, thyme, and lots of garlic; it’s really important to be patient and let the potatoes develop that amazing golden crust, it might take longer than the suggests cooking time but it is well worth the wait.

AMAZING roasted potatoes

The Dessert

I had a really hard time picking a dessert for this meal. If it was the summer, my go-to would have been something simple and refreshing with lots of fresh fruit. Unfortunately, the fruit during this time of year is simply not good enough to be the centerpiece of a great dessert but this gave me a great excuse to try something new. The biggest problem for me when it comes to dessert is that I am not much of a baker, and practically every amazing recipe I saw called for some serious baking skills. I knew I wanted something with a good chocolate component in it and I had been itching to try making my own caramel sauce for a while, so I knew I wanted a dessert that incorporated these two elements, but I was at a loss as to what that dessert should be.

Lots of chocolate in these cookies

Then, while browsing around one of my favorite food blogs, The Novice Chef, I found a recipe for homemade ice-cream sandwiches. This recipe was perfect! It allowed me to incorporate both my desired ingredients, caramel and chocolate, and featured something both my girlfriend and I love…ice cream! As an added bonus, the cookie recipe on the blog was super-simple even for a novice baker like me and produced some amazingly decadent chocolate cookies! I chose to use two different ice cream flavours, mint chocolate chip and cookies and cream, for some variety but you can really use whatever flavours you like; simply take the cooled down cookies, add the ice cream in the middle, and allow them to freeze and set for a few hours. I would recommend removing them from the freezer about 5-7 min before eating them, to allow them to thaw and soften up a bit.

Now for the final element, the one that really made this dish special: the caramel sauce. I had been wanting to try making caramel for a long time but had never really had an excuse to do it before. Making caramel can be quite intimidating, it requires patience and vigilance and if you don’t do it right you can be left with one heck of a mess to clean up! Also, making caramel can be a little dangerous as the sugar gets extremely hot! This is not a recipe to make with young children running around. The simplest caramel recipe I have found so far comes from Chef Michael Smith (another Food Network personality). This recipe is unique in that he has you add some water to the initial sugar in the pot, allowing the sugar to dissolve and heat evenly. Once the water boils away the sugar will caramelize in a much more even fashion. It is very important to: 1) follow the instructions and not disturb the syrup by inserting a spoon as this can cause unwanted crystallization and 2) use a large pot. The second point is important for when you add your cream or butter (I used cream) as the mixture will foam up considerably and you don’t want it to overflow.

An amazing (if slightly blurry) dessert!

This caramel sauce was simply delicious and blew the socks off any commercially prepared one I have tried. It is rich, sweet, and has a great depth of flavour. I only used a small amount of it for this dinner but we kept the rest around for the week and used it at other holiday events on fruits and ice cream.

Overall this was a fantastic meal that I will look back on with fond memories. We had a great time and shared amazing food, wine, and conversation together. What more could you really ask for!

Until next time

-JR

Categories: Food Adventures

A New Years Dinner Party

January 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Happy belated New Year to everyone! Wow its been a while since I posted here. After exams it seemed that I spent too much of my too-short winter break eating delicious food instead of posting about it here! Now that I am back at school and settling into routine again, I think it’s a good time for a few posts on all of my food related adventures the past few weeks. This break was filled with amazing food from start to finish, that I was able to share with many family members and close friends. This makes it all them more special to me; one of my favorite aspects of food is its ability to bring people together and foster warm exchanges and interactions. Between the amazing holiday meals, wine-and cheese parties with friends, a romantic dinner with a certain girl, and an awesome New Years dinner, the past week and half has truly reinforced foods amazing power to unite us and foster wonderful conversation.

Over the next few posts, I will cover a few of these events in more detail, but right now I want to focus on the most recent: New Years Eve! For me, New Years Eve has always been a time to spend with my family and friends, generally in the comfort of one of our homes and sometimes with the odd trip to a restaurant for a special dinner. I personally prefer this to spending my time freezing outside, and battling for transportation home after midnight. Instead I get to spend time with the people who really matter and enjoy their company.

The Finished Lamb...let it rest!

