Monthly Archives: December 2015

Cotogna: Escaping El Nino with cozy, boutique Italian

There are memorable meals, and there are those meals that give us the sensory equivalent of a photographic memory. Every flavor, every texture is etched into vivid memory. The latter was my experience with Cotogna, one of San Francisco’s outstanding boutique Italian cafes.

I realize that saying “one of” doesn’t exactly sound like an overwhelming endorsement. Allow me to explain. If you are not from the western U.S. or other major US or international city, then you must understand this Fact 1: San Francisco is a major food city; trying to label something as “THE best of…” is like trying to judge the Miss Universe pageant with a constantly changing lineup when you don’t even know the contestants… Fact 2: San Francisco’s rich Italian immigrant history is often overlooked and underrated (see also my posts about fabulous pizza at Tony’s and Il Casaro). Fact 3: Cotogna is a project from the owners of Quince, a San Francisco culinary landmark (even if it’s been long displaced in the ranks of SF restaurants with a month-long wait list after redeveloping their concept). And now, an opinion: I’ve tried several good Italian restaurants in my short time as a San Francisco resident, but none hold a candle to Cotogna.

Cotogna defines its menu as “rustic Italian,” but I believe that is a misnomer. Cotogna’s ingredients may be rustic, but its execution is nothing short of exquisite. Precision and delicacy are perhaps better descriptors. Every bite is one worth savoring, as if you’ve been given the opportunity to sample a museum artifact – a small portion of something you may never see again, because it again may never be replicated.

The setting
Cotogna’s location itself provides great insight as to its type of establishment. In the farthest northwest reaches of the Financial District, it is a stone’s throw away from the dozens of historied Italian restaurants that demarcate Little Italy, but it’s just southeast of the main tourist drag of Columbus Avenue. In other words, it is a bit too well-heeled (or Tory Burch flat-heavy) to be lumped in with Little Italy, but it has more personality than much of the Financial District.

Cotogna is small (typical San Francisco), with perhaps a dozen simple wood tables that glow from the cozy flames burning in the tandem fireplace and pizza oven in the rear. The bar stands opposite and is meant to serve diners, not simply those in search of a cocktail or Italian wine. Consider yourself fortunate if you are able to get a reservation or walk-in seating at the bar. After a windy, rainy El Niño week, Cotogna was a warm Italian embrace.

The wine
Having snagged seats to dine at the bar with a friend, it turned out to be the perfect location to watch some of the behind the scenes action from Cotogna’s busy and knowledgeable staff. My friend might as well have earned the status of San Francisco native based on her twenty-ish years in the city (sorry to those of you actual SF natives, but compared to many of the tech transplants…). As such, she is no stranger to Cotogna and has both rave reviews and high expectations. She also is a true wine connoisseur in that she knows exactly what she likes but is open to recommendations from the bartender – which serves to keep bartenders on their game!

Confession: Italy isn’t one of my favorite regions for wine. I find too many acidic, harshly-oaked reds or simplistic whites to consider them reliable enough to chance ordering (except Prosecco!). But with the help of Stephen, general manager of Cotogna turned bartender for the evening, both of us found a few gems.


A 2013 Li Veli Susumaniello was my favorite taste of the evening. From the region of Puglia (Apulia) in southeastern Italy, it hails from ancient grapes local to the region. A rare fruit-forward but balanced, medium-bodied red, it didn’t overpower my delicate pasta or starters.

The antipasti
My friend and I split two fantastic starters: a burrata con pasticcio del orto and roasted Brussels sprouts al gratin.


The burrata (a cream-filled ball of mozzarella) was silky, its liquid center almost indistinguishable from the texture of the exterior. It was topped with a fresh garden vegetable relish that seemed like a more sophisticated, autumn version of giardiniera. Poached chanterelles surrounded the cheese. I rarely see chanterelles cooked any style other than sautéed or roasted, so they appeared a bit ghastly, but they were tender and not overwhelmingly earthy – which was a good fit for the dish. Toasted rustic bread accompanied the cheese – perhaps the only item I tried at Cotogna I’d bother to describe as “rustic”.


Brussels sprouts are everywhere these days, and I certainly have written about a few incarnations of them over this year in the Culinary Diplomat. I have to recognize Cotogna, though, for a deftly executed rendition. Roasted to perfection and tossed with olive oil, citrus, and Parmesan cheese seemed almost too simple to be that delicious. The earthy vegetable also complimented the burrata dish in a way one would have thought they were – or should have been – paired together.

