Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Garden Girl.

When I woke up yesterday, I wasn't feeling too well- a bit achy and sluggish.  I was worried that I might be coming down with some sort of illness, to which I thought, "Oh no! Not now, I've got too much to do!"  I forced myself into a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, walked into my kitchen, poured a large glass of milk and walked out onto my back patio.  The scene was not one I was proud of: crabgrass, dandelions and birdseed that had exploded into random weed-like wildflowers every which way but up.  The persimmon badly needed to be pruned, the oak trees had dumped a sea of thorny leaves that blanketed the flagstone... Our roses looked absolutely splendid, but it was clear that the rest of the yard needed some much deserved attention.

I had promised myself to have the edible garden planted by the end of March and with several trips planned in the upcoming weeks, it was time to buckle down and get to work.  OSH was calling- no, screaming my name and there was no way I could ignore it.  The weather was perfect, and although I wasn't feeling 100%, I pushed myself to begin the daunting (but awesome) task of getting absolutely knee deep in garden dirt.

First thing was first- buy plants.  I made my way deep into Clayton to our favorite homeowner haven, Orchard Supply Hardware.  Thank goodness I'd already decided what I wanted to plant or I would've spent about five hours wandering the aisles in sheer awe of planting possibilities.  Instead, I chose a cart full of goodies that we'd find useful in our kitchen, along with a few fun wildflowers to toss about. I chose Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, Mortgage Lifter heirloom tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, poblano chili peppers, Dixie yellow squash, Funny Face orange pumpkins, red potatoes and green onions. Our yard gets unbearably hot during summer months, so we try to farm hearty, warm weather plants that thrive in the 100+ degrees, 80% of the time in full sun.  We've had success with all of these veggies, along with our plums, cherries, persimmons, apples and fresh herbs.  

Before I was able to actually plunk these sweeties in the ground, I had to make sure the soil was deep enough and at the right moisture level to receive them without throwing the plants into shock, once free from the cozy confines of their seedling pots.  I purchased two 40 pound bags of organic compost garden soil, rich in nutrients to add to my rows and got to work turning the fresh soil into the native soil, little by little.  With the help of a few curious neighborhood kitties (batting at the corks I kept tossing around) and my oh-so-modernized watering system (i.e. me standing there with a 50 foot long hose), I was able to create the perfect planting conditions in just under an hour.  Yay!  In the little sprouts went.

I ended up actually running out of space for every single plant I purchased- three tomatoes and 3 chili peppers are still waiting for their permanent homes, but I'm pretty satisfied with the results thus far.  The potatoes and onions were easy, as you can just push them into the soil here and there.  I'm off today to collect a full home-kitchen herb garden, because as we all know, growing fresh herbs is far superior to using dried if you have the resources .  It's always a gamble choosing where to set up our herb garden, due to the changing plant environment and sun exposure throughout the season, so I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

I'm glad I got out there yesterday, looks like the weather is turning a bit grey and chilly today.  Hopefully it wont last too long, so I can get back out there to dig up more fun.

Be well,


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

MOSF Easter Brunch.

Easter Specials at Brasserie S&P
March 31, 2013, Available 10am to 4pm

Allow the good people of Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco's Brasserie S&P to delight you and your family this Easter Sunday. Offering an a la carte Easter Brunch, bottomless Mimosas for USD25, a variety of gin cocktails, and a surprise visit from the Easter Bunny, there is something for everyone to enjoy.


warm croissants
5 DEVILED EGGS 3 each half
crispy pancetta seasonal fruit selection 17

ORGANIC STEEL CUT OATMEAL 10 dried cherries • walnuts • brown sugar
HAWAIIAN TOMBO “POKE” CRUDO 21 macadamias • sesame oil • red Fresno chilies
LIBERTY FARMS DUCK LIVER PATE 15 grilled Della Fattoria levain • red onion marmalade
S&P CLAM CHOWDER 10 leeks • red potatoes • thyme • Black Pig Bacon