This year, we had a relatively small gathering, as many friends and family were in warmer and sunnier destinations than Canada for the break! We decided that instead of our usual night full of small (albeit good) finger foods and pizza, we would get together and put together an amazing meal we could all enjoy together. It really was quite simple; we had some appetizers set out for everyone (the standard chips and dip fair), and then an incredible meal consisting of: roasted leg of lamb, roasted potatoes, spinach and green-been salads, and an amazing tiramisu cake for dessert! Now that’s a New Years meal!

For this event I actually didn’t do much of the actual cooking (I was a little cooked-out from the previous few nights which I will describe in later posts), instead I was able to play the role of host as a few of my friends prepared the awesome dinner in my kitchen. My friend Josh (in the pics below) took on the main job of preparing the lamb and potatoes. He made a simple marinade for the lamb using orange juice, white wine, thyme, salt, and pepper, and let them marinate for about 4 hours. He used Parisienne potatoes (the small ones that come ready-peeled in a bag) simply covered with olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic. He also taught me a new technique for roasting, we simply placed the lamb legs directly on the top oven rack, and the large pan with the potatoes below them on the bottom rack. This allows the lamb to roast more evenly and

Amazing roast potatoes

preserves the juices as they drip onto the potatoes.

The lamb turned out absolutely delicious! I have developed a real taste for lamb over the past few years, it is a nice change from beef, and have never had this particular cut before. It is a little awkward to carve, but the meat was supremely tender and flavourful and we all enjoyed it very much. Dessert was a selection of cookies, ice cream, fruits, and a wonderful tiramisu cake. New Years is definitely a time to indulge and enjoy a bit, especially in the good company of friends!

Tiramisu Cake and other desserts

Well that’s it for now. I will be putting up some more posts on our spectacular wine and cheese night (and some info on why this might not actually be the best pairing!) as well as an awesome and relatively simple dinner I cooked for my girlfriend as part of her holiday present.

-JR

Categories: Food Adventures

Proof you can eat well during exams

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s exam season right now which usually means many hours hunched over books and not tones of free time. But one thing it doesn’t mean for me is bad food.

I try to focus on quick and easy recipes that make enough for multiple meals. Take last nights (and tonight’s for that matter) dinner. A simple roast chicken!

Just 5 minutes to brush with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried herbs. In the oven for 15 minutes at 480 then 40 more at 325 and voila! An amazing, healthy, and filling dinner to fuel your studying.

Amazing roast chicken...ignore the can of SPAM in the background, not mine and definitely not approved exam (or anytime for that matter) food

Eat well during your exams, you are working hard enough as it is and your body needs all the energy and nutrients it can get from good food!

Categories: Recipes/Creations

My 24 Hours in San Francisco – Part 3 (The Mission and more tea)

November 13, 2011 2 comments

At the end of my last post  I had just finished up a relaxing experience at Samovar Tea Lounge and was now ready to explore another area of San Francisco. My destination was The Mission area on SF. The Mission is perhaps one of the best-known areas of San Francisco, it really has its own unique feel, vibe, and look. Right when I emerged from the BART station (took the subway to get there) I could immediately feel the how different this area was, I walked out into a loud and busy intersection with street performers and various vendors. The whole atmosphere of the place felt a little more wild and energetic than the previous areas of SF that I had visited, however it did not feel touristy at all.

Bi-Rite Creamery

My goal for visiting The Mission district was two-fold: 1) to experience this iconic area of SF 2) to find two restaurants, a pizza shop and ice cream parlour, that had been recommended to me the previous day. I am not one to shun the advice of a food-loving local! So with that I set off on my quest to find the Bi-Rite Creamery, one of SF’s most famous ice-cream shops. Along the way I got a little lost and ended up going through a lovely half-hour walk through some of the hills of SF. It was great to see a more residential area of the city; the homes themselves were all beautiful and there is just something about how all the buildings seem to roll with the landscape itself that is just amazing to see. All that being said, it is TIRING to walk all those hills, especially in beautiful sunny weather when you are dressed in dark jeans and a dark t-shirt because everyone told you how cold it can get in SF when you were packing! With all the food I had been sampling today though, I didn’t really mind the exercise!

So many flavours!

