August 31, 2009
Slow food in schools campaign

Slow food, it's not just for your favorite restaurant. At least, that's what the organizers of Slow Food USA's "Time For Lunch" campaign have to say. The Child Nutrition Act, which funds and legislates the National School Lunch Program, is up for reauthorization at the end of September. The "Time For Lunch" campaign says that schools can do better by serving foods that utilize local growers and other farm-to-table practices.

Bledsoe pork instead of mystery meat for school lunch? Sounds good by me.

To promote this slow-food in school lunches campaign, a potluck will be held on Sept. 7 at Tahoe Park (3501 59th St., Sacramento). Along with plenty of heirloom tomato dishes, the event will also include games for kids, music and speakers.

Want to participate in the potluck? RSVP here.

August 31, 2009
Two degrees of "Top Chef" separation

Last week we told you about a Sacramento connection to "Top Chef." That would be Jesse Sandlin, a "Top Chef" contestant who's a Baltimore native but cut her proverbial cooking teeth at such Sacramento restaurants as Esquire Grill, Spataro Restaurant and Lucca Restaurant and Bar.

Well, turns out she's not the local tie to "Top Chef." I received an e-mail from Michael Tuohy, executive chef at downtown's Grange Restaurant. Before coming to Sacramento last year, Tuohy was owner and executive chef of Atlanta's Woodfire Grill. Back then, "Top Chef" contestant Kevin Gillespie served as Tuohy's chef de cuisine, and has since risen to Woodfire Grill's executive chef and partner.

Tuohy's rooting for his former chef de cuisine, and thinks he's got a great shot at emerging as the "Top Chef."

"Kevin is a very talented young man with solid technical skills and a good sensibility about food as well as a great palate," says Tuohy. "It's fun to watch him grow as a chef, and I like his chances very much."

BTW, check out chef Tuohy's very tasty "Frontburner" blog

August 27, 2009
The liberation of Asian rice noodles

Every so often, health codes frustrate restaurants even if the intentions are good. I'm told, for instance, that restaurants are not allowed to leave silverware set at tables when there are no customers present. That drives some restaurateurs crazy.

But I wasn't aware of the specific health code that ties the hands of chefs wishing to prepare authentic Asian noodles. Those noodles are best kept at room temperature, but the law prohibits this. That's a serious problem for food purists, and they're not taking this lightly. We just received the following press release about an event Friday, Aug. 28 in Daly City on behalf of better rice noodles.

Master Chef Martin Yan will join Senator Leland Yee in an effort to change state regulations regarding the production of Asian rice noodles.

Current regulations require such food to be held at or below 41 degrees, or kept at or above 140 degrees at all times. However, rice noodles are meant to be kept at room temperature for up to 8 hours. A change in production would make the noodle undesirable and change a standard used by Asian communities for thousands of years.

Recently, inspectors from the California Department of Public Health have cited such manufacturers of Asian rice noodles for violation of state regulations.

There have been no reports of illness from eating Asian rice noodles and independent tests have verified that such noodle preparation is not harmful.

Senator Yee has plans to introduce legislation to ensure the continued safe production of Asian rice noodles in California

August 27, 2009
Coffee continued

I recently wrote a story about the rise of independent coffee shops in the Sacramento area. At the same time, of course, Starbucks is in a bit of trouble, scrambling to recapture an identity frittered away by over-expansion, watered down employee training and the use of automated machines that runs counter to the company's founding principles.

One clear distinction between many newer independent shops and established chains such as Starbucks and Peet's is the way the green beans are roasted. Many newer shops, known in the industry as Third Wave businesses, favor a lighter roast that highlights a wider spectrum of flavors. Darker roasts, they say, limit the flavor profile and the taste can be bitter. Some lighter roasts can have too much acidity. In the hands of a skilled roaster, everything comes together to produce a coffee that is balanced and full of great flavor.

