Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Oops, I made cassoulet!

Last Sunday I decided it was time to roast the pork hocks that my dad gave me. He cures them himself, and includes not only the hocks, but also the feet. There's not a lot of meat on these things, but I am content to chew on the slow cooked tendons, and my kids are delighted to have unlimited access to 'skin'.

I suspected I'd have leftovers, and thought about making some sort of a dish with beans and whatever pig parts I had to work with. It turned out to be two feet and virtually no meat, but I decided it would still add some flavour.

I began thinking that I could make a riff on some sort of Cajun dish, like Red Beans and Rice de Guise. I had the recipe in front of me and started assembling similar but not exact ingredients. I didn't have sausage, but I had a wedge of my dad's smoked bacon, basically a hunk of pork belly, salted and smoked. I didn't have fresh herbs like tarragon, but I had salted herbs. I didn't have porcini mushrooms, but I did have dried mixed mushrooms. I found some homemade beef stock in the freezer as well.

For vegetables, I had half a fennel bulb, a tired orange sweet pepper, onions and celery. I snipped some rosemary off one of the plant that lives under a grow light all winter, and grabbed a fresh bay leaf from its neighbour. The beans I had on hand were Romano, sort of in between red and white beans. My initial plan was to chop the bacon, fry it, throw the vegetables into the fat, and then build the bean dish from there.

Looking at my collection of ingredients, I had a flash of inspiration. I realized that I had all the makings for a cassoulet, especially if I added a small container of duck meat that was in the freezer since the last time I cooked a duck, waiting for an opportunity just like this.

Cassoulet, in the recipes I've read, tends to take days to prepare, starting with confit duck legs and linking your own sausage. When I saw my own collection of ingredients, however, I began to wonder if this isn't where the dish began: in a French farmhouse kitchen on a day when the femme had various scraps of cooked and raw meat, not enough for a meal on their own, but combined and mixed with some dried beans, enough for a satisfying dinner.

I pulled out my birthday gift from my husband, the last porcelain enamelled cast iron pan he'll ever buy me, or so he promises. The drawers where I keep my pots can't handle any more weight! The pot is a shallow Dutch oven, perfect for braising, and while my first thought was that I didn't really need it, since I have a good number of cast iron frying pans and a Dutch oven already, I have put it to use several times since he gave it to me.

Instead of cutting up the bacon, I threw it in and simmered it as a pork belly. Between it, the duck and the pigs feet, I'd have a rich sauce for the beans. I sautéed the vegetables, and then added the meats, chopped mushrooms and their soaking broth, and the beef stock. I topped it up with water, and set it to simmer.

It bubbled all afternoon. Since I needed to run out to a meeting at one point, I experimented with putting it in the oven. I realized the beans weren't going to cook that way, since I hadn't even stacked them before throwing them in the broth. I put it back on the stove and left it on low. The results, a few hours later, were a sticky, savoury stew, studded with the occasional bone from the pig feet and duck pieces. I instructed my husband to pick up some French bread on the way home.

To add a bit of green to the meal, I sautéed some kale in garlic, and topped my stew with it. When I ladled it into bowls for my family, I had no expectations that my kids would enjoy it. They're lukewarm on stews most of the time.

Little did I know that the way to their hearts was through their French roots. D started scooping his stew onto his bread, like the ultimate beans on toast. G took a bite and said, "I want more of this." I reminded him that his bowl still had quite a bit of stew in it. He followed his brother's lead, and topped his bread with the mixture as well. He ate it all, and asked for a second helping.

My husband bubbled over with gratitude. "You used the pot I gave you to make cassoulet?? On a weekday?? Where did you even get this duck?!?" I sat across the table, with smug satisfaction, and watched him savour every bite.

The entire experience was completely gratifying. I loved having such beautiful ingredients to work with. I loved having enough experience to look at what I had to work with and see what it could become. I loved that my family enjoyed their dinner so much.

