Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Peppers Part 1 on SFist

Photo by melissa nicole.
I'm doing a two-part post on SFist. this week, it's all about sweet peppers. Next week, I'll be tackling chili peppers. Enjoy!

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Gourmet Survivor II, Round 2: Jason's Beignets Three Ways

Thanks to those of you who voted for him, Jason Sholar made it to the second round of Gourmet Survivor II, Adam's Katrina fundraiser and online competition.

You loved Jason's roast beef po'boy. Today be enthralled by his "Beignets Three Ways." He's once again blown away his competiton. Why couldn't my coachee be close by? Close enough to invite me over for breakfast?

When you see his pictures and read his descriptions, you'll want to drop what you're doing and run to the kitchen. But first, go vote for him before Tuesday night. For a mere $5, you can let the world know how much you appreciate his efforts and help him progress to the next round. Don't you want to see what he'll make for the final challenge? Just remember to put his name in the comments so that Adam knows who you're voting for (as if there will be any doubt). But this combo is worth as many votes as you can afford ($5/vote). All the money goes towards helping Katrina victims, so stuffing the ballot box is allowed and even encouraged.

Once again, I'll turn the post over to Jason. Remember to put his name in the comments when you vote.

Beignets Three Ways

Welcome back fans. Here we are now in round two of the Gourmet Survivor II competition. Adam's announcement of this round's challenge reminded me of one of my favorite quotes. Mr. Jim Davis reminds us "vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie." Well Mr. Davis, when you finish your vegetables you must move on to dessert, and what better dessert than beignets?

Naturally one type of beignet just would not do. After I tossed around a number of different flavor ideas, I decided on three: apple pie, lemon, and chocolate. To go along with the three I also made a raspberry sauce and served them with multiple fresh fruits. Before I get into the details, you have to have a look at these, as they are so very delicious.

The recipe I used for the beignets had an overnight rise period. Fear led me to make two batches of dough, just in case one did not rise properly. Also on that evening before I fried up this New Orleans goodness I made the raspberry sauce. When cooking the sauce over the stove the flavors were so prominent. It was wonderful, as the whole house smelled of a summer's day.

The next morning it was off to the market. In the crisp autumn air, mom and I headed through the booths picking up some of this morning's produce. Fresh apples, oranges, lemons, limes and much more were available, and it all looked so vibrant and wonderful.

Once back at home it was time to begin. I started with the apple pie filing. Cutting into the crisp and juicy apples it was obvious this would be good. The thick sauce of apples, cinnamon and currants was sweet and delicious.

Leaving the apple mixture to cool I moved on to the lemon filling. The sweet taste of sugar with the sour bite of the lemons gave this brilliantly bright filling a wonderful glow. As the filling thickened over the stove, the house began to smell greatly of lemons. Once complete, this lemony goodness was placed in the fridge to cool for later beignet perfection.

For the chocolate ganache filling, quality was the key. I could not use just any plain chocolate for these beignets; I had to have Scharffen Berger. As I touched the chocolate to unwrap them, and chop the bars into smaller pieces, they were melting in my hands. The mixture melted down into a beautiful pool of chocolatey goodness that would, upon standing, thicken up into a creamy beignet filling.

Now that I had finished the three glorious fillings it was time to punch down the dough, roll it out, cut it up, fold them up with tasty fillings, and fry away. Both batches of dough I made rose nicely and promised the best of treats.

I loved the feel of the nice, smooth dough that I took from the bowl and placed on a floured surface. To distinguish between the flavor types, they were done three different ways; chocolate are round, lemon square, and apple pie folded into half moons. As they waited their turn to enter the frying liquid they rose up nicely. Then into the oil they went, batch by batch. Sizzling as they slid in the beignets puffed up nice and big and cooked to a golden brown. Once done they were lifted out of the oil and laid out to dry, the chocolate and lemon beignets were dusted with powdered sugar and the apple pie beignet was rolled in cinnamon sugar.

