A couple of months ago I had dinner at Sacatomato Ann's house. We had a look at her backyard garden and there were two things I took away from that day.

First was their great raised garden made from the concrete they had torn up from their backyard. I had been wanting to do a raised garden for some time but didn't have the extra money for all the keystones or bricks I would have needed. I loved the idea of free broken concrete. Later that week I just happened to see some men tearing up concrete. They agreed to deliver it to my house. So this is the raised garden I built.

The second thing I learned that day was about amaranth. They had quite a few amaranth bushes growing with the lovely purple flowers. Turns out that it is quite an interesting plant.

Aside from amaranth being such an attractive plant it is extremely adaptable to adverse growing conditions. It resists heat and drought, has no major disease problems, and is among the easiest of plants to grow. Simply scratching the soil, throwing down some seeds, and watering will reward you with some of these lovely plants.

Amaranth can be cooked as a cereal, ground into flour, popped like popcorn, sprouted, or toasted. The seeds can be cooked with other whole grains, added to stir-fry or to soups and stews as a nutrient dense thickening agent.

Amaranth flour is used in making pastas and baked goods. It must be mixed with other flours for baking yeast breads, as it contains no gluten. One part amaranth flour to 3-4 parts wheat or other grain flours may be used. In the preparation of flatbreads, pancakes and pastas, 100% amaranth flour can be used. Sprouting the seeds will increase the level of some of the nutrients and the sprouts can be used on sandwiches and in salads, or just to munch on.
(More info here.)

Turns out amaranth is a plant that many are trying to see cultivated in third world countries that have poor growing conditions. You can not only eat the seeds, but also the leaves and flowers.

I've been trying to get into new grains. I love quinoa and use it in place of rice whenever I cook at home. It's a healthy whole grain that is high in protein. It cooks the same as rice. So whenever I make anything that would normally have rice as a side, I use the quinoa instead.

I wanted to check out the amaranth and found it in the bulk bins at the Co-op. I took only 1/2 a cup home and cooked it the same way. Then I ate it as a porridge with a little soy milk, cinnamon, and stevia. Delicious. I've found another new grain to play with.

First, I'll explain the picture. I made these lamb meatballs and then packaged them all up for work lunches before I remembered that I needed pictures for the blog. Thus, the not so attractive presentation.

This recipe comes from the Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine. I liked it, but think it could use a bit more bite. BUT>>>> it might be because I had to do a workaround. It calls for ground cumin and I only had cumin seed. They are too little to put in my mini food processor and I don't own a mortar and pestle. (Note to self to get one now!) Veena suggested that I try crushing them on my granite countertop. She had me roast them in a pan for a couple of minutes first and then we put them on the counter. I remembered I had my Pampered Chef meat tenderizer.

This tenderizer is reversible and so I had it on the flat size and used that to mash the seeds as best I could. But it still wasn't a great solution. Suffice it to say, I went to the store a couple of days later and bought ground cumin.

All in all the meatballs were tasty. I did leave out the flour coating and I ended up baking them on my stone versus cooking them on the stovetop. I also made sure I got European style yogurt, which is zingier than the American stuff. I put lots of mint in the yogurt and really enjoyed it. I also no longer cook rice at home and so I served them with quinoa.


Summer is the best time to eat Napoleons and as summer draws to an end, I've been filling up. Here is a comparison of the three best Napoleons in the area.

Tower Cafe has the winner for me because of what you get for the cost. They have Napoleons all year long, but in the summer they are filled with berries! In the fall berries will give way to spiced apples or something else and it just isn't the same. The pastry is a good size for the price of $4.25 and is generous in the amount of berries and cream and the puff pastry is light and flaky. I like that it is divided into thirds instead of just halves.

The Napoleon at Davis' Little Prague is without berries. They call the one with berries the Josephine, but for our purposes that's the comparison I'm using. This is a monster slice of pasty with a monster price of $5.75. I'd say the higher price probably comes because they have the bottom layer of pastry cream and the upper layer with whipping cream. They are less generous with the berries, but you were definitely satisfied with extra creaminess of the pastry cream layer.

I didn't take a picture of the Napoleon I got at Ettore's. For $3.75 it was the smallest of the three. This one had the best Bavarian cream filling. It was super rich, creamy, decadent. But the puff pastry was tough and difficult to cut through. Very few berries as well.

Really, I can't complain much. I'm so happy that I can find Napoleons so abundant and especially thrilled that Tower's is just a couple blocks away.
Mehran on Urbanspoon

I continued my Indian feasting when our Meetup group went to Mehran. Mehran is Veena's favorite Indian restaurant in Sacramento. It is actually an Indian/Pakistani restaurant. Veena explains that when it comes to meat dishes, the Pakistanis have the upper hand.

