Friday, December 9, 2016

Best Kept Secret in San Francisco? Bio Cafe. Nothing Ungepatchket About It.

Michel frequently goes to San Francisco on business. He has traveled so much over the years that he’s tried just about every kind of food and lodging available on the four continents he’s inhabited, from the posh to the puritanical. Over time he has settled on some favorite places to eat and sleep in the cities he visits most often.

When it comes to food, Michel doesn’t mind occasionally paying for pricey meals if the outcome is worth the cost. It’s a matter of value. He prefers simple, well-prepared dishes to overwrought, “ungepatchket” fare. What’s ungepatchket? It’s a Yiddish word (grammatically, the adjective form) for something “overly ornate, busy, ridiculously over-decorated, and garnished to the point of distaste,” says You’ve seen those menu items with meandering descriptions about locally sourced micro greens and other ingredients that often “smother” the main element of a potentially disappointing dish. That’s ungepatchket. Louisville people will understand Michel’s description of these offerings: “That means the chef drags it up one side of Bardstown Road without touching the grassy spots and then drags it down the other side of Bardstown Road while *only* touching the little grassy spots before it comes to the table.” Translation: All of those superfluous preparations add absolutely nothing to the food. 

As for San Francisco, Michel has narrowed down his go-to eating places to only two: Scala’s Bistro near Union Square and Bio French Café on O’Farrell Street.  After hotel check-in, Bio is the mandatory first stop in San Francisco (even on a drizzly day). 

The owner of Bio is a beautiful lady named Sylvie. She has a lovely, engaging smile and makes what Michel has declared to be “the best chocolates in the world.” Just for the sake of clarification, I asked him if Sylvie’s chocolate treats are better than those he raved about eating in Lausanne (as described in a previous post). His answer: Better! Sylvie makes the best chocolates in the world. Did I mention that many are gluten free? Take that, Switzerland!  

Sylvie is originally from Madagascar. For her Bio French Café, she prepares the most delicious vegan and vegetarian items—a surprising twist since Sylvie is neither vegan nor vegetarian herself. The wide variety of salads and sandwiches never disappoint and there’s always an ample array of beverages including house-made kombucha. In fact, Michel had his first taste of kombucha at Bio. Also on the menu: vegan quiche. Michel has attempted to replicate this dish and I’ll post that epic adventure and recipe another time.

On a recent visit, we shared a Protein Ball made with quinoa, flax, and all manner of other good things. It was quite satisfying and not unlike a healthful, adult-y version of a Rice Krispie treat.

Another surprise about Bio Café? The prices. Incredibly reasonable, especially by San Francisco standards. A visitor can have a quiche with side salad or Sylvie's freshly made yogurt topped with beautiful raspberries along with a giant chocolate dessert and a delicious cup of coffee for about ten bucks. Yep. 

Next time you’re in San Francisco, you really should stop by 75 O’Farrell Street, order some vegan chocolates and a coffee, and have a seat at a cozy outside table while you enjoy Sylvie’s incomparable treats al fresco

In the meantime, take a look at Sylvie's menu on the Bio French Organic Cafe website here: 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Cokranut? Crispy Roasted Okra with Coconut (vegan)


Crispy Roasted Okra with Coconut (vegan)

Have you ever eaten a Cronut®? How about a croissan’wich? Maybe a turducken?

I’m an insufferable, incurable word nerd and grammar peeve—which often drives Michel crazy—so I couldn’t help but combine the ingredients in his new okra/coconut recipe to coin the word Cokranut. Makes sense to me and it sounds way more appetizing than a frozen food product called “tofurkey.” The enterprising New York baker Dominique Ansel has actually trademarked his Cronut (doughnut/croissant) invention. We have no plans to visit his Soho establishment but I wouldn’t mind trying the locally available, legally equivalent “doughssant.”