Now complete, I plated the beignets and tasted them. First mom tried the lemon. As she bit the delicate pastry she had a look of delight as the lemony filling proved to be delicious. Next, I tried the chocolate. The oozing chocolate gushed out as I bit into it releasing the wonderful chocolaty taste. For the apple pie we decided to taste together. As we bit in, it was pure autumn heaven. The fluffy pastry covered in cinnamon and sugar burst with apple flavor. If I were to have had the company of a certain domestic goddess, these would certainly have been listed as a "Good Thing."

The only problem I faced now was the fact that I still had another full batch of dough in the fridge. Well, I came up with a solution for that. Taking it out, rolling it out, and frying it up I packaged them up and headed out. Who better to enjoy these glorious treats than my grandparents? Unfortunately I had forgotten my camera, but as I arrived they were just finishing up dinner and were ready for a luscious dessert. Still warm in the box they each decided to try one out. Well, sort of. After biting into the golden soft pastry they decided to try one of each flavor. They certainly agreed that the beignets were a delicious success.

What a delightful day. Started out with a trip to the market, making up some scrumptious beignets and finishing it with an evening visiting my grandparents. It is wonderful how food can bring families together, even if it is not over the dinner table.

For more photos, use the following links:

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sweet Grapes

Photo by melissa nicole.
I'm a little late to post this, but my SFist piece on grapes is up for your enjoyment. What can you do with grapes? Click to find out!

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Monday, September 19, 2005

How to Make Conserva

Tomatoes CookingWhen I researched my tomato piece for SFist, I was intrigued by the conserva described in Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand (reviewed here—holy cow!—two years ago). A way to spend hours cooking something you can buy in a store? I'm so there. Because conserva is essentially homemade tomato paste, though it's much better than the little can of Hunt's you'll find at the market. Conserva's flavor is deep and complex, a tomato reduced to its purest, richest, form. Make it now, while the season's still in swing!

As with many slow-cooked dishes, the technique is simple. Preheat the oven to 300°. Dice five pounds of tomatoes into medium-sized chunks. Make sure they taste good, but any subtle flavors will be lost on the way to conserva, so don't worry about buying heirloom, etc. varieties. An affordable, ripe basic tomato works well.

Tomatoes CookingNow you'll need a big, shallow sauté pan. Pour a little olive oil into the pan, and bring it up to a medium heat. Boil the tomatoes, with a pinch of salt, for about two minutes.

Pour everything into a food mill outfitted with the smallest disc and set over a big bowl (you may need to do this in batches). Process the tomatoes through the food mill. Pour the contents of the bowl into a "large" jelly roll pan (a half sheet pan, for those who think in restaurant terms). For our pan, the tomato pulp and liquid came perilously close to brimming over.

Tomatoes CookingCarefully, put the pan in the oven. Cook for four to five hours, stirring the mixture every hour, until the paste is dry. A dough scraper makes this fairly easy. You'll notice the mixture get thicker and thicker.

Now choose: Do as Bertolli suggests and cook at 250° for another two and a half hours, only to find a blackened, unusable mess on the jelly roll pan, or remove the paste from the oven as I did on my second attempt.

Let the conserva cool to room temperature and scoop it into a jar. My yield was on the order of one-half cup. That's right: five pounds of tomatoes reduced to one-half cup. Smooth the conserva surface, and top off with one-half inch of olive oil. Bertolli says you can keep it at room temperature indefinitely, but I put mine in the refrigerator and pulled it out a few hours before I used it.

Tomatoes CookingWhat can you do with it? Use in any recipe that calls for tomato paste. I put two generous dollops of mine into the risotto we made for the cat sitter dinner, and I used another spoonful in the sauce for the braised ribs I made for the wine class I catered recently.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Gourmet Survivor 1: Jason Sholar's Gourmet Po'boy Meal

I gave Jason Sholar an introduction earlier this week, and today I'm pleased to host his description of the gourmet po'boy meal he made for his family.

Jason went all out for this first round of Gourmet Survivor, Adam's fund-raising drive for Katrina victims. When you read his description, you'll no doubt agree that his is the best of the four entries (not that you need to look at anyone else's, but keep an eye on Adam's site if you want to see how Jason blew everyone else away). Jason took the "Gourmet" in "Gourmet Survivor" to heart, juxtaposing a refined elegance with the everyday roots of the sandwich. Interesting ingredients, pretty platings, wine alongside, and an inspired dessert. What more could you want? His dishes all sound fantastic. What was that? Dishes? Yes, read that and weep, contestants: Jason made a whole meal of gourmet treats.

