Some baked things I missed while I was away from San Francisco:

  • Tartine’s sesame country loaf. I think this is the best bread in the world, in complete seriousness
  • Cafe du Soleil’s canele. Though it is definitely not the best I’ve had, these little French sweets are so rare (and so damned hard to make) that I am quite happy to know that I can get one a block away from home
  • Thorough Bread’s bostock. This is my favorite bakery in the city and this slice of brioche spread with almond paste, encrusted in sliced almonds, and dusted with powdered sugar is a big reason why

Eslava

Though I harbored some resentment from the less-than-perfect Lebanon tour per his recommendation, I could not help but follow David Lebovitz’s path to Eslava. The tapas bar is apparently part of a greater business that also has a restaurant and apartments (?), but I should know from Higashi Yama that the most inspired restaurants are usually not ideas harbored alone.

When DL’s laudations of Eslava were seconded by a Sevillan with no relation, my curiosity was further ignited. So, with fingers crossed that it would be open on Sunday, we set out course for Eslava. At first, the situation seemed dubious: the restaurant was empty and the menu posted outside suggested heftily priced dishes. For a moment, I listened to the siren song of the tavern across the square serving the usual array of fried or grilled tapas. But I stuffed my fingers in my ears and sailed back to Eslava.


We had the pick of the restaurant, choosing to sit in the small dining room back past the long bar counter. First delight: Eslava sold all of their offerings as tapas, opening the door for more variety at a lighter toll to the waller. Second delight: the menu dripped with impossibly delicious things. Over the course of the next few hours, we had the following:

  • Slow-cooked egg on boletus cake with caramelized win reduction
  • Scallops over seaweed puree and kataifi noodles
  • Grilled razor clams with lemon
  • Roasted pork ribs with rosemary honey glaze
  • Stewed tender pork cheeks
  • Slow-cooked leeks with gribiche

Each plate was beautifully presented; it was clear that much care had been put into composing the food. This, of course, comes second to the taste itself, which was through the roof: full flavors, thoughtful combinations, complementary textures. The slow-cooked egg and the squid and camembert cigar had apparently won prizes in an annual tapas competition. This fact, too, takes backseat to the sheer enjoyment experiencing each plate.

By the time we left Eslava, every table was filled, there was no room at the bar, and people stood along the wall. I was not at all surprised. Eslava, you elevate tapas far beyond what I ever imagined possible.

On Tapas

Before this trip, I was a staunch tapas skeptic. For me, the word evoked plates of soggy potatoes and flaccid mushrooms swimming in grease. At its best, bar food.

My reality was turned around upon this visit to Spain. This was due to two things: my greater age and my greater context for tapas. The first is easy to explain: I am no longer a penniless student with no money or cultivated taste for food. The second reveals my own ludditicism about tapas. Though it’s origins are shadowy, the definition of tapas is unbelievably expansive. A tapa can be  virtually any kind of food, so long as it’s served as a small-plate portion. Tapas are renowned in specific regions of Spain (Andalucia thankfully being one of them). Bonus for the impoverished student in me: in Andalucia, drinks are usually accommodated by a complementary tapa.


Even knowing all of this intellectually, I was still repeatedly surprised and delighted with our tapas throughout Spain. In Alpujarra, it was a thick slice of the region’s celebrated jamon on toast. In Barcelona, it was seafood preserves (admittedly less excited about this style of tapas, though the bar redeemed itself with its house-made cava). In Granada, it was a hearty portion of mijas - breadcrumbs fried in chorizo fat - with sautéed vegetables and jamon.

Our best tapas by far, though, were in Seville. There was the afternoon we devoted to La Cantina and 110 Comestibles outside the Feria Market. La Cantina served up fresh fried and grilled seafood whilst 110 boasted chichironnes de Cadiz, a thick cured pork that provided a refreshing (can one use that word to describe meat?) counterpoint to the ubiquitous jamon. There was the transcending experience at Eslava, which I will save for a later musing.



Through these tapas jaunts, I was given a window into the heartbeat of each city. Tapas both stokes the fire and sustains the flames for a fun time, whether with family or friends. They subtly mark time slipping by as you eat, drink, and make merry. It changes a bar from a mere drinking hole to a convivial gathering place. Yes, I am now a believer.