The problem: when I was reporting this story, most of the people I spoke with who say they love coffee told me they like dark roast. One independent shop owner told me people who say they like dark roast don't really know much about coffee. I think that is going too far. As someone who has spent years -- and plenty of money -- pursuing the perfect cup of coffee, I have concluded that I like my coffee a variety of ways. Some of the light roasts can be overwhelming -- too fruity and floral, too much going on. Some of the dark roasts, especially French roast, have always been too bitter for me.

Now comes the moment of truth: A coffee collective made up of several of the area's best shops (among them Chocolate Fish, Old Soul, and Bloom) will hold another in a series of "Second Saturday" cuppings. The idea has been to come together, compare notes, do some tastings and leave with a better understanding of coffee.

Cuppings? That used to be limited to industry insiders and wholesale coffee buyers. It's a way to get the truest sense of a coffee. The beans are ground and spooned into cups laid out on a table. Hot water is poured over the grounds and allowed to steep. The coffee is then tasted with a preheated spoon. Some people slurp to get aspirate the coffee and get a better sense of the flavors. The Elia brothers who own Bloom Coffee & Tea recently showed me a very cool high-pitched whistling slurp that I have yet to master.

The next cupping is Sept. 12 and it will focus on the very issue I raised above -- light roast versus dark. I just received this email from Edie Baker of Chocolate Fish:

"I've talked with two roasters who are excited about this and have lots of ideas on how to best compare. We may compare one bean roasted 2-3 ways and then compare other dark roasts on the market with some of our medium roasts."

The event is open to the public. It will be from 2-4 p.m. at Chocolate Fish, which is at 3rd and Q streets downtown. It's one of the very best shops in the area. Edie and her husband Andy have plenty of knowledge to share with coffee lovers. This collective idea is also a good thing. Already, we are getting a reputation as a great coffee town.

I encourage anyone interested in coffee to attend the event. The more we know, the better we become as consumers. Better consumers demand more and more from coffee shops. Great shops will meet that demand with great product.

August 26, 2009
Jesse Sandlin: Sacramento connection on "Top Chef"

Jesse Sandlin once cooked in Sacramento's kitchens, but can she handle the heat in "Top Chef?" We'll soon find out, as Season 6 of the popular reality TV show kicked off last week.

The 30-year-old chef is a Baltimore native, but Sandlin's resume includes cooking stints at Sacramento's Esquire Grill, Spataro Restaurant and Lucca Restaurant and Bar. Sandlin's since returned to Charm City, where she serves as executive chef for Baltimore's Abacrombie Fine Foods. But the self-taught chef is well remembered back in Sacramento, where she was mentored by chefs Andrew Tescher and Kurt Spataro.

"When she first came to work for us, she was a line cook and worked her way up to sous chef," says Spataro. "She had a great work ethic and was very colorful with lots of personality. She's well tattooed and pierced. She was just a great spirit and very eager to learn and grow. I'm hoping she goes all the way."

Lucca's since become a spot where Sandlin's Sacramento pals come to watch "Top Chef" and root her on. But how will Sandlin fare against the other "Top Chef" would-bes, not to mention the tough comments from judges that could make a chef wilt? Stay tuned ...

Meanwhile, peep this video clip of Jesse from "Top Chef's" web site

August 25, 2009
Kids eat free @ IHOP


Say it with me, especially if you have kids: I hop, you hop, we all hop to IHOP

IHOP restaurants are offering a late-summer "kids eat free" special. Here's how it works: Parents, go to your friendly neighborhood IHOP, and you get a free Kid's Meal with the purchase of each entree. This offer is good from 4 p.m. - 10 p.m. daily, and applies to kiddos 12 and younger. This freebie is good until Sept. 13, so take advantage while you can.

August 25, 2009
Gov. Schwarzenegger decrees Sept. as "California Wine Month"

Wine Institute.jpg

We like to think that every month is "wine month," but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has officially declared September as California Wine Month. It's a recognition of California's wine industry and its impact on the economy. So how does the wine business contribute to the health of our fine state? Consider these facts:

- California wine generates 820,000 jobs nationally, and 330,000 in California alone.
- 21 million tourists visit California's wine regions annually
- California's wine industry produces 90 percent of the wine sold nationally; California is also the fourth largest wine producer in the world.