I know that not all of my readers will have access to pigs feet or smoked pork belly, or left over roast duck, and even fewer would have access to them all on the same day. This post isn't about sharing a recipe that you can recreate. It's more about the long term benefits of making scratch cooking and good quality ingredients a priority, because with time and experience, you too will be able to transform a few scraps of meat and leftovers and some tired vegetable into something both comforting and transcendent. Look into your fridge with an attitude of inquiry—you'll be amazed at what you can create.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

First (of many) Meal Plan for 2016

Instead of offering excuses or blathering about resolutions, I am simply going to say I'm back and intend to make more time for blog posts. A few things have shifted in my life so that I just might be able to stick with this on a regular basis. Yay!

For today, I will get back to the basics—providing my meal plan and recipes for the first week of January, and also sharing a bit of my current challenges around feeding my children.

As many parents would agree, the challenges seem to constantly shift, so once you think you've solved one problem another one seems to arise. Once we adjusted to D deciding he hates mushrooms, we suddenly also have to take into consideration that G has turned against pancakes (this is a tough one, since D doesn't consider a weekend to be complete without a large serving of pancakes).

At 5 and 7, my boys are considered by most to be good eaters. D in particular is growing fast enough that he can't afford to be fussy. Several moms have commented that when my boys are over, they are delighted by how enthusiastic they are about food. They eat most vegetables, they like all kinds of meat and starches, including lentils and whole grains. But if I try to mix things up in some kind of casserole, or too much spice of any kind, it is branded "too spicy" by five year old G, and rejected outright.

The strange thing is that G loves to eat when he likes what is put in front of him, and I've seen him literally break down in tears when we've had too many meals in a row where he has to try things he doesn't like or pick through things that contain ingredients he doesn't like. I don't want that to be his food experience either. It's tough on everyone.

If I were willing to serve what I have heard some chefs call "prison food"—a meat, starch and steamed vegetable, served untouching on the plate, my kids would for the most part be happy. It's me and my insistence on variety that get me into trouble. But I also know that sometimes they'll reject something one day and enjoy it the next, so I don't want to give in to their requests for simplicity just yet. It's all so confusing.

I'm trying to do more planning in order to make better use of what is in our pantry and freezer. I'm also trying to provide a variety of food experiences that both serve my kids' preferences for plain and simple and offer some new flavours and healthful options. I'm hoping it will do us all a service in the long run.

Starting with our meal tonight, I've set up a plan for six nights, offering a mix of vegetarian, meat, and options for using leftovers. Here goes!

Sunday
Emeril's Asian-Style Braised Short Ribs
Steamed brown and wild rice
Braised Bok Choy

This meal has been a hit in the past, so I was pretty confident going in. I don't get fancy with the sauce, just braise the ribs and then put them not the table. The kids love the ribs and the rice. The bok choy, while loved by my husband and me, and scarfed down by D, was rejected by G. Oh well. He ate the kale salad the night before, and both a romaine salad and roasted broccolette the night before, so I'm just going to have to accept my losses along with the wins.

Monday
Fried rice with leftover roast pork, peas, corn and eggs
Asian inspired salad (Probably this salad dressing, Romaine lettuce and fresh mandarin oranges and cashews)

I don't really have a recipe for fried rice. I will just dig around in my fridge, pull out what I can find for veggies, chop it small and stir-fry it with the roast pork and leftover rice. Then I'll mix in an egg. I have already been informed by D (and G will certainly follow) that this will not be a popular meal. Maybe I'll bend a little and make up plates of all the stuff in the fried rice, but not mixed together, for the kids.

Tuesday

Vegetable Upside Down Cake (from Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest (I have the old edition, but there's a new one))
Coleslaw

I've never done this before, but it is a novel idea, and it fits my goal to pack in more vegetables in novel ways. I have lots of sweet peppers in my fridge after Christmas and New Years' parties. G declared sometime last year that he hates them, but he can usually be persuaded to pick them out.

Wednesday

Monster Meatballs in Tomato Sauce (from Canadian Living's new seasonal slow cooker magazine, Easy Does It)
Caesar Salad

At worst, G will eat plain spaghetti with cheese. Strangely, his favourite cheese of all time is fresh Parmeggiano, which he will eat by the handful. I'll maybe save him some lettuce without the 'spicy' Caesar dressing so he gets some vegetables.

