Smitty’s

I grew up in pork tenderloin country. No, not the Iowa version, nor the Hoosier version, but the northern Illinois version, around Ottawa, 80 miles SW of Chicago. Farmland, industry, blue collar, but still mostly farmland in those days. McDonald’s hadn’t happened yet, no fast food other than a soft serve at the Tastee-Freez. For a small town though, at the cusp of the baby boomer generation, there were plenty of places to eat. The house specialty was usually fried pork tenderloin sandwich. The bigger the better, served like burgers, on buns, with all the condiments and, of course, a side of fries.

Living in San Francisco for decades, my palate has widened considerably. Yet, once per year, I trek back to Illinois to visit relatives and renew my appreciation for pork tenderloin sandwiches. There are many good examples in town but my current favorite isn’t in Ottawa but in a wisp of a village called Leonore, 18 miles SW of Ottawa.

Driving to Leonore is  pleasurable, especially in autumn when corn and soybeans are being harvested, pheasants are feeding on spilled corn kernels, ducks and geese migrate through the nearby Illinois River waterway, and oaks, hickory and maple trees are dressed in autumnal attire. The gently rolling farmland in the blackbelt country is something I never appreciated growing up.

Leonore's backyard

Then, Leonore.

photo population

And Smitty’s Bar & Grill.

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Smitty’s Bar and Grill is about the only retail outlet in the village, certainly the only place for food and drink. There is, or was, a United States Post Office but I think it is passé after the latest round of postal belt tightening, but not much more. The main street is quiet day and night.

*IMG_1747But Smitty’s isn’t, the place is crowded lunch and dinner. At lunch, it’s farmers and agricultural workers, truck drivers, and occasionally, a spot where women’s groups from nearby Streator or Ottawa  gather for a monthly luncheon. At dinner, the bar is more popular. Smitty’s is more than just a place to eat though, it’s face-to-face social media in rural America, where most workers and housewives have limited daily human exchange. A surrogate town hall, it’s the locus for making announcements of the upcoming community events.

inside Smitty's back-1

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For me, it’s all about the pork tenderloin sandwich which is a lean piece of pork tenderloin, hammered thin with a mallet, dredged in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, then deep-fried to a golden finish. At Smitty’s the porker is $5.95, fries are extra. I’ve never seen anyone eat a whole one, nor should they. Smithy’s has a stack of take-home doggie bags.

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When I go for dinner and the drive back to the B&B, the air is crisp and invigorating. I stand next to the car and breathe deeply, inhaling not only the fresh country air but drawing in a little of the land, the rich history of the area, and perhaps, recapturing a little of my own lingering history.  IMG_2073

Airship

 

 

And the airship glided into view, just over the shoulders of the husky blue-shirted crew waiting to tether the Zeppelin, run the portable stairs adjacent, and assist in disembarking the previous tour group cautioning us to watch our step while boarding. I was first on, boarded in the back of the gondola and walked to the forward seat, behind the female pilot. Woman driver? Well, why not.

The Zeppelin Eureka was spacious enough for the dozen of us, glass all around, single seating on either side, and an oriel seat in the back, all glass in the belly of the beast. Buckled up. Near silent engines propelled us upward. Afloat. Bird-like, less determined than a paper airplane, more like an oversized child’s balloon escaped from the birthday party.

A thousand feet over the Oakland airfield, over Alameda, the Oakland estuary and the Port of Oakland with its tidily stacked ocean worthy containers in orange, blue, red and white, over the Port’s giant cranes that supposedly inspired Lucas’s AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.   

 

 

 

Above the Bay. Light, not quite willowy, more a graceful Dumbo, and as well intended. The vastness of the great Bay of San Francisco and its subsidiary inlets remind how small the landmass is, how tentative our lives along the shores of infinite oceans and the deep fissures under our California homes.

We followed the route of the under construction span of the Bay Bridge and witnessed the engineering complexity of the project, over Treasure Island, around Alcatraz and bore towards the San Francisco waterfront. The City, a twinkling gem in the clear Sunday morning light, faultless and luminous, an oasis at the tip of a peninsula. Mecca. A city to dream about, dream in, a labyrinth of miniature streets and alleys, with green patches of parks and spiraling buildings, well-ordered neighborhoods that flowed into one another and hills that undulated gently in the genteel morning breeze.

 

 

We traced the City’s contour, floated past my house where I saw myself waving hello, past Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio. Turned broadside before the Golden Gate Bridge, drifted northward skirting Sausalito, Angel Island, then butterflied back across the Bay to Treasure Island, slid over the extinct Berkeley Pier, sailed above downtown Oakland, Lake Merritt, then descended mutely onto the Oakland airfield where the husky blue-shirted crew was ready to help us disembark while cautioning the next tour group to watch their steps.

