Sunday was basically a wash. I had a great run along the Mill Valley bike path. The sun was out. I felt strong. Stopped by Peet’s for a mid-morning latte on the way home, took a hot shower, watered the lawn and got ready to head over to the East Bay with my girls. Then… the plumbing disaster that ended up consuming the rest of the day. Suffice it to say there was lots of water, numerous soaking towels, a $1000 plumber (who happened to be an expert on black widows), and an afternoon down the drain–literally. So after napping a bit and ruminating about the Sunday I’d never get back, my curly-haired traveling companion and I hopped in the car and started driving with no clear sense of where we would go. Driving through Albany, it hit us: Fonda! Don’t they have an all-day happy hour? Weren’t they on the 100 Best List from the SF Chronicle?
Yes and yes. Fonda is an interesting marriage of rustic and industrial. Dark woods, dewey yellow paint, dim lighting, and a hatched big-beam ceiling. All this joined with funky metal tables, an upstairs loft for diners wanting to be set back away from the bustle a bit, and large warp-around windows. It’s almost two concepts, but it works. Everything but the booths. You sit down and immediately reminsice about last week’s Iyengar class and how much your grandma told you not to slouch. Stiff, firm, and unforgiving.
We began where all good things begin: drinks. It’s always amusing when people describe the strong drinks at a restaurant and I end up having to order an extra shot so I can actually taste the alcohol. Not at Fonda. I ordered the Cachaca Drop, reminscient of a Lemon Drop without the cloyingly sweet aftertaste. Cachaca is a Brazilian liquor like Rum except that it’s made from a distillation of sugar cane, whereas Rum’s made Molasses. Enough about the particulars. It was a refreshing summery drink with a good strong kick that helped me to ease into that stiff booth, just a little. My partner in crime tried the Nahuatl’s Punch: a blend of rum, lime and pineapple juices, and 7-up. It reminded me a little bit of what we’d mix up in high school using cheap ingredients to mask the taste of alcohol. Good then (what wasn’t?), a little too perky now.
There were so many things we wanted to try on the menu, but we stuck with the chicken flautas with salsa molcajete, the Oaxacan black beans, the fresh housemade corn tamale with Early Girl Salsa, and the cucumber & cherry tomato salad. The chicken flautas were, unfortunately, forgettable. The salsa accompanying them had a fresh fire-roasted flavor, but the actual dish was a bit luke-warm and the chicken was sparse and fatty. The black beans and the cucumber salad are both simple dishes, but were spectacular. When traveling in Ecuador, almost all meals come with black refried beans that have this smoky, almost creamy taste and Fonda has emulated that precisely here. I could eat these every day. The cucumber salad was perfect: grilled onions and queso fresca livened up the crisp cucumbers and summer tomatoes perched amongst a light oregano vinaigrette. Then there was the tamale: sunny, lively, bursting with fresh corn kernels. For dessert, we tried the warm molten chocolate cake. I generally try to avoid the ubiquitous dessert for more interesting options (passion fruit creme brulee or Colombian chocolate ice cream sandwich), but I was reminded that when it comes down to it, who doesn’t love a bit of warm oozing chocolate with big dollops of homemade whipped cream? Sweet, small portion; complex dark flavor.
If I lived in this ‘hood, I’d be here often. It’s open until 12:30 every night and after imbibing a few of those creative cocktails, you could just stumble on home. So although the plumber will be back tomorrow to finish hydro-scrubbing the pipe (huh?!), I’ll rest easy tonight knowing that there’s a place out there that makes you feel like you did something with your day, sampled some fresh and lovingly prepared Nuevo Latin food, and didn’t sacrifice your pay-check to do so. I’ll drink to that.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.