Thursday

Quinoa egg muffins by slenderkitchen.com
Roasted acorn squash
Salad (of some kind)

Squash is slowly becoming accepted in our household...very slowly. I'm not sure how this will be met in our house, but since I can't let the poor thing go to waste, I'm going to cook it. I'll try to work leftovers into my lunches.

As for the egg muffins, I will have a sense of what else needs using up by Thursday, and I can hopefully make a few without red peppers, so that G will enjoy them too.

Friday (Date night!)

I will only be cooking for the kids on Friday, since my hubby and I are planning to head out for a much needed adult night. We've been either traveling for work or just too busy to schedule a night out together for well over a month. We're looking forward to dinner and a movie.

My food fallback for date nights is usually smokies and perogies, some fresh veggies and a bowl of frozen peas. Weird, I know, but my kids plough through frozen peas like you wouldn't believe. Try it sometime! I often offer them as an after school snack.

Looking back on this meal plan, it may be too pushy for poor fussy G. But we have leftover roast pork and short ribs that we can make a meal of somehow if needed. And tomorrow, we're back to school lunches so I made a big batch of Morning Glory muffins, switching out the pecans for pepitas, to abide by the school's nut-free policy.

I thought I could find the morning glory muffin recipe link that I have been using for years, but I've been thwarted by the ephemeral nature of the World Wide Web. The original link is gone! But lucky for everyone, I have two hand-written copies of it in my recipe binder, so I will share here:

Morning Glory Muffins

Mix together in a large bowl:

4 c. flour (I used half white and half whole wheat)
4 c. oatmeal
2 1/2 c. sugar
4 t. baking soda
2 t. baking powder
4 t. cinnamon
1 t. salt
1 c. sunflower seeds
1 c. sesame seeds
1 c. raisins
1 c. pecans (or pepitas)
1 c. coconut

In a separate large bowl, mix the wet ingredients:

6 eggs
1 c. buttermilk (or milk kefir)
1 c. vegetable oil
2 t. vanilla
2 c. grated carrot
2 c. grated zucchini
2 green apples, peeled and grated

Add wet ingredients to dry and mix well. Spoon into muffin cups and bake at 350F for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. I make these as mini muffins too. Then you only need to bake them for 10 minutes. This makes 4 dozen large muffins. You'll be enjoying them out of the freezer for a few weeks!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Quick Pickles

I was on CTV Morning news this morning, pinch hitting for chefs who are cooking for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society's Sustainable Gourmet Fundraiser.

I needed to do something that we could pull off in 3 minutes, and while there are several complex items on the Sustainable Gourmet menu, like sous vide bison and balsamic pearls, I decided I could do a carrot pickle, the garnish for Chef Darby Kells' trout fritters, without much trouble.

Here's the recipe for anyone who missed my instructions. And here is the original Epicurious recipe that I adapted it from.

Quick Carrot Pickle

Makes enough brine for a pint of carrot pickle.

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 T. sugar
1 T. pickling salt or sea salt
1/2 T. each peppercorns and mustard seed (I used a peppercorn mix, and a combination of yellow and brown mustard seeds)
1/2 lb. fresh garden carrots, sliced into sticks that will fit in your jar

Put all ingredients except the carrots in a pot an bring to a boil. In the meantime, pack the carrots into a clean pint jar, or two half-pint jars. Once the mixture is boiling and all the salt and sugar has dissolved, pour the hot brine over the carrots, cover, let cool and place in the refrigerator. Chill for two hours or overnight.

These quick pickles will last 3-4 weeks in your fridge, and then you can make fresh ones when they're all gone. It's easy to have great vegetable pickles with minimal fuss or mess.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

6 (and more) Ways to Eat Dandelions

I have been eating dandelions more and more lately. I don't always forage for them myself. Dandelion greens are actually available quite often in the organic produce section of grocery stores.

I also signed up for a Community Supported Foraging program run by Wild Infusions in Love, Saskatchewan. They deliver one box a month, sent by bus, full of wild-foraged foods and medicines, like Labrador tea, wild rose petals, nettles, wild mushrooms, and of course, dandelion greens.

