Finding Balance – also Asparagus Risotto with Lemon

At lunch today, Shana and I were talking about our respective cooking slumps and how hard it is for us both to find balance between work, home life, and other interests – and it occurred to me that maybe part of this slump is just my life shifting into a new balance, or back into balance period.  For the last year and a half, I’ve been totally engaged in cooking, food, gardening, etc, and part of that has been because I’ve had little else to strongly draw my focus.  These days I’m busy to the point of exhaustion between teaching and work, and I’m managing to exercise almost every day – so something’s got to give.

Shane picked me up at 5 – an hour later than I’m normally at work – and while he worked out, I made asparagus risotto from Urban Italian.  Instead of shredding, I stirred for 30 minutes.  And then ate risotto that tasted like sunshine and springtime.  And then did my best to stay awake.  I consider it a successful evening, even if I don’t manage to do anything else.

Asparagus Risotto with Lemon
Adapted from Urban Italian

5 cups chicken broth or vegetable stock
1 pound asparagus
1 generous handful fresh basil
1 generous handful parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter, divided (1 + 2)
1/2 large Vidalia onion (about 1 cup), diced small
2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup vermouth
salt and coarsely ground black pepper
juice of 2 lemons
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)

Warm the broth in a saucepan over medium heat. In another saucepan, bring several cups of generously salted water to boil. While the liquids are heating up, snap off the woody ends of the asparagus and discard. Cut off the bottom inch, and add to the broth. Cut off the asparagus tips about 3″ from the top and set aside. Reserve the middle portion of the stem.

When the broth nears a simmer, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sweat for about a minute, then add the rice and stir so that all the grains are coated in the oil and butter. Add the vermouth, mixing well and stirring frequently until the boozey smell has evaporated. Add the broth one cup at a time, setting aside the asparagus ends, stirring the rice frequently, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Repeat this step until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid and is tender but not mushy, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, prepare a bowl of ice water while keeping an eye on the pot of salted water. When it boils, add the asparagus tips and blanch for 1 minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the ice water to stop cooking. Add the reserved asparagus stems and blanch for 3 minutes, then drain. Add the stalks, asparagus ends, basil, and parsley to your blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture forms a puree.

When the rice is finished cooking, stir in the asparagus puree, asparagus tips, remaining butter, lemon juice, and Parmigiano if using. The recipe as presented should make 3 entree-sized portions or 4-5 if served with a salad and a protein. We ate it right up with a fresh baguette.

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1120 “Thanksgiving”

I love Thanksgiving, and I love that nearly every Thanksgiving since 1999 has included at least one bonus Thanksgiving dinner – not the comprised of leftovers type, but the type where you’re surrounded by friends and loved ones who are not bound to you by genetics or tradition. I wrote about this in my zine last year – I love the way that we’ve invented and reinvented traditions while playing with the idea of family. I love that some years there are just a few of us far from home – and some years our house is bursting at the seams with good food and good friends.

Last year we were new in town, so we broke with tradition and instead had a Bosnian feast with friends in Chicago for Kim’s birthday. This year we both wanted to resuscitate the tradition, so in October, I sent out an email inviting friends to a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. When we didn’t hear back from many people, we decided to just have an open house – come when you can, bring something tasty, and everyone will go home full and happy. Little did we realize that all but two of the people we invited could make it, meaning that at 8pm we had run out of both plates and seating. By oh my goodness, was it wonderful.

There were so many good things that I can’t begin to recount them, but I do want to tell you about the two dishes we made. First, a pumpkin risotto which used up the last of the weekend’s pumpkin. I misplaced one of the onions – I think it must’ve just gone in early – and I would omit the white pepper next time, but otherwise the dish was a total success. The recipe claimed that it served 6, but at least 15 small portions were spooned out, leaving at least 2 for leftovers, so I would guess you could happily feed 8 hungry people if you want to give it a try.

