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Northern California cuisine? New site?

“Does Northern California have a regional cuisine?”  That’s the title of this blog post from the Slow Food Nation site.  In many ways, I think this is what I think Savor SacTown is attempting to address through this blog as I discover home cooking techniques through the various cost-effective and local markets available to me.  Perhaps discovering this regional cuisine is exactly what I’m after, I’m not sure.

Here’s a snippet:

These conditions do not apply in Northern California.  We are a population of immigrants and nomads, constantly in motion.  Hardly any child follows the profession of his parent.  We value individuality and originality over cultural continuity.  We complain if we get the same meal two nights in a row. We have too much wealth, too much freedom, too high an opinion of novelty, and too little history. No matter how brilliant the creation of a chef using local ingredients, the cultural context is unsuitable for it to become the basis of a regional tradition.

What I do know is that Northern California is a food-mecca.  Between the presence of culture in Sacramento and San Francisco, the culinary institute, and don’t forget premium wine country, there is certainy something to be uncovered here.

Before it’s too late, I think I’m going to let this ultimate question affect a change in this blog.  How about savoring SacTown through ???  I’ll migrate the information from here to there and begin customizing the site better… but don’t worry, the focus will remain the same – savoring what Sacramento (and the rest of NorCal) has to offer mainly from within the kitchen, with cost-effective local ingredients.

A Sacramento margherita pizza

According to my wife Stephany, this was one of the most exciting and delicious meals I’d ever prepared. I’m glad to say that this does a little better with local ingredients as well, but let’s start from the beginning. Being that this is summer and with high costs of energy, I like to grill when possible to keep the heat outside of the house (and, you must admit that the idea of a grilled pizza sounds awesome – I had never had one).

I’ve always strayed from making “homemade” pizza because I know that a really successful pizza relies on very HIGH heat during cooking, something that conventional ovens usually cannot attain. With the grill though, I can achieve higher heat to quickly cook the pizza. What ultimately helps a lot though is a pizza stone! I didn’t know what a pizza stone was until looking online – it is a ceramic stone that spreads and retains heat evenly while reducing excess moisture. This stone reaches very high temperature which helps a lot with the pizza crust.

Now, the classic margherita consists of the following toppings: basil, mozzarella, and tomatoes (resembling the colors on the flag of Italy, yup that’s on purpose). I’m proud to say that ALL 3 of these toppings that I used are LOCAL, the basil and tomatoes purchased at the Sunday morning Farmer’s market at 8th and W Street, and the mozzarella from Trader Joe’s and marked from Sonoma County. Also from Trader Joe’s came the pre-made pizza dough (garlic + herb) and the marinara sauce. While I’m unsure where some items at TJ’s come from, I do like this specialty grocery store and feel ok shopping there.

The beginning of the pizza

First, I took out the dough, let it set for about one hour before powdering it with flour and rolling it up some. During this time, I also poured out the marinara sauce and added a lot of juice from a fresh lime, cut up some garlic, and added some red pepper flakes. I don’t think the lime and pepper flakes adhere to any sort of margherita tomato sauce recipe, but it is my own little twist. After the sauce simmered a little while, I just let it sit in the pot.

Olive oil covered pizza dough

The dough is supposed to rise a little bit after exposure to the air – I did not notice a significant difference after about one hour, so I went ahead and moved on to the next step – forming the pie! I used foil to cover a cutting board and made sure I had access to flour just to reduce the stickiness. I thought I would need a rolling-pin, but everything actual was pretty smooth with just my hands. I then took some olive oil and massaged it onto the dough surface. This was looking good.

Mozzarella, basil, and tomato toppings ready!

Now it was time to prepare the grill, just to do the “pre-warming”. After lighting the coals, I set the pizza stone into the grill just to warm it up – apparently, this is a key step so that your pizza quickly warms. While that happened, I took our three local toppings and cut them as show in the picture. I was thinking about shredding the mozzarella, but cutting them into slices seemed more than sufficient.

Toppings on pizza just before entering grill

For the next step, I had trouble deciding whether or not to pre-cook some of the dough before adding toppings or to add everything together. For fear of having dough that was too soft in some areas, I decided to set the dough onto the grill for about 2 minutes in the grill. Wow it cooks fast! What resulted was a more toasty and rigid surface on one side of the pizza dough, the other side was still soft and pliable. This turned out to be a great idea. I brought in the pie, placed the sauce and toppings on the more rigid side before taking the pizza back to the grill.