Dandelions, while the bane of lawn enthusiasts, are drastically undervalued as a food and medicinal plant. They exist in North America because European immigrants brought the seeds with them. They considered dandelions so useful they couldn't imagine life without them. And now, it's hard for us to imagine life without them, too. But only because they are such a widespread weed.

The entire dandelion plant is edible. If you ever dared to taste one of the flowers, you'd be amazed how sweet they are. The leaves can be substituted for any dark, leafy green. Just be aware that they are sometimes quite bitter. If you are not accustomed to bitter flavours, it may be an acquired taste. But that bitter flavour is one of the tell-tale signs that dandelions are really, really good for you.

My sister studies herbology, and she is adamant that everyone should include more dandelion in their diet. They are considered a liver and kidney tonic, and help cleanse the body and improve digestion. Occasionally I try to wean myself off coffee, and when I do, I often use Dandy Blend, a commercially available coffee substitute, containing dandelion root, that I find surprisingly enjoyable in spite the lack of caffeine.

So if you were wondering what you might do with those pesky plants studding your lawn, here are a few ideas, curated from the internet, to get you started.

1. A simple salad (thanks, Martha Stewart!)
2. Dandelion greens with a warm hazelnut vinaigrette (I haven't tried this, but it's on my 'to make' list, so I thought I'd share)
3. Replace any dark leafy greens or wild greens in a recipe. I did that for this Hortopita, combining dandelion greens and chard mixed with feta cheese. My kids weren't keen on the bitterness, and my husband topped it with more cheese and said he liked it then. I liked it as is.
4. Make liqueur! Jenieats offers a guideline for cordial. I have tasted dandelion mead, made from dandelion honey, which was delicious. I love making liqueurs, because they tend to really capture the flavour of whatever fruit or herb you use. I'm going to have to try this.
5. Make dandelion cookies. Yes, you heard that right. My sister swears by them.
6. Make dandelion fritters. Sweet or savoury!

Eat The Weeds offers a nice list of recipes, from dandelion bread to dandelion wine.

The Kitchn offers up another 10 dandelion recipes that all sound delicious. Try them!

I get the sense that you can use them anywhere, in anything. If you need me, I'll be out picking dandelions.

Note: be sure you are foraging from a pesticide-free zone!


Monday, March 30, 2015

San Francisco-Inspired Weekly Meal Plan

This week's meal plan is something of a balance between my memories of San Francisco and the reality of April in Saskatoon. We can't all have cardoons growing in our backyards in the middle of winter, and we can't just pull shellfish out of the bay when you live in a landlocked location.

Hence, my dinner menus this week are relatively light, but still making use of what is available in the stores, and what I have to use in my freezer (read: meat).

Monday

Molly Katzen's West Indian Red Beans and Coconut Rice with Collard Greens

I made this tonight, and while I had to ixnay the chili flakes from the red beans and the Tabasco from the collard greens so that my kids could handle the spice level, I was gratified to see D power through everything on his plate, and announce that he loved the cooked greens. "Cabbage?" he asked. "Collards," I said. "Kind of like a cross between cabbage and spinach." "Mmmm!" he said.

My husband was also a fan of the collards. We had the collard salad last night, and he said, "Can we have collards every day?"

Before we had kids we'd often have a beans and rice meal. But then our little kids rejected those kinds of meals. While G wasn't super keen on the meal, he is also recovering from a cold, so we'll test him again once his appetite returns.

Tuesday
Grilled lamb chops
Ottolenghi's Orange and date salad, posted by Stacey Snacks
Ottolenghi's Carrot & mung bean salad

I bought myself Plenty More after Christmas after I'd accepted that no one had fulfilled that wish from my Christmas list. I haven't spent enough time with it, but I intend to start.

Wednesday
Mark Bittman's Sesame Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Chicken from We Gotta Eat
Soba Noodles

Thursday
We're off to my parents' place for Easter on Friday morning, and I want to do a 'finger food' theme on the last day of school before a week off. I've decided to introduce my kids to cheese fondue. I'll hopefully give a report on how that goes...bread and cheese and dried beef, apples and grapes...how could it be anything but delightful?