The mains:
Cotogna’s frequently changing menu follows the traditional Italian “primi piatti”, “secondi piatti”… multi-course concept. Rarely have I ever followed that menu suggestion myself, but luckily, Cotogna suggests, but does not expect, one to do so. Except for its multi-course Sunday suppers!

After such robust starters, a single course was enough for me. The category was a no-brainer. Hearing Stephen describe each house-made pasta choice, I quickly decided on a pasta as my main: a tortelli di zucca (it also happened to be the one description I understood without assistance!).

 


The tortelli – a filled pasta and cousin of tortellini – was filled with squash or pumpkin, sautéed with sage, brown butter, and hazelnuts. If you note the above photo, you might notice the absence of sauce. Rather than swimming (which, for the record, is usually fine by me!) in sauce, the pasta was coated gently. Doing so meant the pasta itself was the solo performers the other flavors were not vocal crutches, but back-up dancers, to use an analogy. The pasta was cooked to a gentle al dente, filled with sweet squash. The caramelized brown butter and chopped nuts mellowed the sweetness, while the sage and a hint of cheese added savory balance. I have tried several pastas around the US with this flavor profile – most notably before in Portland, Oregon – but Cotogna’s was, by far, the best and most true representation of this dish.


My friend ordered the black sea bass (listed in English) from the secondi list. I was lucky enough to sample it. It reminded me of the amazing cod dish I had at Nonna’s Kitchen at Alphonse in Washington, DC earlier this year. That is the highest compliment I can pay any cooked white fish. The bass had a defined but subtle crust and moist interior. The stewed greens that accompanied it had just enough acidity to harmonize the fish. Had I eaten more than two bites, my endorsement probably would have been more robust, but alas, I was distracted by the foodgasm from my own pasta.

Though we had no room for dessert, my friend highly praised the dolci, especially the chocolate budino, and encouraged me to try it someday. Oh, I most certainly will do so – a second visit to Cotogna is definitely on my agenda!

Betty’s Old World Raspberry Pecan Bars

Just in time for the holidays comes this buttery shortbread bar with a bold ribbon of fruit preserves, straight from (sort of!) my grandmother’s kitchen.

  
Betty is my grandmother and is arguably my favorite person on the planet. Growing up as a picky eater, she was my culinary hero. Her traditional recipes were predictable perfection, thanks to her rigid insistence on following recipes precisely. No substitutions, no deviations – if she didn’t have enough of an ingredient, say, vanilla extract, she wouldn’t bother with the recipe. Contrast that with my mother, who was a bit of a nonconformist and rarely followed a recipe. So in there, I ended up with a style that blended the two. Which is why you do not see anything remotely resembling raspberry depicted in the photos accompanying this post. More on that later.

As a child, my grandmother’s mass Christmas cookie baking was a highlight of the season for my extended family. Usually, she made no less than eight varieties, but as the years went by, this one emerged as my favorite. Its crumbly, buttery base merged with the pecan, and a tangy raspberry jam made it feel special, like an American Linzer cookie. In my teenage years, I asked my grandmother to share her secret recipe. The “secret” turned out to be a bit of a buzz kill.

Some of you may remember an episode of the TV show Friends, in which chef and resident Type A Monica tries desperately to recreate the perfect flavors of Phoebe’s grandmother’s chocolate chip recipe. Unsuccessful, she begs Phoebe to share the secret recipe, only to learn that the secret came from Nestlay Toulouse (said in a heavy French accent). In reality, the recipe came from the back of a bag of Nestle’s Toll House chocolate chips.

This recipe is my family’s Nestlay Toulouse: It actually came from the back of a box of Land O’Lakes butter from the late 1970s or early 80s. That discovery was a serious downer. My beloved culinary hero’s amazing cookie was not nearly “hers” or our family’s.

Yet the way she perfected those bars, the love used to make them, and the excitement of family brought together couldn’t stop me from making these my own holiday classic.

The original recipe calls for seedless black raspberry jam or preserves. Try searching for it at a market; your options are limited. So one year, I substituted apricot preserves, and a new hit was born. My friends often preferred the apricot to the raspberry version. I like them equally, but raspberry brings out the true Christmas family nostalgia for me.

  
While I’ve memorized the recipe and have made a few adaptations (I prefer finely chopped pecans rather than chopping them by hands), I like to think I still follow the spirit of the recipe. I also recommend using Pyrex glass baking dishes instead of aluminum. Whichever you choose, just monitor the dish during baking.

