Sunday, November 29, 2009

San Francisco Treats

When I visit a new area and find out that a Farmer’s Market will take place during my time there, it instantly becomes one of the major things I look forward to doing, no matter what other activities are planned. I wake up the morning of and I feel a little bit like an 8-year-old on Christmas morning. It’s true and it’s out of my control. I go to bed imagining the different types of booths and produce that will be there and I wake up with a pep in my step and have the excited jitters until we finally arrive.

Then you might as well let me loose like a puppy in an open field. I want to smell all the smells, taste what looks delicious, and greet everyone I encounter. Gimme sun, a beautiful venue, and time after to prepare a meal made from my purchases and you have my perfect day.

Many people had told me that during my time in San Francisco I needed to get to the Ferry Building to go to the Farmer’s Market. I was lucky enough to be there over a weekend, so Saturday morning was booked with the only goal of getting to that side of the city.

To properly fuel ourselves for the day head, we made a quick stop to Philz Coffee to grab a cup o' Joe en route. I hesitate to even give it that title though, since this coffee brew was nothing close to any ordinary cup o' Joe I’ve ever had before. They individually brew every cup to order there, and even with the crowd of people that pile into the shop every morning, the baristas still take the time to talk to you to see exactly what brew combination will fit your likings exactly. They even add a mint leaf on top of the frothy topped beverage. I’m no avid coffee drinker, but the attention to and quality of the concoction in my cup was apparent in its complex and absolutely delicious flavor. It was a great food appreciation moment and we hadn’t even gotten to the market yet!

We walked up the palm tree studded street and finally arrived at the Ferry Building. It seemed like there were tents stretching down the street for as long as the eye could see. I was already excitedly overwhelmed by all of the options available when Lizzy (yes, another Lizzy…I don’t go crazy enough to think there are two of me) turned to me and said ‘My favorite is the back part, let’s go there,’ There was even more of this magical world!? We passed through the building and came out the other side to even more tents. At that point I was let off my leash.

I couldn’t believe the array of items I was seeing. There were things I was used to seeing at markets I have been to before – vegetables, cheeses, jams, bread, apples – but then there were others that took me by complete positive surprise. Crack-your-own almonds, flavored aromatic salts, knife sharpening, gourmet crostini to-go, perfect strawberries and raspberries in November! The incredibly fertile land and temperate climate California has all year round was evident in the options available to us from the local producers.

I wanted to have an extensive conversation with every seller; ‘You have pears and apples? I just came from an orchard in Colorado...let’s talk varieties.’ ‘What’s your favorite cheese to make?’ ‘How did you master your eggplant spread?’ ‘What the heck is Quark and why is it so delicious?’ There were too many booths and too many customers – I had to pick and choose my battles.

Our mission that day was to dream up of an ultimate dinner from the best things we saw being sold at the market. Once I saw a booth strictly dedicated to mushrooms and another with an entire tableside of crates that lets you create your own mixed bag of baby greens, I was sold and claimed my territory. Thoughts of grilling portabellos and braising hearty greens danced in my head, and there was no turning back. Lizzy and I gathered our necessary ingredients with a few other bonuses while Kristin and Sandra attacked the necessities for the beet salad. As we came up to meet them they were checking out some deep purple, beautiful looking plums “Dessert!” they said. “Yes!” I replied excitedly, and ran to the booth where I had just tasted something that would go perfectly with them; Vanilla Quark. Was it dinner time yet?

After our afternoon touring the beautiful coastal paths the city has to offer, we finally made it back to Lizzy’s apartment. We had worked up some big appetites and knew that good eats were in our future to satisfy them. We had all of our necessary tools (our purchases), but now it was up to us to somehow combine our Farmer’s Market treasures into a meal even more delicious than its individual parts.

These were the ingredients that sat before us on the counter: Hearty, firm, Portobello mushroom caps, multi-colored bell peppers, baby red onions, a mixed bag of super-powered baby greens (Kale! Chard! Spinach! Wahoo!), two varieties of red beets, delectable purple potatoes, two eggplants, Cowgirl Creamery goat cheese, and a bag of peppery arugula. Now this is a type of challenge I would be happy to take on any day.

Once we discussed and created our plan, the beets were the first to be dealt with seeing that they needed the longest cooking time out of all of the veggies. There are a few ways to do this, but one of my favorites is simply wrapping them in tin foil after rubbing them with oil and roasting them for around an hour. After that they are easily peelable and ready to slice, not to mention the perfect texture of firm but tender and delectably earthy and sweet. Sliced and placed on the bed of the fresh arugula, and sprinkled with the fresh, creamy, and tangy goat cheese, the salad was checked off the list. And now we even had the extra bonus of the leftover beet greens we had trimmed off! Gotta love a multifaceted vegetable.

Next up in the line for the oven were the potatoes and eggplant. Both were diced into cubes and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and olive oil. A few dried herbs were added on with the potatoes, and some ground cumin for the eggplant. There is something very harmonious about the combination of smoky cumin with the flavor of eggplant. When you eat them together the newly created taste is so pleasantly delicious that it makes you feel like the two were naturally fated to come together for someone’s palate. In the oven they went, and with it the more intoxicating the smell in the kitchen became.

Meanwhile, on the stovetop, the peppers (who were now diced), were combined with the (also now diced) onions. After a quick sauté, the mound of baby greens were added to the skillet, with the new addition of beet greens included. They sat and braised in a few splashes of red wine and some seasonings.

And finally, the mushrooms. They had been waiting patiently in a pan after being covered in olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic, and now they were ready for the grill pan. As they cooked down and developed their meaty flavor, Kristin prepped our last-minute addition of scallops Lizzy had taken out of the fridge to round out the meal. They quickly cooked in butter, oil, white wine, onions and garlic and were ready to serve in no time.

We sat and toasted our glasses of 2007 California Meritage to our successful Farmer’s Market inspired meal. Every ingredient had such a distinguished and powerful flavor. What was wonderful was that the pure flavor of the vegetable was the most predominant thing you tasted, and was secondarily supported by any additional seasonings. This was such a satisfying experience since it is so often the other way around, where the dull vegetable flavor is easily dominated by any added seasoning. The flavor of freshness is something you cannot create or replicate, and once you’ve eaten a justly cooked and truly fresh vegetable, you wonder what kind of lack of taste you had accepted as ‘flavorful’ beforehand.

Dessert was also quick to come together. Kristin sliced and pitted the plums and placed them in a saucepan with some butter, cinnamon, sugar, and white wine. They slowly combined flavors and heated as we put our dinner dishes away.

Once they were slightly softened, we placed big spoonfuls on plates with the accompanying sweet and spicy sauce that had formed at the bottom of the pan. The last addition was a dollop of Vanilla Quark (technically a soft, unripened cheese that has a similar texture and flavor to sour cream or yogurt) I had no idea what the flavor was going to be like when I tasted it for the first time at the market, but instantly lit up once I did. “Wow this is delicious!” I told the woman there, as if she didn’t already know. It was a definite yogurt inspired dish with its tangy flavor, but had an added unctuousness of, say, a cream cheese type of spread. It was silky smooth, equally tangy and sweet, with the luxurious addition of real vanilla bean speckled throughout. Besides my overdosing of this delicious dairy treat, the cooked spiced plums with vanilla quark was a perfect way to round out the meal.

Fast. Easy. Tasty. Fresh. Local. I know the monuments and shops and landmarks are nice and all, but that night we experienced the essence of what can be truly called San Francisco Treats.

(…sorry Rice-A-Roni)

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