San Francisco, Part 2 and Transition to Home

I've now been home for a few days; I landed into a frenzy of preparation for a presentation and some other events, so I was slow to get back to this. But San Francisco holds a large and fond place in my recent memory.

Tuesday, March 24

My day started with trying to wrap up my blog post which made me late for the keynote talk at the conference. I was looking for somewhere to grab a quick snack on my way to the conference (shouldn't be difficult, right?). I stopped at Boudin Bakery, thinking I could get some kind of pastry. While the latte they made was good, the cheese muffin I picked up tasted more like cake for breakfast.

I realized then how little sugar (except in the form of sparkling wine) I had actually been eating. I chose not to eat the muffin and instead gave it to a homeless man and carried on my way. There were several interesting shops just outside the hotel in Embarcadero Centre, so I decided to take my chances. Paramo Coffee was the answer. I grabbed a sweet potato paleo muffin that felt MUCH better to eat. It gave me pause, in fact. Maybe I should be eating like that more often...

Lunch at the conference that day was much more enjoyable. The Hyatt had set out a buffet of salads, fresh seasonal vegetables, soup and more. I filled up my plate with salad, veggies, and a little piece of chicken, and felt great about the meal.

I wasn't sure whether I would connect with anyone for dinner that night, but I had set my sights on The Slanted Door at the Ferry Building. My husband and I had lunch there about 10 years ago, so I was curious to see whether it had stayed popular and current—and more importantly, delicious.

By the end of the day of intensive downloads of information on web content, I was pretty much ready to go off on my own. So I headed to the Ferry Building and discovered that The Slanted Door is indeed still hopping. So much so that I snagged the very last chair at the bar. After that they were telling people there was a 45 minute wait for even one person at the bar.

Service at the bar was excellent. The bartender walked me through options for matching wine to the food I had ordered: green papaya salad, uni (also on my bucket list) and shrimp and green onion dumplings. He started me with a Gruner Veltliner, which was perfect with the salad. It also went well with the wild Mendocino uni.

More to say on uni, otherwise known as sea urchin. It's the Big Thing right now, and I had never had the chance to try it. Slanted Door serves it raw, over an avocado (I think) lime cream, topped with flaky salt and caviar. It was quite highly seasoned, with lime and salt coming through, with an undercurrent of the weird, briny 'other' flavour of the uni. The creamy avocado purée put the uni texture in context, since it was less creamy, and actually had some structure next to the avocado cream. The pop of the caviar and crunch of the salt added more texture.

I reserve judgement on uni until I've tried it once more. As a good friend of mine says, "I'll try anything twice."

We did a bit of back and forth on figuring out the wine for the shrimp and chive dumplings. The bartender suggested a Riesling, which was just too sweet for me. He found another option, although I think I would have been better off to stick with the Gruner Veltliner.

I'm amazed though, at the continued popularity of the Slanted Door. 10 years or more in, and they're still packed.

Wednesday, March 25

I opted for a smoothie again this morning, and showed up less late, but still late, for the keynote. Luckily, the whole conference seemed to be running late, so I didn't miss much. I had lunch with some different people, including the organizer of the conference, and again kept it light in anticipation of my evening adventures.

This evening, I had tickets to a Howell Mountain spring wine tasting at the Presidio, a former military base in Golden Gate Park. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was glad to have received the Bottlenotes email promoting the event, which just happened to be taking place while I was in San Fran.

The evening was a wonderful education in Cabernet Sauvignon. While some vintners had other varietals, all of them offered at least one Cab. I tried Cabs ranging in price from $45 to $300 a bottle, and got a good cross-section from this specialized mountain region. The most memorable were a Cab Franc from Black Sears Estate Wines, which, strangely, had the aroma of baby diapers (not a bad thing, overall). Arkenstone wines offered a Cab blend that was unbelievably balanced and pure old world style. I loved those. Roberts + Rogers had a fairly pricy Cab that tasted meaty—as in beefy— and delicious. It was super fun, and I spoke with both some interesting vintners, and a very entertaining gentleman named Frank. If you ever see book published, titled PIMP: Personally Invested in Managing People, that's Frank. I think he'll be famous very soon.