My first homemade pizza

Back into the grill, voila! The pizza cooks SO quickly, make sure to keep an eye on it. I did want the crust to be nice and crispy, a little blackened, but not burned. For my first pizza, I don’t think it could have come out better. Using the pizza cutter, it was great hearing the cracks in the crust as the slices broke off of each other. Stephany had a big smile on her face 🙂 !!! Doing this same pizza again, I’d probably add a little more sauce (I went lighter on the sauce because I had heard that was a fatal flaw of homemade pizza) and a little less cheese. This was definitely the most fun meal I have done. It took me a little more than an hour, but I could see this taking closer to 30 or 45 minutes with the pre-made dough.

Do you have any homemade pizza secrets? Any thoughts?

Ask: Starting the micro home garden… tips?

Very slowly, I’m reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a narrative that discusses the origins of four meals.  While I’m not finished with the book, the gist is obvious: the current enormous food industry is slowly eating the world’s resources.  The book cheers for local before organic, so in Pollan’s eyes, Farmers Markets are a plus, as well as anything to edibly sustain yourself, such as tiny farms or gardens!

Where we’re living right now, we don’t have the facility for a large scale garden, but every little bit helps.  I introduce you to our current micro-garden formed by the fabulous trio of mint, cilantro, and basil.

Backyard mint Backyard Cilantro
Sweet basil in the backyard

I must confess that this certainly has started off as more of my wife’s project, but one I fully support and I will certainly want to contribute.  We’ve done minimal research here but we are seeing some growth in a very small soil plot we have in the backyard of our home.  We were told that the mint will be one to take over the area, so we’ll be sure to watch out for that.  I’m most excited about the basil though, I think that may be the ingredient I’ll be using the most.  Eventually, if it is space and cost effective, I’d like to add a tomato plant to the garden.

If these plants generate enough of themselves to consume on a regular basis, I will be somewhat surprsied but very happy!  The specific plants we purchased were from a local shop, but I’ve seen basil in pots outside of Trader Joe’s (I love the mentality of that store).  I wonder if Michael Pollan does the same thing 😉 ?  This certainly would be local urban Sacramento food!  What do you other fellow SacTowners have in your garden that grows well here?  Anyone with general tips?

Lettuce wraps, take 1

So, official first night as “head chef” of my two-person household went well with lettuce wraps.  My “inspiration” for the lettuce wraps were some I had eaten at a restaurant before, I used no pre-defined recipe here.

Lettuce Wrap meal

It took just over one hour to complete these wraps which I thought came out pretty well.  First, I made about 1/3 cup of rice seasoned with olive oil and red-pepper flakes (heated on the oil before adding water).  Next I started sautéing 2 boneless chicken breasts in vegetable oil, one side seasoned with garlic, the other side splashed with soy sauce.  After flipping the chicken, I added a good handful of peanuts into the pan to sauté with the chicken.  In the mean time, I diced up a serrano pepper and a few flakes of cilantro.  When the chicken was done, I diced it up with the peanuts.  Lime was occasionally squeezed over everything except the rice.  All the above was put into a pot with additional splashes of olive oil and soy sauce, mixed with a large spoon.

On the side, I boiled green-beans and then seasoned with lemon pepper.  Oranges were cut with slices put on the side of the plate (my thought here was that the sweetness and acidity from the orange would contrast well with the salted flavor from the lettuce wrap filling).  From a fresh head of lettuce, I rinsed a few leaves and added the initial serving of the lettuce “filling” and placed to the side of the grean-beans and orange slices.  I put some extra soy sauce on the side, of course.

My plating of home Lettuce Wraps

So, I wonder how I added up in terms of local and organic: I think somewhat questionable.  The chicken is from Trader Joe’s with all the “no hormone, additives” Organic speak, but the only location shown is the TJ’s headquarters Monrovia, CA.  So I’m not totally sure where these chickens are from.  Also from TJ’s were the peanuts and cilantro.  A more general grocery store supplied the lettuce head, the pepper, green-beans, and the generic rice (Mahatma brand… though I consider rice to be be more among non-controversial foods).  The Sacramento farmers market supplied the sweet orange.  The most costly ingredient is probably the chicken, the least probably being the rice.  Any tips on how to keep the price down and do this more locally?  Any general thoughts on the meal?

