Monday, March 29, 2010

Fasnacht Inspired Chocolate Pretzels

So Ally Oop's post on Fasnacht, and her inspired San Francisco trek for German style pretzels sent me down memory lane to a time when I had the most wonderful chocolate pretzels. I was living in Brussels, and had traveled to Germany, and found a bakery selling chocolate pretzels - a perfect combination of chocolate and saltiness - and something that I knew I'd never have again. But I might try to make them myself...

So, with Ally's post, and memories of Europe and East Coast pretzels on my brain, I scoured the internet for a recipe, and came across this one from the Suitcase Chef. With a few tweaks, some complete screw-ups (i.e. don't add your eggwash to the batter, it'll turn out way too liquidy and you'll have to add another cup of flour) I created some delicious chocolate pretzels.

They are a far cry from what I had in Europe... and are inferior to the Hammonds pretzels I crave from Lititz, Pennsylvania... but they'll do.

And they're definitely tasty.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Crisp and fresh: Bala de verde

This past summer, I spent a few weeks in Ecuador. In case you haven't noticed yet, I really enjoy food. So, of course, of all my wonderful memories from the trip, my biggest take away was the food.

I absolutely love all the fresh, healthy options that were integral to the diet. Some of my favorites were pan de yuca with yogurt, ceviche (different from Mexican and Peruvian- the Ecuadorian ceviche is a cross between the more commonly-known ceviche, and cioppino) and the star of this blog: the bala de verde. Bala de verde, or "green ball" is a traditional dish prepared with green plantains, cheese and sometimes bacon. Due to its versatility, the plantain is included in many Ecuadorian dishes, including the bala de verde.

Months after my trip to Ecuador, I was craving some of the tropical treats. Despite offering basically every type of ethnic food under the earth, San Francisco has omitted Ecuadorian food from its menus. (Or maybe I haven't hunted deep enough in the Mission to find it yet.) In any case, I was faced with a craving that only I could satisfy.

I'd purchased a plantain a week or two prior when it was still green. In the time elapsed, the plantain had ripened switching from a starchy flavor to a more sweet and closer in taste to a banana. Usually bala de verde is made by boiling green plantains until softened (much like one would prepare mashed potatoes), draining the water, mixing in the cheese and (optional) diced bacon. It was too late to approach the dish the traditional way, so I opted to do some improvising.

The exterior of the plantain is much more course and thick than its cousin the banana and requires a knife to extract the edible portion. the skin becomes increasingly easier to remove as the fruit ages, though even thoroughly browned, I still had to apply a fair amount of pressure. After removing the skin, I chopped the plantain into two inch pieces to reduce boiling time. It took about 20 minutes to soften the plantain.

Since the taste of the plantain was now sweeter, I decided to use mozzarella cheese. After I drained the excess water, I dropped in and mixed in about a handful of shredded mozzarella. I wanted to add a crunch in the mix, so I chopped up a granny smith apple into small cubes and mixed them in. I allowed this to cool for a few minutes before rolling the mixture into small balls. (One plantain, half a granny smith apple and about a handful of mozzarella yielded about six balls.) I sauteed all the balls together in a frying pan with a little bit of canola oil to solidify the shape. I allowed the "balas" to cool in the fridge and then enjoyed them with a little bit of guacamole.

It wasn't exactly what I had been craving, but it was fresh, light and delicious!

Doing this recipe again, I'd like to try a ricotta: I think the ricotta would be add to the consistency and lend itself well to the flavor of the sweet plantain.



When you travel to another country, you expect a certain degree of difference. You anticipate that the customs, the food, the traditions- they will be, well, different. But you assume that within your own country, certain basics remain intact regardless of the region. Simple customs such as eating pork and sauerkraut for good luck on new year's day or ringing in the Lent season with a fasnacht dipped in molasses, I assumed to be inherent customs. (I even thought that fasnacht day was a national holiday.) It wasn't until I moved West, outside of my Pennsylvania dutch bubble that I realized how far the customs of Americans vary.

Although it's far past both New Years and Fasnacht day (also called "Fat Tuesday", the Tuesday preceding Lent/Ash Wednesday), today I was reminded of my PA dutch roots while I scoured through downtown San Francisco for a pretzel. While by no means did I experience a "culture" shock here in California, and my taste buds have happily welcomed the variety of fresh foods, what I have realized is how weird some of my Pennsylvania "basics" are: I don't gawk at the site of an Amish person in a grocery store or at the mall- after all, I have Amish neighbors. I know that Sunday afternoons, I'll hit traffic- buggy traffic- as the Amish communities break from their day-long sermons at local meeting houses. I've eaten many a shoo-fly pie. We have a distelfink hex sign in my basement. I sat down every New Years day with friends and family to share sauerkraut and pork for good luck. And every Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, my mom would beckon us to the breakfast table with a fasnacht filled with molasses.

