Monday, April 26, 2010

Lunch at the French Laundry

My husband and I had the good fortune help our friend Mark and his wife Karen celebrate his birthday at the French Laundry this weekend. Before we had even gotten out of the car, we were impressed by the restaurant's beautiful garden, and while we waited for our friends, we saw a chef in his white apron scurry across the street to get a bunch of herbs for our lunch. About our lunch, what is there to say? The food was perfect. There was absolutely nothing you could quibble with about it. Each course--all nine of them--was exquisite. The service was discreet, knowledgeable and helpful without going overboard in any way. Even afterwards, although I felt full, I did not feel that there was a crise de fois waiting for me around the corner. That evening, as we remembered our meal, I made a comment about it being inspiring for our own cooking, and we wondered whether we could achieve grilled mackerel en escabeche with orange slices, fennel, chorizo and saffron emulsion with the silky texture and mild flavor of the French Laundry's without being oily and strong-tasting.

But does a meal like that really bring inspiration to the round of breakfast-lunch-dinner cooking we do every day? Or is it just a fantasy world of tartare of Kuroge beef from Shiga Prefecture and Moulard duck fois gras en terrine that we live in for a couple of hours, until the magic stops, and we're back to the reality of burritos and spaghetti with only a faint memory of cauliflower panna cotta with oyster glaze topped with California sturgeon caviar? Honestly, it's unlikely that I will attempt to make the New Bedford sea scallop course, which involved trimming the scallop, creating a mousse with the scallop trimmings and molding it together with the scallop to cook it sous vide, then rolling the outside of the scallop in powdered hazelnuts and serving it on a puddle of black truffle sauce with a soupcon of melted leeks (my favorite dish, if I had one, and one whose preparation one of the staff described for us in detail).

And yet, I did feel a renewed interest in food upon our return. No, I did not go to the specialty shop to ask for Kuroge beef (they probably don't have it anyway), but I didn't just throw my top sirloin steak in the pan either. I trimmed the fat, rubbed it with olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and watched it carefully to judge when it was done. I went out and bought a pineapple so we can try to somehow recreate the golden vanilla-roasted pineapple on coconut sorbet. I haven't looked for mackerel yet, but last night's red snapper I marinated in a Moroccan chermoula sauce, baked it in its sauce and spooned out the juices to sop up with bread when it was done. Maybe I would have done all those things without going to the French Laundry, but somehow I feel I did them with more attention and care. Every once in a great while, we need an immersion in savarin au citron, surrounded by citrus vierge and drizzled with Per Mio Figlio olive oil, to bring some creativity back to our table at home.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Birding on Mt. Davidson

Photo by Donna Dewhurst, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
I had a great morning birding today with a group organized by Nature in the City. There were about a dozen of us including expert birder Dominik Mosur and a couple of other highly knowledgeable birders. Normally when I bring my binoculars up there to look for birds, I see hawks and lots of hummingbirds and white-crowned sparrows, but I've been unsuccessful at seeing the smaller birds in the trees and thickets. Today I learned to concentrate on the edges of the forested areas, and watch the patches of sunlight because that's where the insects are and thus the birds. I also learned that the best time for seeing spring migrants is when the wind is from the east, blowing the migrants off course toward us. I watched Dom listening for birds and then locating them visually. I also learned that I probably need to get better binoculars.
We saw many birds, some residents and some of them migrants on their spring migration, headed north. First off, we heard a winter wren singing off the forested path. The expert birders located it and Dom set up his scope, so we all caught a glimpse of it singing, beak open. Further along we watched the fierce Anna's hummingbirds defend their elderberry bush, and then Dom found a lazuli bunting in some Scotch broom. He set up the scope again and we all gazed at it. Here's one that's a bit more blue than the one we saw:
Photo by Dave Menke, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
We saw a red-tailed hawk like the one below, as well as red-shoudered hawk, Cooper's hawks, and sharp-shinned hawks. I can recognize the first two kinds on my own, but not the Cooper's or sharp-shinned.
Photo by Lee Karney, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
We saw a large flock of cedar waxwings catching insects and being chased off by the hummingbirds, and a pair of band-tailed pigeons. We saw a Wilson's warbler darting around in a bush (that's the yellow one at the top of this post).
We watched an olive-sided flycatcher (one of the migrants) on a dead tree swoop off repeatedly to catch an insect, and return to his perch, for about 15 minutes. I learned that they wipe a bee's stinger off on the branch before they eat it! You don't see it in the photo below, but the feathers from the back are iridescent emerald green, which probably helps them blend in to the central American jungles where they winter. They are a threatened species, mostly because their forest habitat is being clear-cut. This photo does show its distinctive shape of the head.
No photo credit, from a Canadian government website
We also saw an orange-crowned warbler, a tiny thing with no particular markings to distinguish it, as you can see from the photo below. This is a bird that I would never ever have found with my own eyes or even my own binoculars, since I could barely see it even with my binocs. In the scope, I could even see the tiny orange patch on the back of its head, which you also can't see in this photo.
Photo by Donna Dewhurst, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
I did not mess around trying to get any of this with my camera. But I do have a better sense now where to look when I go up to Mt. Davidson on my own.
Note: Jeff, a fellow birder on the walk, also blogged about it and found some even more gorgeous bird photos here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The April Garden

There are lots of things growing in the raised bed right now. With all the rain, interspersed with sunshine, they just can't help but grow. In the foreground, chard on the left, African Blue Basil on the right. Behind the basil are the sugar snap peas that are just starting to flower. In a row just to the right of the chard are lettuces, but they are too small to see in this photo, as are the row of carrots to the left of the peas. I think I will put in some more lettuces in a week or so right in the middle. In the way way back is a volunteer potato plant. Love those volunteers.
Below is a cymbidium flower spike that my husband coaxed out of a discarded old plant he found at Urban Ore. It took a few years, but it's the kind of gardening challenge he likes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Husband's Walk

Last Friday I got to go on my husband's walk. He discovered this trail in the hills behind the Claremont Hotel, in the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. When I say "discovered," I mean he knew about it vaguely but he started going there after work to walk a couple of weeks ago. In fact, he has gone every day after work for the past few weeks. It is really putting him in shape. Parts of the trail are ridiculously steep, like the section above that seems like you are going to run right off a cliff. Once you get up over the ridge it's magical, like a hidden world far from the city. There is a famous eucalyptus tree with some famous great horned owls. You can see some great photos of the owls from a few years ago here. He hasn't seen the owl yet, but we heard it when I hiked with him. There are many songbirds and hummingbirds and hawks. When I was there I saw about a dozen butterflies that might have been Painted Ladies but none alighted long enough for me to get a good glimpse. There are also other people hiking the trail as well, but they are interesting to look at, too. On Friday there was a small group of kids and adults having a Friday night pizza picnic on a log. I'm glad my husband has an escape.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

African Adventure

I have been admiring our new cymbidium in the sunlight on our deck. I got it for my husband for our anniversary. It's called Arab Trader 'African Adventure.' I can't explain the name, except that marriage is an adventure and ours is a beautiful flowering.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Lots and Lots of Snow

This is our car after a night of snow up in the mountains. We dug it out, drove to Sugar Bowl, and skied on 18 inches of fresh powder. Or tried to ski. I felt more like a snow removal vehicle than a skier.