But you, my dear readers and visitors, need to vote for Jason. You need to reward his ambition and craftwork. You need to get him to the next round. And by pouring out your support for Jason, you help Katrina victims: Each vote costs a minuscule 5 dollars, and all that money goes to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund to help those Gulf Coast residents struggling to rebuild their lives. Go to Adam's donation page and write Jason's name in the comments as you make your donation. The contestant with the lowest number of votes gets eliminated, and don't you want to see what Jason does next?

I know many of you have given already, but I'd like to encourage you all to give just a teensy bit more as you vote for Jason. Actually, I'd like to encourage you all to give a lot more: Stuffing the ballot box is encouraged.

But enough of my chatter. Read Jason's description below, then go to Adam's donation page, fill out the simple form, and write Jason's name in the comments.

Jason Sholar's family enjoys a wonderful po'boy meal.
Dear Friends:
The time has come at last to present you with a novel creation. It is at the best of times that friends and family are able to come together and enjoy the wonders of good food and great company. In support of the families affected by hurricane Katrina, you are now presented with an epic creation; a gourmet Po'Boy dinner.

Up close and personal with Jason Sholar's po'boy.
As a key element of the Gourmet Survivor II competition, particular attention has been paid to the gourmet element. Taking an everyday staple of the New Orleans area, the Po'Boy, and adding a gourmet sensibility, the Beef Tenderloin Po'Boy dinner came about. Freshly baked loaves of bread slathered with homemade wasabi mayonnaise are toped with crisp lettuce, red onion, juicy beef tenderloin and vividly red tomatoes for a classic sandwich worthy of the most stringent of tastes.

Jason Sholar's homemade French fries.
To pay respect to the classic potato Po'Boy of earlier days it was found necessary to seam together the time gap through a complementary side dish. Golden fries are utilized as a symbolic reference to the fried potato Po'Boys of the past. Crisp exteriors encompassing a smooth potato interior are delicate enough for the strictest of critics and yet harvest an everyday appeal. Accented with kosher salt, the golden fries present an article of pure bliss.

Jason Sholar's Creamy Cole Slaw.
On the same line of commonplace side dishes would come cole slaw. Often doled out alongside sandwiches, the taste is common and simple. With a morsel of modification the cole slaw of days past can become the decoration of dinners today, as shown with this gourmet creamy cole slaw. A universal cabbage base, along with luscious diced apple and a hint of green bell pepper, is incorporated with a buttermilk dressing containing the unique twist available through limejuice in place of the habitual vinegar. Stunning to the palate, as to the eye, this gourmet rendering may forever change your view of cole slaw.

Jason Sholar's pretty platters of Po'boy parts.
Perfectly pairing with this cuisine, An Obsession with Food's own Derrick recommended a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley in France. Derrick points out this selection will "carry the beef well, and it has flavor compounds similar to the bell pepper, so it should riff on that." Following his proposal, in the midst of the Po'Boy, and sister dishes, was served a Chinon: Joseph Mellot's 2003 Les Morinieres.

Jason Sholar's Amateur Gourmet cake.
Finishing the evening, the guests partake in the delight of an exclusive dessert. Prepared in honor of Adam's brilliant thought and dedication to assisting the suffering families of Katrina, a raspberry filled white cake, topped with decorator's butter cream was adorned with a drawing of the Amateur Gourmet's signature pose. Perfectly moist and enjoyed by all, this article brought about an end to a wonderful evening spent with wonderful company.

A vote for Jason Sholar is a vote for Morris.
Now it is time to ask for your assistance. As the game was prepared to raise money in support of the Katrina families, donations are linked directly to the voting system. For every $5 donated through the competitions fund, 1 vote is received. When voting, please remember to include Jason in the comment section to indicate your choice competitor.

Thank you to everyone who votes. I appreciate your support in the Amateur Gourmet II competition just as the families in need appreciate your donation.