I amongst the clouds, swooned, slack jawed, awed, at a loss, but amazed, enthralled, enthused, overwhelmed, charmed, eyes wide open, a once-in-a-lifetime view of The World, The Bay, The City and the reality I exist in, daily, without much cognizance, without reference, witless about that big picture but calmer now, in this cradle of beauty, this exquisite piece of the world.

Christmas in San Francisco

It was a plenty splendiferous holiday in good old San Francisco. No snow, of course, not even badly needed rain but spirits weren’t dulled. Ice skaters circled the diminutive rinks at Justin Plaza Herman Plaza and at Union Square, stores  bustled, school-free children were all smiles. Evening was the best time with twinkly lights from the enormous tree erected in Union Square

and from the dozens of lighted wreaths that festooned Macy’s windows.

Elsewhere, carolers strolled streets, restaurants and bars made spirits bright, cable cars clanged merry – most of them decorated with garlands and crimson bows. There was that indefinable holiday spirit in the air, a muffled cheeriness that is sadly lacking eleven and a half months of the year. On the other hand, if magic was the norm, we would neither recognize nor appreciate it. Special is special, dreamy, charming, mystic and powerful.

I made cioppino at Christmas, have been for decades. I follow no set recipe any longer which makes my stews slightly different each year. If you are not familiar with this traditional San Francisco delight, here is a basic recipe:

Cioppino

serves six

3-4         whole crabs cracked and cleaned

2 lbs.      clams – smaller the better

1 lb.        mussels (optional)

2 lbs.      medium fresh shrimp – deveined

2 lbs.      red snapper or sea bass or petrale

2            #2 can crushed pear shape tomatoes or whole tomatoes

2            14 oz. can diced tomatoes

2            32 oz.  containers of clear chicken broth

12 oz.    dry vermouth

16 oz.    hot water

6 oz.     olive oil

2           medium onions

2           small carrot

5          sprigs parsley

4          kernels garlic

2          teaspoon dried crushed Italian herbs (oregano, basil, thyme, sage, marjoram)

2          teaspoon salt

pinch   black pepper

4          whole bay leaves (for flavoring only – do not ingest)

2          whole red chilies – Sorrento, jalapeno or similar

 

Soak and scrub clams and mussels, let soak until ready to use.

Mince onions, carrot, parsley, chili pepper and garlic. Brown slowly in olive oil in 6 qt. pot, stir often.

Cut red snapper or similar white fish in 1″ squares add to sauté for 5 minutes. Stir.

Add crushed tomatoes and cook for 20 minutes.

Add chicken broth, hot water, bay leaves.

Heat and boil gently while stirring for 10 minutes.

Add clams and mussels, vermouth, cook 5 minutes.

Add crab, stir 5 minutes.

Add salt, black pepper, bay leaves, Italian herbs, and shrimp, cook 10 minutes.

Make ahead of time and reheat, the flavors marry better and seasonings have a chance to do their magic.

Serve with crisp green salad and hunks of French, Italian or sourdough bread.

Pair with a hearty red wine.

  

Beautiful and yummy.

Jamaica Plain

A mid November visit to Jamaica Plain, that Boston neighborhood whose origin dates back to the early seventeenth century, was a brisk affair with early morning temperatures hovering just above freezing. I walked the two blocks from Taylor House to the Jamaica Pond, which is part of the Emerald Necklace of parks and waterways designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead in the late nineteenth century.

Breezes across the sixty-some acre pond nearly took my California breath away. I brought gloves, thin as they were, and a scarf but no hat or ear muffs. The path around the pond was about a mile and half. I walked briskly and watched my breath vaporize in the chill morning. My pace slackened when I hit a sunny part of the path, quickened when in shade. On the east side of the pond, a small tree grew near the shoreline. I noted the winter fruit on a tree I didn’t recognize. Then I noticed a tiny nest perched in the dendritic branches.

The nest was deserted, a summer home for the eastern Kingbird, Black and White Warbler or a Myrtle Warbler’s family. The nest was too exposed for current occupation but was abstractly beautiful with the dangling winter fruit set against the sapphire sky.

Spent the afternoon at the New England Aquarium gazing at penguins and fish. I am a big fan of being on the dry side of the glass. Sea life is spectacular though and an aquarium gives a good, albeit minuscule, synopsis of what lurks down under.

That evening, I was guest of a prominent Boston architect who prepared a sumptuous salmon dinner.

 

Saumon a al Brett

Serves six, maybe eight.

Ingredients:

3 lbs. Salmon of your choice, rinsed and dried

2 or 3 julienned carrots and zucchini

Very thinly sliced shallot

Very thinly sliced shitake mushrooms

Clippings of thyme and oregano

Handful of shrimp

Drizzle of highest quality olive oil

Large grained sea salt

Preparation:

Heat oven to 425.  If you have a convection, use it.

Cut a large piece of parchment paper and set salmon at one-third point of sheet.

Salt generously.

Arrange carrots, shallot and mushrooms artfully atop salmon and drizzle with olive oil.

