As I drive through the rolling green hills I imagine that California happy cows are their happiest right now. The pastures are lush with fresh, green grass and weeds, tasty feed until the heat of summer sucks the life and chlorophyll out and the hills turn dry and brown. I wonder how that makes the milk change in flavor during the different seasons. 

These bovine thoughts are running through my head because I am on my way to Petaluma to take the Cowgirl Creamery tour. The first time I heard the name Cowgirl Creamery was when their cheese was named as one of Oprah's favorite things. I soon tasted and fell in love with their triple cream Mt. Tam myself. I had been looking at their website one day when I discovered they offer tours and classes.

I am the first to arrive at a rather non-descript warehouse for the 11:30 tour. The Petaluma facility makes a majority of the cheeses, but does not have a retail facility. Their tours are on Wednesdays. The original Cowgirl Creamery location is in Point Reyes, where an old barn was converted into the a retail space back in 1997. There are classes at that location.

Vivien Straus is setting up the cheese tasting items preparing for the tour. Soon the other guests arrive until we are a group of about twenty. Vivien introduces herself as a member of the Straus family, as in, the Straus Family Creamery dairy that I have a glass bottle of milk of in my refrigerator. The Straus dairy was the first certified non-GMO and fully organic dairy west of the Mississippi. Their dairy has about 250 cows and is the primary milk supplier to Cowgirl Creamery.

Vivien starts with the history of the area starting in the early 1800s, the creation of the dairy region around Tomales Bay at the turn of the century, and how these dairies thrived with the terrain as well as the influx of people after the Gold Rush. Her family started their Straus Family Creamery business in the 40s and in the late 90s the dairy started supplying to Cowgirl Creamery. 

Real Doner on Urbanspoon

"Turkish Cuisine" was the only thing I needed to see to make up mind what I was having for lunch. I was in Petaluma for the Cowgirl Creamery tour and just about three blocks away was Real Doner, a Turkish delight just south of downtown.

Having grown up in Saudi Arabia, I have a love and appreciation for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods. There is a lot of crossover or blending of the foods as you travel through the different regions, countries, and religious backgrounds. A Christian Palestinian has a similar kebab dish to an Iranian Muslim's. A Greek gyro is similar to an Arab shwarma.

I should have gotten more local trucks, but the crowds and lighting under the freeway sometimes made things difficult. This is my first complex video using titles, captions, music, and mixed media. Hope you like it.

One thing I noticed the last two SactoMoFos is that the lines are crazy from 11 to 3, but then from 3 to 6 there's really not an issue - short or no lines at all. The trade-off, the best stuff is sold out. So it's up to each person to decide - brave lines for the best food or wait til later for the shorter lines but slimmer pickings.
Ella Dining Room and Bar on Urbanspoon

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a big fan of the Selland Family restaurants: Ella, The Kitchen, and Selland Market Cafes. You can therefore consider this a biased review if you want, especially when you add the fact that I've become friendly with Gina, Selland family member and their social media maven.

The Twitterati lunch crew (which sometimes includes Gina) were out for lunch at Ella one weekday because a few of us were wanting to have the weekday lunch special. The lunch specials are $15 and usually include an entree and a salad or an entree and a beverage. The month of April has been lamb month and so the special was a lamb sandwich and a virgin mint julep. I'm a big lamb fan, and so I had to get one sometime during the month.

Not everyone chose the lamb special, especially since it was still Lent and a Friday. We were also treated with extra dishes courtesy of Gina. I want to thank her for that because I got to try something new - more on that in a moment.

Indo Cafe on Urbanspoon
taken from Yelp

Old Sacramento may be meant primarily for tourists and school excursions, but there are still reasons for us locals to stop by once in a while. Evangeline's is good throughout the year and not just at Halloween. Strolling down the waterfront is nice exercise on a sunny day. People that work in the vicinity can find some good lunch deals as well. 

Bordering the east side of the railroad tracks are the old railroad storage sheds that have been converted into shops and eateries. Over the years many of the businesses have closed, not being able to survive on tourists alone, especially during the off season. One eatery that has survived over the years is the Indo Cafe, located at the south end of the sheds.

I tend to make the trek to Old Sac for lunch on the occasional sunny day and if it's been a long time, I often wonder if it's still going to be there. Thankfully it is.

