I can count the number of times I remember eating spaghetti squash on two fingers. That's right: two.

1) I was in San Francisco with a friend and we ate a late lunch/early dinner at Pizzeria Delfina (a restaurant that I also blogged about here). We ordered pizza (of course), but we also ordered a spaghetti squash/red pepper flake/pancetta mixture. It was perfection, actually: a light lemony salad that had enough pancetta to seem just slightly decadent.

2) Tonight: I had purchased a spaghetti squash a few weeks ago that I finally tonight decided to use. I microwaved half of it in a glass pan with water, covered with plastic wrap. After 8 minutes, I let it sit a bit while I grated asiago cheese. I shredded the squash with a fork, put the asiago cheese on top, and added red pepper flakes, salt, capers, sliced grape tomatoes, and sliced kalamata olives. I loved it. I'll definitely be making this again.

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Recently, I read a New York Times article about the composed salad, in French, the "salade composee." Something about this concept intrigued me, so Monday I bought a lot of beautiful, fresh, organic vegetables and made my first composed salad. It was the perfect summer meal: so fresh and delicious.

Yesterday, I was going to lunch at a friend's house and decided to bring my second composed salad. Another friend had just given me a lovely dish to put it in. Here's a photo:

Although one can put anything in this salad, here's what mine contained:

Grape tomatoes, sliced in half

Cucumbers, peeled, halved, and seeded

Shredded carrots

Breakfast radishes, sliced thinly

Arugula sprouts

Capers

Shallots (diced)

A mix of feta and various olives

I sprinkled it with an Oliviers and Company herb/salt mix, squeezed lemon on top and drizzled with good olive oil.

I can imagine so many other ingredients to put in it: tuna or smoked trout, red peppers, peas, fava beans, lentils. This is such a versatile salad, one that I'm sure I'll eat repeatedly throughout the summer!

For a long time, I've wanted to do a buy local month--but it wasn't until I found a locally owned grocery store that I finally decided to make February my buy local month. I happened to be talking about this with my friend Adrienne right after I made the decision--and she agreed to join me. As it turns out, February will be a really busy month for me--and I may face challenges in buying local when I go to Sacramento one weekend and San Jose another night for a conference. I've decided, though, to let myself have an out . . . if I absolutely have to buy from a chain, I'll make a contribution to a local charity to make up for that. I'm hoping to avoid that as much as possible, though, as I really want to live up to this commitment.

I'll try to blog when I can about the businesses I frequent during this month. For now, though, here's a list of places I've found that will be part of my buy local efforts.

The Market (grocery store)

Kristina's Ranch Market (grocery store)

Vineyard Farmer's market

Sam's Deli (for prepared foods and some grocery items)

The Farmer's Daughter CSA (community supported agriculture)

Las Palmas Supermercado (1405 W. Shields)

Tower Gas and Mini Mart (gas station)

A Book Barn (bookstore)

Food, gas, and books. Do I need anything else? (Stay tuned for my next blog entry which will be a guide to locally owned restaurants)

My spring break is going by way too fast. I'm writing, reading, cooking, and enjoying the beauty of Fresno in the spring. My wisteria is just about to burst into bloom, the seeds I planted are starting to sprout, and all is right in my world.

Last Sunday, I had a perfect day. I wrote all morning--7 pages of an article I hope to finish by early May. I was in a city that I love doing things that I love; I ate good food, shopped, walked forever, saw a movie, and ate more good food. In the movie, Ginger and Rosa, there's a line that describes how I felt. A young girl, Ginger, returns home late and her mother asks angrily where she's been. Ginger replies dreamily, "We were just roving about, being free." Of course, the movie complicates that line, but I'll save the serious for another post.

Yesterday: different city, activities, circumstances--but still that same feeling of freedom. I rode my bike to a friend's house--and then we biked downtown and met another friend to talk all afternoon. Our conversation moved from books, to music, to writing. And my friends gave me ideas about where to move next with a project that has been teasing at me since last summer. I want my summer to be like these past few days, full of the freedom of exploring ideas in many different forms.

And then I went home and made recipe #2 of my cooking with Janet week: french onion soup. It took 90 minutes for the onions to cook down, so I stirred and listened to my friend's radio show before finally eating a fantastic bowl of soup.

Ah, spring.

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Awhile back, my friend Janet took up a challenge to make a recipe each Tuesday from a cookbook by Dorie Greenspan. A month or two ago I was out of town and had an evening to myself. I sat in a bookstore poring over Greenspan's newest cookbook, Around My French Table and was quite smitten with the book. I couldn't afford to buy it that weekend, but recently acquired a copy. There were so many recipes I wanted to make and, because I miss Janet who lives across the country in Baltimore, because Janet is an excellent cook, and because I knew that Janet loved Dorie Greenspan, too, I wrote her an email suggesting that we bake (and blog) together over Spring Break. If you know my fascination with cookbooks (not cooking), you know that was quite the commitment for me. This is installment #1 of 4, if all goes as planned.

