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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Soul Food

Take a walk around San Francisco’s glamorous Ferry Plaza Farmers Market or flip through the new Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook (sniffily subtitled “A Comprehensive Guide to Impeccable Produce”), and you might think Northern California’s small farms do nothing but cherish the perfect microgreens and heirloom peaches for fat-wallet Bay Area bohemians. Don’t get us wrong: Farming, especially on a small, organic scale, is tough work, and no one’s getting rich doing it, even if they do charge $5 a pop for that special tree-ripened peach. But nutrition shouldn’t come down to fancy fruit for the wealthy and empty-calorie bodega snacks—or drab government-surplus commodity cheese—for those lower down the economic ladder. Recent articles in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and The New York Times (requires registration) point up two programs that get fresh food and nutrition information where it’s needed most.

San Francisco restaurateur Larry Bains, whose Acme Chophouse was a pioneer in getting grass-fed, sustainably raised meat onto local menus, is in his second year running his Nextcourse program at the San Francisco County Jail. Teachers do side-by-side comparisons of farmers’ market and supermarket produce, showing how the locally grown food is almost always fresher and cheaper. Then, with a $5-per-person budget (and no knives), they work on preparing an entrée, a vegetable, and a salad, passing along information about marketing, nutrition, and budgeting. Says one program participant, “When I was in jail, I was thinking this was all bullshit. I can’t do that. It’s going to be too expensive. It’s just you white people blowing smoke up our ass. But I got out and now I’m going to the market every week and my kids love it.”

Up in Sonoma County, the Food for Thought pantry, established to support people living with HIV and AIDS, supplies more than 450 people in the area with lush organic produce grown in its own garden, built by gardeners from the nearby Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. Many recipients come in, not just to get their food boxes, but also to spend a few hours tending the heirloom tomatoes and rainbow chard. This is food as full-body sustenance, not just for the belly but the soul.

Sunday Morning at the Panaderia

On Sunday morning, La Victoria Mexican Bakery is a great place to be, says Dave MP. The pastries are tasty, especially with the good coffee, and the sweet tamales are delicious. All the tamales, including the sweet ones and also chicken and pork, are freshly made in the morning. They also serve gelato from Copa Loca. Small coffee is $1.25 and tamales are $2 to $3. Pan dulces cost about a dollar each.

Mari could not disagree more, vastly preferring Panaderia La Reyna down the street. On Sunday you can smell the fresh bread from outside on the sidewalk, and the bread and pan dulce is better and cheaper than La Victoria. The trade-off is, they don’t have tables like La Victoria. Try them both and see what you think.

La Victoria Mexican Bakery [Mission]
2937 24th St., San Francisco
415-642-7120
Locater

La Reyna Panaderia [Mission]
3114 24th St., San Francisco
415-647-6502
Locater

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Sunday Morning at Panaderia La Victoria

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Sweet potato gnocchi, the signature dish at Da Flora, is simply amazing, says fnut. Seven of them are served in sage, pancetta, and cream sauce. echo theorizes that the prime number is on purpose–it’s impossible to divide evenly, and they’re so good that uneven division will result in fights, so everybody has to get their own order.

Black Mouth cake is also highly recommended, but Chowhounds are most impressed with the impeccably selected wine list put together by the knowledgeable, enthusiastic Flora herself.

Da Flora [North Beach]
701 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
415-981-4664
Locater

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Da Flora’s gnocchi

Tacos in a Tortilla Factory and Other Brooklyn Mexican Tips

You’ll find no fresher tortillas than the ones used for tacos at Los Tortilleria Mexicana. This tortilla factory in Bushwick’s bustling Mexican section has a taco stand right on the premises, turning out tasty $2 tacos and tostadas, reports anneyuki. Grab a table, settle in for lunch, and watch the crew pack tortillas by the case.

Some of those tortillas might be bound for nearby Tacos La Hacienda, which serves cheap, authentic Mexican food plus standard diner fare in a silver dining car. Look for specials like chicken in mole poblano and pork ribs in green sauce, advises guide boy.

