Archive | April, 2012

Road Trip: California Dreamin’

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In March, I embarked on part of a trip that I’ve been dreaming about for years.  I have always wanted to (and will some day) start in San Diego and drive all the way up the coast to Seattle with no plan, no deadlines, just driving and playing – very not me.

As luck would have it, this year the stars aligned for me to join friends in San Francisco and Napa, then travel down the coast to the Edible Communities conference in Santa Barbara over a 10 day period.  It wasn’t the full trip of my dreams, but it was a good start, and it was made possible in large part because Chevy loaned me a car. Thank you Chevy! The otherwise ridiculous car rental fees would have sidelined the whole plan, but Chevy came to the rescue with a zippy Sonic hatchback.  Doesn’t it look fabulous at this overlook on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)?


I started the trip with my friends Natanya and Robby in San Francisco to serve as cheerleading support for Natanya’s first marathon.  Since we were making sure Natanya got plenty of rest, we were more subdued than normal, but that didn’t stop us from eating some really terrific food.

I was thrilled to dine at several new spots and didn’t mind at all standing online at Swan Oyster Depot for our first meal.  It was worth the wait to devour oysters and crusty bread dipped in crab fat.  Yes, crab fat.  The seafood was so fresh and sitting at the bar watching the servers hustle the plates was great dinner theater.

SwansDepot_oysters on the half shell

SwansDepot_crab fat

Crab fat in the shell

San Francisco is generally a magical place to me and exploring it with Natanya and Robby made it even more so. Even our hotel sparkled.

SanFrancisco_Lights at the Hyatt Regency

Curtain of lights at Hyatt Regency San Francisco

We had delightful Japanese izakaya at Chotto and completely pigged out at Mama’s on Washington Square for breakfast.  I had three meals in a row that were laden with seafood and I LOVED it.


Japonica roll at Chotto


Gyoza at Chotto

SanFrancisco_Eggs Benedict with Crab at Mamas

Dungenes crab benedict at Mama's on Washington Square

Robby and Natanya indulged me as I made my requisite spin through the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.  I will never cease to be amazed at all the produce that is simultaneously in season in California.  I was surprised to find kiwisand was tickled by the Fatted Calf jerky cones.  Now you can get a meat cone from Boccalone and a jerky cone from Fatted Calf.  Who needs meat on a stick when there is an abundance of meat cones?
FerryPlaza_fennel and cabbage

Ferry Plaza farmers market


FerryPlaza_Fatted Calf

Jerky cones from the Fatted Calf

The unenviable job of packing the Sonic for the trip to Napa went to Robby.  Thank goodness he volunteered; Natanya and I might still be there trying to get the bags in the car.  Not to be stereotypical, but, he was traveling with two women and one of them (that would be me) packed for ten days. Luckily the Sonic handled the burden well and, while cozy, it was still comfortable.


Packing the sonic

Our attention in Napa was focused on the marathon, but we still had time to nibble.  We practically took up residence at Oxbow Public Market (three visits in two days), enjoying the variety of food and the free wifi.

OxbowMarket_Flying livestock

Flying livestock at Oxbow Public Market

Napa_Gott's roadside

Lunch at Gott's Roadside at Oxbow Public Market

When Natanya and Robby headed back to Austin, I started down the coast, taking my time and stopping at every scenic overlook that struck my fancy. I meandered down to Monterey Bay and spent a lovely morning at the Aquarium.  What an amazing place!


Scenic Overlook on PCH

Driving down to Morro Bay, I stopped to stretch my legs and discovered sea lions warming themselves in the sun.  Who could blame them.

PCH_Sea lions

Sea lions on the PCH

I resumed my seafood overdose enjoying clams, mussels and more oysters to my heart’s content.  I think I ate five dozen oysters during the trip.

Morro Bay steamed clams

Steam clams in Morro Bay

Morro Bay_the rock

Morro Bay

I ended the drive in Santa Barbara to meet Jenna for the Edible Communities conference.  We had a bit of free time and enjoyed a visit to the Carr Winery tasting room and dinners at Julienne and The Hungry Cat.  After a week on the road, I cherished Santa Barbara’s laid back attitude and gorgeous beach backdrop.  By Saturday, my friends threatened me if I didn’t stop tweeting pictures from my morning walks on the beach.

carr winery

Carr Winery in Santa Barbara

crudo at Julienne

Crudo at Julienne

clams and chorizo at Hungry Cat

Clams & Chorizo at Hungry Cat

SantaBarbara_cheese board_Hungry Cat

Cheese Board of my dreams at Hungry Cat

I came home inspired by the beauty of the drive, the fresh California cuisine and a plethora of new ideas – not the least of which is to plan the rest of that drive.

View the full photo set on Flickr.

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Austin Food & Wine Festival kicks off next weekend

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The chefs are coming! The chefs are coming!