I sit typing this with a loaf of Savory Cheese and Chive Bread (a quick bread) in the oven--the lovely smell of baking bread wafts into the living room where I'm sitting. I can't wait to try a piece for lunch.

As it turns out, I didn't quite have the right ingredients, so here's my adaptation of the recipe.

1 3/4 c. flour
1 T. baking powder
1/2-1 t. salt
1/4 teaspoon black powder (Dorie suggests white)
3 large eggs
1/3 c. 1% milk (Dorie suggests whole)
1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil
1 c. grated Gruyere (the original recipe calls for an additional 2 oz. of Gruyere cubed, but I didn't have enough)
1/2. c. minced fresh chives

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a bread pan with Pam.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper together in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and milk for about a minute. Then add the olive oil. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and gently stir in . . . just enough for the batter to come together. Stir in the cheese and chives to make a thick dough. Spread in the bread pan and bake for about 35 minutes. Let the bread cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides and turn onto cooling rack.

I suppose you could wait for it to cool, but I ate a slice right away.

By the way, in checking Dorie's blog in preparation to write this entry, I found that one can sign up for "French Fridays with Dorie," a community of home cooks making one of her recipes every Friday.

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Scene: the Mission District in San Francisco.

Location: the counter at Pizzeria Delfina.

Rationale: all the SF food bloggers rave about this place.

Ambience: great view of fresh ingredients and the line cooks working. Charming details like thin bread sticks and a plate from which I could pinch parmesan cheese, dried oregano on the stem, and red pepper flakes. Economical use of the small space made the restaurant feel cozy rather than crowded.

Cast of characters: me, kind waitress, friendly counter neighbors to talk with throughout the meal.

Food: broccoli raab pizza plus a slice of the salsiccia pizza and part of the insalata tricolore that my new friends shared with me.

Review: my broccoli raab pizza was good, just a little soggy I assume from the veggie's steam. Fortunately, it didn't permeate the crust--only the top part of the pizza was a little too damp. The flavors were interesting, though: nice cheesiness, yummy thin crust, and great to have a pizza with green vegetables. And it was beautiful to look at.

The sausage pizza, though, was so delicious. I loved the spiciness of the sausage and the great balance of onion, red pepper and tomato. This pizza guaranteed that I would return to Pizzeria Delfina.

And it was really delightful to go to a restaurant alone and end up meeting two interesting people who were so generous with their food and conversation.

Pizzeria Delfina

3611 18th Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

415/437-6800

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Recently, I took two of my nieces to San Francisco for a weekend. They have become experts on Korean pop music--mostly from reading tumblr blogs and watching videos on youtube--and their enthusiasm was infectious. They spoke with confidence about the companies that produce K-Pop, the bands, the cultural practices unique to this genre of music. Needless to say, my newfound enjoyment in Korean pop is linked closely to my love for my nieces . . . but I find that I also really enjoy its dance/movement and stylistic choices. Here's one of my favorite videos that my nieces introduced to me:

We listened to bands like Super Junior, 2NE1, and Big Bang all across northern Nevada and as we descended into San Francisco. We also went to the closest thing we could find to a Korean section of the city, namely Japantown. Oddly enough, I'd only driven through that area, never walking around the plaza, streets, or malls that are in that part of town.

The highlight of the entire trip proved to be lunch at a place called Seoul Garden. My nieces really wanted to try Korean barbecue and this restaurant proved to be a great introduction. We chose bulgogi (beef) and we all really loved it and the banchans that are served with each Korean meal, yes, even, nay especially, the kimchi. We also enjoyed the process of creating ssam: extracting the meat from the grill on our table, placing it on a big piece of romaine with some of the banchans, and then creating a packet of meat/veggies that we ate by hand. It was a fabulous meal.

If you'd like to know more about Korean barbecue, you might watch this Eat Your Kimchi video which features a pork version (start at about 2:25 if you want to go straight to the food portion of the video). You could also watch the series The Kimchi Chronicles on Hulu to learn more about Korean cooking.

Seoul Garden

1655 Post Street

(inside mall, second floor)

San Francisco, CA

As I planned a recent trip to Finland, I didn't necessarily think that the cuisine was a big draw. I'm happy to report that I was absolutely wrong. Finnish chefs are creating exciting food, riffing on traditional cuisine by combining classic ingredients with a contemporary twist. Mind you, I didn't read that anywhere, those are just my findings after about a week of "research."

My first night in Helsinki, I ate at my hotel restaurant because I was too tired and it was too late to find anywhere else. I ordered the potato pancakes with smoked salmon, creme fraiche (I think), and dill. The waitress brought out three tiny, beautiful pancakes. The salmon tasted like no other smoked salmon I've ever had: rather than the velvety texture I've come to expect, this salmon was tender with--I don't know how else to describe it--a little bit of crunch on the edges. I think this must have been lightly smoked and the result was divine. The delicate fronds of dill on top each pancake gave each a slightly herbal taste--and a beautiful appearance. I was wowed.