Bottomless mimosas $25

Duroc ham • caramelized onions • chives onions • parmesan

BRIOCHE FRENCH TOAST 15 brandied range honey butter

smoked salmon • smoked trout • bagel • cream cheese • red onion • capers

EGGS EN COCOTTE 17 braised leeks • pancetta • cream •

Spring Hill cheddar • Duroc ham • Dijon mustard • triple cooked organic potato chips

butter lettuce • sieved egg • avocado • breakfast radishes • classic Louis dressing

Spring garlic • Black Pig Bacon • Spring Hill Farms cheddar • charred scallion

chervil hollandaise • toasted Della Fattoria levain

ROASTED DUROC HAM 23 broccoli rabe • salsa verde

PAN ROASTED LOCAL HALIBUT 28 beluga lentils • bacon • sauce soubise

EGGS IN THE HOLE 9 sourdough toast • two farm eggs
FRENCH TOAST “DIPPERS” 8 Vermont maple syrup•
MAC N’ CHEESE 8 Parmesan bread crumbs
TWO MINI CHEESEBURGERS 9 Crispy French fries

And for the wee one's-- there will be a children's Easter Egg Hunt at 12:30 pm!  What a wonderful way to bring excitement and joy to Easter Sunday for the kids...

For table reservations and more information, please email or contact the restaurant directly +1 (415) 986 2020.

Sounds like a lovely way to spend Easter Sunday!


Monday, March 18, 2013

Spring Flingin'.

And now it's time for rambling...

#1 Spring has definitely sprung around these parts and I am happy to report all is well.  The blossoming pears have made an absolute mess of our yard, although they are beautiful and fun to photograph.  I often sit by the window on purpose just to watch the petals fall, creating flurries of sweet smelling blossom snow all over the ground.  Our car hates this time of year because it will, undoubtedly, be smothered for a few weeks while the trees shed their various levels of skin to expose shiny, bright green leaves.

#2 I've managed to clear out about 80 percent of the weeds in our yard (hey, that's a LOT!) and have started turning topsoil into our vegetable rows.  One mistake I made last year was to use corks as warmth protection for delicate plants- oops.  The cork carnage has been amusing to say the least, but I have discovered that corks are pretty biodegradable if you leave them out in the elements long enough.  The fellow that maintains the chaos of our yard curses me to this day for my inventive gardening skills--sometimes he'll blow the corks all over the place to prove his point, then politely return and put them back in their place.  Mind you, I have a very friendly relationship with my landscaper and we're constantly teasing each other about our garden skills.  He refuses to have anything to do with flowers, fruits or vegetables, but the man can carve a mean 3D turtle out of my wild mock orange shrubs.  We keep him around for his leaf blower and his ability to unearth plants we never knew we had, like rainbow tulips or giant agave.  For those of you in-the-know, it's pretty awesome having shuffleboard and pool privileges at his house too.

#3 The previous tenant of our little piece of heaven was an organic landscape horticulturalist, a man who painstakingly picked out every drought resistant plant in the yard.  It's perfect for us, seeing that water conservation laws around these parts keep us parched in the summer, but sometimes I find myself sighing at the sheer maintenance involved in having such a large yard.  The absolute beauty of this backyard history of ours is that the former (and only second to the original) owner of our 1920's gem composted-- the entire yard.  For 15 years.  And before that, it was a chicken farm.  A very fertile chicken farm.  Thus, we are blessed with amazing soil.  I feel obligated to continue keeping the garden this way, especially when it comes to food plants.  No unnatural pesticides, weed killers or fertilizers have ever been used in our yard, nor will they ever be.  It creates a lot of extra work for us (just ask my landscaper, Mr. Roundup) but in the end, the payback is huge.  I'll have tomatoes coming out of my ears by the end of summer.  Speaking of ears, I think I'll include corn in this year's crop...