Los Tortilleria Mexicana [Bushwick]
271 Starr St., between Wyckoff and St. Nicholas Aves., Brooklyn
718-456-3422
Locater

Tacos La Hacienda [Bushwick]
96 Wyckoff Ave., near Hart St., Brooklyn
718-821-8816
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Tacos in NYC
Just moved to East Williamsburg/Bushwick–where should I eat?

A Surprising Sirloin Salad at Keens

The rarely mentioned steak salad at Keens is eminently houndworthy and probably not what you would expect. It’s a smallish piece of aged prime sirloin, maybe a ten-ouncer, with a salad on the side. The salad is nothing special, reports Paul Lukas, but the steak is fantastic. “Among the best small steaks I’ve had in the city,” he adds, “and I didn’t feel like I had to take a nap immediately afterward. Recommended.”

It’s $23 and available only for lunch or in the Pub Room.

Keens Steakhouse [Herald Square]
72 W. 36th St., between 6th and 5th Aves., Manhattan
212-947-3636
Locater

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“Steak Salad” at Keen’s

This May Be the Perfect Mooncakes

While most mooncakes are mass produced and packaged for international distribution, Taiwan Gourmet Deli’s are hand-made daily with freshly ground ingredients including dates, green beans, and red beans. They’re made with just the right amount of lard, and very few preservatives, ipsedixit says. Taiwan Gourmet Deli’s specialty are green pong moon cakes, white with a flakey crust.

Diamond Bakery in San Gabriel and Queen’s bakery in Chinatown both are both worthy mooncake makers with a large variety of flavor options. There are so many different fillings it’s hard to choose. Red bean, date/walnut, and mixed nut with ham are current favorites, says jenn. For the freshest mooncakes get them before October 6th, the official start of the Moon Festival.

Family Pastry’s sells a large variety of fresh moon cakes, says monku, who considers their plump, pork-filled, baked charsu bao the best around.

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You looking for good MOON CAKES? Read on …

Sticky Thai Dessert Situation

Sticky rice with fresh mango is a great example of the “whole is more than the some of its parts” principle–a few simple ingredients, and a brilliant result.

The Wat Thai Temple’s serves one of the best sticky rice with mangos around. The mangoes are never less than perfectly ripe, says monkey. On weekends from 11 AM to 3 PM. $3 will get you a pint of sticky rice, a whole mango and a small cup of coconut cream; $5 gets you double. Go to the booth with the longest line, they have the best mango with sticky rice, Kain Natayo adds.

Tuk Tuk Thai sometimes serves it as a special and it’s so good, says echo eater.

Chandra makes a very good version using the most succulent and delicious mangoes, WildSwede says. Saladang’s version is worth checking out too, says charmo.

Bhan Kanom Thai is a small Thai snack shop that makes pretty good sticky rice and mango, although the mango isn’t as fresh as its’ precut. As a bonus, pick up a package of their completely delish green mango slices with sticky sauce, just don’t eat too much or your stomach will regret it, says igj. They also make a great version of kanom krok and sweet black rice too.

Siamese Garden makes excellent sticky rice with mango, and the rest of their menu is solid too.

The sticky rice and mango at Cafe Talesai is the one outstanding dish on an otherwise mediocre menu, says omotosando.

Tuk Tuk Thai Restaurant [Midtown]
8875 W. Pico Blvd., Robertson, Los Angeles
310-860-1872
Locater

Wat Thai Buddhist Temple [East San Fernando Valley]
8225 Coldwater Canyon Ave., Roscoe, North Hollywood
818-785-9552
Locater

Chandra Thai Restaurant [Pasadena-ish]
400 S. Arroyo Pkwy., Pasadena
626-577-6599
Locater

Saladang Song [Pasadena-ish]
383 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena
626-793-5200
Locater

Bhan Kanom Thai [Thai Town]
5271 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
323-871-8030
Locater

Bhan Kanom Thai [East San Fernando Valley]
12714 Sherman Way, North Hollywood
818-255-3355
Locater

Siamese Garden [Beaches]
301 Washington Blvd., Venice
310-821-0098
Locater

Cafe Talesai [Beverly Hills]
9198 Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills
310-271-9345
Locater

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sticky rice with mango?