"Our wineries attract tourism and provide countless jobs for Californians," said Governor Schwarzenegger in a statement. "Many are also committed to serving their communities and promoting socially and environmentally responsible farming practices."

Look for plenty of events and specials related to "California Wine Month" in September. Here's one you can count on: Gonul's (3839 J St., Sacramento) will be hosting a winemaker dinner on Sept. 13 to commemorate "National Wine Month." Look for a four-course dinner with California wine pairings for $42 a head. For a coupon and more information, visit Gonul's web site.

August 21, 2009
'Berry' good sweets debut at California State Fair

shari's.jpgThe Berry Factory is launching three new products at the California State Fair and owner Shari Fitzpatrick sent us a sampling of the chocolate creations to try.

Talk about a hard assignment.

The newbies include chocolate covered cherries ($3.25 for 3), chocolate covered strawberries dusted in edible gold ($4 each) and chocolate covered s'mores ($3.50 each). All come in white or milk chocolate varieties (The new line of sweets is shown at left. Bee photo by Anne Chadwick Williams).

The Berry Factory has a stand between buildings A and B near the county exhibits at the state fair.

The gold-dusted strawberries, called Golden Berries, are in tribute to the local company's 20th anniversary this fall and in honor of California being the Golden State.

The gold dust lends a pretty sheen, but the flavor is classic Shari's berries - juicy, succulent berries marrying perfectly with both white and milk chocolate.

The Cherry Baby is cute, with the stems of the maraschino cherries peeking out from the chocolate, but be warned: the combo of chocolate and cherry is pretty powerful.

Fitzpatrick said would prefer fresh cherries to maraschino, but it's the pits that are plaguing her.

"I'm still working on it," she said.

The best of the bunch, however, was the S'mori (Shari and s'more - get it?). A hand-dipped chocolate covered s'more. It was a "Don't talk to me I want to enjoy this" moment in my cubicle a few minutes ago.

The combination of gooey marshmallow and crisp graham crackers enrobed in milk chocolate was heavenly. The white chocolate was good, but the milk chocolate was stellar.

Fitzpatrick said the inspiration for the S'Mori came from her family life.

"I have three sons, so we do a lot of camping and a lot of s'more making," she said.

Apparently they are quite good at it.

Now if only they'd sent a glass of milk.

August 19, 2009
National Geographic enters the coffee business

National Geographic is putting its considerable reputation and clout behind a new coffee venture called Terra Firma. I recently received a few pounds of Terra Firma beans. The bags also include the National Geographic logo. The non-profit scientitic and educational operation is partnering with Café Bom Dia, a coffee company based in Brazil.

It's an interesting development, especially with all the confusion about "fair trade" coffee and what it really means, i.e. is all the other coffee unfair trade?

According to written literature included with the coffee delivered to The Bee, all Terra Firma coffees from six countries are Fair Trade Certified, an official designation "that guarantees direct trade, fair prices, environmental stewardship and investment in farming communities."

Why would National Geographic wade into the world of coffee, which is complicated and competitive, to say the least? The company wants to have an influence, and it wants to use the money made through sales of the coffee to support a variety of exploration, conservation, research and education projects.

"In carrying out our mission to inspire people to care about the planet, it is vital for National Geographic to partner with organizations that share our values," said Krista Newberry, vice president of licensing for National Geographic, in a press release. "Through its emphasis on sustainability and Fair Trade Certified growers, Café Bom Dia is the ideal partner for us as we venture into the specialty coffee market."

Terra Firma will be sold on, which immediately raises questions about freshness. It's also not cheap. The 12-ounce bags of whole beans sell for about $20. The beans are sold in sealed bags, but micro-roasters often consider optimum freshness to last about two weeks.

Ironically, even National Geographic might agree that it would be better all the way around to support your local roaster or coffee retail outlet than to order online and have them shipped from who-knows-where.