Try these out for yourself. They are incredibly easy and even more addictively good. I guarantee they will disappear, so snag a few for yourself!

Betty's Old World Raspberry Bars

  • Servings: 25 bars
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1 cup salted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg, brought to room temperature
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla extract
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose or whole wheat flour
  • 10 oz. seedless black raspberry jam/preserves or apricot preserves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease an 8″X8″ square baking dish with butter. Set aside.

Chop pecans roughly by hand, or finely chop them by pulsing them in a food processor. Set aside.

  
In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Beat in egg by hand (not literally; with a wooden spoon). Mix in the salt and vanilla extract. Fold in the chopped pecans. Gradually fold in the flour. The consistency will become crumbly by the last 1/4 to 1/2 cup of flour. Incorporate flour fully, but there is no need to over mix.

  
Press about 2/3 of the mixture into the baking dish, leaving at least 1 cup of dough in the mixing bowl to top the bars. Ensure an even layer covers the pan fully.

  
Next, spread the jam/preserves in a thin layer to cover the pan. You may leave about 1/4″ uncovered by jam along each edge to prevent sticking/burning (less of an issue in a glass baking dish). Crumble the reserved dough atop the jam layer, covering as much surface as possible.

  
Bake the bars for 40-50 minutes, or until the tops and edges begin to brown slightly. To test, insert a knife in the center to ensure the cookie is soft but slightly firm. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 2-3 hours before cutting the bars into squares.

Chai Pani: “Evolved” Indian street food seduces American taste buds in Decatur and Asheville

If you enjoy Indian cuisine and live or travel near Atlanta, Georgia or Asheville, North Carolina, you must sample the street food tour of India that is Chai Pani. From pakora to Pani puri to thali that will satisfy the heartiest appetites, your palate might never want to leave!

(North) Indian restaurants are as plentiful in major cities around the world as is the Indian diaspora, but Indian street food is a bit more elusive for most of us not of Indian descent. Small snacks, known as chaat, are often foreign to the casual Indian restaurant goer in the USA. Intense explosions of sweet, savory, and crunchy flavors – often with a fried component – are the hallmark of chaat. Each state and region within India creates its own style of favorite chaat. And so does Chai Pani.

Husband and wife team Meherwan and Molly Irani created Chai Pani (literally “tea” and “water”) to bring the diverse flavors enjoyed throughout India as both snacks (street food), meals, and beverages to the American southeast. Launching in Molly’s hometown of Asheville, NC, their restaurant was such a hit that they expanded to Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta best known as home to Emory University.

I can’t rave enough about Chai Pani. Brought by relatives for a “fun” (their endorsement) Friday night dinner outing, I found myself a little skeptical when I saw what looked to be a diverse, yet very educated, bourgeoise crowd and mostly Caucasian wait staff. I know, I know, that’s bias, right? But please tell me that you have never once done the same. We all tend to crave authenticity of cuisine – and superficial indicators of it don’t hurt.

But then again, this is the Culinary Diplomat. Who really is to judge authenticity? What does it even mean? Are we all really that comfortable with the culture shock of truly “authentic” cuisine (here, I mean food that natives/expats recognize and identify as our home cuisine)?* Truly, aren’t all national cuisines continuing an evolution that started millennia ago, influenced by both travels abroad and outsiders?

  
Chai Pani seems to appreciate that point. Chai Pani believes in the “evolution and innovation” of food; serving dishes that evoke both “traditional” and 21st century influences? Chai Pani’s ingredients – with responsible sourcing and high quality – are geared towards the globalized foodie seeking new flavor adventures.

Romantic, intimate dining it is not. Like the traveler’s experience of India, the restaurant’s open, food hall-esque dining rooms buzz with the excited chatter of its many group diners. I hear that it is always busy. While it was bustling when we arrived, we were fortunate to be seated immediately, but unfortunate to miss out on the nightly special chaat sold at the bar for those hungry patrons waiting on their table. As we left, a long line stretched hungrily awaiting each turn to purchase Pani puri for a very nominal price.

If you’ve never tried Pani puri, you must at once. Small, thin, deep fried dough shells are filled with a mixture of potatoes, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), onions, and whatever veggies, starches, or garnishes the cook chooses, and splashed with a slightly diluted chutney (the puri, or water). When done right, they are perfect little packages of contradictions: savory, salty, herbed, and even sweet; a crunchy exterior surrounding a very soft interior.

But I digress.