They say the wheels of government turn slowly. Or, to use another analogy, sometimes your issue gets put on the back burner while the City Council deals with the boil-over pot on the front burner with the mess of the Kings and the arena deal.

Next Saturday is SactoMoFo 4, which is almost exactly a year after the first one. When my ex-partners and I created SactoMoFo, it was to bring awareness to the restrictive food truck ordinances in Sacramento. To do that, we held the first Sacramento Mobile Food (SactoMoFo) Festival at Fremont Park. 
Note: I left SacoMoFo last summer to pursue my own interests and truck advocacy under my other site, 
We knew that the best way to get the City's attention was to bring the new gourmet trucks together in one location. Next bring the citizens and the City Council and let them see the quality of the trucks and the food they provide as well as the popularity and the demand.

Coca-cola is a great ingredient for all sorts of dishes where you want the caramel flavoring and sugar. I've used it in BBQ sauce, pot roast, cakes, and more. Recently I was watching a food show where the chef was using it while caramelizing onions and it struck me that it would be great in French onion soup

The secret to a great French onion soup is to cook the onions long and low. The onions need to sweat out moisture and their sugars, thus caramelizing. You should use sweet yellow onions, but often times I only have red onions in my frig and they work just as well. The Coke just adds more caramel.

The bread is meant as a thickener. Europeans use bread to thicken many soups such as Italian ribollita or German schwarzbrotsuppe.

My cheese of preference is Fontina, but use your favorite. Some people will also add a bit of cooking sherry or wine.

Overall impression? Does the Coke add much? It adds a bit more sweetness, but doesn't really change it that much. It's more just the novelty of it.

I'm going to miss Sunh Fish - their old location that is. Currently at the Asian Market at Broadway and 11th for only a few more days, their new location is a giant space at 19th and V. It was only a block from my house, which made it easy to pick up some last minute shrimp or other seafood for dinner. Now it's a bike ride away. Good exercise, I suppose.

Sunh Fish has always been known by sushi lovers in the know as the purveyors of much of the seafood being eaten in the sushi restaurants in Sacramento. Many restaurants come here to purchase fish and shellfish that winds up on your dinner plate.

Eatery on Urbanspoon

It's not often that one gets to have a burger or a sandwich named after them. But if your reputation is one of eating a burger or two every day and your Twitter handle is @Burgerjunkies, it's inevitable that you will get a burger (or more) named after you. Such was the case this week when over 20 of Rodney Blackwell's friends and followers joined him to taste the Junky Burger at The Eatery. 

The Eatery has been getting a lot of favorable press of late and so I was happy to have the opportunity to check it out with a large group. The restaurant is tucked into a corner of the Target/Nugget shopping complex (Town Center Plaza) in West Sacramento. Luckily I was riding with someone who had been before otherwise I would have been hunting around looking for it. As we approached the door we saw the sign proclaiming the special of the day : The Junky Burger.

A large bank of tables along one wall was reserved for our large party. Being a new complex, the whole place has a new, contemporary feel to it. I decided that I'd slide into the long booth seating so I prepped by visiting the restroom first. Now I know it's a bit odd to immediately comment on a restaurant's bathroom, but I just had to mention a nice feature I noticed that I wish more restaurants would do - there was a rack of hooks at chair rail height next to the sinks so you could hang your purse while washing your hands! Bravo! So often we women are holding our purses between our legs to keep them dry and out of the way when we wash our hands and then have to waddle over to the towel dispenser. Thank you, Eatery, for the rack!

Sash Gardner is busy dumping ingredients into large buckets to whip up another batch of his Gardner Gourmet salsa. He's making around ninety pounds of it today, the same as he does each week. After a couple of hours he'll be finished with making his four versions of salsa, packaging and labeling them, and then he'll be off to deliver them to Corti Bros, Taylor's Market, and Compton's Market. He's able to sell his salsa in grocery stores because he has prepared them with proper permits in a fully licensed commercial kitchen - Steel Magnolia Commercial Kitchen.

I often have business ideas that I never act upon out of fear and lack of funds. About five years ago I thought about the idea of opening a commercial kitchen in Sacramento only to find out someone had already done so. I read an article in the Sacramento Bee when Steel Magnolia opened in November of 2009.  The person who was brave enough to go through with her dream was Gail von Huene.