The next night, I met my friend Kris for dinner at the Elite, a restaurant she recommended. We were both delighted by a starter that we chose almost as an afterthought which combined reindeer sausage with some kind of creamy topping. Kris thought the sauce had chunks of apples in it. I have no idea what else it contained, but it provided such a nice contrast to the smokiness of the meat. This restaurant was the most traditional of the places I ate, and I enjoyed the meatballs I ordered as my main course.

While in Finland, I also traveled to Turku. I did do some reading about the restaurants there, but I also had great luck just choosing where to eat randomly. My first night there, I had a surprising salad that combined lettuce, 4 olives, slow roasted tomatoes, and pomegranate seeds with a light lemon vinaigrette. This was so refreshing.

The next evening, I tried Blanko, just a few steps away from Tinta, the restaurant I'd eaten at the night before. More lightly smoked salmon with a salsa verde, a Spanish tortilla, and a good salad. If I had to be hyper-critical, I'd say this meal seemed more mass produced and less nuanced than the other food I ate in Finland. Still, I enjoyed it a great deal.

These first two restaurants in Turku were ones that were recommended. The next night, I happened to choose to eat in a restaurant that, I found out afterwards, was associated with another highly respected restaurant. I ate at E. Ekblom (all three of these restaurants are on the river Aura on a lovely tree-lined street). At this last of my experiences eating in Turku, I again loved the food. I ordered hummus, which had a fresh taste and was topped with sliced pea pods and radishes. I'm pretty sure that it wasn't made with tahini, or at least not much of it. It was light and simple and so satisfying. I also had a fantastic leek quiche that was served with a fennel salad. I enjoyed the salad, although I have to admit that the tamari soaked fennel didn't quite go with the rest of the meal. Still, the food was so good here!

My last night in Helsinki, I arrived at Juuri, another place highly recommended by Kris, just after they opened, hoping they could squeeze me in (as Kris told me that one usually has to have a reservation). I was lucky enough to get in, and this was my best meal in Finland--best even though I was crazy about everything else I'd eaten on the trip. Juuri serves what they call, sapas, a Finnish version of tapas. They divide them up into fish, meat, and vegetable, and the restaurant staff recommended I order 5-6. I decided to order 4, but I actually wish now that I had ordered more. Each one was tiny, but perfectly constructed, a tribute to commonly used Finnish ingredients or traditional dishes. My sausage with vodka-infused mustard was divine. The pike cake with horseradish cream was clever and layered. The potato pancake with garlic butter and lovage was yummy and the fried willow herb was out of this world. In appearance, willow herb looks like tiny fronds of broccoli that have been oven-roasted. But the taste was much more delicate than broccoli.

At some point, I'll return to this post to edit, post links, and give the addresses of restaurants. But for now, I wanted to describe these culinary adventures while the memory is fresh. I am very impressed with contemporary Finnish cuisine and hope to learn more about its history and recent development.

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Zucchini. Great vegetable or not? My parents joke that at the end of summer people in their neighborhood leave huge bags on their doorsteps, ring the doorbell, and run. Even the loyal zucchini lover may sometimes get sick of the vegetable. Sauteed and in bread form . . . that's basically what most people probably do with zucchini.

My friend Samina decided to have a zucchini party this past weekend--everyone was supposed to bring a dish made from zucchini to share. Surprisingly, it was a delicious and varied menu.

We began with hors d'oeuvres: zucchini tempura and toast, zucchini, and cheese made by Alex. I especially enjoyed the tempura and was impressed by the process Alex used to make it (dip it in batter, then cold water, then deep fat fry). Yeah, you read that right, somehow he managed to dip it in water and still retain the batter . . . impressive. Melissa and Gregg also brought a fantastic creation: raw, thinly sliced zucchini wrapped around marinated mozzarella. Yum!

Our dinner began with two kinds of zucchini soup: one cold and one hot. The cold soup was creamy and fragrant with herbs (created by Chris and Gene). The hot soup combined zucchini with lentils (Samina's concoction). I enjoyed both versions which illustrated the diversity of zucchini.

The main courses and side dishes were a zucchini quiche with lovely layers of parmesan, zucchini, and carrot (brought by Gregg and Melissa). We also enjoyed a nice tofu/zucchini stir fry with delightfully nutty brown rice, thanks to Samina. I brought my zucchini, white bean, mint salad--I doubled the recipe and I think it needed more mint. Still, I love the combination.

Dessert was a yummy lemon poppy seed zucchini bread (Chris) and a delectable rice pudding with zucchini (Samina).

We were all pleasantly surprised that the meal turned out well since we hadn't planned it out. We actually had courses that worked well together . . . I suppose it was our own version of Iron Chef with zucchini being the featured ingredient.