Monthly Archives: January 2016

SEARCHING FOR THE MOTHER LODE

Our month-long visit to Lodi, California, has provided us an excellent base to explore the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the area that was the center of the feverish gold rush that began in 1849. We have visited Sacramento, now the capital of California, but at one time a center for transportation during the gold rush as well as serving as the western terminus (San Francisco notwithstanding) of the great race between the Central and Union Pacific Railroads to meet up to create the first transcontinental railroad. We have also visited some of the historic towns in the foot hills and taken back roads into the mountains and the areas of devastation from the “Butte Fire” of last summer. All of it has been a learning experience.

Sacramento is much like any big city. It has around a half million residents and traffic to match. The capital building is a replica (smaller of course) of the national Capitol in Washington DC and it has its own beautiful mall. The riverfront has been restored into “Old Sacramento” which, like most “Old [fill in the blank]” is filled with Victorian-era buildings, bars, restaurants, and gift shops.

But one place in Old Sacramento that shouldn’t be missed is the Railroad Museum. The place has accumulated engines and rail cars that capture the entire history of California railroading. The rolling stock has all been carefully restored. The museum goer can walk through many of the exhibits. Some of the restored cars even replicate the rocking motion of a speeding train. We spent several hours in the museum and then decided that we didn’t need to see any more of Sacramento.

We explored several mining towns and soon learned that you have to get off of the main highway. The main drags are universally lined with the usual  gas stations, McDonald’s, hardware stores and Dollar Generals. The old town Main Streets are the places to experience the real feel of the communities.

One of our first visits was to Murphy’s. The main landmark of the street is “Murphy’s Historic Hotel” which advertises itself as having served the town since 1850. That claim does not make it clear whether the current building is the original, but that doesn’t really matter. The building is old enough and run down enough that you can picture it as the background of a gun fight during gold rush days. There is a bar in the front of the building where locals hang out. In the back, the dining room has been fixed up to capture Victorian styles. It looks like a good place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or a fancier dinner. There are white linen tablecloths and comfortable chairs. Lots of good California wine choices. The food turned out to be “ok” with a badly over-cooked hamburger supposedly topped with blue cheese crumbles that turned out to be a grayish unpleasant-tasting blob that could only be salvaged by scraping it off. Perhaps the “chef” (who had just started work that day according to the slightly deaf server) put the blue cheese on the burger too early in the cooking process. The bacon-wrapped shrimp po’boy special turned out to be a better choice.

Another stop was Sonora. The guidebook informed us that the town had been named by homesick Mexicans for their home state in Mexico. They had apparently come to California during the gold rush to make their fortunes. Our food discovery in that quaint little town was Talulah’s Restaurant, named by the woman owner just because she thought the name sounded cute. The Victorian storefront was painted in bright chartreuse, and the inside also had touches of chartreuse. Not a big place, it had a surprisingly large menu with, of course, a good selection of California wines.  The mushroom soup was so flavorful and aromatic that I started to eat it before I remembered to make an image. The complementary garlic bread turned out to be picture perfect and delicious to boot. The marinara on the spaghetti was not my recipe, but it was flavorful and tasted of fennel and just a hint of cinnamon and cloves. (I know what you’re thinking – no, it was not Cincinnati five-way chili. It was really quite tasty.) The grand finish was a delicate lemon cake filled with a light-as-a-feather lemon mousse and topped with a warm lemon sauce.

We drove through Angel’s Camp, named after Mr. Angel, not the celestial variety. Angel’s Camp is home to Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, so everything was named, “Frog”, including the high school mascot.

My favorite place was Sheep Ranch (the name of the town, population 32) located on Sheep Ranch Road and former headquarters for the Sheep Ranch Mine. There was a large, still well-preserved but unoccupied white hotel nestled in the pines at the end of the main street. There were no restaurants in town, but the abandoned general store still advertised gasoline at 18 cents a gallon. Unfortunately there was none for sale.

Sheep Ranch

Sheep Ranch

Up Swiss Ranch Road, after the pavement had turned to gravel, we discovered an ornate iron gate that looked as though it was the entrance to a great English country house. Its story remains a mystery to us, but I am certain it would be very interesting.