For those unfamiliar with a fasnacht, it's a deep-fried doughnut (usually fairly dry and lightly dusted with powdered sugar) that is cut open and coated with heavy, sweet molasses served on shrove Tuesday, the last Tuesday before Lent. My mom never made Fasnachts, but they were so common in Pennsylvania that all the grocery stores carried them and they even were served as the dessert in the lunch line at school. To my understanding, the fasnacht was originally made from all the fat, sugars and lard left over in the household prior to the commencement of the fasting season. Since Lent traditionally was a fasting season, the fasnacht stems from the night (nacht) before fasting (fas). I don't speak German, but there's my attempt at the etymology.

Though it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to me that regional variations for fasnachts exist since I was well aware of the Kings Cake from New Orleans, I assumed still that some tradition of consuming a sugary treat existing uniformally among Catholic and Protestants in the US. It came as a shock to me when there was no "typical" California pastry. (I instead indulged in a Green sugar cookie.)

One of my favorite books growing up was "Over and Over" by Charlotte Zolotow, a children's book about a little girl discovering the excitement of the holidays and "what comes next". I feel like once again I'm able to discover "what comes next" as I learn new traditions here in San Francisco. And even though most people star blankly at me when I go into my disertation about rumspringa or they gape at the fact that my parents hired Amish to rennovate our kitchen, I'm always pleased to educate on my micro-culture from the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Diving In

"Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm." Marcus Garvey

That's where I think I've been these past few days - in the whirlwind or the storm - because it certainly has not felt like reality. In the past five days I've been offered a new job, picked a friend up at the airport, ran a half marathon, baked cupcakes for Pi day, dropped a friend off at the airport, accepted a new job, had dinner with the mayor, and given two weeks notice at my current job. With the exception of airport drop offs and the half marathon, all were new experiences, and as I sit here and I think over the past few days, I cannot believe how quickly my life has changed.

So, where do I start?

I guess I start with the phone call I got from the mayor on Thursday. "Lauren, this is the mayor. I've got a job I think you might be interested in. Give me a call."

Yes, it really was that casual, and yes, I was sitting on the other end pushing repeat, just to make sure I hadn't missed something. So, I called back. Turns out the mayor wanted me to come in and meet him during lunch on Friday to discuss a job. No details were offered. Just a time, a date and a location. 12:45pm, March 12, City Hall. And that's where I went.

I met with the mayor for about 14 minutes and 22 seconds... literally. Basically, he was starting a Green Initiative, he needed a Program Coordinator, he thought I could do it. I would contract with him for a year, and then we'd see. I had until Sunday night to decide. So, with a little over 48 hours to consider his amazing offer, I left City Hall and went back to my legal job. The entire time thinking, "How can I turn this down? But how can I accept?"

The offer was risky. I'd have to leave a legal job with people I cared about and venture into politics. I've never been a politician. I'm a book nerd. I've never done policy work at this level. I write position papers, and read statutes. But now I'm being an opportunity to work on environmental policy for a city that I love. And, I get to work on the initiative from the ground up. It's daunting to think about, but it sure is tempting.

Racked with indecision, I called my Dad, then my Mom, then I picked my friend up at the airport. We went winetasting in Lodi Saturday, made macaroni and cheese Saturday night, set our clocks one hour ahead, went to sleep. The next morning I ran a half marathon. By the end of it, I had made up my mind. I would take the job. It was the opportunity I had been looking for. Sure, it was risky, and the offer came completely out of the blue, but I was certain that an opportunity like this would not come along anytime soon. Plus, the new job gave me another reason to stay in the city I love, and enjoy another California spring. (Nothing like a good run to put your life in perspective, right?)

So, I crossed the finish line, went to brunch and indulged in French Toast. Made cupcakes and indulged in LOTS of delicious pie at a Pi day party (Brendan's Pecan chocolate chip with a buttermilk crust was divine), put my friend back on an airplane, and e-mailed the mayor my decision. He wanted to meet for dinner, and over a huge greek salad we talked about my new position, our ideas for the Green Initiative, and what we both hope to achieve.

I left dinner elated, and a bit lightheaded.

I don't know what the future will bring, but I know that I am glad that I am taking this chance. It is the right move for me, and no matter where this decision directs me - the storm or a whirlwind- it will be a chance to grow, to learn, and to pursue a passion. Can't get more exciting than that, right?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mustering up the "balls" to try something new...