So after that long walk in the sun, I felt ready when I finally arrived at Bi-Rite Creamery. This place is an SF icon and there is almost always a line-up out the door. Thankfully the service moves pretty fast so I didn’t have to wait long for my frozen treat. Everything about the ice cream at Bi-Rite is handmade. According to their website, the ice cream is made in small batches on-site, and all the wonderful baked goods that go into the various ice-cream flavours (brownies, marshmallows, etc.) are hand-made in the bakery right next door! The full line-up of ice creams changes every day, however they are known for a few staples, in particular the salted caramel and balsamic strawberry flavours. After much deliberation I decided to get two flavours: salted caramel, and “malted vanilla with peanut brittle and milk chocolate pieces”.

Salted caramel and malted vanilla

Both flavours blew me away. I have never had ice cream before that was so fresh tasting and had such…real…flavour. Bi-Rite uses only the best real ingredients in their ice cream and it really shows. The flavours are pure and subtle at times, and they don’t just overwhelm you with sugar like many other ice creams. Even the malted vanilla didn’t overwhelm with pieces of peanut brittle and chocolate, they were there to add to the overall flavour, not to dominate it. This is how ice cream really should taste and it is an experience I will remember for a long time. I think this is a perfect example of the difference you get from using pure and real ingredients, it truly shines through in the final product.

Pizzeria Delfina

Now having enjoyed my ice cream I set out towards the final planned stop on my food tour of SF: Pizzeria Delfina, supposedly one the best pizzas I would ever taste. The pizza shop was actually just down the street from the ice cream so I figured I would go and wander around a bit first to put some space in between the two! Just down the street from Bi-Rite Creamery was the Bi-Rite Market (same owners), the most amazing grocery store I have ever been inside. The Bi-Rite Market commits to forging strong relationships with local food producers who they buy from. They stock high quality local meat, cheese and produce, as well as many locally produced “dry goods” such as delicious chocolate, wine, and preserves. It is a fully stocked grocery store but is really so much more; many of the food items had little cards near them explaining their origin and containing information about them. This is a true example of a grocery store done right, I can only hope that more shops like Bi-Rite open up in other cities to help foster an appreciation of not only good food, but where that food comes from as well.

After wandering around for a while I made my way back to Pizzeria Delfina for some delicious food. The shop is actually quite small with limited sit-in room, however they also do take-out. They do not sell single slices, only freshly made pizza made to order. I had no desire to eat a full personal pizza myself, but I figured as my last big meal in SF I would go ahead an order anyway and eat what I could. Pizza is actually one of my favorite foods; I try not to eat it too often and would rather save it for special occasions in good restaurants that get it right (not always easy as a University student), Pizzeria Delfina is one of those restaurants. The menu of pizzas changes daily, and they also offer some amazing looking appetizers and sides. I particularly wanted to try the spicy cauliflower but I knew I didn’t have the stomach room for it.

Amazing pizza!

I sat at the bar where you could easily see into the open kitchen and watch the staff at work. They had a very nice table setting as well which I appreciated. I ordered the vegetarian pizza they had that day, which was a white pizza with broccoli rabe and one other green that I can not remember on it. There was also some great cheeses and garlic in the pizza. Like seemingly everywhere else in SF, Delfina uses local seasonal ingredients in their food, and it really shows. The pizza was cooked perfectly, thin and crispy crust with lots of good cheese on top. The pizza tasted incredibly vivid and fresh, you could clearly tell that good ingredients went into this dish, and the great thing about pizza is that it really lets those ingredients shine out. I was definitely not disappointed with this experience and would recommend it to anyone visiting SF. Just make sure to get their early as it is constantly busy!

After Delfina, I had a few hours to kill before I had to head to the airport. I decided I would take a long slow walk all the way back to my hostel to pick up my bags. This really let me see a lot of the city, and I was happy to go for a walk on a sunny day after all that food! Along the way I stopped in a few other areas of the city to look around; one in particular that I was eager to see was the Hayes valley area known for its great shops and restaurants. If I had more time I definitely would have liked to check out the food at some of these places, but I guess I will have to save that for another trip! After making it back to the main downtown area I still had some time to kill, so I decided to go back to Samovar Tea Lounge for one last cup of tea and to relax a bit before heading to the airport.