Bon Appétit,
Jason Sholar,

To view more cooking and dinner photos use the following links:

Friday, September 16, 2005

WTN: 2004 Messmer Halbtrocken Riesling, Pfalz, Germany

My friend Mark and I have been discussing tasting notes, prompted by his post that is in turn a response to an editorial in issue 69 of The Art of Eating. Patrick Matthews, the author of the article in question, argues, among other points, that once tasting notes began to deliver a litany of aromas and flavors to the inquisitive reader, wine makers evolved styles that made those components easier to suss out. (You'll find a somewhat more thorough history of the tasting note in Lawrence Osborne's The Accidental Connoisseur, which is occasionally ill-informed but otherwise enjoyable.)

Our discussion has made me reconsider the humble tasting note. Longtime readers know that I started putting tasting notes here as a way to play with styles and develop my own "tasting note voice." But I still come back to "smells of x, y, and z, and tastes of x,y, and w," even if I try to mix those notes into a larger body of text. And so here I am, wondering what to say about the 2004 MeΒmer Halbtrocken Riesling (sometimes listed as Messmer).

Does it help you when I say it smells of crisp green apple, lime zest, and minerals? That may not be what you sense as you sniff the pale yellow-green wine: A list of smells that reflects my background and sensitivities is only marginally more useful than a score that mirrors my mood and attitudes instead of yours. I found the acidity to be vibrant, perhaps less so than wines from the more northerly Mosel but still enough to balance the residual sugar (between 9 g/L and 18 g/L for halbtrockens). Will your sensitivities be the same as mine? Will you notice the lime juice on the palate or will it taste like something else to you? How much does any of this affect your decision to buy the wine?

Perhaps the poetic, as Mark suggests, is the way to go. The wine is like a compressed spring, steely and taut and aquiver with energy. It has an electric quality that sends frissons of pleasure down your spine as you drink it. Is it a great wine? No. It's a wine that's perfect for what it is, a blend instead of a single-vineyard bottling, but one that's flexible and vibrant and good for everyday drinking (especially at $15 for a liter from Whole Foods). It's refreshing in a way that few California whites achieve. It's immensely enjoyable.

Is it typical of the region? Terry Theise, who imports the wine, mentions the difficulty of pinning down a single characteristic of the Pfalz region that created this wine. "To spend the day at, say, Koehler-Ruprecht," he starts," and the afternoon at, say, Müller-Catoir, is to taste two amazingly great but COMPLETELY MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE families of wines." Wine makers in the region go their own way and produce markedly different styles of wines from one of the most diverse set of grapes in Germany. His attempt to categorize wines from the Pfalz is, naturally, poetic, "Let's start with this: Pfalz wine shows a unique marriage of generosity and elegance; no other wine is at once so expansive and so classy." (Curiously, he also uses the word "taut," and Karen MacNeil describes them as having a "tensile energy.") He describes MeΒmer's wines, which have little in the way of manipulation from MeΒmer himself, as "remarkably pure. They're as clear as glass, etched as sharply as etched glass, transparent as the thinnest glass." (Let us remember, however, that he's trying to sell this bottle.)

So the tasting notes experiment continues here at OWF. Let me know what you find helpful. In the meantime, I might switch to the more poetic version for a while. Colorful metaphor isn't my strong suit, but what better way to develop it?

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Who is Jason Sholar?

Jason Sholar holding Nutella under an umbrella.

Many of you have probably seen Adam's clever fund-raising tactic for Katrina victims: an online Survivor-style competition among four eager cooks spread across the country.

Each cook (who qualified by completing an extensive scavenger hunt) has been paired with one food blogging coach, who will help the contestant plan recipes, etc. for the various challenges put forth by Adam. So I'd like to introduce Jason Sholar, the Michigander cook I'll be coaching. On Sunday, you'll be able to read about his po'boy sandwich (Adam's first challenge) here on Obsession With Food. But it's not enough to read. If you'd like to encourage his efforts, you'll have to vote for him in Adam's contest. The contestant with the lowest number of votes in each round is cruelly ousted. And you wouldn't want that to happen to Jason, would you? Think how upset his cat would be!