Chard: It’s Green

Chard is one of those dark leafy greens packed with fiber and nutrients–you know, the stuff that we’re always being told to eat more of. Luckily, it’s also delicious–provided you don’t mind a bit of bite to your greens (though chard is definitely milder than, say, kale). You’ll find green, ruby, and rainbow chard for sale; they’ve all got green leaves, but their ribs and stems differ in color (rainbow is green, ruby, and gold-ribbed chard bundled together). Both stems and leaves are good eating, but stems need to cook longer. There are two main recipe schools: parcook, then finish with a brief saute, or don’t parcook, but add liquid and braise.

It’s best to parboil chard, believes jen kalb, who says the ribs can sometimes turn gray when steamed or sauteed. She adds that if the stems are thick, it’s best to pull some of the strings from the outer layer and cut them into smaller pieces before proceeding.

Chard’s great in minestrone, jen adds: the ribs never lose their crispness. Will Owen says chard enhances any variation of lentil soup–vegetarian, meat based, simple, or complex: “the earthiness of both lentils and chard intermingle and enhance each other.” Add chopped chard for the last hour or so of simmering, and put a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice in your bowl at the table.

Alan Divack calls his prep “Korean-ish”: shred and and boil the chard; put the stems in, cook about 3 minutes, then add the leaves and cook for 5 minutes more. Drain, refresh in cold water, and squeeze dry. Mix sesame oil, white sugar, salt, and cayenne or Korean red pepper in a serving bowl to taste. Add chard and stir well.

Chop rainbow chard and parboil in a little chicken stock. Once the chard is softened, add some olive oil, sea salt, lemon zest, and a big squeeze of lemon juice. Great mixed into orzo that dressed with olive oil, parsley, and more lemon zest to taste, says MaspethMaven.

phoenikia offers this variation a classic Italian spinach preparation: saute 2 cloves of minced garlic in 2 or 3 Tbsps. of olive oil, then add 1/2 cup pine nuts, and sautee a bit more. Add 6 or7 cups of parboiled, drained, chopped chard to the skillet, along with 3/4 cup of raisins soaked in warm water for 5 minutes to plump, then drained. Sautee for about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

JasmineG cooks a dish she says is terrific as is, but also makes a great topping for pasta shapes like penne–it’s especially pretty over pasta if made with rainbow chard: cut the stems and ribs from a bunch of chard, and chop them and the leaves up (keeping them separate). Put just enough olive oil in a big skillet to coat the bottom and add some minced garlic and red pepper flakes, then add the chard stems and some water and cover. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then add the leaves and more water, cover again for about 3 minutes. When the chard is tender, add feta, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, some grated pecorino, and salt and pepper, and toss it all together.

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Chary of chard

Five Spice Powder for Fish and Sweets

Chinese five spice powder is most commonly used when cooking duck and other meats, but Chowhounds offer tips for using it with fish and in dessert-y preps.

rootlesscosmo rubs five spice powder on the exposed flesh of a salmon fillet, then pan-sears the fish, skin side-down, for a few minutes, and finishes in a 400 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes until done. Meaty white fishes like halibut stand up well to assertive five spice powder, says lunchbox, who recommends dredging halibut in flour seasoned with five spice and sauteing.

For sweets, “anything sweet that you would add cinnamon to is better with five spice,” preaches lunchbox. He poaches pears for tarts in ruby port and five spice powder. DGresh sautes ripe plantains in a mixture of butter and oil, sprinkling with five spice powder when they’re nearly done. babette feasts loves five spice powder in gingerbread.

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Non-Meat recipes for 5 spice powder

The Venerable BLT

Bacon, lettuce, and tomato on toast is just about the perfect sandwich, and easy to make. Most prefer the bacon to be crisp enough that it breaks with one bite. Thick-sliced crisp bacon will give you even more bacon flavor.

Those who like a chewy texture use a hardy baguette that will hold up to the ingredients.

macca says it’s a great sandwich to take on road trips. Put each ingredient in its own container, take along some mayo in the cooler, and assemble when it’s time to eat. (If you’re camping, the bacon can be cooked just before making sandwiches.)

An alternative to sliced tomatoes is tomato relish. It’s nice for variety, says ipsedixit. Fried green tomato is good too. Serve before the tomatoes get soggy.

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How do you prefer your “B” in your BLT?