Menu: Week of June 23rd (sort of)

Ok, here’s the suggested menu of dinners in no particular order for the week and what I tried to shop for (more on that later):

  • Lettuce wraps, Asia-influenced (that one tonight)
  • Grilled pizza (with Trader Joe’s garlic + herb pizza dough)
  • Pasta with “drooling” meatballs + sauce
  • Chicken enchiladas
  • Steak cut (grill) (not sure what the sides will be)
  • Mini gourmet burgers (not sure what “gourmet” will mean yet)

Now hopefully that holds us off till Monday and then we’ll see what ingredients we have left and what we need to shop for.  Groceries were more expensive than hoped this week, though I’m told a lot of the items will outlast the week.  Hopefully it averages out some.  More on that later.

If you have any particular recipes, tips, or general input for me this week, please let me know 🙂

Grape Escape… I want more!

Saturday June 14, 2008, Cesar Chavez Park in downtown Sacramento hosted its 6th annual Grape Escape wine and food celebration.  It being my first full weekend in SacTown, I bought tickets with my wife to attend (and even had some friends that recently moved to the Bay Area come over).  The Grape Escape site pitches the event as “an opportunity to sample from the region’s best wineries and restaurants for one incredible price!”

I love these types of events and think they’re great festivals to bring niches of the community together to learn about and support local businesses.  This type of event (specifically the theme) is part of the reason I enjoy Northern California, and partly why I wanted to return!

Tickets were about $40/each if you bought them before arriving.  This is probably my only gripe.  I would hope events like this in a downtown park would be free, or closer to that, hopefully as a way for the city to invest in its people, which would in turn invest in the local farmers, restaurants, and businesses.  While free may not be realistic, I do find $40 to be a bit on the high side.  As to be expected though, once we passed through the gates of the park, nothing had an additional cost (except for bottled water <sigh>).

Stephany enjoying local food When you enter, you are given a few of the usual guide flyers, but you also receive a nice wine glass with the Grape Escape logo, as well as a nifty mini-tray/plate that has a groove to hold your wine glass.  Whoever engineered this is genious!  As you see to the right (my lovely wife Stephany), this allowed us to enjoy picking at foods with one hand while still maintaining our plate+glass together with the other hand.  I don’t mean to over-state the simplicity here, but for an event where you’re primarily on-foot, this really helped!  Once we received the glass+tray, we were welcomed by an array of stands that openly marked Cesar Chavez Park, plenty of wine and food was on the menu as we set out to claim our $40 worth admittance fee.

Among California wine’s strengths, diversity in growing regions and varietals stands high on the list.  This combined with a new age of winemakers that is not afraid to experiment in both the vineyard and in the winery creates wines that vary in price, quality, and, of course, taste.  I think Grape Escape did a fair job here, especially displaying the tremendous values of some of the more local wineries closer to Sacramento.  While we did have to filter through a few “duds” (in our opinion), for the price-range presented at the stands (I think mostly sub $20), we found great bottles among more nontraditional varietals like Mourvedre, Barbera, Carignane, and Petite Sirah.  A lot of these grapes are usually blended into Merlot, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon to help blend some of their traits into the wine, but lately, some winemakers have begun harvesting these with lower yields with an aim at concentrating them as the main varietal in a wine.  Since these are lower in demand, there are some great opportunities to buy high quality wine at lower prices.  At Grape Escape, we witnessed this trend with the Cabernet Sauvignons being more mediocre than its less popular counter parts.

Food here wasn’t bad at all either – plenty of options to replace a meal including different meats, sides, and dessert options.  Among my favorite were prepared meatballs and the steak-burger.  Additionally, in case if you were wined-out, local brew-houses offered pours of their various beverages to help quench your thirst.

Add the different ambient live performances and the chef’s competition under a tent (with some free tastes if you were lucky), this event really represented Northern California well.  If you compare the price of a meal with various wine and beer choices, the $40 does not seem so bad, though I do think that the city/region could invest in its people just a little more to make it cheaper for us and bring even more people to the local businesses.  It would not be an automatic decision for me to attend the next Grape Escape if the price stayed the same.

I am eager to attend more of these events to learn more about food and wine, especially from those that are passionate and artistic with food and wine.  Taste 3 is another event that describes itself as a “Food Wine Art Conference” – in Napa at the Culinary Institute of America, July 17-19.  This conference appears to be something way over my head, but an event I’d love to attend, simply to hear about the great trends in restaurant, urban farming, winemaking, etc… art and research!  I heard of this event from this Vinography post; while I cannot attend due to the close-to-$2,000 price for this multi-day event, this is part of the greatness of Northern California, and something in which I hope to eventually participate (or maybe something smaller scale).  Any other great local events you recommend?