Ryokucha tea at Samovar

I once again sat outside to enjoy the beautiful view and weather and this time ordered one of the green teas on the menu called Ryokucha, a delicious genmaicha tea blended with some matcha powder. Genmaicha is a traditional type of Japanese tea made by blending green tea with toasted rice. This was ideally a “poor man’s” tea and was used to make valuable green tea supplies last longer. Today many people drink genmaicha without realizing it, it is the type of tea served in sushi restaurants all over the country. It would however be a mistake to judge all genmaicha but what you taste at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant, this stuff can be seriously good, especially when mixed with a bit of matcha (a unique type of green tea which is powdered and dissolved in the water itself) for some added flavour complexity (and health benefits). Genmaicha’s signature taste comes from the toasted rice, which gives it a nutty flavour and full body, some people describe it as a meal in a cup. The Ryokucha was served very nicely and is a beautiful vibrant green (probably due to the freshness of the tea leaves combined with the matcha). I immensely enjoyed this tea and it was a perfect way to end an amazing day in SF.

Sign at a cable car stop

So that’s pretty much it for my SF adventure, I headed to the airport shortly after to catch the red-eye flight home. I couldn’t be happier with how much I managed to accomplish in the short 24 hours I had in SF. I had some pretty high expectations for this city and I am happy to say it did not disappoint. I think there is truly something special about this city; it’s atmosphere, people, and general appreciation of life really struck me and I will remember it for a long time. I hope to be able to come back for a longer period of time to see the rest of the city, there are many areas I still didn’t get to. Looking back on these three posts I feel that I should mention that I normally do not eat this much in a day, but exceptional cities with exceptional food combined with tight time restraints = the need to indulge a bit. I would definitely recommend SF as a travel destination to anyone, and I can’t wait to go back myself.

Thanks for the memories San Francisco!

-JR

My 24 Hours in San Francisco – Part 2 (aka how to eat through a city)

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

So we left off with my returning to the hostel after a fun night in Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. I knew that I would have to leave for the airport around 6:00 pm to catch my flight so I woke up at the nice and early hour of 7:30 to get a start on the day and pack in as much as I could! It was an absolutely perfect day to explore the city, perfectly clear and sunny out with a high of 25 °C. By the end of this day I was full of food and exhausted from walking around the city for a solid day (man those hills are big!).

The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

The Ferry Building, home of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

From the moment I started planning my SF trip and realized I would be in town on a Saturday, I knew that my first stop that morning would have to be the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Over the past year I have seen amazing photos from this market and heard about the amazing produce and food that can be found there from one of my favorite food blogs (www.summertomato.com) so I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit in person! The market is located in the ferry building, right at the end of Market St. on the water, with a spectacular view of the Bay Bridge. Inside, the building is full of artisan food vendors and shops selling things like: the best coffee you have ever tasted, amazing olive oils, fresh seafood, beautiful chocolates, and much more! The inside of the building was quite beautiful and over the approximately 2 hours I spent at the market (I know, it’s a long time but there was so much to see!) I walked through it at least twice.

The early morning view of the Bay Bridge from Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

All along the outside of the building is where the true farmers market sets up, with the main area concentrated to one side (with a fantastic view of the Bay Bridge) and behind the ferry building itself. The vendors here sell only locally produced vegetables, fruits, meats, and prepared foods. All of the produce looked incredibly delicious and fresh, I have never before seen such a bounty of beautiful looking (and smelling) produce in my life (for great pics, check out summertomato.com for the weekly farmers market updates). Besides how beautiful it looked (and how great it tasted) the thing that struck me most was the incredible variety of produce items available! Many vendors had interesting fruits like pluots (cross between an apricot and a plum), I have seen these before but neer have I seen two or three varieties in the same place! Most of the vendors has plenty of samples to try, and I took full advantage of it! The tomatoes, pears, pluots, apples, and more were all delicious! I also bought a few different fruits to eat as I walked around the market, it was delicious! With produce like this its no wonder SF is the capital of great food in the US!

Amazing produce at the market

Now for the food! The first vendor I saw right at the entrance was Blue Bottle Coffee. I had read about this coffee before and it was definitely on my list of things to try. Their website says that they commit to all their coffee being brewed from beans which were roasted no more than 48 hours earlier. Unlike some other drinks (Champagne, scotch, some wines) coffee is not meant to age, so this short time between roasting and brewing means the flavour stays full and fresh. I purchased a simple black coffee, prepared using an old-fashioned drip method where the hot water is poured from a kettle (heated over a propane stove) directly onto the ground beans in a filter. The coffee flows out the bottom into the waiting cup below. I had to wait about 10 minutes for my cup but it was well worth it. The coffee was delicious and strong, and it was a great experience just savouring it while looking out across the water.