#4 The fact that we don't have snails in our yard creeps me out, but is greatly beneficial when planning a garden.  It used to really bother me that I couldn't find the little suckers in my yard to save my life, but now I know better.  Snails, oh how I love thee, please stay out of my vegetables.  The big problem we do have are the birds.  If you want to call them a problem, which I rarely do.  Not only are we home to handfuls of doves, hundreds of finches, a couple of crows, a really annoying mockingbird, a lone peregrine falcon, several owls and woodpecker- we have now secured our place as the semi-permanent home of two very large chicken hawks.  I suppose they keep the populations manageable, but their presence looms over my garden and fellow feathered friends like two little freaky stalkers, able to behead in a single swoop.  The nice thing about having chicken hawks around is that they keep the evil scrub jays away-- those little blue buggers can be caught stealing fruits, veggies, small babies, worms, ladybugs, spiders and all the other good stuff out of the yard during planting season.  It's especially crucial during seeding because, you guessed it, the jays love stealing seeds.  I couldn't figure out why the heck none of my seedlings were sprouting last year until I happen to glance out the window and catch a sneaky jay literally walking down the row pulling each one up and swallowing it whole.  It's like I could hear him saying, "Hey lady, thanks for the salad bar!"  Scrub jay, meet your new worst enemy, chicken hawk.

#5 Here's what I'm planning on shoving in the dirt:
Tomatoes (we eat them almost every day)
Corn (why not?)
Zucchini (because it's easy & tasty)
Strawberries (cause I think they're pretty)
Peppers (jalapeno, scotch bonnet, poblano, serrano, pasilla)
Potato (russet- they grow like weeds in our dirt)
Pumpkin (who doesn't have pumpkin in their garden??)
Garlic (simple, plentiful)
Onions (red, white and yellow)

#6 A:) Just looking at that list makes me anxious to get started.  B:) Just looking out my window and seeing all the weeds I still need to pull makes me angry.

The noble beheader.

#7 Little by little, day by day, the garden will come together.  I'm always nervous this time of year that I didn't start soon enough, but I know I'm still ok.  My goal is to have it planted by the end of March, and hopefully well into growing through April and May.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed over my toes for a little bit- make that A LOT more rain.  We need it so bad.  Plus, when the ground is wet it makes it super easy to pull weeds (yay!) and plant seeds.  I'll keep everyone posted as I progress.  Hey, I might even get a few action shots of the hubbs doing yard work *wink*

Happy Springtime!

Monday, March 11, 2013

La Sen Bistro.

Having lived in Concord for over 9 years, we've seen a lot of changes occur in our little (big) suburb- mainly in the downtown Todos Santos Plaza area, a place within easy walking distance of the RSWS homestead. When we first settled here, the plaza, for lack of a better description, left something to be desired for most Concordians.  These days, it's a little brighter in the square-- fun summer concerts, a well-kept park, a great farmer's market and the presence of some of popular"local" haunts like E.J.Phair's, Luna Ristorante, Skipolini's Pizza, Tower Grille and Panama Red Coffee Company.  In addition to these fine establishments, there's a new kid on the block... A very popular new kid that everyone in town is talking about...

"La Sen Bistro is an offshoot of Berkeley's La Rose Bistro.  After many years of serving to loyal customers of theater go-ers and the nearby UC Berkeley patrons, La Rose Bistro transplanted itself to downtown Concord to become La Sen Bistro.  With the same vision of serving great food, you will enjoy the classic California-French samples of duck confit, salmon in saffron sauce, lamb racks, and escargot - just to name a few..."

The bistro joined the ranks of Concord restaurants back in November, but the hubbs and I discovered it not too long ago on a weekend stroll.  In search of one last glass of wine before heading home, we meandered past La Sen and immediately were intrigued by the tiny, well-appointed restaurant.  The space formerly housed a rickety sushi joint, but had now been transformed into a European-style street bistro, complete with hand-painted wall murals, fresh flowers, candle-lit tables and a stylish bar.  

