Editor: February 2006 Archives

Everything but the Squeal

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OAKLAND—It's not that often that food scares me. I mean, really concerns me. I eat just about anything put in front of me, with the single caveat that it's not still moving. And even then, I might be convinced to close my eyes and just swallow really quickly with enough encouragement.

So, when friends decided to order Blood Pudding at the annual Whole Hog dinner at Oliveto's, I put on a brave face and said," Of course!" I mean, how bad could it really be? One of the few things I've never had the, er…guts, to order, fellow gourmands have been telling me for years what an amazing delicacy things like blood sausage and blood pudding could be. High in iron, it has long been a staple of ethnic cuisine throughout the world. But, I wondered, wasn't it somehow dangerous, or dirty, or just plain wrong to eat blood?

In many religions, eating blood is, in fact, sacrilegious, as is eating pork—having something to do with separating ourselves from animals. I've never been all that worried about being confused with a tiger, however, so I went straight to the chef, Paul Canales to find out what exactly was making me feel so squeamish.

He looked at me like I had two heads for being so silly. "No. It's perfectly fine to eat. It's delicious. I mean, I probably wouldn't eat it raw, though," he said. Uh, good to know.

Canales explained that the blood comes to the restaurant in buckets, partially congealed, a by-product of the slaughter. You probably couldn't buy it for home use (though Canales says you can sometimes find it in Chinatown), but restaurants can get it fairly easily. The good news is that at Oliveto's they're careful about which pigs they use, opting for free-range, humanely raised pigs from Paul Willis' hog farm in Thornton, Iowa. The animals are raised freely under the strict supervision of the Animal Welfare Institute, which outlines humane practices from birth to slaughter. The animals aren't pumped full of hormones or other icky stuff. Okay, that part was good. At least the pigs were happy and healthy; and ostensibly their blood would be too.

At the restaurant, the semi-congealed blood is mixed with bits of meat and fat and other tasty bits and both cooked and steamed. It becomes a dark brown, really almost black color. The texture of Canale's blood pudding is almost like a fine, thick pulled pork. Small chunks of the meat mix with the thickened blood, and a prune plum relish is added for sweetness. It tastes nothing like blood—not metallic or, well, bloody at all. In fact, the taste is rich and a bit sweet, very meaty and dark. In fact, pretty darned good.

Once you get past the strangeness that we've come to associate in modern society with offal (the often unused portions of the animal), it’s a pretty good feeling to know that almost no part of the animal (at least at this dinner) are unused. Legs, feet, innards and everything are beautifully prepared in ways that make us wonder why the heck we've gotten so squeamish about eating anything but carefully pre-packaged breasts and loins that aren't where the real flavor lies. Plus, there's so much less waste in consuming and using the many useful parts of a pig—often called the most generous animal—for its ability to be consumed almost entirely.

In fact, at Oliveto's Whole Hog dinner, we purposefully steered clear of common cuts, opting instead for rich pates, delicate pasta with slow-cooked shoulder, a gigantic pork bacon chop (the fatty belly and "bacon" section of the pig) and even tried bacon ice cream for dessert. Spicy and smoky, it was delicious; as well as gelee's of blood orange and prosecco made with rendered bone marrow.

Even the ears, which were pressed into a terrine were…okay, they were kind of unpleasant, I have to admit. But chewing (and chewing and chewing) them slowly, carefully, I felt my nervousness leaving, replaced by a sense of accomplishment in honoring the entire pig: ears, feet, blood and all. Leaving behind nothing but the squeal—which maybe I'll try next time.

Oliveto's (5655 College Ave., Oakland, www.oliveto.com) offers a number of special dinners throughout the year. See their website for details.

Honeymoon Dining

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NAPA--One of the questions I get asked a lot is, "Where should I go to eat in Napa?" I usually answer by stammering, hemming, hawing and saying, uhhhh..... for about 20 seconds before the mental Roladex starts turning. It's such a hard question to answer without knowing a price range, occasion, food likes and dislikes, etc.

Scanning through our bulletin boards for inspiration the other day, found a "Where to Eat?" post that seemed answerable:

"We will be visiting Napa for three nights in August for our honeymoon. Since we live on the east coast and have never been to Napa, we are at a lost as to which resturants are "must" visit places. We are looking to stay around $10-20 an entree.