American consumers are accustomed to the blending of words to describe a hybrid fruit like a pluot or a dog breed like the labradoodle. We’ve long understood the employment of the portmanteau to make familiar terms like brunch and smog. Some of these combinations are uncannily descriptive, like “spork.” It’s the perfect name for an unreliable plastic utensil that often breaks at the slightest provocation. “Frenemy” leaves no doubt as to a relationship status. However, I find contrivances like “guesstimate” just plain annoying.

Now that technology has overtaken our communication, even more elisions are part of our daily parlance. Take this “blog,” for example. Clearly, the physical effort required to vocalize that extra syllable in “web log” is too much for us. Thank goodness we have emojis to save us the time and trouble of using actual words to express our thoughts.

Back to the okra topic at hand. I will spare you the part about the origins of the word, but I did find it surprising to learn that: (a) okra is related to the hollyhock plant, and (b) those fuzzy green pods are commonly called ladyfingers in the eastern hemisphere. Whatever you call it, the pods we eat are technically the fruit of the okra plant.

Abelmoschus esculentus, a/k/a Okra plant

Those of you who survived a southern Protestant upbringing like I did will recall a different kind of ladyfingers—those pale, spongy, non-threatening cookies our mothers bought to assemble magazine recipe desserts for a church social or other clubby event. The unspoken, intangible prize for most remarkable dessert would go to “She who incorporated the most pre-packaged ingredients;” usually the most unnatural color of Jell-O garnered all the oohs and ahhs.  

Ladyfingers cookies (savoiardi) are the foundation of traditional Italian tiramisu, of course, but the sinful liquor part of the recipe was prohibitive for the local cooks in my limited orbit. None of us had a clue that in other parts of the world ladyfingers were a totally different thing.

Most online sources agree that the okra plant is native to northeast Africa and spread from there to the Middle East and the rest of Asia. Bhinda (okra) is a familiar ingredient in Indian dishes such as bhindi masala and bhindi curry. Michel was inspired to invent a new recipe when he found some beautiful fresh okra on a recent trip to Patel Brothers market. As usual, he enjoyed querying the other okra shoppers about how they cook it. Patel patrons' responses are always friendly and sometimes quite animated as they share personal anecdotes about family meals. These pleasant exchanges make grocery shopping a lot more fun.   

This easy roasted okra/coconut recipe is not so far-fetched given the influence of Indonesian/Asian cooking on Dutch cuisine, due in no small part to the 17th century establishment of the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), or the Dutch United East India Company. Dutch politics and historical trade wars aside (which Michel will gladly discuss with you), this “cokranut” dish will please even the staunchest okra foes. It is also a lighter, more healthful alternative to the stir-fry Indian bhindi masala with its sugary, oily coating.  


Heat oven to 400 degrees with top rack in highest position.
Cover baking pan/cookie sheet with foil.                                                                                                             

You will need:

Fresh okra (any amount will work, depending on how many people you are feeding)

Unsweetened coconut flakes—probably ¼ to ½ cup, enough to sprinkle on top

Olive oil (enough for a thorough drizzling)

Salt and pepper to taste

Wash okra pods, then cut into ½” pieces.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil.

Use a spatula to coat the okra slices evenly. “Dredge them through the oil,” per Michel.

Roast for 10-15 minutes then remove pan and turn okra to cook the other side.

Return pan to oven for 10-15 minutes more.

During the last 5 minutes of cooking, sprinkle cooked okra with unsweetened coconut flakes.

Okra is done when coconut flakes are brown. 

Transfer to serving dish and watch your okranut disappear.  Yummy!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Et Tu, Parmesan? Beware the Perils of Processed "Food."

Just one more cautionary post then we'll get back to Michel's recipes. I promise. 

Whether you agree with him or not, author Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) makes a good point with his haiku-esque advice about what to eat:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." 

Maybe you've never thought about having to come up with a definition for "food" but in a culture overrun by corporate interests the likes of Monsanto, unlabeled GMOs, and food industry lobbyists, we need to know exactly what we're consuming.  