On Friday, April 27th some of the biggest names in the culinary world arrive in Central Texas for the Austin Food & Wine Festival.  Chefs I’ve only seen on TV like Masaharu Morimoto, Michelle Bernstein, Marcus Samuelson, Jonathan Waxman, Tony Mantuano and Andrew Zimmern will all be leading sessions and demonstrations on the banks of Auditorium Shores during a two day extravaganza that promises to be a food and wine paradise.

In case you haven’t been following the play by play, what used to be the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, run by a local non-profit, has been sold to C3 Presents, the organizers of the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Lollapalooza, in partnership with Food & Wine Magazine.  The new festival is now part of the same family as the famed Aspen and South Beach festivals, bringing all of the star power with it.  To be honest, I’m a bit giddy.

Jesse Herman, owner of La Condesa and one of the festival organizers, explains, “We wanted to help define Austin as a food destination as much as it is a music destination.  If you look for any city in the country, other than New York or San Francisco, that is generating incredible awards and accolades in the restaurant business right now, it’s got to be Austin.”

The festival not only gives Austinites a chance to rub elbows with celebrity chefs, but it gives some of the chefs an opportunity to visit Austin for the first time.  I spoke with New York Chef Jonathan Waxman earlier this week and when I told him how excited we were that he was coming to town, he countered with, “I’m more excited than you.”  He is thrilled for his first trip to Austin after hearing for years what a great town it is.

Not to worry, there will still be plenty of Texas faces involved in the festival as well.  Chef Tim Love is leading two sessions focused on grilling,  Chef Tyson Cole is teaching a sushi session and Chef David Bull will guide folks through the world of savory chocolate.   And, that’s just the food.  There are a multitude of sessions on wine and even tequila and vodka tastings.

Is it worth the $250 price tag? Absolutely.  Now, I’m going to be completely honest that I’ve been granted a press pass, but I would have ponied up the money for a ticket had that not been the case.  Here’s my view on the economics.  For $250 you get to attend 6 sessions and 3 grand tastings.  The cost of a class with a big named chef at Central Market is $60-$65 or about $24/hour. You get 6 sessions (ranging from 45 mins to an hour and a half)  with some of the greatest chefs in the world, and, if you use the $24/hour figure, the sessions would total $144.  Then, you get 3 grand tastings. The ticket to the former Hill Country Wine and Food Festival Sunday Fair was about $40.  You get three of those session which would total $120.  As it turns out, your $250 ticket is actually a bargain.

And did I mention that at least one of the sessions is with Morimoto.  MORIMOTO.   This is the culinary equivalent of Pearl Jam playing ACL Festival.  I may never get to see Morimoto again, but I get to see him next weekend.  Woo hoo!!!!

Most importantly,  a portion of the proceeds will be reinvested back in local culinary enterprises through the granting program of  the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, ensuring that Austin stays at the forefront of the national culinary scene for years to come.

Sounds like a great reason for an Austin staycation to me.  See you at the festival!

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Austin Food & Wine Alliance presents Live Fire!

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One of the most exciting developments on the Austin culinary scene during this year of incredible news and achievements is the transformation of the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival to the Austin Food & Wine Alliance.   I know a nonprofit may not seem as glamorous as our area chefs receiving James Beard Foundation award nominations  or Chef Paul Qui earning Top Chef honors, but the long term impact of the Alliance has far greater potential to keep Austin at the culinary forefront for decades to come.

With the vision and leadership of President Cathy Cochran-Lewis and a dynamic board of directors, the organization has created a mission to support the Central Texas culinary community not just through events, but by making grants directly to chefs, artisan producers, farmers and culinary focused non-profits.  The grant program details are still being finalized for announcement this summer, but the intent is to make several grants of at least $5,000 each before the end of this year.

“We want to help fuel culinary innovation,” explains Interim Executive Director Mariam Parker. “We want to make sure the money we give will be impactful to the recipient or cause that receives it.”

The grants will be funded through the proceeds of the Austin Food & Wine Festival, which is now being run by C3 Presents and takes place next week April 27-29, 2012, other community events like the CultureMap Austin Tastemaker Awards and Alliance events like next week’s Live Fire! barbecue at The Salt Lick Pavillion.

Live Fire!, Thursday, April 26th, promises to be an extraordinary festival of meats with a slew of local chefs including pitmaster Aaron Franklin (Franklin Barbecue), Chef Josh Watkins (The Carillon), Chef Jonathan Gelman (The Driskill Grill), Chef Damian Mandola (Mandola’s Italian Market), Chef John Licthenberger (Trattoria Lisina), Chef Andrew Wiseheart (Contigo Austin), Chef Ned Elliott (Foreign & Domestic), Chef Jesse Griffiths (Dai Due) and Chef John Bullington (Alamo Drafthouse) who will be cooking side by side with Portland Chefs Naomi Pomeroy (Beast) and Adam Sappington (The Country Cat) and San Antonio Chef Jason Dady.  The menu is truly drool worthy.