Mehran is tucked away on Fair Oaks Blvd. Basically find the Borders store and then look for the restaurant in the building out in front of it. It's tucked behind so that it is often missed. The prior restaurant, Bravo Ristorante, was Italian and perhaps closed because of this location problem. We went on a Monday and it was also Ramadan, the month of Muslim fasting, and so the place was empty except for us. I had been to Bravo and remembered it as lavishly decorated. This was apparently stripped out when Mehran took over the site. Interestingly, they might not have snagged the fixtures, yet they did have some of the glasses because George was served a beer in a Bravo logoed glass.

Everyone was pleased to see very reasonable prices. The entrees ranged from $7-10, but they did not include any sides. A couple of clusters of our group decided to go family style and share some dishes. This worked out well for them as one group's individual cost came to only $10 each. They were very happy.

Veena highly recommended the Chalpi kabob appetizer. You automatically think kabob comes on a stick, but this did not. It was a spiced ground meat patty served with some veggies and then, of course, you had chutneys on the side to add. This was very spicy and delicious and I was glad Veena recommended it.

Veena and I shared so that she could use her Entertainment coupon. I ordered some garlic naan and then we ordered a mutton chop masala and karahi chicken. Both were excellent, but the mutton chops in particular were tender and their dark, thick sauce was fabulous with chunks of veggie and exploding with flavor. Veena explained that karahi is a kind of wok and so that dish was an Indian stirfry. It was also excellent.

Clint made a technical mistake because he ordered chicken tikka, thinking he was getting chicken tikka masala. Turns out tikka means barbecue and so he just got the barbecued chicken breast (topmost pic) and not the sauce (masala). It was still good and we gave him some of our sauces from our dishes to add to his rice.

We were all too stuffed to even think about dessert. Besides, Veena has some homemade kheer waiting for us at my house. I can see why she enjoys Mehran. The price was low and the food was high - in quality. I look forward to going back.
Manderes on Urbanspoon

I've mentioned before that I don't drink. Basically, I'm allergic to alcohol. So Manderes is not a place that I would ever go into on my own. But I have also confessed that I can be bribed to take my Meetup group to a restaurant. I was invited to bring my group by one of the owners. The menu was online and looked decent enough food-wise, so I figured, why not?

Manderes is located in Folsom on East Bidwell at the older end of the strip. It's in a stand-alone building with very limited parking. If you are going with a group then carpooling with a designated driver will definitely make sense to both be safe and to not worry about the parking. They serve over 130 different beers from all over the world. They do have wines as well.

We arrived on a night that they were holding a beer tasting. The theme of the night was Beers of the British Isles. For $18.50 you got to taste six ounces of nine different beers and also got an appetizer plate in the middle. Most of our group felt that was too much beer for them. It would be a good idea to share a tasting.

I was there for the food. The menu was a basic restaurant menu covering soups, salads, entrees, and pastas. We started with a couple of appetizers, the onion rings and the asparagus spears. The asparagus spears were fantastic. Lightly battered and fried and served with a buttermilk ranch. The serving was large and everyone raved about them. They were cooked to perfection. The onion rings were also large, but they seemed greasy in comparison with the asparagus.

I ordered the New York steak - aged, with a dry rub of a Montreal pepper and served with mashed potatoes and a seasoned vegetable. Again the serving was large. The steak was perfectly cooked, not too much fat, and had a very flavorful pepper crust. I am a saltaholic and usually like salt on my steaks, but realized quickly that this steak needed no help. The potatoes were nothing special. The vegetables were seasoned with lots of garlic butter, but they were slightly over cooked. I like them to have that little bit of crispness. Still, I enjoyed the meal overall.

A couple of people had the clam chowder, which was thick and chunky. Laura, in particular, said it was "to die for". Jeni ordered the pastrami sandwich and raved about it. Laura, who doesn't like pastrami, had a bite of it and also proclaimed it as outstanding.

Meanwhile the beer tasting continued. Not surprisingly, the bar was loud! It was very difficult to hold conversations. The bartender had quite a time competing with everyone in order to be able to explain each new pour. From what I observed, the tasting included a great variety of beers, some on the unusual end. Some people only made it through half the beers. When the tasting appetizer came out it appeared to actually be a full serving of the kabob entree, so not a bad deal.

I was pleasantly surprised by our visit to Manderes. Dave, the owner, came to take our pictures to add to his website as we were busy doing the same. The service was friendly, the facility attractive and comfortable, and the food good. I recommend it for even for us non-drinkers.
I got lucky last week. My BFF, Dari, had won the bidding on an event for a charity auction she attended. She had bought Giants tickets for four which included being picked up at the Emeryville marina in a person's private cruiser, have a light brunch, and then ferried across to AT&T stadium. See the game, then get ferried back. She had originally planned to go with another couple, but the husband had a conflict and so she offered me the extra ticket.