Place herbs on top and drizzle again.

Fold parchment over salmon, creating an envelope with crimped edges and leaving one corner slightly open.  If you aren’t an origami expert, don’t be afraid to staple the edges.

Blow into open corner to inflate the envelope and then seal the corner.

Place in oven and cook until done about 15-20 minutes.

Remove from the oven, cut open the parchment, remove the herb stems and drizzle with more olive oil.

Let your guests admire your creation before serving.

Enjoy!

Babies Love Oysters

Okay, maybe it’s a leap of faith but ….*

mmmm, good

Babies in particular love oysters, especially babies that can’t yet fight back. I’m talking babies at least six months to one year old to be on the safe side.*

Take this baby for example. While he’s chewing, he’s contemplating the nutritional value of the oyster, a mere 41 calories and a good source of Vitamin C, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorous, protein, Vitamin B 12, iron, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. He’ll grow up to big and strong, be a fisherman or an astronaut.

Applesauce and pureed peas are fine for a baby, but really, shouldn’t mothers also be concerned with developing baby’s taste buds, imbuing him with an educated palate and igniting a lifelong passion for the finer things in life?

If handled properly mightn’t baby’s first words be “Tiffany,” “Lafite Rothschild,” “Louis Vuitton” or “Roth IRA.”  Why not? Any baby that learns to appreciate oysters, well, the world is her pearl forevermore.

Start baby with Kumamoto’s,  one of the plumpest, sweetest and mildest flavored oysters. Kummies (not to be confused with kusshi’s), as they are affectionately called around the sandbox, originated in Kyshu, Japan but are now grown all along the western shores of North America. Best of both worlds too, mom. Kumamoto’s, are organic and sustainable, good for baby and good for the world baby will inherit.

And mom, if you are concerned about shucking junior’s oyster, check out this video. See, it’s as easy as pie. Practice makes perfect, of course, by your one hundredth oyster, you’ll have it down cold.

Some of the best Kumamoto’s are grown by Hog Island Oyster Company in northern California,  Oregon Oyster Farms in Newport, and Taylor Shellfish on Puget Sound in Washington.

Another thing to consider is that babies are allowed in bars, oyster bars, that is. This one in particular loves babies.

Hog Island Oyster Bar at the Ferry Building in San Francisco affords sweeping Bay views, top notch service and perfect Kumamoto’s for baby to tooth on.

* Please check with your pediatrician before feeding baby any raw shellfish.

Towards Oyster Country

golden hills

I drive Lucas Valley Road and its winding subsidiaries from just north of San Rafael towards Point Reyes Station. Weekday traffic is irregular. The golden summer hills are about to segue to a verdant tarragon green with the coming winter rains. Flush banks of fog loll on the higher hills as if deciding to either cascade or evaporate altogether. Hawks and turkey vultures alternately appear and disappear into the gray mass patiently awaiting sight of their next meal.

Around serpentine curves, the road flattens temporarily into pasture land. Lethargic cows sit on their haunches, too content to move elsewhere, and why should they? Burnt orange California poppies will soon be prolific up the sides of hills. Purple lupines will intersperse with Tiburon paintbrush. Queen Anne’s lace, blue-eyed grass and mustard will blanket both roadside and hillside. But for now, the golden knolls prevail.

There is a strand of redwoods just before Lucas Valley Road merges into Nicasio Valley Road. The majestic trees have no height limit and likely tickle low slung clouds as they pass overhead. The canopy repels all sunlight. Even on the clearest of days, ground level is dense and dark and dotted with ferns and sorrel. Where shafts of sunlight do break through, wood roses are abloom. No flowerbeds here, just a few cabins with wispy smoke drifting from chimneys and the maverick roses.

A rafter of turkeys peck in the dust just north of the Nicasio’s one room school house. They ignore the sound of traffic and overhead predators. A tom keeps watchful eye though as the hens fatten up on seeds and insects. A doe and her fawn stand at the edge of a thicket just beyond the Platform Bridge Road turnoff. They too, are occupied with foraging and pay little heed.

North of Point Reyes Station, the topography changes. The hills are flatter and more cultivated on the right hand side. To the left is the shoreline of Tomales Bay, reedy, swampy, muddy, a tidal plain that supports shore birds as well as gulls and occasional pelicans. Cranes, herons, and stilts stand motionless for long periods as if meditating, but they are watching and listening for organic morsels.

Low tide

Low tide this morning exposes the skeletal underpinnings of waterfront shacks. Old scows rest atop mudflats just south of Marshall. The wood derelict boats suggest something from a Hemingway novel. I would not be surprised to see Bogart and Bacall hitchhiking near Tony’s Seafood restaurant. Beyond, Tomales Bay appears serene but severe. Breakwater isn’t quite visible from my vantage point. Tomales Bay stretches about two more miles before it meets the Pacific. Despite the still early hour, I think it’s time to locate some fresh oysters.