The saddest part of our trip was to see the devastation caused by the “Butte Fire” of October, 2015. Miles of forest were burned and over 500 homes were destroyed. Most of the ruined buildings had nothing above the foundation, and they were surrounded by the shells of burned-out cars and trucks. It will be years before the forests and hazardous materials are cleared, decades – if ever – before the forests come back, and probably never for families to put their lives back together.

 

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DEVILED EGGS

Deviled eggs seem to be enjoying a renaissance. They are on many menus these days. Sarah often makes them for catered dinners as well as for family occasions. Sometimes she stuffs them with smoked trout or other delicious fillings.

Sarah piping deviled eggs

Sarah piping deviled eggs

But in their simplest form, how difficult can deviled eggs be to make? Hard boiled eggs cut in half; yolk mashed with a little mayonnaise, mustard, lemon, salt and pepper; yolk mixture spooned or piped into the egg white halves; maybe a little garnish of paprika, snipped chives, or crumbled bacon. Simple is not always easy.

During this visit to California, deviled eggs have been on many menus. I have eaten many of them because I like them when they are good.

The best ones so far were served at the School Street Bistro in Lodi. My very minor quibbles were that the yolk filling was too runny (Too much mayonnaise?) and had too much mustard. Otherwise they were delicious, and their garnish of house-made French-fried potato straws was outstanding  I could have eaten a plate of the potato straws by themselves.

Sunday deviled eggs with potato straws at the School Street Bistro, Lodi, CA

Sunday deviled eggs with potato straws at the School Street Bistro, Lodi, CA

Some of the eggs have had a rubbery texture undoubtedly from the eggs being boiled too hard and/or too long.

The ones I liked the least were the ones that were supposed to be the fanciest. The word, “truffles”, seems to make something more luxe. Visions of pigs rooting up fungi at the base of a French hazelnut tree come into play, or a liveried waiter shaving little shards with his special knife onto a perfect French omelet. That’s not the same as truffle oil. This condiment has been banned from many a high-end kitchen. The well-known San Francisco chef and writer, Daniel Patterson, has written a great piece in the New York Times about why truffle oil does not find favor with professional chefs.

The main reason is that almost no commercial truffle oil contains actual truffles. The fragrance and taste of real truffles come from a complex array of compounds. The most prominent appears to be a chemical, 2,4-dithiapentane, that can be synthesized in a laboratory or factory. And that is the chemical that is added to truffle oil to give it flavor. Small wonder that foods which incorporate commercial truffle oil take on a chemical flavor; some would even say petroleum-like.

Deviled eggs with truffle oil

Deviled eggs with truffle oil

Here is a basic recipe for deviled eggs, perhaps of the Southern variety. If you don’t like it, experiment by adjusting the amounts of the basic ingredients and add any extras that sound appealing to you. Just – please – don’t add truffle oil.

RECIPE

Basic Deviled Eggs

Ingredients

  • eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise for each egg
  • 1/8 teaspoon dry mustard for each egg
  • few drops fresh lemon juice for each egg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • paprika

Method

  1. Pierce the large end of each egg with an egg piercer and place in a single layer in a saucepan with enough water to cover the eggs by at least an inch. Bring to the boil over high heat, just until large bubbles begin to appear around the eggs. Cover, remove from the heat, and let stand, undisturbed, for 10 to 18 minutes, depending on the size of the eggs and the altitude.* You should work out the time beforehand. Transfer the eggs to a large bowl filled with ice and water. Chill for the same amount of time as you used for the cooking.
  2. Peel the eggs by cracking them all over and, starting at the big end, peeling them under a small stream of running water. The longer the eggs sit in the refrigerator before peeling them, the harder it will be to peel them and the more likely you are to get the dreaded green ring around the yolks, so it is best to prepare them immediately.
  3. Slice the cooled eggs in half lengthwise and gently remove the cooked yolk. Press the yolk through a fine-mesh sieve or strainer into a medium bowl. Stir in the mayonnaise, mustard, and lemon juice. If the mixture is too stiff, very slowly stir in more mayonnaise by half teaspoonfuls until the consistency suits you.  Adjust the mustard and lemon juice to please you. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  4. Spoon or pipe the yolk mixture into the empty halves of cooked egg white. Garnish with a sprinkle of paprika and serve.