Since moving to San Francisco, I have fully embraced the multitude of various ethnic foods here at my finger tips. I've expanded on my college take-out diet of pizza and wings and turned now to Thai or Indian as my generic go-to for some late night cravings. I've been bold in my orders and tried to sample the most daring dish on the menu each time I sat down in a Japanese, Mexican or other ethnic restaurant; however, Sunday, I took my adventurous taste buds domestic at Magnolia's in the Haight.

Magnolia's is truly an American establishment: tons of beer and meat. Hidden between the variety of sausages and safe sides of rice and beans was a rare, American gem: Rocky Mountain Oysters. Prior to Sunday, I'd only heard of it's existence, but never actually seem this dish appear on a menu. Since it was the first time I'd seen it, I was committed to ordering it. I told my friend with a grin that I'd be ordering Rocky Mountain Oysters for my entree to which he replied, "how strange they have seafood here!" Now, I'm not one that aspires to deceive others, but his naivety just begged to be addressed. "Yes, you'll have to try some," I replied, well knowing that he was in for a surprise.

My "oysters" were served deep-fried and coated with bacon bits. Their appearance was inconspicuous to their true origin and aside from missing shells, my friend hadn't an inkling that these oysters hailed from no ocean but rather the testicles of a poor, castrated mountain goat. I'm not afraid to try anything once, so when the plate was placed in front of me, I dove right in. To my surprise, they were delicious! (Although few things deep-fried aren't.) The taste was slightly acidic, but the texture was comparable to pork. I cut a piece and passed the fork over to my unknowing friend who happily swallowed the small morsel. After the piece was safely digested, I asked him from what ocean in the Rocky mountains he supposed these oysters were harvested. The wheels started to turn and finally I conceded in telling him what he had actually eaten. He was less than pleased, but was fair in admitting that they were quite tasty!

I've now checked off another unconventional dish from my list of things to try and am happy to report: I'd eat it again!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

An Attempt at Trattoria Contadina's Red Sauce

Last night Allison and I had the pleasure of dining at Trattoria Contadina with family friends. The food was delicious, and the hostess, Gina, was awesome. But one thing stuck out. One of our dining companions ordered this delicious roasted yellow pepper with a red sauce, asiago cheese, mozzarella, and fresh parsley (I think). I liked the dish so much, that tonight for dinner, I decided to take a stab at the sauce. Here's how it went.

I bought a can of tomato paste, and some monterey jack cheese with a pesto flavor. I had some soy milk and romano cheese in the fridge back home, along with some fresh parsley and olive oil, so I figured I was set. My plan was to heat up the olive oil in a saucepan, add the soy milk and cheese, and then throw in some tomato paste. I figured I'd toss in the parsley and saute it on low for about 5 minutes while I toasted a bagel.

Here's what actually happened...

I put 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium saucepan and heated it on medium heat. When the olive oil was warm I added 1 cup soy milk and whisked for about 30 seconds. Next went in 1 tablespoon of tomato paste, which I stirred until it was all combined. Then came the cheese. About 1 cup of shredded pesto jack cheese, and about 1/4 cup romano cheese. Whisk away until the sauce starts the thicken. Set burner on low, throw in about 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley and simmer about 20 minutes.

Sounds easy right?

Well it would have been if I had been paying attention to the temperature of my burners. Like a spaz trying to do too many things at once (laundry, cleaning chard, and slicing bagels) I set the heat of the sauce burner on high instead of low. Five minutes later I heard the terrifying sound of boiling. Yup, the sauce, with its cheese and milk was boiling, and probably curdling. Just like I'm sure they don't do at Trattoria Contadina.

I hustled over and took the sauce off the heat, took the lid off the pot, and peered in. To my dismay, the cheese and milk had curdled just a bit, and the oil was separating out. It tasted fine though, and I'm not one to turn up my nose at an experiment, plus I was hungry.

As I sit here eating and blogging I'm pretty happy with the results. I'm not ready to be a sous chef at any fine Italian restaurant yet. But as long as I keep my eye on the heat, and watch the pot, my next adventure into Trattoria Contadina's red sauce should be more successful.

(Although maybe blogging and eating isn't the best way to stop myself doing two things at once)

A story begins...

In 2009, two cousins, Allison and Lauren, found themselves living in the same state for the first time in their lives. Lauren and Allison's fathers are brothers, and grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but while Alison grew up in Lancaster, Lauren spent her early years in Utica, NY.

Now, both girls have found themselves living and working in Northern California, and at 23 and 28, are making up for the childhood adventures they did not get to share by sharing their young adult adventures.

Through this blog, Lauren and Allison plan on sharing their adventures, their passions, and their funky finds.

We hope you like sharing in our world.