And second, oh my word, the stand-out recipe of the evening and possibly the fall: Smitten Kitchen‘s sweet potatoes with pecans and goat cheese. Candied coins of sweet potato topped with a sort of Waldorf salad, except sub a sweet red wine vinegar for the mayonnaise, and sub dried cranberries for the apples. It was exquisite. I’m so glad we made a double batch, and I can’t wait to make more for my family’s Thanksgiving next week.

Recipes:
Sweet Potatoes with Pecans and Goat Cheese from Smitten Kitchen
Pumpkin Risotto from Food and Wine

(Last) Evening in Hayes Valley and SoMa

A visit to Rare Device was at the top of my list – on par with Shane’s trip to Treats – so we headed there after our lunch at Monk’s Kettle. I’ve been internet friends with Rena, one of the owners, since sometime in the early aughts, back when I was a bored customer service wage slave and spent a great deal of time reading fun blogs from internet strangers. (Hmm, sounds familiar.) Anyway, it was wonderful to finally meet Rena and to see the cute SF store – I’d been to the late Brooklyn location, but had missed her on that trip.

Rena asked if we’d been over to Hayes Valley yet – we hadn’t, and were immediately convinced to make it our next stop by her mention of Miette, a sweet candy store a short walk away.

Miette, Hayes Valley
Photo by tastingsf

After careful scrutiny, I came away with a wee bag of salty Dutch licorice and an Idaho Spud, one of the candy bars discussed in Candy Freak, which I recently read and enjoyed. The licorice was fantastic, with a much broader range of flavors and salts than I expected. The Idaho Spud was kind of like a Mounds bar, except with a weird agar-agar texture. Not unpleasant, just odd.

While I was in candy heaven, Shane sought out a bathroom and caffeine at Boulange de Hayes. I found him with an espresso and a few wee macarons – the next big thing in the dessert world, but still a bit of a novelty for us. We both liked the size and crunch of the cookies – we tried coffee, pistachio, and one other that I can’t recall.

I feel I would be remiss in talking about our wanderings in Hayes Valley if I didn’t mention two important things. First, we bought matching backpacks at Timbuk2. $40 each, really sturdy, a great deal! Second, I met an awesome corgi named Zoe while Shane looked at glasses. Zoe was just hung around letting me scratch her ears until someone mentioned cookies, at which point she started doing hilarious pirouettes. You earned that cookie, Zoe.

We had some time to kill before our dinner reservation, so we after an in-depth map consultation, we headed towards City Beer Store. It was a fair walk in blustery weather with our new backpacks strapped on, so we were happy to take a load off with a great beer.

City Beer Cuddles

City Beer Store is tucked away off the beaten path – the sort of place you’d never spot unless you were looking for it – which makes it ideal for a quick drink after work or before an evening engagement. We dug in the cooler – with some help from the bartender – to find another Summer Solstice for me, while Shane debated whether or not to buy a 2 day old bottle of Pliny (he didn’t). We could’ve comfortably hung out and drank for an hour or more, but seafood awaited us!

Anchor & Hope
Photo by magerleagues

Anchor & Hope came highly recommended from Bon Appetit, among others, so we decided that it would be a perfect splurge for our last night in town. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the possibly the most disappointing dining experience we had on our trip.

We were seated right away, and after some time with the menu, our server took our order, suggested wine pairings – and then went home sick. Time passed, and no server or wine. Another server arrived with our entrees: seafood risotto for me, and a seared ahi tuna for Shane. No wine.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a tentative seafood eater. I can do most shellfish, and am working my way up through meaty white fish. I had carefully checked the menu before ordering, and so was surprised to have four sizeable chunks of salmon in my risotto. Salmon! My food kryptonite! I ate one piece, then ate around the rest as it quickly went cold – not how you want to be eating when you’re paying $25+ per plate. Shane enjoyed his tuna, but liked the accompanying sausage and beans even more. Our wine finally arrived, but only after we’d flagged down another server. Honestly, the highlight of the meal for us was the Blue Bottle milkshake and wee maple macaron that we split for dinner, both of which were sweet and delicious without making us feel guilty about the indulgence.