Even though I was aware of Steel Magnolia I had no idea where it was. It turns out I've driven by it hundreds of times since it sits on the corner of 16th and G streets in a rather nondescript building. 

Gail was waiting for me while Sash was busy making his salsa in Kitchen 2. She lets me in the front door which has a combination lock. Steel Magnolia is available for rent 24/7 and so the combination allows access to clients without having sets of keys floating around town or getting lost. Off to the left are the kitchens and to my right I see the dining/event room.

Gail gives me a short tour before we sit down to talk. We start with the kitchens themselves. One large room is split in two to create Kitchens 1 and 2. Both have matching 6-burner gas ranges, plenty of workspace, and lots of pots, pans, and a mixer each. At one end stands a rack of shared tools and a shared 20 quart mixer.  There are walk-in and standing refrigerators and large convection ovens as well.

The kitchens can be rented separately or together if the event or need is large enough. Often smaller caterers with large events will need the extra space that Steel Magnolia provides. Rarely are both kitchens rented by different people at the same time, but it's often fun when they are. Cooking classes are also offered here, most via The Learning Exchange and some offered by Gail herself. Maybe you want to host a party or event that you can't accommodate in your own home. You can rent out Steel Magnolia for weddings, dinners, etc.

One type of even that is often done here and always peaks my interest are the pop-up restaurants. Pop-ups are basically temporary restaurants. Pop-ups happen when a chef is without a restaurant and wants to put together a special menu featured at a temporary location for a few nights. Before Pajo Bruich took over the kitchen at Lounge on 20, he was doing pop-ups and classes at Steel Magnolia. (Gail tells me that there is going to be a pop-up dinner in May featuring game meats. I'll be checking that one out!)
Rental prices vary depending on the event/need and frequency. A basic price would be $100 for the first three hours and $35 for each additional hour. Contact Gail to negotiate. 
We walk around the back and Gail points out the proper sanitation/washing areas for doing all the dishes. There's a laundry room to wash all the towels and dishrags and a dry storage area for people to leave some items if they are regular customers. We finally reach the dining/event space to sit down and chat. 

dining room
It turns out Gail and I have a lot in common. Gail prefers to bake versus cook and we both admit to not having the best tasting tongues - able to discern flavors and spices in dishes or the ability to think of flavor combinations that will work well. Gail admits that she's learned so much from the chefs that use her facility. She'll often try a flavor combination or dish that she would never have thought of or made herself.

dry storage area

Gail's culinary journey began a decade ago when she was inspired by a friend's pastries to look into formal culinary training. She took classes at Cosumnes River and American River Colleges and ended up with a baking certificate in 2007. She soon realized that she needed access to a commercial kitchen if she was to cater properly and legally. If she was having trouble finding a clean, quality kitchen space, others must be too. 

Steel Magnolia's timing was both good and bad. There was a definite need for her facility but there was also the start of the decline of the economy. Through the downturn Steel Magnolia survived while other facilities have either closed or are up for sale. Gail admits that the experience was not what she had expected. She had definite ideas and plans on how the business would run and soon learned that she needed to be more adaptive and let days come one at a time.

Owning any business can be stressful, but Gail admits that she does love the benefits: being a resource and giving back to the community in a facility that is much needed in the area. She enjoys the camaraderie of  the Sacramento food community and learning from all the wonderful chefs and foodies in the area. She feels blessed for the rewards of the business and loves that it is hers alone - no partners.

Before I leave we go back into Kitchen 2 to see Sash as he packs up his salsa and prepares to make his deliveries. Gail has brought a bag of chips so that I can taste them. Sash has the typical flavors: mild, medium, hot, and chipotle. We taste the medium and the chipotle and I like the textures very much - not too chunky and yet not pureed. The chipotle has a nice smokey flavor without being hot and the medium is nice and fresh. I happily take some home with me for later.

As Gail walks me out we chat about the plan to have a food bloggers potluck at the facility so that others can see what Steel Magnolia has to offer. With so few facilities like it available, it's good that Steel Magnolia keeps on cooking.