  
The meal I actually ate that night started with kale pakora. If you are not familiar with pakora, think of it as its cousin, tempura, but battered with chickpea flour. One might consider battered and deep fried kale to be blasphemy both to whole food purists and actual Indians, but Pani Puri notes that kale does grow in southern India, so why is the idea so far-fetched? Though I generally am not a huge fan of deep fried food, one bite convinced me that kale pakora might be the best idea ever. Or at least of the day. I later described it to a friend as “kale chips on steroids”, and it seems an apt description as any. It was served with both traditional green chutney and a tangy yogurt dip (not raita). Other appetizers ranged from bhel puri to samosas to Bombay chili cheese (Kheema) and okra fries.

   My family convinced me to order a full thali so that I could experience the restaurant fully. A thali is a traditional meal that consists of a variety of small dishes and bites. Think of it as the Indian equivalent of a bento box. At Chai Pani, it is equally as beautifully presented as any bento. Their thalis consist of a main dish, choices of which vary daily and an accompanying, complementing side dish; along with dal (stewed lentils), various starches – crispy, salty papadum, wheat roti (tortilla-like flatbread), and basmati rice, condiments, and a small dessert.

 

the daily special Arangaon Chicken curry thali with a side of cholle (chole), a chickpea dish

 
On this night, one meat (chicken), one vegetarian (paneer, or cheese), and one vegan curry were offered. With only three options, I somehow managed to have a difficult time deciding. I finally picked the Andhra vegetable kurma. Cauliflower, peas, and carrots bathe in a velvety, smooth tomato curry made rich with cashew and coconut. It was a bit spicier than usual, I was told, but I thought it had a perfect level of heat. My sister ordered the Arangaon chicken curry, which prominently features cinnamon but is decidedly more savory than sweet with a hint of bitterness. Her husband went for a more “evolved” fusion choice, ordering the lamb burgers from their street sandwich menu, which are like slightly oversized, spiced sliders.

   

mixed vegetable Andhra kurma

   Every bite was delicious. While my thali leaned more to the traditional side than many of their menu items, I would love to make a return trip to try whatever shows up on that oh so difficult to choose, eclectic all-India menu.

So the next time you’re in Atlanta or Asheville and seek a food adventure, I recommend making a night of Chai Puri. If you’re in Decatur, follow up the spice with some Butter and Cream, my favorite ice creamery.
*I dearly love Indian food and have traveled around India myself, but even I don’t find “authentic” Indian street snacks incredibly appealing. Case in point: I also visited an Atlanta suburban eatery called Thali. A vegetarian restaurant specializing in chaat and located within an all-Indian strip mall that clearly caters to those in the Indian expat community, I found its chaat to be excessively starchy, with few homemade ingredients. As in mass quantities of deep fried dough with fried chickpea noodl, etc. perhaps tasty as a snack but overwhelming as a meal -for my Healthy Diplomat’s tastebuds.

Warm butternut squash and spinach salad with Stilton and cranberries

Thanksgiving may have come and gone, but this warm salad is packed full of autumn flavors to brighten your table this holiday season. The sweetness of maple roasted butternut squash and tart cranberries is balanced with spinach and red onions, while the mild tang of Stilton cheese adds some richness and a hint of unami.

Several years ago, I tried out a warm butternut squash and spinach salad recipe from a Whole Foods Market cookbook for a family holiday gathering. It was a hit. Over the past several years, I’ve made my own tweaks to the dish that make it even more special for fall and winter entertaining.

I baste and roast pre-cut, raw butternut squash with a mix of maple syrup and olive oil. 

  
Instead of Gorgonzola cheese, I use English Stilton with cranberries. Its mild, slightly sweet tang is more of a crowd pleaser and is festive and easier on the eyes than the more pungent Gorgonzola. Substitute Wensleydale, Stilton with apricots, or a plain Stilton if you can’t find the cranberry variety.

This salad can be made, start to finish, in under one hour. It is best served immediately, but If you are serving it in someone else’s kitchen, you can roast the squash and sauté the onion in advance. The trick is to avoid heating the spinach until just before serving, as spinach can easily over-wilt and over-cook.

Warm butternut squash and spinach salad with Stilton and cranberries

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 3 lbs cut butternut squash, rinsed and drained
  • 1/3 cup pure maple syrup
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil plus additional 1-2 Tbsp.
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (juice of one lemon)
  • 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup sweetened dried cranberries
  • 10 oz. fresh spinach, washed and drained.
  • 8 oz. Stilton with cranberries
  • Salt to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Whisk 2 Tbsp. olive oil with maple syrup to emulsify. Toss butternut squash with the mixture in a large mixing bowl (or on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper) to coat.