Awesome apple pancakes

I did a quick lap around the market to get my bearings and figure out what the various food options were. Having not had any breakfast yet and wanting to try something delicious I decided to break with my typical high-protein breakfast and go for a delicious apple-pancake. This thing was huge and very, very good! Great apple flavour and texture. I enjoyed it immensely but did not finish the whole thing (had to save room for later!). Over the next hour and a half I explored the market in detail while it began to get busier and busier. After thoroughly exploring every booth (and sampling a number of products!) I decided I was slightly hungry again.

My strategy this time was to pick the food vendor with the longest line, I figured the locals would know what was best! The longest line turned out to be for a vendor called La Primavera, who oddly enough was preparing some the most amazing looking Mexican food I have ever seen (SF is famous for its Mexican food). The thing that immediately caught my eye on the menu was the chicken empanadas in mole sauce for a few reasons: I had never had mole sauce before and always wanted to try it, I had never had a real empanadas before, and, most importantly, it was one of the few dishes you could buy a half portion of! The empanadas was delicious, full of delicious chicken with a great crust. The flavours were just ridiculously intense and I loved the mole sauce. I didn’t realize how well the flavour of chocolate pairs with a hearty and savory dish like this!

Chicken empanadas with mole sauce

Now being thoroughly stuffed, I decided it was time to bid farewell to the market. I had a hard time leaving, I had high expectations for this place and it delivered on every one of them. What an amazing way to spend a morning! The best part though is that I had done so much and it was before noon! Next I decided to walk towards another SF destination I had been dying to visit, Samovar Tea Lounge.

This sign caught my eye at one of the many food vendors

Samovar Tea Lounge (part 1)

Samovar Tea Lounge

So after a full morning on my feet I decided it was time for a little rest and relaxation. About two years ago I started to drink a lot of tea. I think it started for me during an exam period when I discovered a new loose leaf tea shop in the local mall. I had heard people exclaim the benefits of using loose-leaf tea over the bagged stuff so I figured I would but a bit to give it a try. Ever since then I have been hooked. Tea-bags, which are undeniably convenient, just can’t compete with the flavour and taste experience you get from brewing real loose-leaf tea. It’s not only the vastly better taste, but I really enjoy the ritual of preparing loose-leaf tea itself. Dropping a bag of ground up tea into a mug of water is just not the same as portioning out the leaves yourself and watching them expand and change as they steep. You also can’t infuse tea-bags multiple times like you can with many loose-leaf teas (oolong anyone) and appreciate how the flavour changes with each infusion.

Needless to say then, with my love of tea, I needed to visit Samovar Tea Lounge, a place I have read a lot about. Samovar three locations throughout the San Francisco area, each of them beautifully and meticulously designed to be an incredibly relaxing and comfortable spot. I visited their location in Yerba Buena gardens, right in downtown SF behind the Moscone Center (famous for being the location of many an Apple press conference). The setting is amazing, looking out over a beautiful park/garden in the middle of the city. Walking into the area of the restaurant (I sat outside) you can just feel in the atmosphere that this is a place for relaxation, whether that be with a good book, a good group of friends, or just some quiet time to think.

The view from Samovar Tea Lounge at Yerba Buena Gardens

The teas featured at Samovar are not like the ones you find in many of the chain tea shops throughout many cities (Teopia, David’s Tea, etc.). First off, you won’t find tonnes of crazy flavored teas here, no “maple walnut candy spice green tea”. While you will find a few subtle flavored teas (like the vanilla oolong or blood orange pu-erh), the majority of the selection focuses on high quality and delicious “straight” teas; green, black, oolong, pu-erh, and herbal are all represented. The second major difference is in price, there is no getting over the fact that tea at Samovar is more expensive, with typical tea prices ranging from $9 to $17 for the most expensive. However you must remember that you are paying for not only higher quality tea here (which you can clearly taste the second it hits your lips) but the wonderful experience as well. The tea is served in a beautiful fashion (the exact way depends on the particular tea). I ordered a Darjeeling (black) tea which was served with the leaves in a small pot, with a small cup and beautiful cast-iron kettle. I had never brewed tea like this before, small cups each individually brewed with quick infusion times, and it was a great new experience. The flavour you get with this quantity of leaves in less water is simply fantastic, and it is interesting to see how the flavour changes with each infusion. There was also something much more satisfying about drinking tea this way, and I think it definitely has to do with the ritual aspect I mentioned earlier.