It was a bit of shock to us, seeing as this level of dining is pretty uncommon around these parts, with the exception of Moresi's Chophouse (a very personal favorite) in the neighboring town of Clayton.  What we were even more surprised to witness was how busy La Sen was, so late in the evening on a Sunday.  How could we be so out-of-the-loop?  Why hadn't we eaten there?  We watched as patrons entered and were seated, following them almost unconsciously to the front kiosk.  I asked for a menu and was given three-- lunch & dinner, drinks and dessert.  A very impressive list indeed, full of Californian/French influenced dishes, all respectably well-priced.  The hubbs ogled the unusual wine list with a huge grin.  He was happy to have found a restaurant in Concord that has an extensive, interesting wine selection that features both local and European wine selections.  It was clear that La Sen would be our next date night location.

A week later we returned for dinner on a bustling, beautiful Friday night.  We were greeted warmly and seated promptly with a smile.  The restaurant itself is quite small (without feeling cramped), holding perhaps 20 tables-for-two that can be combined for larger parties as well.  The lighting was dimmed for the evening, with candles on each table, while soft, down-tempo music was being played at a comfortable level.  The bar was full of patrons, most dining as couples and some just enjoying a glass of vino.  The staff is energetic, plentiful and knowledgeable about the various menu options available.

I wanted to get a feel for the food here, since I'd already heard so much chatter through the grapevine about the quality.  We ordered our wine and were being waited on by the lovely Daniel, a stylish young man with a friendly demeanor.  Next, a warm baguette and house-made dipping sauce arrived-- an insanely addictive combination of what tastes like cilantro, basil, olive oil and spices pureed into a creamy texture.  It's almost depressing when you've finished your share.  You stare at the plate like a sad little kid wishing they'd slowed down to savor it more.  The bread is crusty and light, tasting perfect on it's own or with a dollop of the sauce.  Clearly a good start.

French Onion Soup
Salmon Tartare
Sometimes you just can't make up your mind, so you have to order both.  The hubbs felt overwhelmingly compelled to try the Soupe a l’Onion- Traditional French onion soup with garlic croutons & broiled Emmentaler cheese.  I wished to sample the Tartare de Saumon-  Salmon tartare with lemon capers & crème fraiche.  Both were excellent.  The soup is by far the best we've tasted of its kind.  Bubbling cheese, savory broth, soft croutons and sweet onions.  We'd been told by friends that the soup was fantastic and they were right.  I thought the tartare tasted exceptionally fresh, with just enough lemon and caper in every bite.  The hubbs was impressed how elegantly plated the tartare was, and I couldn't agree more.

Pan seared scallops
Beef Bourguignon
For our entrees, I ordered the Pétoncles Poêlés- Pan seared Scallops with sherry wine sauce, parsnip puree & snap peas, while hubbs decided (after minutes of contemplation- it all looked so good!) to go with the  Boeuf Bourguignon- Braised beef in Burgundy wine, garlic, onions & mushrooms.  My scallops were cooked to perfection, undoubtedly.  Most restaurants will over-cook delicate scallops, which results in the texture of a hockey puck, but these were just right... Seared to a light caramel crisp on the outside and medium rare in the middle.  A scallop should never be served completely opaque, so I was delighted that these were cooked correctly.  The parsnip puree complemented the sweetness of the shellfish and had a surprisingly rich flavor, while the snap peas made for a fine vegetable garnish.  As I reveled in the tastiness of my meal, I had forgotten to ask the hubbs how his dish was.  He just looked at me, smiled, and kept eating.  This is a sign of contentment.  I think it was also his way of silently proclaiming, "I do not want to share."  He eventually did, and it finally all made sense.  I wouldn't have shared.  No, honestly, I would've shoved it all in my mouth so fast and acted like nothing was ever sitting in the bowl.  Absolutely delicious.  The texture of the beef was so tender, it was falling apart on the fork, while the mushrooms and onions retained their own natural essence.  Hard to explain how amazing this tasted, and according to our waiter, for good reason--  Even the chef was keeping this recipe a secret.

