eugenius reluctantly allowed into orange county

I made the drive down south yesterday in record time. I was seriously mellow when I left San Francisco, like floaty mellow, like marsh mallow, like I left my heart there mellow, with caffeine not yet in my veins and the jazz station turned up high. No traffic. Gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky. And yadda yadda yadda, I found myself in hazy LA. The traffic wasn’t bad at all for a change, so I whizzed through and ended up swallowed by the Orange Curtain, where you can have both Disneyland AND a ball.

I lived in Orange County for three years, and to put it politely, didn’t feel it, but there are a handful of fantastic foodie finds that should be noted herein. They will not include the entire fast food industry, which was born here, or the orange groves, long gone and forgotten, or the grains, raisin grapes, almonds, apricots or avocados that preceded the oranges. If you still haven’t read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, try it sitting under a rat-infested palm tree hooked up with canned music issuing from a speaker in the fronds with a nice, hazy view of the 405. Think about Carl Karcher, native son, founder of Carl’s Jr., looking around at the fast food wasteland he helped create in the groves of his youth, thinking, now that’s progress!  And don’t forget to breathe.

I’m staying in the lovely city of Orange, in the hearte of Olde Towne, to be exacte, with one of my very closest friends, so it’s all the more beautiful to me, but it sure ain’t Berkeley.

Still, we can walk to Felix’s, one of Orange County’s treasures. It’s a Cuban café that has been around forever, a place that still sells hunks of marinated fried meat with a mound of rice and beans and calls that dinner. And thank the heavens for that. God Bless America, etc. My husband was very upset to learn that I failed to buy pistachios on our wine country trip the other day, because that’s what we would *always* do, so I will not fail him by skipping Felix’s this time.

in vino matanzas

100-year-old zin vines

Had the most loverly day yesterday in Sonoma County. It’s been many years since I’ve been wine-tasting in Sonoma, and even then, we had always opted for the smaller valleys and the back-country routes. Then, around 1994 or so, Retrogrouch and I fell in love with Anderson Valley, and moved our wine-tasting northeastward to Mendocino County.

new chard line

Well, I had the good fortune to see some in-laws visiting from France, and we decided to take the leisurely drive up Highway 12 to sightsee and visit with their family friend François, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek Winery.

We had lunch in Sonoma and stopped at a couple of wineries along the way. Because I’m feeling more and more grumpy about merchants passing off overmarketed, mediocre products with bells and whistles that command a high price, I feel duty-bound to report that we were particularly disappointed with Kunde Estate in Kenwood, which was as horribly commercial as the most commercial winery in Napa County. They charge 10 bucks for a regular tasting, 20 bucks for a “premium” tasting where you’re allowed to sit down and scarf down some snacks, too. They’ve diversified their name into a line of mustards and all kinds of crap. Is the wine good? Who knows? I’m not going to try it, and I’m willing to encourage other people to complain about this kind of over-merchandising and treating visitors like potential marks that can be soaked for as much money as possible. It’s distasteful, and I hope others speak out about it,\'s this for an ice bucket?

But we were pretty thrilled with the northern end of the trip, when we hit Bennett Valley and drove around in the meadows and farms (and even an errant redwood grove (!)). We were warmly welcomed at the winery. François arrived after we had had a chance to stroll around the lavender garden. The landscaping was really beautiful. It’s so nice to see mature plants, and the six gardeners at Matanzas have really done an excellent job keeping the grounds in top shape.

We got to tour the facility, starting out in the chemistry area with fancy machinery, geegaws and beekers. François then took us down to the cold vat room, where Chardonnays were a-brewin’, and we got to taste some raw wines. Although I was excited by the idea of a new reserve line being debuted and the whole meticulous process, I was particularly enthralled by the ice on the vats, which would shiver and crack every so often. He talked to us about some filtration and blending magic, then we saw the other areas of production. Afterward, we had a chance to spend a little time with his wife, too. It was such a good trip.

If you’re going to Sonoma or find yourself in Santa Rosa, it is well worth it to visit Matanzas. Their wines are excellent and the lavender garden yields both culinary and apothecarial lavender, the latter of which is turned into pure, fresh soaps and lotions for men and women, lavender wands, and the like. The lavender seemed much more fitting and appropriate as a companion product, and it wasn’t cheesy like Kunde’s clutter of cheeses, apparel, oils, vinegars, chocolates, etc., etc. And it smelled good, too. François seemed less happy about it, though. I guess when your job is nosing wine, a lavender jamboree in the room next door is not as wonderful as it seems. Ah well.

berkeley bowl love

I could write an essay on my love for Berkeley Bowl, the produce market with some other stuff attached. Sure, I loved it more when it was in the old building, the bowling alley that became the market, but I love it now, too.