The Darjeeling tea at Samovar Tea Lounge

In addition to great tea, Samovar also has a pretty impressive food menu. I thought their “tea service” options were really cool; you pick a tea service theme (e.g. english, indian, moorish, palaeolithic…) and they pair up a particular tea and food selection based on that theme. If I hadn’t been so full from the market that morning I definitely would have tried it! The menu also features a number of interesting standalone dishes (which change over time), some featuring tea itself as an ingredient (e.g. tea soup). Not being terribly hungry, I opted for a delicious sounding fruit and cheese platter, that also came with a nice piece of honeycomb. The platter was beautifully presented (I love it when food is served on wooden boards) and it was all delicious. The cheese in particular went really well with the honeycomb and it all worked pretty well with the Darjeeling tea as well (my extremely knowledgable server helped pick the combo).

Tea and fruit platter at Samovar Tea Lounge

Overall my experience at Samovar could not have been better. The owners have really created a special place where you can enjoy a truly relaxing and immersive experience. I wish I had a place like this at home to escape to every so often. If you are in SF, do yourself a favour and take an hour or two to enjoy some delicious tea and food, and to have an incredibly relaxing and memorable experience.

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Well that’s it for this post, stay tuned for Part 3 of my SF adventure featuring the best ice-cream and pizza I have ever had!

-JR

My 24 Hours in San Francisco – Part 1(Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf)

October 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Wow it has been way too long since my last post, but I have a good reason for my absence! Over the last few weeks a combination of “midterm season” meets “traveling across the continent for professional school interviews” has left me with little time to breathe let alone write a blog post…but I have been loving every minute of it! I have never gone through such a concentrated period of traveling in my life, 6 flights in two weeks has ment a lot of time spent in airports and not tonnes of home cooking (although I am still whipping up many quick and delicious meals whenever I can), however it has also ment I have been able to sample some amazing foods from cities I have never been to before. Today I want to focus on my most recent travel destination: San Francisco California.

San Francisco, a city that has topped my list of places to visit for the past few years. In my younger days it was because SF was at the heart of the tech and internet culture that I loved. Today it is the capital city of the “new food movement” emphasizing fresh, local, and high quality produce. Over the past few years, I have read other bloggers laude its beautiful farmers markets (where truly everything is fresh and local), its fantastic restaurants (which get to make use of this bounty of quality ingredients in amazing ways), its innovative cocktail bars, the beautiful wines that one can sample there, and its overall atmosphere. It has always sounded to me like a place where people truly do care about their food and fully embrace the social and cultural experiences that different foods can create and facilitate.

When I found out I was going to have the opportunity to visit San Francisco, my only concern was how I was going to pack as much of this as possible into the short 24 hours I had in the city (alas midterms are something that just can’t be ignored!). Overall I am very happy with all that I managed to see and do in such a short period of time. I covered a good chunk of the city, hit many of the major spots I wanted to visit, and enjoy tonnes of the delicious food and drink I have read so much about. This is going to be a long post with lots of detail and a fair number of pictures (not of the best quality unfortunately as I only had my iPhone with me) so I am going to break it into two parts. The first part will cover the evening/night I had in SF and the second will cover the next day’s adventures. So without further ado, here is my San Francisco Adventure!

Chinatown and Union Square

I arrived in SF around 5:00 pm on a Friday night, emerging from the Powell St. BART station right into the middle of downtown SF. First thing I did was to walk to the hostel I would be staying that night, the Downtown Hostel run by Hosteling International. This was a great place to stay for a night or two, right in the heart of downtown SF, good pricing, clean rooms and facilities, and a very knowledgeable front-desk staff. The hostel is located a 1-2 minute walk from Union Square, which is at the heart of downtown SF and the location for many of the big high-end shopping destinations.