 

  Arrange squash in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake for 30 minutes or until tender (edges may brown slightly), tossing once mid-way through baking.

Meanwhile, juice the lemon and sauté the onions. Peel, rinse, and slice onion thinly. In a nonstick or cast-iron skillet, heat 1 to 2 Tbsp. (depending on the size of the onion) over medium heat. When warm, add the onion and toss to coat in the olive oil. Sauté for 2 minutes and reduce heat to low. Slowly sauté (starting the caramelization process) for another 5-7 minutes.   

If close to serving. Add in the spinach in batches. Toss and heat until the spinach begins to wilt. Remove from heat immediately. Set aside.

  
When the squash has finished roasting, remove from the oven and transfer to a large serving bowl. Add in cranberries and lemon juice and toss to mix and coat ingredients in the juice. Just before serving, add in the spinach and onions and mix gently but thoroughly. Crumble the cheese in an even layer atop the salad. Serve immediately.

Rethinking the nutritional value of cheese: Is it really so bad?

In my last post, I raved about cheese and how we attach such strong memories – and a sense of culture and place, or terroir to each variety.  But we often look at cheese as an indulgent treat or topping, often as a guilty pleasure. But is it really so bad? Does cheese have its own redeeming nutritional value?

In his book Cooked, author Michael Pollan explores how humans – through various natural elements, accidents, and other phenomenon – have learned to transform plants and animals into what we know as food. He devotes an entire quarter of his book to “earth” – or, more specifically, how we have relied upon microorganisms to ferment and therefore to “cook” our food for us.

When he talks about the importance of bacterial and fungal rot to the cheese making process – what we like to call more benignly “culturing and aging”, it can be a bit unappetizing. I happened to have just eaten a cheese plate before reading his section on cheese, and was I ever glad I’d already finished it! I’ve definitely – like many of you – often preferred not to think of the origins of my food. If I had to butcher a chicken or cow myself – or even watch – I would never again touch meat (if I had other options) and I definitely don’t want to watch sausage be made! So being reminded that so many of our favorite delicacies (cheese being just one of many) are made through fermentation – or rot – is pretty disgusting.

Pollan explains that what makes cheese so delicious – and digestible – is the fact that a multitude of bacteria and/or fungi have been doing some of that work for us. If you’ve ever had homemade cheese – or simply just fresh mozzarella or sour cream/creme freche/crema fresca, you will recall how mild those flavors are in comparison to an aged cheese. Think of the nutty sweetness of an aged Gouda or the earthy bite of silky yet stinky Camembert, which are even more advanced in the fermentation/rot process.

image
If the realization that half of our food comes to us partially digested by other organisms doesn’t make you shudder instinctively, I don’t know what else would do so for you – congratulations! Yet is that very process that makes cheese and other fermented foods delicious and more nutritious. The mainstream media bandwagon has been advertising the benefits of probiotics (I.e. Bacterial cultures in yogurt, kefir, or kombucha) for a few years now. If your physician or pharmacy has refused you antibiotics in the past decade, then you might have some knowledge (or a lot of confusion).

 

two products of bacterial fermentation

 
Scientific research overwhelmingly indicates that we have over-sterilized our environment, including our food, to our own detriment. Without “good” bacteria to keep our gut – and bodies – healthy, we are susceptible to illnesses from super bugs – and more. Pollan notes that some experimental research even goes so far to suggest a link between a lack of one variety of good bacteria and appetite suppression.

In other words, without good bacteria to keep our appetites in check, we are eating more, and we’re eating “dead” food deficient in bacteria and nutrients, which might be responsible for a vicious cycle of health problems.

Wait, you’re thinking. Where is she going with this? Is cheese supposed to be the solution to our problems?

Not exactly. We can’t undo three to four generations of over sterilizing our foods and our environments. All I’m saying is that evidence is mounting that cheese, like many other foods (eggs, tuna/salmon, grains) that have been demonized in the past for being “bad for you” might have more to offer nutritionally than it might seem – in moderation, of course.

As many of you are well aware, cheese is high in calcium and protein. The aging process of cheese helps to break down lactose (milk sugars) and make it more easily digestible, which also helps our bodies to absorb the other minerals and vitamins from cheese and other foods.  Just keep in mind that it is high in fat, and saturated fat, so moderation is key to balance health benefits and risks, just as with any food.

So the next time you contemplate indulging in a bit of cheese, weigh that guilt against the probiotic and other benefits this bit of dairy might add to your diet in moderation!