I’d like to tell you the tale of my week in San Francisco. It was intrinsically tied to a book. No, not a cook book, but a book book.
Before we can fly out West, though, there’s a little history we need to get through.
Reichl and I met in 2001, the year I returned to medical school after a several year hiatus in the “real world,” also known as corporate America (I’m not sure that that’s the real world, but anything felt more real than my 17th year sitting in classrooms). We were introduced by my boyfriend at the time – he bought me a subscription to the now sadly out of print Gourmet magazine and inspired my purchase of a stand mixer (Kitchenaid, just like his). The mixer lasted until last year, its life much longer than the relationship, but its end no less tragic.
For eight years, I awaited Reichl’s monthly arrival in my mailbox, her letter from the editor the start to a cozy night or two, snuggled up under the covers and cradling my Gourmet by the light of my bedside lamp, folding over page after page of recipes to try. She wrote (well, still writes) with an ease that reminded me that with good food, everything would turn out all right. In an effort to rid my apartment of clutter (an ongoing battle), I purged all my food magazines. Only one Gourmet survived – April 2009 – and as I wrote this, I reread her letter to see what Reichl had to say almost exactly three years ago.
“Because that is what spring is all about: hope, possibility, and our endless capacity to rejoice in what nature has given us.”
A nice sentiment as the weather warms and I am in the very (very) early stages of contemplating a big change.
On a particularly sunny Sunday in March, I found myself sifting through cardboard boxes of books lining the sidewalk in front of the post office mere steps from my apartment. Wedged between a carpentry manual and Chemistry text in the last box, I saw a blue book with Reichl’s name peeking out at me. Three dollars and it was mine.
As night fell, I curled up with Garlic and Sapphires, glad for a reunion. I devoured Reichl’s pre-Gourmet tales of visiting and reviewing the full spectrum of New York restaurants for the Times. In anticipation of this rising star Bay Area critic arriving in New York, chefs pasted pictures of Reichl in their kitchens so that staff could recognize and alert the team to her wielding pen. As a result, Reichl often dressed in disguise amd adopted different personas to avoid special treatment.
Two nights later, I ordered Tender at the Bone, Reichl’s first memoir. At some point – between stories of her childhood, stories of her move to Berkeley where she cooked for everyone from housemates to the now defunct Swallow Restaurant Collective, and stories of her early days as a restaurant critic – we became friends and I called her Ruth.
She flew out to San Francisco with me. We shared a cramped middle seat. I forced myself to watch a movie destined for a captive audience so that we wouldn’t have to part ways at wheels down.
Once in the Bay Area, I savored my time with Ruth, only allowing myself to read one or two chapters per day.
We spent the whole week together.
She accompanied me from Oakland to San Francisco to Half Moon Bay to Berkeley. She sat with me in cafes in between meetings. She joined me at the bar for dinner. She was the last person to speak to me before I fell asleep.
In between meetings, I thought of little other than food. Where would I eat next? Where might Ruth go? What disguise might she have worn and persona might she have assumed? What would she think of the food the atmosphere the service? How does the staff treat someone eating solo? Do they give you looks when its crowded and you alone linger at a table meant for two?
I wanted to taste everything. At dinner, I always started with a glass of wine and ended with a desssert and coffee. And there were one or two courses in between. One morning at breakfast, I sat down with a coffee (of course!), a tartine with butter, a croissant, and an orange-flecked breakfast bun. I’m not sure what I was thinking.
But what I had hoped would be the highlight of our time together didn’t go quite as planned. My Berkeley food crawl with my friend and expert eater, Joanne, was almost cancelled when she and her kids got sick. But Ruth and I soldiered on. We crossed the Bay Bridge, just the two of us, intent on exploring her old haunts. We drove past Channing Way where Ruth reminded me she had lived in a communal house (more like a commune) in the 70s. We arrived at Shattuck Avenue — “gourmet ghetto” central — and quickly found parking. I knew that Chez Panisse would be closed on Sunday, but didn’t expect its across-the-street neighbor, The Cheese Board Collective, to be closed as well. I saw the two landmarks, peered in from the outside, left fingerprints on the windows, and then sought out food (and, of course, coffee). A few frantic text messages to Joanne and a charming little cupcake was in my hand. Another hour or two and we headed back.