* At 7000 feet, a jumbo egg takes 18 minutes to cook; a large egg takes 16 minutes. Probably at sea level you should deduct about 2 minutes for each cooking time, but it is best to work out specific times for your cooking conditions.

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LODI

I have been a little quiet in the blogosphere for awhile. We are in Lodi, California, where we will be staying for the month of January. Some time ago I wrote about Lodi when we attended the California State Chili Cookoff Championship https://fromthefamilytable.com/2014/10/26/california-chili-cook-off-championship-2014/ . That’s not the reason we are here this time.

Why, you might legitimately wonder, does one choose to spend January in Lodi? For us, the answer is a bit complex. First, our children have been encouraging us to find a place that could be used as a family retreat. The Sierras are not far away, and that is where two of the families ski and escape the city. Second, we have always wanted to explore this part of California, as we don’t know much about it, and it has a rich history. Finally, we might be able to find a relocation home; we certainly can’t afford LA or the Bay Area.

Lodi is an interesting little town of about 70,000 a half hour away from Sacramento and two hours from San Francisco. It is really all about wine.

As you know, California is responsible for much of the USA’s wine production, and some of it will compete with the finest wines in the world. There are four large wine growing areas in the state: North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, and Central Valley. These areas are divided into over 130 smaller regions, called AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) according to weather, temperatures, soil, and other growing characteristics. At the same time, some wine fanciers often count only eleven regions where they think high quality wines are produced. These include Los Carneros, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Livermore in the North Coast; the Sierra Foothills; Paso Robles and Monterey in the Central Coast; Santa Barbara and Santa Inez in the South Coast; and Lodi in the Central Valley. Lodi is the only Central Valley place to be included even though wine production in the Central Valley is enormous.

That’s where Gallo is located – headquartered in Modesto – along with Bronco Winery headquartered in Ceres. Gallo produces many labels including those old college favorites, Boone’s Farm and Carlos Rossi along with the label you can only read if you peel off the brown paper sack – Thunderbird. Bronco Winery is operated by a newer generation of the extended Gallo family. They, too, produce many brands, but probably their most famous is Charles Shaw, Trader Joe’s signature “Two Buck Chuck”. The grapes come from ever-expanding plantings throughout the Central Valley.

In all fairness, Lodi has a giant production facility, too.  Constellation Brands, headquartered in New York and the largest wine producer in the world, several years ago paid over $1 billion in cash to buy out Robert Mondavi. Their Robert Mondavi Woodbridge winery sits at the edge of town. (That’s where the chili cookoff is held each year.) But the essence of the local wine-making mystique is set in the 80 or so family-owned wineries that produce only a few hundred or thousand cases of wine each year.

It is impressive how many different varietals are grown in the nearby area, but the main grape is Zinfandel, and Lodi seems determined to make it a competitor with the varietals popular in Sonoma and Napa. This is not the cloying white Zinfandel of a couple of decades ago. I haven’t seen a bottle of that since we’ve been here. These are stylish, well-made wines that can sometimes run over $100 a bottle.

Here are a few you might look for in your local wine store: Klinker Brick, McCay Cellars, Harney Lane Wines, Michael David Winery.

Unfortunately, the food to go along with the wine is a little disappointing. Places we have enjoyed are the School Street Bistro, The Dancing Fox Winery and Bakery (The food not the wine.), and a small little bistro away from the downtown, Zin Bistro. The latter is a tiny store-front in a strip mall run by husband/wife chefs and owners; it is a great discovery. The night we were there, their rockfish was cooked perfectly – moist and flaky – and their braised lamb shank was delicious with a gremolata and mashed potatoes. So far we think they make the best food in town, although we have a couple of white-tablecloth places still to check out.

We’ve already visited Sacramento and been on one side trip to Yosemite to babysit while Sarah and Evan did a demonstration at the Ahwahnee Hotel’s annual Chefs’ Holiday. More travels and food to report later.

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