For dessert, we wanted to order the Profiteroles but they had sold out of them by the time we were ready.  We settled for the classic Creme Brulee instead, which was lovely.  It had a glass sheen of sugar on top, along with fresh blueberries and raspberries.  The creme was light and airy, making it a satisfying end to our evening meal.    

Fair warning for diners:  Be prepared to relax and enjoy.  Our dinner service took 2 hours, which was refreshing.  We never like to feel rushed when eating, especially at a new restaurant.  While some reviews would consider the service at La Sen questionable on occasion, we found it to be incredibly similar to experiences we've had in Europe, especially Spain and France.  A tiny, productive kitchen pumping out beautiful food, a handful of waiters all working together to serve customers, a bit of chaos, a touch of laughter and whole lot of love go into this restaurant.  Why complain about waiting for your food when you can sit and chat with companions over a glass of wine in the meantime?  The food is well worth the wait and we can all use a little slowing down now and again.  Take in your food, sip your wine and enjoy La Sen Bistro.

La Sen Bistro
2002 Salvio Street, Suite B | Concord, CA 94520
925.363.7870 reservations highly recommended

Lunch Daily from 11 am to 3:30 pm.  Dinner from 4:30 pm to 9 pm on Sunday-Thursday and to 10 pm on Friday-Saturday


National Nutrition Month.

The hubbs brought this cool fact sheet home from work-- the good people at Bon Appetit Management Company, who run the Cafe Bon Appetit (very impressive btw) at his 9-5 put it together to keep employees informed on their healthiest options, no matter which cuisine they choose.  It's nice to know that efforts are being made to provide super healthy options for folks to keep them feeling energized and well-fed while they chip away at their daily workload...
*Eat Right, Around the World*
"Celebrate National Nutrition Month this March by trying out new ways to Eat Right, Your Way, Every Day.  Here are some common foods from various cuisines to help you create healthy, delicious, and diverse plates."

Soul Food
Focus on:  Green leafy vegetables, cornmeal, grits, okra, chicken, small amounts of flavorful meat, sweet potatoes, paprika or other smoky chilis, peppers, shrimp, black-eyed peas, peas, onions, garlic and cassava.
Avoid:  Lard, oil, butter, fatty cuts of pork (bacon, pork belly, sausage), organ meats, gravy, fried foods, high sodium seasoning packets, waffles, regular biscuits.

Focus on:  Reinvented items such as meatloaf, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, coleslaw, and pies so that they include more fruits and vegetables and less saturated fat, more vegetable sides and fresh herbs and spices.
Avoid:  Fatty cuts of beef (steak, ground beef), classic meatloaf, butter, cheese, cream-based mashed potatoes and soups, creamy salads, minimal vegetables, mayonnaise, bland seasoning and high fat pies.

Focus on:  Sti-fries, vegetables, (bok choy, broccoli, carrots, daikon, turnips, cabbage, peas), seafood, lean cuts of pork and chicken, colorful salads, curries with less coconut milk, tofu, small amounts of flavorful meat, brown rice and soba noodles.
Avoid:  Soy sauce and other high sodium and/or sugar sauces (fish sauce, hoisin), white rice and noodles, oil, crispy noodles, fried foods, high-fat curries and nut sauces, full-fat coconut milk.

Focus on:  Lentils, chickpeas, mung beans, spinach, tomatoes, cauliflower, other veggies, spices, whole grain dishes and breads like chapati.
Avoid:  Deep fried foods, high fat curries and oily dishes, white rice and breads (naan), multiple carbohydrates on one plate, full-fat coconut milks and heavy oil.

Mexican or Latin
Focus on:  Fresh vegetables and salsas with tomatoes, chilies, onions, cilantro, parsley, corn tortillas, grilled meats and fish, beans, avocado and whole wheat tortillas.
Avoid:  High fat meats (beef, pork), cheese, high sodium hot and other sauces, flour tortillas, lard, fried foods (chips, tortilla, tortilla bowls).