From there, I was going to try to get in to a new and crazy popular restaurant called State Bird Provisions. I had hoped that I could sneak into the bar, as I'd been managing to do at other popular places, but no luck here. I arrived at 7:15 and was told that there would be nothing available at the bar until 9:45. Truly, I'm not even sure how that is even possible.

But they directed me next door to The Progress, owned by the same people, and set up in the same style of dim sum inspired small plates. I was seated almost instantly at the bar next to a restaurant manager from The Chalkboard in the Napa area. We chatted while he finished up his meal, and I started mine.

The menu changes daily, but on the day I ate there, I had:

  • grilled lap cheong (Chinese sausage) with salted chili paste
  • tempura of bouchot muscles and seville togarashi aioli (chili citrus aioli was fantastic)
  • shaved cauliflower with herbs and pig fries (that's pig ears in the form of French fries)
  • butter clams on the half shell with kimchi piccata and snap peas
  • Pecorino 'roti' with perigord truffle buttermilk
  • roasted mushrooms and kale with local wakame kraut (best thing ever, even if kale is so 2014)
  • black butter butternut squash with caramelized onion and swiss chard (also fantastic. Heck, it was all fantastic)
And for dessert, I had poppyseed angel food cake with Sicilian pistachio and mascarpone. Yum.

So that was my last meal in San Francisco, except for the delicious heuvos rancheros prepared by authentic Mexicans at the SFO airport the next morning. 

When I arrived home in Saskatoon, I was of course glad to be home but was struck instantly by the prevalence of meat and starches after living on shellfish and vegetables (with frequent garnishes of salted pork). I missed that style of eating.

I didn't get a chance to cook right away, because we had friends in town. At Aroma Restobar in the Radisson, I skipped the steak special and ordered the 'breakfast trout', served with a 'bacon and spinach soufflé' which was really more like scrambled eggs with spinach and bacon and a piece of oatmeal crusted trout on top. There were also a lot of potatoes. I ate the trout, and my vegetables, but skipped most of the scrambled eggs and the potatoes. My husband happily cleaned up my plate.

The next day our friend generously offered to order pizza for dinner after we had classic bacon and eggs for brunch. Tasty, but again, not quite what I had been used to.

Sunday, I made gourmet macaroni and cheese for my kids at lunch, because it's one of their favourites, but I didn't eat much. Instead I made a meal plan for the week and took the first step toward eating more like San Francisco by making a collard salad with cashews and lime. That was more like it. And D was keen on what he called the "cashew pudding" that you spread on the plate under the salad.

I'm glad the Canadian winter food desert is over as well, so we can get more vegetables from closer to home. I found an organic cucumber, Canadian grown, in Safeway yesterday. Hallelujah! My fresh meal plan for this week will be up next.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

West Coast Adventures: Vancouver, Point Reyes, San Fran

I keep suffering from the frustrating situation of having lots to write about, but no time to do so. But what's going on right now is just too good not to share. I have been having days of epic food adventures while I'm traveling for work and a conference. Here's a 'taste' of how I mix food and pleasure:

Friday, March 20: We Overdid It

It was an early morning (5am) wakeup call to catch my flight to Vancouver. I traveled alongside a neighbour and her daughters, so there was no sleep on the plane (that's okay, sleep is never my priority, and it was nice to have some time to visit with her), and arrived in Vancouver in time to make my way to Richmond for a business lunch. I tried to not overdo it at the all-you-can-eat sushi place, because I knew we were going to be hitting a few restaurants that evening.

I met up with my girlfriend downtown around 3:30, and after a quick trip to Long Tall Sally (the only store with clothes that fit this Amazon), we headed around the corner to have a cocktail at Hawksworth. Hawksworth is currently listed as the best restaurant in Vancouver, the second best restaurant in Canada, and the chef won bronze at this year's Gold Medal Plates competition. I have been hearing about it everywhere, and when I looked at the menu, I knew I had to try it out.