August 19, 2009
A quick chat with Tammi Ramsey from "The Winemakers"

This week's "Wine Buzz" captured the scene from last week's casting call of "The Winemakers" at 58 Degrees & Holding Co. 15 hopefuls, some of whom waited for up to four hours to land their audition, were vying for the final slot on this show. But that honor went to Tammi Ramsey, who traveled from Fremont to audition and secure her spot for season 2 of "The Winemakers," an upcoming reality show on PBS.

We got a phone call from Tammi, who's already survived the first round of eliminations on the show, and will be off for filming in France in about a month. Tammi can't divulge much of how the taping's going - you know how non-disclosure agreements can go - but overall she's very stoked.

Tammi moved to California from Indiana about four years ago to chase her dream of becoming a winemaker. By day she's a recruiter in the financial industry, but much of her spare time is dedicated to making vino. She's also studied winemaking at UC Davis.

"It was a hobby that turned into an obsession pretty quickly," she says.

If Tammi survives the show's challenges and emerges as the winning winemaker, she'll have an opportunity to launch her own label and ship 15,000 cases of the wine. But making it to the finish line will be tough, with a pool of competitors who come from all aspects of the wine industry.

"I think I'll do well," says Tammi. "I don't come from the wine industry, so I think I bring a fresh perspective. I would love to last three or four more eliminations, but making it even this far is a true blessing."

Follow her on Twitter @grapejuiceone

August 19, 2009
Unorthodox aquisition of cookware yields good deal, great dinner

Sure Craiglist has garnered a reputation as a great place to get deals on things like furniture and televisions. But cookware?

That's right - cookware. High-quality cookware to be exact.

I scored big time on a Le Creuset Dutch oven and used it this weekend to make a delectable, company-worthy New England halibut stew. To read about the adventure, check out my blog.

Have you spotted good deals on cookware lately? Is there a place you turn to for good deals? Post your comments here.

August 15, 2009
Heirloom tomatoes in great detail--Sept. 26

If you're into food and have lived in the Central Valley for more than a year, there's a good chance you're pretty much an expert on heirloom tomatoes. Still, if you want to increase your knowledge or get different perspectives, there's a great program coming up at UC Davis for $75.

Here's the press release we just received:

Savoring Heirloom Tomatoes
Presented by the UC Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science Saturday, September 26, 2009

Please join us for a very unique evening focusing on heirloom tomatoes - from three very different expert perspectives.

Retired UC Davis sensory scientist and flavor chemist Dr. Ann Noble, internationally renowned for her invention of the wine aroma wheel, lends her extraordinary nose and talents to assist us in an exploration of the distinct sensory qualities of heirloom tomatoes.

Dr. Clare Hasler, Executive Director of the Robert Mondavi Institute and international authority on "functional foods" (foods that provide specific health benefits that may reduce risk of chronic disease) will speak about heirloom tomatoes as a "superfood" for optimal health.

Thaddeus Barsotti, farm manager of beautiful Capay Organic farm and a grower of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, will tell us how he cultivates these marvelous fruits and what makes them so special. Attendees will be able to taste a wide array of Barsotti's distinctive, colorful tomatoes.

Date: Saturday, September 26, 2009
Time: Registration begins at 12:30pm; Event is from 1pm to 5pm
Location: Silverado Vineyards Sensory Theater, Robert Mondavi Institute Sensory Building
Tickets: $75 ($65 for UC Davis Affiliates) purchase at Brown Paper Tickets,
Questions? Call Kira O'Donnell, (916) 705-9621


12:30 - 1:00 Registration

1:00 - 1:10 Welcome and Introductions
Clare M. Hasler, Executive Director, Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science

1:10 - 1:40 Heirlooms - More than Just a Funny-Looking Tomato Thaddeus Barsotti, Farm Manager, Capay Organic

1:40 - 2:10 Tomatoes: A Superfood for Optimal Health Clare M. Hasler

2:10 - 2:30 Break

2:30 - 3:00 Savoring Heirloom Tomatoes
Ann C. Noble, Professor Emerita, Department of Viticulture and Enology, UC Davis

3:00 - 4:00 Heirloom Tomato Tasting
Ann C. Noble

4:00 - 5:00 Reception: Sensory Theater Lobby

August 13, 2009
Sacramento scores in Best California Wine List Competition

Sorry about the lack of posts on this end. I've been in Boston for the past week, and a quick tip of the glass to Troquet's wine bar, which is located across the street from Boston Common. Troquet's by-the-glass program rocked - we're talking a list that includes Krug, d' Yquem and plenty of other great selections on its list.