Focus on:  Tomatoes/tomato sauces, spinach/other greens, whole grains, olive oil, broth soups, salads, lean meat, seafood, mushrooms, garlic and onions.
Avoid:  White pasta and breads, creamy sauces, cheese, high fat meats, cured meats (prosciutto, salami) and butter.
I find this list to be a simple, but logical guide to smart choices when it comes to different ethnic cuisine.  While out and about this weekend, we even found ourselves adhering to these basic tips when ordering in restaurants just to give ourselves a little healthy edge.  Never hurts to give it a shot!

Many thanks go out the folks at for sharing this information.



Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Few Great Grains.

I'm kind of obsessed with grains right now.  The above picture is the superfresh vintage tin I store all of my grains in, given to me by my mother.  I remember she kept rice in it when I was a child and was going to toss the tin, but I couldn't let that happen- so now it sits in my cupboard and makes me smile every time I'm cooking the good stuff.  We don't eat grains everyday in our house, but at least once or twice a week as a main component to either lunch or dinner dishes.  Grains are one of the world's most nutritious staple food.  They are a good source of protein and carbohydrate, contain valuable minerals and are also high in fiber.  I suggest keeping a variety of whole and refined grains in your pantry to use, especially in a pinch or for last minute meal ideas.

Storing Grains
Storing white rice-  Keep white rice in an airtight container stored in a cool, dark place.  Whole, polished rice will store well for about one year if kept at room temperature.  Ground rice will keep for up to six months.
Storing whole grains-  Store whole grains for a maximum of of six months before use.  After this time, the oil content of unrefined grains turns rancid from exposure to heat, light and moisture.
Mixing grains-  Brown rice and wild rice can be stored and cooked together.  They require similar cooking times, and they look interesting when mixed together in risotto and pilaf-style dishes.

Marking Quantities
Store rice in a clear, straight-sided container that is marked off in 1/2 cup measures.  Use the measure guide to pour out the correct amount of rice.  Cook white rice with twice its volume of water- 1 cup water for every 1/2 cup rice.

Measuring A Portion
Containers such as coffee jars can be used to store rice or other types of grain.  Choose a container with a lid that holds approximately 1/4 cup of rice, and which will therefore enable you to measure out rice portions quickly for cooking.  This easy step speeds up the process (great for quick, single servings) and eliminates extra dishes to be done.

As I've told you all before, our favorite grain is Arborio rice-- we love risottos.  But check out these other common types that are readily available (and tasty!) at your local grocery store...

Long-grain rice.  This may be brown or white, and it has a slim, long grain.   A common, useful  staple.
Short-grain rice.  Short-grain rice is soft when cooked.  It is ideal for rice pudding.
Basmati rice.  This is a very flavorful, long-grain rice, often used in Indian and Persian dishes.
Glutinous rice.  Used mainly in Chinese dishes, this round-grain rice has a sticky texture.
Arborio rice.  This medium-grain rice absorbs more liquid than other types of rice.  Used primarily for classic risotto.
Wild rice.  This grain is the seed of a wild aquatic grass.  One of my favorites paired with seafood.
Cracked wheat.  A processed wheat, this is also called bulgur.  Best served warm, with fruits or veggies.  
Couscous.  This is a processed grain made from semolina.  Wonderful tossed with fresh , cool vegetables.
Quinoa.  Say KEEN-wah.  A whole grain with a slightly crunchy, nutty flavor.  
These are just a sample of the wide variety of grains available out there.  I encourage everyone to get cooking and give a new grain a try-- you might be pleasantly surprised but the flavors you discover.  If you are living in the bay area, I find that Whole Foods has a huge selection of grains, along with the Berkeley Bowl and Berkeley Bowl West.  Trader Joe's carries basics as well, along with stores like the Nugget Market.  Another good suggestion for adventurous grain lovers is to find a local Asian or Latino supermarket such as 99 Ranch Market , which are always filled to the brim with hard-to-find, delicious, unusual grains.

If you have a great grain recipe you'd like to share, let me know and I can post it for all to enjoy!

Happy Tuesday,