Delicious cashew chicken!

After talking with the front-desk staff I decided I was going to go to visit China Town to grab some dinner. The china town in SF is quite famous for its size and abundance of great restaurants. It is an incredibly interesting place to walk around although I would probably recommend visiting during the day; when I went during the evening there wasn’t as much activity on the streets as I imagine there would be during the day. On the recommendation of the hostel staff, I was looking for a small restaurant they knew only as “960 Grant Ave.” After a lot of walking (and up a lot of hills!) I finally arrived at this small restaurant where I was told I could find good quality, and reasonably priced chinese food.

The restaurant is very small and had very plain decor, but smelled delicious! I decided to go with one of my favorite chinese restaurant dishes, cashew chicken, to see their take on it. I also ordered a side plate of a vegetable dish made from bitter melon. I have never tried bitter melon before and was curious to see how bitter it actually was and how it was prepared!

First the chicken, it was delicious. Very nice quality meat, good vegetables mixed in and a nice light sauce that was not

Bitter Melon

at all like the thick and sometimes cloyingly sweet sauces you find at most Chinese restaurants. The bitter melon was….interesting. It had a great texture (fairly firm and not mushy), and looked really cool (I loved the deep green of it) but I just couldn’t get past how, well, bitter it tasted. When ordering the dish I wasn’t sure how pronounced this bitter flavour would be, however I ended up finding it a bit too much for my taste. The sauce it was cooked in was great, however it just couldn’t take the last edge off of the bitterness. I am still quite glad I tried it and enjoyed my meal.

The Trolly to Fisherman’s Wharf

After my dinner in china town I made my way back towards Union Square, taking plenty of time to explore all the streets around my hostel. I found myself back at the intersection of Market and Powell street’s, where I had initially arrived in the city. This also happens to be one end of the line for the iconic San Francisco cable cars. Coming to SF, I knew I had to go for a ride on a cable car at least once and I figured there was no time like the present, so I hopped on the next one with absolutely no idea of where it was headed! It was a really fun ride and a neat way to see the city. We traveled up and down many a hilly street and had some amazing views (unfortunately no pictures as it was quite dark out by now). The other end of the line happened to be at another SF landmark: Fisherman’s Wharf, so this is where I spent the next part of my night.

A genuine San Francisco cable car

Fisherman’s Wharf is a major tourist spot; there is a large main street running somewhat parallel to the water with many shops, restaurants, food vendors, and other attractions. Obviously much of the food focuses on the fresh caught seafood that is unloaded daily. At the end closest to the cable-car stop, there is a small beach looking out onto the water. In the daytime you would have a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge, but it is still beautiful at night to look out and see the lights of the bridge and the big expanse of open water. I walked along the main boulevard and found a really cool bakery (whose name escapes me) where they made amazing loaves of bread in the shape of huge animals! They had some crocodile (alligator?) loaves in the window and you could buy your very own turtle loaf. I grabbed a delicious fresh croissant for the rest of my walk.

Crocodile Bread

Turtle bread!

On my way back to the cable-car stop I decided to drop into an interesting looking wine-bar called the Winery Collective. They feature tastings of many California wines and have many bottles available for purchase. They have 3 different tasting packages available, each featuring about 5 wines. A “Tasting California” ($15) featured reds, whites, and a rose; the “All White” ($20) featured…you guessed it, all white wines, and the “All Red” ($25) which featured…you guessed it again, all red wines. I opted for the variety of the first package and was treated to a great tasting of 5 fabulous wines. The staff was very knowledgeable and provided a wealth of information about each wine. The whole experience was a lot of fun and I would definitely recommend it as a good way to get to try a variety of California wines.

I hopped back on the cable car for a ride home, explored some more areas of downtown and decided to call it a night. I wanted to be up early the next morning for a full day in San Francisco!

Looking back, I wish I had explored a few other areas of the city that evening, however it being my first time in SF I didn’t have a great bearing on the different areas and how hard it was to travel to and from them. Oh well, only gives me more things to do on my next visit!

A Taste of California!

Well, that’s it for part 1. I hope to get part 2 up in the next week, it features my full day visiting the most beautiful farmers market I have ever seen, the most amazing tea experience, and the best ice cream I have ever eaten!

Till next time!

-JR

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