We started with champagne cocktails (you'll notice this is a theme), but this one blew all the others out of the water, as it included crème de violet, and smelled like a bouquet as I brought it close to take a sip. The combination of aroma and flavour were fascinating. My girlfriend's drink was more classic, and she said that while she liked the smell of mine, she preferred the flavour of hers. Which was good, because I wasn't interested in sharing.

We sampled a few appetizers, including KFC (what?!), which at Hawksworth stands for Korean Fried Cauliflower. It was a gorgeous combination of creamy cauliflower florets, crispy skin (those florets have lots of nooks and crannies to create even more crunch, not to mention surface for the red chile—maybe gochujang?—hot sauce).

We followed that with crispy fried oysters, which were served on a wooden board dusted with something that I couldn't quite place, only I knew it instantly reminded me of fish and chips with vinegar on them. That's because it was malt vinegar dust (of course it was!). There was a fantastic piquillo dipping sauce that we were tempted to just spoon up and eat on its own.

I also had to try the foie gras torchon, which was served in a way that was completely new and unexpected: it was shaved and served over coconut tapioca, exotic fruit and a macadamia nut granola.  They mentioned that some people were having a hard time with it because they were hoping for a more traditional presentation. I was completely engaged with the combination of flavours and textures: the rich, silky foie, made lighter and more airy by being grated, the crunch of the savoury granola, the sweet fruit, and tapioca pearls... It was an amazingly playful dish, and I would have it for dessert (or breakfast) any day.

We moved on from there to Blacktail, a new restaurant in Gastown, where we had another take on oysters, this time raw with a cucumber foam and fresh grated horseradish. Best oysters I've had in a long while, and they haven't been matched since, actually, and you will see that I have been eating a lot of oysters. We also sampled the beef tartare with truffle mayo and kale purée. It was studded with pickles and other savouries, but was surprisingly rich (not sure why I was surprised that raw beef came across as rich, but there you go). More champagne cocktails, this one called the Blacktail, and then we moved on to our dinner reservation.

That's right. We had two full on appetizer experiences at two amazing restaurants and THEN we went to dinner. I was truthfully quite satisfied at that point, but we were meeting two other friends that I haven't seen in a while and my girlfriend had told me great things about La Quercia, so we went.

Did we have to order the seven course tasting menu? No, we certainly did not. But when faced with the opportunity to let the chef just choose dishes for us, how could we say no? Things started getting a little fuzzy part way through the seven courses (likely due to the excellent Italian wine we were drinking), so I may not remember all of them...there was a sous vide veal with tuna purée and capers; braised pork belly and scallops with puréed carrots; a fennel salad in anchovy vinaigrette; agnolotti with ricotta and chard in a brown butter sauce; a combination of two pastas: amatriciana, and something else I can't remember; braised beef; a cheese platter; and a platter of two desserts: lemon torte and flourless chocolate cake. Then, because we'd been mildly harassed by some very drunk men at a nearby table, they brought us a second dessert: chocolate salami (a chocolate log studded with nuts and sliced to look like salami).

All fantastic. But definitely, considering the rest of the evening, too much.

We had made plans to check out a new breakfast restaurant before I had to catch my plane the next day, but when I woke up the next morning, I was nowhere near hungry. "Kim," I said, "I have to tap out. I can't possibly eat a full on breakfast right now." Instead, we drove to the airport so I could check in early, and we had a sad, sad airport breakfast. But it was all I could handle after a night of fabulous excess.

Saturday, March 21: Point Reyes Station

I was heading to San Francisco a day before my conference started so I could connect with a friend in Point Reyes Station. That meant I got to drive the Pacific Coast Highway along the coast and through redwood forests. Beautiful, and so much fun to drive that curvy, hilly highway! I was grateful to not have my boys with me, because I was pretty sure they'd be puking in the back seat.