How does all this help Katrina victims? First, Jason and his competitors had to pay an entrance fee to compete. Second, each vote costs a tiny amount of money. All that money goes directly to organizations struggling to help the Gulf Coast residents. Though New Orleans has been the city in the news, other areas have been hit as well. Adam's sending the money to the American Red Cross National Disaster Fund to help out. I'll post an easy-to-find link to the donation page when the event kicks off this Sunday.

So come back on Sunday to vote for Jason. Since all the money goes to Katrina victims, stuffing the ballot box is allowed and even encouraged.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Wine Spectator is Arrogant

I know. It's a shock. But take a deep breath, and I'll explain.

In the current issue, they've printed a letter from a reader who blames Wine Spectator for promoting monstrous wine lists, and he goes on to decry the trend. "I am not happy when I am handed a 5-pound book," writes William Stein, "that requires a large part of the evening to study." He suggests Wine Spectator stop considering a list's sheer size "as a requisite for a Grand Award."

Wine Spectator's response? "Some wine drinkers may be intimidated by comprehensive wine lists, just as some art lovers may be intimidated by the Louvre. But like the greatest museums, the best wine lists offer an abundance of riches." Wow.

I was furious when I read this: The reader didn't say he was intimidated by big wine lists, he just wants some simplification. A good wine list has wines well-matched to the cuisine and thoughtfully chosen by the wine director. You'll find that in small wine lists as well as big ones. This is a subject I've put some thought into. Many big wine lists are simply tedious. Do you really need fifty California Chardonnays of similar vintage in one wine list? As Wine Spectator gives awards to bloated lists, they encourage sommeliers restaurant owners to artificially inflate a wine list with whatever random wines they can find. That's what Stein was trying to say, but Wine Spectator is too arrogant to realize how its awards are destroying quality wine lists.

Opening Bottles on Wine Review Online

I've mentioned before that Wine Review Online is open to unusual wine story ideas. See my article on bottles as proof (added to my "Professional Writing" section on the right if you want to look later). Once I started to research this piece, I was fascinated (and daunted) by the size of what I had assumed would be a small topic. It's a subject I'll continue to explore. For the article, I give a little bit of bottle history and then talk about how some wineries incorporate bottle shapes into their brands. (I should note that I wanted to title it "Message in a Bottle," but that title in an online magazine would be too similar to a friend's column in another online magazine.)

Not only is WRO open to off-the-beaten-path stories, they are also welcoming of "new voices," which is to say writers without long lists of clips and the personal email addresses of every major wine magazine editor. If you have a story you'd like to pitch, send it to Michael Franz at franzwine@msn.com

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Friday, September 09, 2005

Cat Sitter Dinner: Main Course

For the main course (and the last two) of our cat sitter dinner, we didn't take pictures. We were too busy enjoying the company of our guests. But since I know you all only visit because of Melissa's pictures, I'll share pseudo-recipes to make it up to you.

I wanted to keep the party simple, as I've mentioned before. After the spectacle of the fruits de mer platter, I went back to a homier dish: braised short ribs on a bed of tomato risotto with a side of Tom's Damn Good Mushrooms. The ribs and mushrooms were easy because they cooked for hours with little effort on my part. A quick reheat at service was the final step. I only made the risotto—one of my best dishes but one whose finicky timing prevents it from showing up at more dinner parties— because the other components were so low-maintenance. I flavored the risotto with homemade tomato conserva, sort of a do-it-yourself tomato paste that I'll write about shortly. With this dish, we drank the 2002 Las Tablas Estates Glenrose I've written about in the past.

Technique: Braised Short Ribs
Figure one rib per person for a good-sized portion. Preheat the oven to 300°. Trim the top layer of fat from the ribs, and season them with salt and pepper. Heat an enameled cast-iron pot over high heat. When the bottom of the pot is warm, sear the ribs on each meaty side until a nice crust develops. Remove the meat from the pot, pour off the fat in the pot, and add about four glugs of red wine (off the heat!). The wine will sputter and steam, but use a spatula to scrape off all the little crusty bits while the wine is boiling. Once the wine is reduced a bit, re-add the ribs, bone side down. If they don't all fit on one layer, you'll have to rotate them top to bottom while you cook them. Pour enough red wine into the pot (again, off the flame) to cover one-third of the bottom layer of ribs. Add some "cooking herbs" such as thyme, rosemary, and marjoram (this is a great place to use dried herbs, by the way). Cover the pot and cook until the meat flakes easily with a fork (five ribs took about five hours). If you've put the ribs on two layers, rotate them every hour or so. Remove the fat: The best way is to cool the pot to room temperature, put it in the refrigerator overnight, and scrape the fat off. Uncover the ribs, and reduce the liquid on the stovetop over a medium flame. Use that as sauce. Reheat the components in a low-temperature oven.