I could write about my strategies for maneuvering down the aisles with a overfilled hand basket because even first thing in the morning, even on a midweek afternoon, it was an obstacle course to get a cart through the store.

I could tell you of my discovery of zucchini flowers and purple taro root and habañero peppers and microgreens and fresh water chestnuts and garlic chives, each with their own funny story and delicious memory.

I could wax poetic about the cheap, plump, gorgeous vegetables I had the good fortune to be able to purchase in the poorest salad days as a college student, when I would regularly dine on okra and Brussells sprouts sautéed and added to my ramen noodles.

Indeed, I could yammer on about any number of dinner parties and my best memories of the Bay Area, my formative years of my 20s and the pleasures I was somehow lucky enough to have for so many years.

And I could, of course, write about the “other stuff attached,” like the entire grocery store with a full-service fish, meat, bulk foods, hot foods, olive counters and everything in between. I could tell you of expansion and the crowds and the zen of parking.

And any emigrant to Berkeley with even a single blood cell of Foodie in her would be able to tell you a story like this.

But I can’t find the words to describe how I feel when I visit Berkeley Bowl each I come back to town and still find new discoveries. This time, it was Palestinian limes and elderflower syrup and immature almonds and impossibly beautiful black plum tomatoes (in April? Oh yeah, mine used to grow now, too) and plump cactus fruit just begging to be made into liqueur.

And it was being a shameless tourist with a camera — no one kicked me out of the store!

road trip!

I’m on the road for a couple of weeks on official business, a conference in Southern California.  Sadly, I am “stranded” in San Francisco for a few days before I move along, little dogies.  Does this mean I will be eating and drinking my way through the Golden State?  Why yes, I believe it does.

To fortify my spirits and arm myself with gifts, I stopped at the Rogue Creamery in Medford, OR, about two hours south of Eugene, fresh when they opened at 9 am.  I had to represent, yo.  So I bought a large chunk of Rogue River Blue and another of a new cheese, available only at the creamery.

The first thing I do when I return to my beloved Bay Area is to drive across the Bay Bridge, turn on the jazz station, and feel the chillout start to move through my body.  It’s one of those little rituals that gives such an immense feeling of absolutely gratis pleasure.  (Well, there is a $4 fee for crossing the bridge.  WhatEVER.  Jeez.)

Last night, I discovered how to sustain the pleasure — drive immediately to Alembic bar thereafter.  When I arrived, my friend was already there with our first cocktail, and yadda yadda yadda, we had tried half the menu and the evening was in its cups.

I’m now off to sit zazen in Berkeley Bowl, prowl thrift stores for errant Duralex Picardie glasses, eat Ethiopian food in Temescal with a friend, and listen to the sweet sounds of someone I don’t know’s guitar at a pub with other friends.  Life could not be better.

my staples: preserved lemons

We always have lemons hanging out in our refrigerator. I’m sure it’s a relic of living in the Bay Area, o those lemon-tree-having days of yore. Every once in a while, I go a little crazy and find myself with an extra bag or two. When this happens, I decide friends will need gifts in a few weeks, and I make a batch of preserved lemons.

This recipe is so simple that anyone can do it, and it’s really, truly a unique addition to your stock of condiments. Homemade preserved lemons are much better than what you can buy in a jar. A quarter of a preserved lemon, pulp removed and very finely chopped, is delicious over roasted asparagus or steamed green beans, and you can use the lemon pulp in marinades and dressings. I even put little pieces of preserved lemon on skewers of BBQ shrimp or chicken.

Although it seems like Meyer lemons would make a terrific version, their lack of acidity, whereas delicious in many dishes, is a detriment in preserved lemons, and they tend to go bad more quickly. I have made this recipe with Meyers, and stored the jar in the refrigerator, but I found they also get bitter. Plain lemons, known in the biz as Eurekas, are best. And try to get organic lemons, since you will be eating the peel.

Preserved Lemons

An easy-delicious way to instill punchy lemonitude into anything you use lemons for, except, maybe, lemonade. From Morocco, these little darlings can be used for all kinds of different preparations. There are other recipes that include spices such as cumin and coriander and clove, but I like the versatility of the plain salt version. Add seasonings as you please.