Yes, I have pulled the crockpot out of the closet and blown off the dust in order to bring you a crockpot recipe in time for Easter brunch.  Other sites call this a crockpot brunch casserole. I call it a crustless quiche or a fritata done in a slow cooker

My particular slow cooker runs hot on the Low setting, especially when I use the smallest sized crock (I have three crocks that work on it). The first time I made this I woke up in the middle of the night and could smell it and just knew that it was done. I crawled out of bed, stumbled half asleep into the kitchen and turned it to Warm - or so I thought. Turns out I turned it to High and ended up with a charcoal briquette in the crock. Not good odor-wise or money-wise. My second attempt was much better when I used a technique I've seen mentioned in many other crockpot recipes - I folded aluminum foil several times to create a buffer between the bottom of my crock and the heating element. Much better results this time. But I will say that after trying this way versus baking a quiche in the oven, I prefer the oven.

You will definitely be better off if you have a slow cooker with a timer and varying temperatures.  This calls for cooking for about 8 hours and so I needed to wait until at least 10 p.m. before I put it on. That's my one complaint on my cooker - no timer.

See the paper bag in the picture below versus the size of the tree? BFF's kumquat tree is enormous! I remember back when it was a about eight feet high and now look. Her boys would use them for ammo in their sling shots. Her sister would occasionally use them in recipes or to make centerpieces. I've used them to make kumquat chicken and citrus marmalade.

When you have access to an entire tree of kumquats (or any fruit for that matter) you try as many recipes as you can to make use of them. For some time I had been wanting to use kumquats in a pie, I just wasn't sure how. Then I decided that if I made my vanilla ginger candied kumquats, I could use them as a garnish and element to the pie and use the syrup to get the kumquat flavoring into the pie filling.

For the passion fruit flavoring I've used the puree concentrate sold by Perfect Puree. It can be found at the larger Whole Foods stores in Roseville and Folsom. The smaller Arden store doesn't have it. The concentrate is $10 a container, but it will last you through several recipes. If you like the flavor of passion fruit, I highly recommend it.

Candied Kumquat Passion Fruit Chiffon Pie

1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup ground almonds (or other nut)
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/4 cup water
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/3 cup passion fruit puree
1 cup syrup from candied kumquats*
4 large egg yolks
1 cup candied kumquats, drained*
1 1/4 cups chilled whipping cream

For crust:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and ground almonds in medium bowl. Add melted butter and stir until mixture is evenly moistened. Transfer crumb mixture to pie plate. Press crumbs firmly and evenly onto bottom and up sides to top of dish. Bake until crust is firm and slightly darker in color, about 8 minutes. Cool crust completely. 

For filling:
Pour enough cold water into medium bowl to come halfway up sides; add 2 cups ice cubes and set aside.
Pour 1/4 cup water into small bowl; sprinkle gelatin over. Let stand until gelatin softens, about 15 minutes.
Whisk 3/4 cup sugar, kumquat syrup, passion fruit puree, egg yolks, and salt in heavy medium saucepan to blend. Whisk constantly over medium heat until mixture is just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and thermometer inserted into mixture registers 160°F, about 6 minutes (do not boil). Add gelatin mixture; whisk until gelatin dissolves and mixture is smooth, about 1 minute. Place saucepan in bowl with ice water until filling is cool to touch, whisking occasionally, about 8 minutes. Transfer filling to large bowl.
Using electric mixer, beat whipping cream in another medium bowl until peaks form. Fold 1/4 of whipped cream into fruit filling until incorporated. Fold in remaining whipped cream in 3 additions.

Take a third of the candied kumquats and spread across the bottom of crust. Transfer half of whipped filling to cover the kumquats creating a bottom layer. Take another third of candied kumquats and scatter over the first layer. Top with the rest of the whipped topping. Use last of the candied kumquats to decorate the top of the pie.  Refrigerate pie until filling is set, about 4 hours.

 *If you do not have freshly made candied kumquats, use canned ones or substitute another canned fruit in its own syrup, such as peaches.

If my BFF were to harvest and sell the kumquats from her tree, she would easily make a few hundred dollars. After all, a small basket of kumquats can sell in the store for $4-5. Her tree almost reaches her second story roof line of her house.  She doesn't use them at all. In fact, I think I'm the only one who ever picks and uses them.

This year I've made candied kumquats because I have been really interested in using them in a pie somehow. Tune in later this week for the great pie I created. But first, I had to make the first component- the candied kumquats. I wanted to do something different from others out there and so I tossed in some vanilla and ginger.

Use the candied kumquats for desserts, over breakfast goods like waffles or French toast, and as a side item for cheese platters and other dishes.