Quick example: My former high school students were shocked--but largely undeterred--to learn from a NY Times article that the energy drinks they guzzled daily contained brominated vegetable oil, a flame retardant used in kids' pajama fabric, among other applications. I assured my students that if they continued to drink Gatorade and similar beverages that, yes, they might feel more energetic from all the processed SUGAR they were ingesting but the big bonus would be that they wouldn't need to worry about catching on fire. At least they stayed awake during class.

My most recent post covered news stories about the Agromafia selling fake extra-virgin olive oil in the US. Now we're moving on to This Week's Adulterated Food News headline:

Your packaged grated Parmesan cheese contains wood pulp (cellulose). 
A small amount is allowed to preserve the product in its convenient plastic shaker, but some brands go way past the limit. Want to know more? Here's a link to the CBS News video story:  

The worst offender is Castle Foods, receiving this communication from FDA investigators:

The company filed bankruptcy in 2014 and criminal charges/fines are in the works. 

Michel seldom buys any kind of processed food for a couple of reasons: First, packaged and processed foods are not as healthful/tasty as fresh ingredients, and second, he grew up in a culture where daily shopping was a necessity due in large part to lack of storage space and refrigeration for large amounts of food. Holland is a small country with most of its population living in small residences with even smaller kitchens. 

If you watch HGTV "House Hunters International" you've probably seen American buyers complaining about how they can't possibly function in those tiny Euro-kitchens with no stainless steel appliances and sometimes not even an oven. It's all about perspective, I guess, but it makes me cringe to see how spoiled we are.  

Michel has lots of childhood stories about walking to neighborhood food shops in The Hague with his mother--stopping at the butcher shop, the green grocer, the cheese shop, the bakery, etc.  Fresh food was the norm and shopping/cooking was part of the daily routine. The shopkeepers would offer Michel a taste of cheese or sausage which he accepted with precocious skepticism. Sometimes he liked the samples, sometimes not, but he was always polite no matter what. 

Michel is still a picky cheese shopper. He selects hard cheeses, mostly Dutch, not too expensive, and he buys what appears to be freshly (or at least recently) grated Parmesan from the supermarket cheese counter or Lotsa Pasta specialty food shop. Since this CBS news story has aired, he says he'll buy a wedge of Parmesan and do the grating himself from now on. Cutting out the middle man again, as he is wont to do. 

Lotsa Pasta cheese counter, Louisville 

Dutch isn't exactly a lyrical language like Italian, but there are some words that are fun to know and use. One of the Dutch words I find most charming is winkel, which means "shop."  Cheese is kaas so the cheese shop is the kaaswinkel. If it's a really tiny shop the diminutive suffix -je or -tje is added to make kaaswinkeltje, pictured above.

There is a memorable shop in Amsterdam called the Tandenwinkel, known for its window display of toothbrushes riding a miniature Ferris wheel. This very small store is filled with all manner of interesting and unusual items for keeping your teeth and gums healthy and clean. So now you can figure out that tanden is teeth, right? The next time you're in Amsterdam, stop by Tandenwinkel and get yourself some new dental gear.

If there is a moral to this story, it's probably two-fold and not very profound:

1. Eat the freshest, most wholesome foods you can find, avoiding mystery ingredients like wood pulp and flame retardants.

2. Brush your teeth. 

I'll be back soon with a new recipe for something yummy and vegetarian/vegan.
Thanks for reading!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

What's In Your Olive Oil? The Agromafia Knows.

A few observations about the the word "direct" as it relates to the Dutch, the Mafia, and Michel's olive oil procurement method:

Dutch people are known for their unflinching frankness. In fact, they are often baffled and outwardly perturbed by the dodgy replies offered by people from other cultures in response to direct questions or comments. Michel is no exception. He is direct in everyday conversations (always asking lots of questions), in violin business dealings, and when purchasing goods or services. 

I guess it's this innate, unabashed Dutch directness that allows him to strike a friendly bargain with auto mechanics, plumbers, auction houses, oriental rug salesmen, you name it. He's completely fearless about finding the best deal and cutting out the middle man to get to the primary source for what he wants.  