For $75, you can eat yourself silly while enjoying the lovely grounds of The Salt Lick and listening to The Elena James Trio.  I can’t think of a more fun way to invest in Austin’s culinary future.

Tickets will sell out, so buy them in advance online.

See you at Live Fire!

Live Fire! Beef Supremacy and Flame Mastery
Thursday, April 26, 2012
6:30-9:00 pm
The Salt Lick Pavillion

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Heaven from the vine – my first summer tomato

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I’ve been missing in action for the last month as I’ve traveled extensively for conferences (why does everyone plan everything in March?!?) and a few stories I’ve been writing.  I’ve also been participating in a Cook ‘n Scribble food writing course, led by journalist and cookbook author Molly O’Neill, which has been much more challenging  and rewarding than I’d expected.

One of our assignments was to write about a food that changed our lives.  There are many foods and meals I could have written about, but I was drawn to a story about my grandfather giving me my first summer tomato.  It’s a story I cherish about people I loved dearly and lost long ago, and ultimately is a large part of the story of how I started writing about food.

I know I’ll remember this story often as we head into this summer’s tomato season.

Granddaddy and Grandmama Willis

Heaven from the vine

One warm summer morning when I was five, my grandfather offered me a taste from his garden.  I was playing on the swing set, pumping my legs as hard as I could to make my swing soar higher.  I reluctantly dismounted and skipped over to him, the earthy scent of the tomatoes enveloping me as I grew closer.

A retired construction foreman, my grandfather was not one to fuss over things.  When there was a job to do, he took care of it and moved on to the next task. But, the garden was different.  He would spend hours weeding, watering and rigging shade to protect the plants from the punishing Texas sun.

I’d seen him babying the plants all summer and now he was plucking vibrant red tomatoes from the vines.  I watched as he gently polished one of the gems with his bandana. He pulled his trusted pocketknife from his faded overalls and cut off a wedge of tomato.  Red juice trickled down his weathered fingers.  “Taste this,” he said. “It’s heaven.”

The fruit burst in my mouth — sunshine and rain, earth and love. Then, a tart, acidy bite tickled my tongue as a stream of cool juice made its way down my chin, dribbling on my t-shirt.

“I think you need another bite,” chuckled my grandfather.  He knew in that moment he had taught me more than to love tomatoes. He had shown me that food can excite as well as nourish, and that there is nothing quite like the joy of savoring something when it is perfectly ripe straight from the garden.

My family did not typically celebrate food.  My grandparents were raised during the Depression and endured the food rationing during World War II. They were Panhandle people – hardworking, pull yourselves up by the bootstraps folks who made do with what they had. Food was fuel, not a luxury.  Having a garden was a necessity for most of their lives to ensure that they had fresh food on the table.

In the early 1970’s, with the Furr’s grocery store he helped build just around the corner, my grandfather continued to garden because he loved it, not because he had to.  And, he loved the tomatoes most of all. He would stack them gently in a small, unpainted basket and bring them into the kitchen, presenting them to my grandmother like the crown jewels.

My grandmother cooked simply, making everything from scratch and refusing the cans and convenience foods that were gaining popularity.  She knew to make the tomatoes the star of their own plate and served them sliced, sprinkled with salt, not as a hidden ingredient in a salad or side dish.

Somewhere during my adolescence, I lost part of what my grandfather taught me about food, maybe it was when he died when I was fourteen.  I never forgot that food could excite and, indeed, as I tried to leave the chicken fried food of my youth behind me, I explored the exotic cuisines of the world with vigor as I taught myself to cook.  I pored over recipes and took cooking classes.  I made elaborate meals and eagerly tried new dishes, but I was missing something.

Shortly after the Downtown Austin Farmers Market opened in 2003, I spent a Saturday morning poking around the stalls that were packed with zucchini, cucumbers, okra, berries and tomatoes –  gorgeous, red and plump like the ones from my grandfather’s garden.  I spent the last of my cash buying a basket of Early Girl tomatoes and gingerly wedged them into an already overflowing shopping bag.

That evening, I made dinner for my friends David and Beverly who were visiting from Chicago and served the tomatoes as my grandparents had – sliced and sprinkled with salt.  My guests greedily piled tomatoes on their plates and then went back for seconds.  Beverly gushed, “There may not be anything more perfect than a summer tomato.”

Her comment took me back to that day in my grandparent’s backyard and I realized that enjoying food in its time and place was the important piece of the lesson I had forgotten.   I had lost the joy of the summer tomato.

After that dinner, I began paying attention to not only what I was eating, but when I was eating it.  I started buying most of my produce from the farmers market and, more importantly, I started writing about it.  My life hasn’t been the same since.  That little slice of tomato led me to food writing, and I could not be more grateful.


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