By the time I got to Point Reyes Station and connected with my friend, it was after 7 pm. I had only really eaten the sad airport breakfast, so I was getting pretty hungry. The whole Point Reyes region is a huge tourist area, and we discovered the hard way that EVERYONE was into dinner in Point Reyes on a Saturday night. We finally secured an 8:45 reservation at Nick's Cove in Marshall.

While it was dark when we got there, I could see this would be a gem of a place. It's right on the water, and you can even order food down at the boathouse, where they have a wood stove you can curl up next to. In the restaurant they have a wood burning fireplace where you can make your own s'mores with house made graham crackers and marshmallows.

We signed on for fresh oysters, bbq'd oysters, and oysters Mornay, and then instead of ordering a main course, opted to share some fantastic side dishes, like warm mushroom salad with ham, celery root and truffle vinaigrette; chard with duck confit; a salad with pecans, goat cheese and buttermilk dressing; burrata cheese with kumquats; and fennel with Meyer lemon risotto. Luckily my friend's husband arrived and helped us finish off all the dishes, because our eyes had been bigger than our stomachs. But it was all. So. Good.

Sunday, March 22: Foodie Serendipity

I spent Sunday morning basking in the gentle sunlight outside a nearby deli and organic market, waiting for the local metaphysical store to open. That's right, in a rural region of northern California, the only two stores on a country road are an organic market and deli, and metaphysical store. Is it any wonder I love it here?

I sipped a latte, tucked into a pretty fantastic breakfast sandwich of very fresh bread, ham, bacon, avocado, eggs, cheese and picante sauce, and watched the world go by. My friend and I visited some more and then I headed back to San Francisco to spend the night there before my conference started the next morning.

After returning my rental car, I checked into the Hotel Mark Twain, because why wouldn't I surround myself with Mark Twain quotes if I can, right? I walked a block to Kin Khao, a recommended Thai restaurant. It was a short wait for a spot at the bar, and I immediately honed in the Namprik Long Rua, a "funky, spicy, umami-bomb Kapi shrimp paste relish, served with caramelized pork jowl, crispy Passmore catfish, salted duck egg and vegetables." The disclaimer under it said, "don't order this if you're new to Thai food."

I struck up a conversation with one of the people that worked at the restaurant who was sitting next to me. She admitted it was technically her day off, but she still came to eat there anyway. Good sign, I thought. It turns out I was sitting next to the owner, which eventually came out in our conversation. When her food arrived, she kept offering me a taste, so beside the Namprik, I also sampled some fantastic chili lime squid, and equally spicy and funky steamed clams. I was in heaven, and grateful for the chance to share food stories with the owner.

Monday, March 23: Making up for conference food

I opted for a smoothie for breakfast and walked 20 minutes to my conference hotel. The conference itself is proving to be very useful already, but from a food perspective, our conference lunch was the most disappointing thing I had eaten in a while. When our workshop ended at 4pm, I walked the half block to the Ferry Building, and reveled in the food on offer there. I sat at the bar at the Hog Island Oyster Company, next to a couple of other women traveling on business, and of course the woman next to me does similar work to me, so we talked about how we get what the other does (in this case, running interference in communication between scientists and the marketing world).

After a dozen oysters and a glass of bubbles, I happily carried on my way, and picked up a fresh pressed root vegetable juice to make up for some of the excesses of the last few days.

I had a few minutes before the conference reception that evening, so I did a bit more research on nearby restaurants and discovered that Boulevard was only a block away. It had abalone on offer as an appetizer, and since that is on my 'must-try' list, I decided to stop in there before I headed back to my hotel. Close to the end of the reception, I ran into one of the people that had been in our workshop earlier that day, and we discovered a mutual love of food, so she came with me.

Even though the restaurant looked packed, we were instantly seated at the chef's table, which (delightfully) gave us a view of the chefs at work. We sampled the best scallops I've tasted in a very long time, as well as the abalone (delicious), and told food stories while the chef in front of us sliced meat and nodded approvingly at our conversation. He then suggested a couple of other restaurant options, which I may just have to try out in the next couple of days. Or do I go back to Kin Khao? Kin told me I should really try the curries...

So many restaurants, so little time...

Did I mention I'm blissfully happy?