3-4 pints jars, cleaned well, with lids
a dozen or so juicy organic lemons
kosher salt
a few peppercorns

Wash lemons well, remembering you will be using the peel, and pare off discolored spots. The lemon’s shape doesn’t matter as much as its freshness, but if you’re gift-giving, look for pretty specimens. Ugly ducklings can be juiced and used to fill the jar with juice — plan to devote at least two lemons to juicing.

Slice 3-4 long gashes into whole lemons, leaving ends intact. Sterilize pint jars. Put a tablespoon of salt and a few peppercorns in the jar. Stuff a bunch of salt into gashes in lemons. Pack lemons into jar tightly, pouring in some lemon juice and adding a bit of salt every layer or so. Cut a few lemons in pieces to stuff in cracks, if you like. Top off jar with lemon juice to cover. I’ve seen some recipes that say cover with boiling water, but I don’t do that. Don’t worry about “wasting” lemons by juicing them into the jar. You’ll want all the delicious salty juice you can get. All recipes caution against using that nasty-ass fake lemon juice. Seriously, don’t.

You should be able to get 3-4 whole lemons into a pint jar if you really press down on the lemons, and you should.

Close jars tightly and keep unrefrigerated in a cool place for a couple of days (the refrigerator is, I find, too cool to allow the lemons to properly cure), then add more lemon juice, if necessary, to fill the jars. At this point, I like to smush down the salted lemons with a wooden reamer to extract more juice in the jars, as well.

After 2-3 weeks unrefrigerated, you will see the lemons have considerably softened and become a bit viscous and juicy. This means they are ready. After opening, keep in the refrigerator. As you use lemons, add more juice. You’ll find the preserved lemons change character over time, and they keep for a long time, if properly acidic and salted.


Finally! It has been unseasonably cold here in the Willamette Valley, so everyone who isn’t a polar bear has been huddled inside for the past few weeks. Then, yesterday, the sun made its reappearance, foreshadowing the summer to come. Heatbunnies like me got outside and gardened with a vengeance.

I have a really old bed of purple bearded irises, like the ones that inspired Van Gogh, but unlike Van Gogh’s bearded irises, mine are overgrown and squashed into a place that made them unproductive. We don’t get many flowers, and that’s entirely ok with me, since I don’t much like purple anyway. In fact, I call my garden endeavors in this house The Great Unpurpling, since most of the landscape is purple or pink. Me, I like red. And here’s why. That’s me with my flowering quince. Yes, I want my landscape to match with my hair. Is that too much to ask?

But I’ll spare you my gardening complaints and just report that I made it through 3/4 of the irises, weeding and thinning and transplanting. (Yes, it’s late, but I was away in fall and didn’t get to properly winterize the garden.) It felt so tremendously delicious to be out in the sun. My assistant (see above) helped me by soaking up the Vitamin D and making sure no birds came too close to me. He also helped mow the lawn by eating a few errant tufts of grass, and he held office hours behind the shed.

What does this have to do with food? Well, mainly it is a defense of carnivorism. I have to prove that I can do plants. I’m feeling guilty because we went to the second Saturday Market of the season and mingled with the hordes snapping up strawberry plants, tender lettuces, bags of tiny carrots and little turnip golf-balls, dahlia tubers and cut daffodils, and we bought…

MEAT.  We came home with a bag of meat. Retrogrouch disappeared when I was musing over a fig tree, and reappeared, triumphant, holding Sweet Briar Farm peppered bacon and lamb chops. We visited the Deck Family Farm stand and took home their price list with info about their meat CSA. Then, some grilled vegetables in the very last stand caught my eye, and I went over and…

OMFG. Carnitas. A giant copper vat filled with oil, orange segments, bay leaves, cumin and hunks of pork shoulder, boiling away. Carnitas might be my favorite pork dish of all time. We bought almost a pound of the stuff and snacked away. Delicious. Not as good as it would be fried in lard, but still. I was so enthralled by the deep-fried meat I didn’t notice the name of the stand or anything other than an intriguing creamy asparagus salsa that tasted like guacamole but didn’t have any avocados in it. Mmmm…carnitas. The stuff didn’t last long enough for us to take pictures of it, sorry, but if you go to Saturday Market next week, be sure to stop and check it out with your own two meatilicious eyes.