Technique: Tom's Damn Good Mushrooms (serves 3-4)
I don't know what Tom calls these mushrooms, but Tom's Damn Good Mushrooms is our name. Place a pound and a half of mushrooms into a saucepan. Add enough red wine to cover and cooking herbs as above. Place pot over very low heat (the wine shouldn't boil or even really simmer) and cook, uncovered, until the liquid's evaporated (again, roughly four to five hours). Season mushrooms to taste.

Technique: Tomato Risotto
My own risotto technique has changed as I've tasted other risotti, and now I pretty much use Tom's technique. About half way through the cooking time, I added two heaping tablespoons of conserva. I finished with a few handfuls of Parmiggiano-Reggiano.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

WTN: 1999 Vintage Port, Smith Woodhouse

Chocolate Cake and WineHow do you pair wine and food? This was Clotilde's unspoken question when she announced her theme for Wine Blogging Wednesday, the monthly tasting group that meets across the blogs of the world. Pair some wine with a dense chocolate cake, she said. She even provided a recipe, though I went a different route and made the flourless chocolate cake from Alice Medrich's A Year in Chocolate.

Pairing food and wine makes everyone nervous. But here is the great secret: It doesn't actually matter that much. Sure, there are a handful of guidelines you can use, but it's ludicrous to believe that one particular bottle of wine is the only perfect, made-in-heaven match for your dinner. Few pairings are revelatory, just as few really clash. Here's what food expert extraordinaire Ed Behr said in The Art of Eating, Issue 64, in response to a letter from David Schildknecht:

Not that there is a better drink with food than wine, but the two don't complement each other nearly as much as we are almost everywhere led to believe. Yes, some foods go extremely well with wine: a roast chicken goes with almost any wine. But perfect matches are extremely rare.
He goes on to argue that, in fact, food and wine often diminish each other's flavors, meaning that each is more flavorful on its own than with its companion.

So I use a simple strategy and just roll with it. When I'm considering a wine to serve with a dish, I look at the structure and intensity of each. You want your food and your wine to be equal partners. As an extreme example, you would not serve a dense, heavy Cabernet Sauvignon with your delicately flavored white fish. Nor would you pair a lightweight, aperitif wine with a thick slab of steak. For the thick, fudgy cake I made, the "modern classics" would be a Zinfandel or, perhaps, a jammier Cabernet Sauvignon.

But I often prefer the "classic classics," and so I went with a vintage Port, a fortified wine with plenty of structure that's capable of intense flavors. Port vintages only happen three or four times a decade, when the wine makers decide that the wine from a given year is good enough to justify the prestige of vintage Port (technically, each house decides on its own, but it's unusual for one estate to declare a vintage alone). Vintage Ports (which are always ruby, and thus unoxidized, ports) can age for decades, but mine was from 1999, and thus very young. You could tell. The aromas were still closed up, offering just hints of dried fruit and cinnamon. It's a wine I'd like to try again in twenty years. And since it's $31 now, maybe I should pick up a couple bottles and put them in our wine cellar.

How did it go with the chocolate cake? Well, that's an interesting question. Fatemeh and C. were kind enough to let me force my chocolate cake onto them, and they provided a Madeira we could try. I'll let her tell you about that, but the Madeira was probably a better match for the cake (certainly it was showing better that night). On the other hand, the raspberry sauce I served with the chocolate cake shifted things back into my bottle's court. It was interesting to see how the combinations worked.

Thanks to C. from Gastronomie for the picture!

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Figs on SFist

Photo by melissa nicole.
Busy, busy, busy. But I squeezed in some time to write about figs for SFist