Tags: tapas Spain

Gratuitous Baclava

Taming a Wild Herb

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What do you do when you live 20 kilometers from the Lebanese-Israeli border, with Hezbollah tunnels snaking under your village and prevalent missile threats from the south? For Abu Kasim, the answer is growing zaatar. Also known as wild thyme, the herb used only to be picked from the Lebanese mountainside. Abu Kasim had done this himself until occupying Israeli forces made it impossible for his workers to ascend into the mountains. Faced with this obstacle, the enterprising man tried to grow zaatar from seed and succeeded at breaking in the wild herb.

The zaatar farm has been in operation since 2001; Abu Kasim knows of one other person in Lebanon who grows the same crop. His zaatar, once stemmed, roasted, and mixed with sumac and sesame seeds, is distributed around the world. In addition to the spice mix, Abu Kasim also makes oil and essence from his zaatar. Though it seems like quite an operation, the farm itself is small and Abu Kasim does all of the preparation post-harvest himself.

When we arrive, there is a gigantic roll of zaatar at the end of the driveway. The herb is harvested thrice yearly, with the November round being the last. Abu Kasim has a modest room in the lower level of his home in which he will take the fresh zaatar through to its final stage.

After a fresh breakfast prepared by his wife, Abu Kasim shows us around. We first see several different types of zaatar growing in his personal garden. Some are lemony, while others are more subdued, tasting of earth. There are small leaves and big leaves, flat ones and succulent ones. I keep the crushed leaves in my hands until they smell of herbs.

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We next go to Abu Kasim’s newest experiment: saffron. The delicate purple flowers push up barely an inch above the red soil. At the center of each flower is the prized stamen: three strands of flame red and three strands of bright yellow.  As we help Abu Kasim pick and de-stamen the flowers, I remember my seventh grade social studies teacher emphasizing how difficult it is to grow saffron and how one could become a millionaire if one could grow it in the US.

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At the end of our visit, I can’t resist buying a pound of zaatar. Along with it come gifts of zataar oil, pickled seaweed and fresh gardenias from Abu Kasim’s garden. Beyond the delicious potency of the zaatar itself, I am compelled by Abu’s story. Throughout the years, he’s found ways to innovate his business. He didn’t give up when his house was bombed in the 1990’s. Instead, he rebuilt and now has a thriving farm that will be inherited by his youngest son. A wild thyme, indeed.

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Tags: Lebanon zaatar

Lebanese Delight

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The origin story of baclava is quite murky; several Mediterranean countries lay claim to its invention. Regardless of which nation actually holds that honor, I will cast my lot with Lebanese baclava. This morning we went to Al Bohsali, a bakery in existence since 1870. They are famed for their knefeh, a layer of semolina cake held together by gooey mild cheese stuffed into a thin sesame bread and then doused in sugar syrup (yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds).

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However, Al Bohsali’s baclava was the real winner in my eyes. The bakery counters were lined with huge trays of the crunchy sweet pastries. Some were filled with pistachio, others walnut. There were some with many many layers of phyllo dough, while others were encircled by thin strands of crispy semolina. They were coaxed and cut into a litany of different shapes. The combination of flavors and textures was irresistible.

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The baclava would have been a treat in and of itself, but was made even sweeter given the comparison to its Turkish counterpart. If layering is Lebanese baclava’s  tune, sugar syrup is surely what Turkish baclava sings. I found the latter version to be much too cloying sitting in puddles of liquid sugar. While eating a few pieces over our month in Turkey sated my appetite for baclava, I find myself wanting to knock at Al Bohsali tomorrow morning for more of their delightful sweets.

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Quinces in Turkey

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We’ve been here for almost three weeks and have been discovering the beauty of Turkish cooking. The Turks like bold flavors, which translates into wonderfully spiced meats, sharp cheeses, and desserts drenched in honey. Needless to say, there have been quite a bit of culinary delights. Right there at the top of the list is our two encounters with quinces.

The first was found at Sakarya Tatlicisi bakery, which was a few blocks from our apartment in Istanbul. The quince is halved then poached for several hours in spices until it is silken, its exterior adopting a pleasant chewiness from the sugar. A generous heap of ayvak (Turkey’s take on clotted cream) is dolloped atop the glistening quince. The textures and flavors, heightened by the cream- I would eat it with every dessert if I could- made us return for more.

The second quince encounter was at Ciya Sofrasi, a restaurant found on the Asian side of Istanbul. Upon enquiring of the waiter his favorite dish, he responded, “Do you like quince?”. He had only to see my eyes light up to return with a plate cradling the fruit, baked and stuffed with minced lamb, currants, onions, and spices. Since it retained its lovely floral scent, the quince was an excellent vessel for its hearty contents. It was the first time I’d had quince in a savory dish, and it was transcending food, the type that obligates you to close your eyes and take bigger, longer chews.