It was a BEAUTIFUL day in the Bay Area. Lots of sun, no fog, and just the right temperature. We had a great time!
Little Prague Bohemian on Urbanspoon

My Dining Out Meetup group went on a roadtrip to Davis this week. If you drive I-80 between Sacramento and the Bay Area you will see signs before Davis advertising Little Prague. Sacramento does not have a Czech restaurant that even compares to LP, so we ventured forth in a carpool to try it out.

The restaurant is located right in the heart of downtown Davis and has a lot of seating indoors and quite an extensive patio as well. In the evenings they light two fireplaces outdoors and then in the very back there is a nice gurgling fountain.

There are mixed reviews for this place on the internet. Most seem to involve some rude service from the owner. Luckily we never saw him and were just served by two nice college student servers. The menu has a Czech saying up front that says (can't remember the exact words) to dine and speak slowly to have a long life. These words turned out to be important because the service was slow. But our conversation was about how they eat much slower in Europe and that dining is an event there. They would certainly fit in with the Slow Food movement that we also discussed over dinner.

I had planned the event well in advance and found that they have their menu listed online. So even before arriving I knew which TWO desserts I was going to order! But I also wanted to try a Czech main dish that was typical. Another complaint was that the menu was pricey. This is true. I had pre-budgeted $40 for the night. Turns out there were a few featured dishes that sounded really good but were more than I could afford, so I stuck to my original plan.

Dinners were served with either a soup or a salad. They had three soups to choose from: a split pea, a chicken pasta, and a cold vegetable one. I ordered the chicken pasta soup and you can see how lovely it looks. The server came out, put down a clean bowl, and then poured each individual serving of soup out from small, individual pitchers. My soup was hearty and delicious and raised my expectations for the rest of the meal. Those that got the cold veggie soup were also very happy with their choices. The veggies were cut up into small cubes and the broth was a light, almost clear, tomatoey broth. The salads were basic but had enormous croutons.

I ordered the Chicken Paprikash with Dumplings. I have had goulash, stroganoff, and schnitzel at other places, so my goal was to try a dish that I was unfamiliar with. Unfortunately I made the wrong choice. My dish was dull and not that flavorful. It was just chunks of the chicken breast in the creamy paprika sauce with no sign of onions that are mentioned in the description. I really thought paprikash was going to have a little more zip to it. So I was disappointed. But there are so many interesting dishes on the menu that I'm interested in going back and trying other selections. Especially since everyone else seemed very happy with their choices.

For instance, one of the features was this roulade of pork tenderloin, chicken, and spinach served with a potato and a nice sauce. Julie said it was as good as it looked.

Another featured dish was a vegetarian item. It was this potato pancake folded over a creamed spinach with a tangy tomatoey sauce and broccoli. I steer clear of vegetarian dishes because I'm a carnivore, but I must admit that I had been tempted when the server talked about it. Laura enjoyed it and said it was very filling. She ended up with a doggy bag.

Clint had the stroganoff because it was different from the stroganoff that most people are used to. The most common type of stroganoff is beef and mushrooms in a beef and sour cream sauce. This version uses just a little cream versus sour cream. It was also served with rice where I've always had my stroganoff over egg noodles.

The dessert carousel was full and enticing and rivals the dessert case at Tower Cafe. The dessert menu is two pages long and full of descriptions. One of the desserts I ordered was the Princess Cake - white cake with raspberry filling, topped with custard and whipped cream and then a marzipan layer. It was delicious although a bit too much custard. The marzipan was the green fondant you see and added the extra oomph for a splendid dessert.

A few opted for the famous Sacher Torte. This is a strawberry version with chocolate cake, buttercream and then covered in a chocolate ganache. I've been making very similar cakes lately and so this one held no interest for me. I wanted something different, thus the Princess Cake.

My had also landed on the description of the Josephine - puff pastry layered with custard and berries and whipped cream. In the end it turned out to be another name for a Napoleon (remember that Josephine was Napoleon's empress). Never mind. Napoleons are my favorite decadent pastry and so that went home with me. Other desserts listed included eclairs, pistachio apricot cake, studels, tarts, and more!

I 'discovered' Davis this week with two visits in a week. Such a nice town with a vibrant downtown thanks to the nearby university. I can see why they strive so hard to keep it the way it is and keep out the shopping malls and huge discount stores. I look forward to visiting both Davis and Little Prague again.
Lucca on Urbanspoon

What a great month for dining. I was spoiled this month. This time it was Lucca. In appreciation of my wonderful cakes last week, my BFF, Dari, took me out to lunch. Lucca has been here a few years, but I never ate a meal here. I had only come in with friends for drinks and their fabulous zucchini chips. These chips, by the way, are famous for Lucca. They are like those thin, kettle-style potato chips, but with zucchini! Sort of healthy? Let's pretend.