Not me. No way. At those moments when Michel begins to negotiate something I become very nervous and I try to make myself invisible until the deal is done. Yes, that's irrational on my part but Michel's forthright approach to people and life in general runs completely counter to my restrictive Southern upbringing. 

I was taught not to ask for anything in "company" situations but to wait until things were offered to me; this method only works when all parties involved are equally hyper-polite and the hosts turn themselves inside out to accommodate their guests. Otherwise a kid could starve to death at Miss Fannie Belle's Emily-Post-Perfect dinner table. To her credit, Miss Fannie Belle made a mean baked macaroni and cheese (yes, that was her real name). 

Southerners are crazy like that, but we are the reigning champions of All Things Euphemistic; we know that "bless your heart" really means "wow, what a bad idea," among other things. It's our version of aloha, sort of. 

Apparently the British have some difficulty with directness, too. It's similar to the discomfort a Southerner might feel when he or she encounters a Northerner (i.e.,Yankee) with the brusque manner we see in the likes of Mr. Trump or NJ Governor Christie, let's say. Here's an amusing, brief, and aptly titled post from a Brit now living in Amsterdam. She sums it all up quite nicely:

Michel was completely unfazed--even amused--by the directness he met with when he came to New York to study the violin as a young man in the 1960s. (Now I'm wondering if that NY conversational style has evolved somehow from the Dutch who settled there and called it New Amsterdam. Hmm.) Michel also loves the dialogue written for "The Sopranos" characters, maybe because he lived in New Jersey for several years and heard it firsthand in neighborhood butcher shops and hardware stores. Films like "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas" he can recite almost verbatim. 

La Cosa Nostra obviously has its own cultural directness, hence the clichéd "make him an offer he can't refuse" line which is, of course, a veiled threat against anyone who would dare to cross a mafia boss. That legendary "Godfather" horse head moment is about as direct as communication gets--fictionalized or not.

Back in the real world, it came as no surprise to Michel that CBS "60 Minutes" recently reported on the tactics of the Agromafia in Italy. This organization is making a fortune from sales of fake extra-virgin olive oil, among other things. Agromafia activity is so widespread that the Italian government has created a special department to test olive oil and to monitor other food products as well. They also have beautiful Italian designer uniforms.

Olive oil fraud is nothing new but it's more pervasive in today's global economy. Current research shows that half the olive oil sold as extra-virgin in Italy and up to 75-80 percent sold in the US does not meet legal grade for extra-virgin. Are you outraged yet? It's often diluted with cheaper seed oils or worse, it's not olive oil at all but sunflower or other seed oil colored with chlorophyll. 

The bottom line: Caveat emptor when shopping for olive oil at your favorite supermarket chain.  In case you missed it, here's a preview of the segment.  60 Minutes videos are available online. 

A few years ago Michel set out to find a safe, direct way to buy olive oil--mostly due to the ridiculous price per ounce the consumer pays in a supermarket or specialty food store. He went after a direct olive oil source with the same tenacity he brought to bear when he searched for safe (non-radioactive) tea after the Fukushima disaster. Now Michel buys extra-virgin olive oil directly from California growers. 

The first source he found was an olive grove run by Phil Bava, who was very nice to deal with and answered all of Michel's questions during a series of phone conversations. Mr. Bava's products are very high quality and pressed/bottled at just the right time for the best tasting oil. 

The source Michel uses now is Lucero, another family-run business in northern California. They offer a variety of products, including extra-virgin olive oil by the gallon. Their prices are quite reasonable and they frequently post special offers. 

Since Michel cooks with olive oil every day, ordering by the gallon is definitely more cost-efficient than purchasing smaller bottles at the supermarket. He orders about twice a year and there is no problem storing the oil for a few months. Online ordering via the Lucero website is easy and shipping is prompt--also free when certain purchase requirements are met.  