Speaking of wine lists, just found out that Sacramento just about dunked on the competition in the second annual Best California Wine List Competition, co-sponsored by the California Restaurant Association and the Wine Institute.

The Firehouse Restaurant won first place in the category for companies with less than 10 locations and annual revenue of $1 million or more.

The Melting Pot, which includes a franchise in Sacramento, nabbed top honors in the category for restaurant companies with 10 or more outlets.

California Café in Los Gatos won for restaurant companies with less than 10 locations and annual revenue of less than $1 million.

Could Sacramento's dominance in the competition be due to the judging panel? Such locals as Darrell Corti, Joe Vacarro from Ella Dining Room & Bar, and former Sacramento Bee food editor Mike Dunne were all part of the panel. Either way, the judges were looking for wine programs with a comittment to showcasing California wines. Competitors were also required to submit an essay to detail more about their wine program.

Congrats to the winners, especially those from the River City.

August 10, 2009
The aftermath of a restaurant recommendation

Readers will often call or email and ask for a restaurant recommendation. Depending on the occasion, the price point or the expectations, I will usually suggest two or three places I think will work out.

A few days ago, a woman named Margaret Khan called and asked for a couple of suggestions. The occasion? She had mportant clients she wanted to impress. Margaret is in real estate.

This time, I gave her a rundown of five or six options, and she decided to go to Slocum House in Fair Oaks. The venerable restaurant recently went through a big change in the kitchen, hiring rising star Gabriel Glasier, formerly of Redbud Cafe in Cameron Park, the restaurant he owned until closing down several months ago.

Turns out, Margaret and Slocum House hit it off. With her permission, I thought I'd share a few excerpts from her email:

I went there ahead of time, previewed the menu and found out they had a rather good jazz singer and combo that night. Lindsey, the Receptionist (Maitre d'?) reserved the choice table next to the band for us, and brought out Chef Gabriel to describe the evening specials. How could we not reserve?

Dinner was exceptional! Gabriel very graciously came out to introduce himself and describe his creations and -- nice touch! -- a young man took the mic to propose to his girlfriend and then played an original composition on keyboard (rather good) to her. Good evidence for "Sacramento's Most Romantic Restaurant"?

...We had a memorable evening, our guests were exuberant, and I looked great to my clients. Really appreciate your recommendation.

August 9, 2009
Davis Farmers Market is popular -- now it's official, I think

"Best of" and "favorite" contests are often pretty lame, with people cramming ballot boxes, often online, with their votes. I'm not sure these awards really say anything about actual quality.

But sometimes such a contest actually gets it right. That may be the case with the "America's Favorite Farmers Market" contest sponsored by the American Farmland Trust. The Davis Farmers Market won first place in the "large" category. The Davis market is, indeed, excellent. It's not only a place to buy fresh produce straight from the farm but a gathering spot for residents to socialize and hang out.

It's a great atmosphere and yes, it's a popular market. But is it more popular than the one in Sacramento on Sunday mornings, which is almost always crammed with folks? Or the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. Don't think so. According to the contest, 3,032 voters said it was.

Nevertheless, this is good exposure for the Davis market, and for all farmers markets. In the end, I think that's what the contest was all about.

Now, I'm off to the Sacramento farmers market. For what it's worth, this one would be more popular with me if they had plenty more bike racks. The current little rack holds about five bikes. Often, I see 40 to 50 bikes locked to various stationary objects all over the property.

August 5, 2009
Savory sandwiches can solve supper dilemmas, satisfy the soul

sandwich.jpgSandwiches may be the main ingredient in many a lunch tote, but they also can make for a quick and satisfying dinner.