We’re now staying in a village of eighty people and all around are quince trees dripping with fruit. Though I stand by my quince tarte tatin, I am delighted with what Turkey has devised for this inscrutable fruit.

Tags: quince Turkey

Fish and Bread

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It doesn’t sound like the most succulent dish: fried fish stuffed in a small baguette with lemon and some greens. We certainly were not impressed when we tried the “fish and bread” in Karakoy, the district in Istanbul known for this sandwich due to its proximity to the fish market.

However, fish and bread showed up again in Fethiye, a coastal town on the Aegean Sea. It was being sold from a small white boat tied flush against the pier. Perhaps it was the balmy night, or the sound of the water lapping against the docked watercraft, but we felt compelled to give fish and bread another chance.

This was one of the best outcomes to a second chance I’ve ever received. Since the ingredients for fish and bread are so simple, the critical difference was the quality of ingredients. Their fish was crispy and hot, fresh from the fryer. They used a thoughtful mix of arugula, tomatoes, and onions to complement the fish and squeezed a generous amount of fresh lemon over everything. Sitting on our stools over a folding table looking out to the water, eating fish and bread felt just right.

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Quinces and Baking in Autumn

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It had been the longest I’d gone without baking since I don’t remember when. But when you’re coming back from a week in the desert (to which you brought brownies laced with burnt caramel), have scarcely two weeks before your wedding, and a few weeks more before setting off for two months of travel, it is difficult to find time for your oven.

That is why, upon returning to San Francisco a married woman, it was only a few days before baking ensued. Several days prior, I had gone to the Marin Farmer’s Market with the chef cooking for our wedding. We had picked out strawberries for the Friday night dessert of shortcake and apples for the Saturday lunch crisp, among other things, when I spotted them: a basket full of the season’s first quinces.

I bought five of the most fragrant ones, and they sat patiently on my baker’s rack until our wedding was past. Then, with the added encouragement of Crystal visiting for a few days, we went to work making quince tatin.

The tarte seemed like the perfect dessert to come back to. Most simply, it is one of my favorite sweets to make. It is also one of the most challenging, between coaxing the caramel, timing the tatin so that the fruit and sugar do not burn, and the breathless moment of flipping the tarte out of the cast iron. This is not to mention the time required to peel and core the quinces (if you’ve never done this, quinces are quite recalcitrant) and make the pate brisee. A lot of meticulous intention is required.

Quinces are also, for me, emblematic of autumn in full swing. And autumn of this year has been full of special happenings. Unbeknownst to me, quinces also foreshadowed the food we would be eating in Turkey. But that is for a later rumination.

Why Food Matters

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Now that I’ve spent several words to describe our wedding feast, I wanted to take a moment to think about why any of it mattered at all. Why, between all the other myriad details involved in a wedding, would I spend hours shaping and reshaping my ideas for the food?

I’ve shared my thoughts on feeding others as a sign of love and care. But beyond that, I felt that each meals was an opportunity for our guests to connect. This one singular time, our friends and family from different parts of our lives would all be together. Boundaries drawn across cultures, experience, and age would be temporarily forgotten (or at least excused) as we celebrated our marriage.

Food is central to this mixing, melding process. It calls people together around a table, brings to life and then sustains story-telling, laughter, and good humor. A full and happy belly, or the prospect of one, accelerates the bonds made between one human being and another.

I also wanted to tell a story with the food. For the first dinner of the weekend, I put together a menu inspired from mine and Ross’ childhood food memories, those that evoked our Vietnamese and Port Angeles upbringings. These weren’t lofty recipes, but drew from our places of comfort, colors and tastes and smells that remind of us home.

Our reception paid tribute to California’s bounty of growing things. Most of the vegetables came from the ranch’s own garden: crispy haricots verts, fragrant herbs, tomatoes at the height of their season. Not only is California a key place in regards to the movement towards locally-produced and seasonal food, but it’s also where Ross and I met and now make our home.

I chose to close with brunch on Sunday for everything lovely that brunches signify: rising leisurely from bed, blinking half-dazed in sunlight over ambrosial juices, and the unhurried close to a rollicking good time.

This is all perhaps over-analytical and most definitely corny, but it is what I believe. Without such convictions, it would just be food, nothing more.