So the next time you're ready to buy olive oil, check those deceitfully picturesque labels carefully to find out where the oil comes from. The Agromafia is hard at work to defraud us. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lucky in 2016? Moroccan Black-Eyed Peas and Cabbage with Dried Fruit and Pistachios (vegan)


January 2016 has been a strange one with several days still remaining. In the U.S. we’ve seen record high temperatures, tornadoes, heavy rains and flooding, avalanches, blizzards, ice storms, and a big earthquake in Alaska. And that’s just on the ground. Over our heads we’ve had a Mercury Retrograde, the Quadrantids meteor shower, a full “wolf” moon (so named for the howling of wolves desperate for food in winter), and a five-planet alignment of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter for the first time in over a decade.  Mother Nature has been very busy and it looks like we’ll need all the luck we can summon.

At our house the New Year began quietly with four spoiled dogs, a toast of sparkling apple-peach cider, and a traditional Dutch treat of aged Gouda topped with thin slices of candied ginger.  Delicious. 

New Year’s Day brings traditional “good luck” foods to the tables of many cultures, which generally means black-eyed peas (which are actually beans) and cabbage or some kind of greens for Southerners. The rationale is that foods representing coins and paper money will improve our fortunes. 

I gleaned some new items for my mental file of useless trivia via a quick read of a “lucky foods” post on In Spain, you eat twelve grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve, one for each stroke of the clock; if you get a sour grape in the sequence, the corresponding month could be less than pleasant. 

Italians enjoy green lentils with sausage while Germans consume lentil or split pea soup with sausage. Why the pork? Its fat content signifies wealth and prosperity. (Don’t get me started on the “pork” our elected representatives are so fond of in Washington, D.C.) New Year’s fish dishes are also quite common. Some Germans even go so far as to put a few fish scales in their wallets for luck. No thanks. I'll take my chances.  

Meanwhile, back at the Samson kitchen, Michel was determined to make lucky black-eyed peas and cabbage for us in a non-traditional way. He decided to go full-on Moroccan with all the spices he likes to incorporate. The results were outstanding.  We’re awaiting the good luck final report but so far (knock on wood) things are going well.  
Ready to cook?

Moroccan Black-Eyed Peas and Cabbage with Dried Fruit and Pistachios (vegan)

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

You will need:

1 head of green cabbage

2-3 cups of black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained (can be fresh or rehydrated, i.e. soaked, overnight)

5 dried Turkish figs*, rehydrated overnight
5 dried apricots*, rehydrated overnight
A "handful" of dried tart cherries*, rehydrated overnight
(*Dried figs, apricots, and cherries can be soaked in the same bowl overnight. Reserve ¼ cup of the liquid for later.)
A “handful” of Craisins
¼ cup pistachios, ground

dried figs, tart cherries, apricots, pistachios

1 preserved lemon, chopped
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup vegetable broth
2 sticks cinnamon
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1¼ teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
First, the black-eyed peas.

In a large skillet:

Heat 1½ tablespoons olive oil. Add cumin, coriander, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaf.

When spices have heated, add ¼ cup of liquid from dried fruits.

Cut rehydrated fruits into coarse slices and add to skillet.

Add salt, red pepper flakes, and black-eyed peas.
Fill in mixture with enough vegetable broth to “just barely cover.”

Bring to a boil then transfer to a tagine (a 9x13 baking dish will work also if no tagine).
Cover and place in the oven for 30 minutes.

Next, the cabbage.

Grind your pistachios, if you still need to do that.

Heat 1½ tablespoons olive oil in skillet. Add chopped garlic cloves.
Chop preserved lemon, add to garlic and olive oil in skillet.
Cut cabbage into quarters, cut out the core, and chop into 1-inch chunks. 
Rinse under cold water. Put cabbage in the skillet. 
Top with salt and ground pistachios.  

Bring to high heat, reduce when liquid starts to bubble. Cover and simmer until cabbage is done to your liking.

Mix cooked cabbage with black-eyed peas, top with pomegranate seeds and serve.