I’ve subsequently been told that Anchor & Hope can be hit or miss – and I received a very apologetic email in response to my complaint – but I still can’t shake the disappointment of that last special meal.


If you go:
Rare Device
1845 Market St (between Laguna & Guerrero)
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 863-3969

Sweet housewares shop and design-y gallery spot on Market.

Boulange de Hayes
500 Hayes St (Hayes & Octavia St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 863-3376

Busier than the Noe Valley location, but excellent macarons!

Miette Confiserie
449 Octavia St (between Linden & Hayes)
San Francisco, CA 94101
(415) 626-6221

Magical candy store with big jars of all manner of sweets.  Don’t even think about your dental bills.

Timbuk2 Store
506 Hayes St (near Hayes & Octavia St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 252-9860

Timbuk2’s first retail location, full of fun bags and lots of heavy stuff with which to test the bags.

City Beer Store
1168 Folsom St (between Hallam & Langton)
San Francisco, CA 94103-6028
(415) 503-1033

Tiny beer counter tucked away on a busy, somewhat industrial-looking street.  Great selection – a few beers on tap, and they’re happy to open anything you buy from the case or the shelves.

Anchor & Hope
83 Minna St (between Shaw Alley & 2nd)
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 501-9100

Highly rated seafood spot downtown, but our experience was meh.  Probably not worth your money, though the lobster rolls looked pretty epic

0504 Michael Symon’s Risotto with Bay Scallops

Tonight’s dinner was brought to you entirely by Shane. Shane, who tried to come rescue me when I was totally sacked out from a lousy run. Shane, who volunteered to make dinner when I just wanted a nap. Shane, who stood at the stove stirring the risotto for NINETY MINUTES – much longer than the recipe required – until the rice cooked down to a velvet texture.

This is the second Michael Symon recipe we’ve made, and the second one that has had serious problems, specifically with the order and the length of time for certain aspects. With the macaroni and cheese, the instructions state to start making the sauce while the water comes to a boil. It takes about 5-10 minutes for water to boil on our stove, but the sauce took upwards of half an hour. With the risotto, the instructions said that it should take about 3 minutes for each cup of liquid to be absorbed. It took more like 30 minutes per cup. Did Symon forget a zero? Or does he work in some kind of bionic kitchen that can reduce a cup of liquid in 3 minutes?

And how exactly does warm-ish velvety rice cook half a pound of scallops? We were both a little skeezed out by this particular part of the recipe, so Shane quickly browned the scallops in a little butter and olive oil, then combined them with the lovely prosciutto-filled risotto – and oh, it was lovely. Lovely and delicious, warm with a fresh crispness from the Italian parsley sprinkled over the top. Definitely not a weeknight dinner, though.

0127 Butternut Squash Risotto with Shrimp

So the idea for the evening was that we’d come home, Shane would work out while I made dinner, and then we’d watch the State of the Union address. Instead, we were both starving when we got home, so that plan totally went out the window.  We worked together to prep the squash, pancetta, onion, and shrimp for the risotto, and were rewarded with a comforting and not totally bad for us dinner.

While I will admit to taking some license with many recipes, we followed the recipe for Butternut Squash Risotto with Shrimp almost to the letter.  Granted, I did substitute Israeli couscous for the Arborio rice, but that doesn’t explain why we had at least a cup of excess liquid.  With the amount of vegetable stock reduced by 1-1.5 cups, I think this would be a just about perfect comfort food – warm and savory, with a bit of sweetness from the squash offset by the unexpected salt of the pancetta.  We both added a bit of kosher salt, and were again amazed by how just that small amount of salt nudges the other flavors to the front.  We definitely will make this again, and hopefully soon.

Recipe:
Butternut Squash Risotto with Shrimp from Bon Appetit