The next day, Ruth and I said goodbye at the airport on my way back to Boston.
It was a great week.
It was a hard week.
It was a long week.
It was a coffee-filled week.
Fettuccine with asparagus, lemon, mascarpone, and almonds
I would never have come up with this dish had I not been traveling in San Francisco with Ruth. It was inspired by “Danny’s Lemon Pasta” – fresh fettuccine with a cream and lemon sauce - published in Ruth Reichl’s Comfort Me with Apples, the book I carried around with me from cafe to restaurant to cafe . Having just read the recipe, and dining alone perched on a stool at the bar at A16, I pounced on the restaurant’s fregula with asparagus, mascarpone, meyer lemon, toasted almonds and pecorino riserva. With this ingredient list and Reichl’s directions, I developed this fresh, summery, nutty pasta. The sauce just barely coats the pasta, so if you like more sauce, adjust accordingly. Before draining the pasta, scoop out a cup of pasta water in case you want to thin the sauce. It’s best to have all your ingredients prepped and on hand because the recipe goes by pretty quickly and can be on your table within 15 minutes. This recipe serves 2 hungry people.
- 1/4 C sliced almonds
- 3/4 lb fresh fettuccine (or other shape)
- 1 large bunch of asparagus; thick or thin stalks work fine, but a thicker stalk will require an extra mintue or two of cooking.
- 2 T butter
- One lemon (for zest and juice)
- 1/3 C mascarpone
- salt and pepper
Toast. In a skillet over medium heat, toast the almonds, shaking the pan to avoid burning. This shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. Once you start to smell the almonds, they’re done. It’s best to stay nearby because nuts can turn from golden to black in just a few seconds.
Slice. Cut off the woody ends of the asparagus and then slice in 1 – 1 1/2 inch the remaining stalks.
Boil. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add salt and bring back to a boil. If you are using fresh pasta, drop in the pasta and asparagus together at the same time. This should talk about 3-4 minutes to cook through. If you are going to use dried pasta, follow the cooking directions and then 3-4 minutes before you plan to remove the pasta, drop the asparagus into the pot. When both the pasta and asparagus are ready, scoop out a cup or so of pasta water, and then drain everything in a colander.
Whisk. While the pasta and asparagus is boiling, melt butter in a large pan (that will fit all of the pasta). Zest the lemon into the hot butter. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in mascarpone until smooth. If you’d like a richer sauce, whisk in extra mascarpone. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Toss. Pour the drained pasta and asparagus into the pan and toss everything to coat the pasta with sauce. If the sauce is too thick, add some pasta water to get it to your desired consistency.
Squeeze. Squeeze the juice of half the lemon over the pasta.
Sprinkle. Sprinkle the toasted almonds over the pasta.
PS – Here’s where I ate.
Oakland and Berkeley:
Jack London Square
55 Webster Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Happy hour menu before 6 pm (great when you’ve just arrived from the East Coast)
Miette (additional locations in San Francisco)
85 Webster Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Try the chocolate sables, shortbread (lemon and lavender are my favorites), and pot de crème
817 Washington Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Get anything with a poached egg
Love at First Bite Bakery
1510 Walnut Street, Suite G
Berkeley, CA 94709
The “pretty in pink” cupcake has just the right ratio of strawberry buttercream to not-too-sweet strawberry cake
La Boulange Bakery
All over San Francisco and the Bay area
This small chain has great pastries and breakfast (think egg on a croissant), and people were lined up outside the Marina location when it opened at 7 am
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Skip the tartine – thick toasted slabs of levain soudough - and go straight for the croissants: buttery and extra flakey, leaving a trail of shattered crumbs all over the table and down your shirt
780 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Huge space, great coffee, free wifi, tons of outlets, well-worn sofas; if you don’t have an Apple, you will be out of place
2355 Chestnut Street
San Francisco, California 94123
Ask for a few extra pieces of salted hazelnut brittle with your coffee (I thought it was better than my actual dessert)
Zaré at Fly Trap
606 Folsom St. (at Second Street)
San Francisco, CA 94107
If they have it, get the pistachio crepes with pistachio ice cream; the owner will probably stop by your table to say hi
3 locations in San Francisco
Try the albacore tuna tostadas