Anyway, we arrived for a weekday lunch early and had our choice of seating. We opted for the patio, which was lovely. I will quickly mention that I love the street-side seating inside because they have the huge louvered windows that they can completely open up so that it's like being out on a patio. But back to the actual patio... They had misters going because it was expected to be 104. We also noticed the propane heaters mounted up on the ceiling for when the weather will get colder. There was a small fountain and it was all lovely except for the noisy bluejay. Bluejays and magpies, the noisiest birds in California.

Our server was nice enough to offer us oil/balsamic with our bread along with the standard butter. I thought this was nice because most places offer one or the other and then you have to ask for the alternate if you didn't care for the first. (Got that?) She rattled off the specials, but we had already made up our minds from what was on the regular menu. Although I sat amused as she went on about the sole special as Dari's eyes glazed over. Dari will not eat seafood.

I ordered the grilled steak “ala Espanola” with spicy harissa, herb sauce and Spanish fries. I asked for medium rare and found that it verged right on rare, but not too much so that I couldn't eat it. The presentation, as you see, was lovely. The harissa is the red sauce underneath and is supposed to be pepper based. I was disappointed that it was really quite bland, as was the herb sauce on top. I thought that between the two it would be zesty and it wasn't. What saved it was that the fries had the zing because they were heavily coated in seasoning.

Dari ordered the braised short ribs with peas, carrots , pearl onions, mashed potatoes, except that she asked for polenta to be swapped for the potatoes. Nothing exceptional here, just an overall well done dish. Dari did swoon over the polenta. I've never been a fan of polenta. I think it's a texture thing. She said this polenta was exceptionally creamy and she really enjoyed it.

I was pretty full and was gonna skip dessert (what?!), but the server rattled off the gelato flavors and ended with the black raspberry cabernet sorbet. I was leery because I don't drink and so even the slightest taste of alcohol can set me off a dish. Dari said we should split it and I'm glad we did. I wouldn't have wanted a whole bowl by myself, but I still couldn't stop eating it. It was tart and sweet and the cabernet flavor was just a hint.

Service was very relaxed, a little too much so. I lost track of time and ended up having a long lunch from work. Workday lunches in downtown should be at a faster clip. Otherwise it was attentive and yet unnoticeable, the way it should be.

I look forward to trying Lucca again.

People tend not go to things in their own backyards. For 15 years I've worked across the street from the Crocker Museum, always thinking I'll go over some day during lunch. And I never have.

For those of you not from California or Sacramento area, the Crocker is the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi. Judge Crocker was related to Charles Crocker, of the railroad "Big Four". He and his wife collected artwork, built the gallery, and eventually donated it all to the city.

On Sundays there is free admission to the museum from 10-1. Currently they have a Pop Art exhibition and that is my favorite art era, thus the reason for me to finally be lured in.

Above is a shot of the main gallery from the lower level. Below is a shot of the upstairs. What my shots do not clearly convey is the beautiful craftsmanship of the building itself. In fact, when you come in the main entrance, you are immediately faced with a beautiful double staircase, carved woodwork, and other beautiful details.

As I mentioned, what drew me in was the Pop Art exhibit. There were some fantastic pieces that I had not seen before. I had been to MOMA in NYC and also to a Pop Art exhibit at SF's MOMA. But what struck me about this Crocker exhibit were some of the sculptural and ceramic pieces that were displayed. They did have my favorite, Roy Lichtenstein, and quite a few Warhols. Here I was a naughty girl and snuck a picture of some of the sports portraits that Warhol had done.

On a side note, I had actually seen Andy Warhol back in 1986. He was having dinner with Duran Duran at an exclusive Chinese restaurant that I was also having dinner at.

What struck me about the Crocker was some of their pieces that I found elsewhere in the museum after I was finished with the exhibit. The above piece is a burnished piece of stainless steel that is in an almost flat bowl shape with jagged edges. When I first approached it I immediately thought of a saw. What is glorious about this piece that you can't tell from the picture is that the way it is burnished (the directions of the polishing) make the whole piece holographic and even seem like it is in three separate parts. But it is actually one, smooth piece.

This piece I approached from the side and close up. So I was busy regarding the individual ceramic, three-dimensional tiles that make it up as a mosaic. Each small tile was an individual image: skull, atomic bomb plume, sperm, destroyed buildings, ruined brick, etc. It wasn't until I read the description and walked away that I realized that there was the portrait of George W. Bush! What a great statement!

This final piece I'm showing was titled 'Public View, Private Eye'. The structure was constructed with mirrors on the inside. The idea was that when you walk through it you are hit with all the reflections and angles of yourself - the dimensions of you and your personality and life. From the outside there are ways to look in so that as the spectator, you are looking in as the public and getting a different set of perspective and sighting of some of the private elements while also seeing yourself as the spectator being reflected.

I really enjoyed my visit to the Crocker and now vow that it will not be another 15 years before I go again.