Ahhhh, young love. Ahhhh, the post wedding-budget. A few thoughts...

Frankly, the best place for breakfast is your bed. Hopefully our honeymooners are staying at one of the local Bed and Breakfasts in Napa. I've found that many of the local proprietors are closet chefs, making amazing Wine Country food. For brunch, we've got it on good authority that Brix (7377 St. Helena Hwy., Yountville) has an amazing spread. A little more intimate is the Boon Fly Cafe(4048 Sonoma Hwy., Napa). They've got really reasonable prices, dogs sitting on the porch, and a generally local clientele.

So, onto lunch. Grab a sandwich at the amazing Genova Delicatessen (1550 Trancas St., Napa). It's an authentic Italian deli with wonderfully fresh mozzarella, antipasti and the best homemde cannolis I've had since I left Brooklyn. Take a picnic out to the vineyards along Silverado Trail.

Dinner in Napa for under $20 a plate--at least at the "big" restaurants might be a stretch. If you really want to experience a top-tier restaurant like Redd, Pere Jeanty or Terra, sometimes making lunch reservations gets you in the door for an amazing experience for a lot less money.

Think about some of the less obvious choices for dinner. Places that are romantic and quiet...local...
Here are some of my favorites:

- Angele (540 Main St., Napa) has incredible outdoor seating in the summer
- Pilar (807 Main St., Napa) has amazing fresh, local ingredients in a bistro-like atmopshere
- Bouchon (6534 Washington, Yountville) comes up on my favorite list a lot. Amazing seafood.
- Martini House (1245 Spring St. St Helena, CA) is super romantic
- Julia's Kitchen (500 First St., Napa) I love Julia's, because its where you'll find the locals eating, along with many chefs. Classy, upscale food in the heart of COPIA.
- Zare (5091 Solano Ave, Napa) is also a lot of fun, with a focus on Mediterranean food.

What are some of your favorite romantic Napa restaurants? Tell us. Happy Eating!


FORT BRAGG—The conversation over instant messenger between my brother, stuck in an office in San Francisco, and me, eating crab cakes and drinking wine in Mendocino went something like this:

Eatdrinkeatdrink: How much do you hate me right now?
Jirwinsfo: A lot.
Eatdrinkeatdrink: No really. Oh, wait…ooops dripped some sauce from my delicious crabcake while chatting with Olivia Wu from the Chronicle.
Jirwinsfo: I hate you. I’m in an office right now.
Eatdrinkeatdrink: Hold on, I missed that. I’m drinking my fifth glass of wine.
Jirwinsfo: You are an evil sister. Evil, I say.

At least that’s how I remember it. But I mean, I *had* been judging wine and crabcakes at the annual Mendocino Crab and Wine Festival all afternoon and one’s memory is a fragile thing, you know. I think I got the gist of it…minus a few expletives.

I wasn’t the only one covered with crab shells and the last few drops of a tasty Sauvignon Blanc or two last during the last weekend of January. Along with me, hundreds of crabby folks braved the elements to attend the annual festival in Fort Bragg (and, well, pretty much everywhere along the Mendocino Coast). Crab crackers flying throughout the wet and stormy weekend, I am fairly confident that I am personally responsible for the demise of several crustaceans, and in the onslaught, may have also consumed a few fish, some mussels and well, a handful of other sea creatures. Their sacrifice will not soon be forgotten. Pass the butter.

Here’s what I learned at the Crab Festival:

- The crab cakes at the Mendo Bistro have no equal. Even after eating, um…10 of them (seriously), I still wanted more. More!
- The beds at the Stanford Inn in Mendocino may induce up to 11 hours of sleep at a time. Double that, if you light the fireplace.
- No one looks sexy in a crab hat.
- Everyone looks sexy eating big, steaming bowls of Cioppino from a communal bowl.
- Red wine and crab cakes are a scary thing. Most of the time.
- You could learn something from a fisherman. Like the fact that it’s always a good idea to use eye protection when lowering a 50 pound vat of boiling crabs into ice.
- Never look a crab in the eye stalk. Especially after sampling 41 of Mendocino County’s finest wines.