We're not talking about whole wheat bread and a few slices of turkey here.

Think dense, eggy slices of brioche filled with brie, carmelized onions, arugula and a hint of cranberry jam. Flaky, grilled mahi mahi topped with mesclun and tucked between slices of baguette generously spread with lemon aioli.

It's a wonderful thing.

For sandwich inspiration, check out this recipe on my blog for a sophisticated spin on grilled ham and cheese. The addition of Dijon mustard and honey to the three different cheeses and high-quality ham make the flavors in this sandwich sing.

Cold sandwiches more appealing on a hot summer day? Check out this story in today's Food & Wine section by my colleague, Allen Pierleoni, who went in search of a new twist on Julia Child's classic chicken salad (pictured at left).

What is your favorite sandwich recipe? Post it here in the comments section, or e-mail it to me, and your recipe may be featured on this blog.

August 4, 2009
Taste test: Soy dessert starter panned, praised

If you're lactose intolerant, the list of enjoyable desserts is quite short.

Cream pie? Nope. Smoothies? Not so much. Ice cream? Don't even go there.

But there's help on the grocery store shelves for the more than 50 million lactose intolerant folks nationwide. Tofu company Nasoya has launched a line of non-dairy dessert starter that claims to be the sweet treat solution for dairy dodgers.

Nasoya Silken Creations, available in dark chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors, is low calorie, lowfat, and has 3 grams of protein per serving. The dessert starter is made from whole soybeans and sweetened with cane juice, making it lactose- and gluten-free, vegan and kosher, a company news release states.

The product is available in stores and retails for about $2.50.

Nasoya sent The Bee the variety of flavors to sample, along with recipes on how to use the dessert starter. The list of recipes includes cream pies, smoothies and ice cream pies.

We tried the strawberry smoothie/dessert starter first. The smoothies were made according to the suggested recipe instructions and served to coworkers.

Some people enjoyed the sweetness, while others commented that it had too much of an aftertaste.

"Fragrant, light, air, frothy and flavorful," colleague Debbie Arrington wrote in an e-mail. "It's much lighter than smoothies made with yogurt or ice cream. Doesn't taste like soy milk or tofu."

Bee restaurant critic Blair Robertson was a bit more tart.

"Light strawberry flavor overwhelmed by sweetness and a chemically finish," he wrote.

We also tried the Silken Creations' Dark Chocolate dessert starter to make chocolate cream pie. This time, it was a blind taste test.

The soy chocolate pie was made using Nasoya's recipe on the back of the package. It was served alongside Emeril Lagasse's recipe for Chocolate Cream Pie downloaded from the Food Network (click here for the recipe).

Both pies were made using Lagasse's recipe for graham cracker crust.

The ease of making the soy pie (simply blend ingredients in a blender, pour in the crust and bake) was attractive, although the finished product was not. The filling puffed a little, then sank dejectedly into a deep, dark puddle. To mask its dismal appearance - especially in comparison to the fluffy Lagasse pie - the pie was topped with puffs of homemade sweetened whipped cream.

Willing workplace tasters sampled slices of each. The Lagasse cream pie was easily the favored dish, but the soy pie got mixed reviews.

One taster said the flavor was "more chocolatey" and several said they would serve it to dinner guests or at a family gathering.

Others characterized the filling as "sticky," "almost chalky" and had "a texture and taste like instant pudding."

Three tasters (somewhat) jokingly said they would serve it to in-laws.

"I'd serve both, but I'd let folks know which is which," one taster wrote. "Assuming I've guessed correctly, this reinforces my belief that being vegan/gluten intolerant/lactose intolerant ain't much fun."

The soy pie might also find favor, however, among folks watching their calories. If you haven't had the luxury of eating a real chocolate dessert in a while, the Silken Creations pie might just be the saving grace that keeps the pint of triple chocolate ice cream out of the shopping cart.

For more information about the Nasoya soy products, go to the company's Web site.

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