Living off the land in Palo Alto

I moved to Palo Alto three years ago. In the city famous for its proximity to Stanford University and world's greatest technology companies, and for its swanky downtown full of restaurants that don't seem to last very long in the ultra-competitive food scene, hardly anyone would notice a movement much more subtle than the tech revolution - a movement back to the roots, folks seeking local organic produce, growing their own food in their backyards and community gardens, and generally balancing the break-neck pace of their professional lives with quieter, gentler way of living at home. It may sound ironic, considering Palo Alto is home to some of the most expensive real estate in California. Indeed, when one's neighbors are Steve Jobs (of Apple & Pixar) and Steve Young (of the 49-ers), and Facebook and Google are just around the corner, the words "quieter, gentler way of living" may seem funny. But on the second thought, us crazy professional folks do occasionally have balance in life. I suppose growing my own food is a bit like growing my own company or building my own software - making it better day by day with love, care, know-how, and whole lot of trial-and-error. I've met many like-minded high-tech gardener foodies & winos since I moved here - wonderful people with a zest for Martha Stewart's proverbial "good life". Fittingly, as the developed world is becoming more environmentally and health conscious, it makes sense that the hotbed of progressive thought and innovation - Palo Alto - would pave the path toward a new balance - that of a Silicon Valley farmer.

The other day, Rona and I invited our good friends Eric and Mao for a little dinner & wine get-together, just the 4 of us. Not only do we share a passion for food and wine, which provides inexhaustible source of discussion, but also our sentiments about consuming local produce and cooking with simple high-quality ingredients. While at this point I don't raise any fish, poultry or cattle, yet :) (and in fact we prefer wild rather than farmed salmon), I do try to include as many ingredients as possible from my own garden, and I constantly experiment with more edible plants. We also believe that when cooking at home, uncomplicated dishes made with fresh produce straight from the vegetable bed, often dressed with just a good olive oil and sea-salt are perfect. I like to build up a meal progressing from lighter to heavier, serving small portions for each course, while paying attention to pairing food and wine such that they accentuate each other in weight, texture, and flavor. When wine savvy friends come, I enjoy the opportunity to share special bottles. We take our time, preparing dishes as we go, allowing the conversation and alcohol to unfold slowly.

1. We started off with tempura-fried zucchini & squash blossoms from my veggie bed, stuffed with a mixture of goat cheese, crème fraiche and lemon zest (Mao expertly constructed this dish from her own recipe). The 2002 Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru vintage Champagne - an excellent bottle from a good vintage - a classically sculpted, high-acid wine whet our appetites and worked magic with the tangy creamy cheese inside the tempura.

2. Rona served her tomato soup made from San Marzanos she'd picked and canned with her foodie friends last summer at a local farm. Pulverized with sauteed onions and orange zest, and topped with a sprinkle of high-quality freshly-bottled olive oil, basil from my garden and a drop of cream, the soup was so deep, intensely sweet & tangy that I though she must have added sugar, but she didn't. The Champagne worked remarkably with the tomato's acidity, and reflected off the flavors of orange zest and basil. Eric reminded us of the age-old cliché: "Champagne goes with everything!" By this time, I also had red Burgundy uncorked, its alluring earthy cherry scents beckoning.

3. Wild sockeye salmon that I personally filleted and de-boned, rubbed with a little sea-salt, garlic, and oregano from my garden, then generously floured (this is a key step) on the skin side, and then seared skin-down on a hot pan for just a minute, was a simple but very satisfying dish. After searing the skin side, I quickly and lightly fried the other side, and served in a "pond" of olive oil. Here olive oil is not just a splash, but a spill, like sauce. I picked up the concept while dining at Frasca in Boulder (a fabulous Italian/Friulian restaurant run by Bobby Stuckey, the French Laundry ex-sommelier). The combo of crispy skin, sea-salted flesh still somewhat raw on the inside, and rich olive oil is delicious. We served it with freshly picked arugula from the veggie garden. Accompanied by an excellent red Burgundy - 2001 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Vaucrains" (one of the top vineyards in NSG) by Maison Ambroise. The 2001 (solid year) was already showing secondary flavors - dense, meaty, earthy, "cherry-meet-veggie" complex, very Burgundian, very Nuits-Saint-Georges. "There is nothing that tastes like this in California or Oregon", we all nodded.

4. The Burgundy provided a bridge to the heavier course - Asian baby-back pork ribs - my own recipe. I came up with it a few years ago by observing the Chinese cooking of my mom-in-law and combining it with Western touches. I first boil the ribs for 1.5 hours using lots of Asian spices. And then I coat them with my special sauce (soy sauce, tomato sauce, 5-spice, a few other secret ingredients), and bake for 20 min or so at 375 degrees, applying the sauce 3-4 times in the process. The initial boiling makes the meat soft and falling off the bone, and the eventual basting and baking gives it a punchy, slightly salty flavor that guests can't stop devouring. I garnished the meat with a bit of cilantro from the garden. The Burgundy continued to work its magic - Pinot Noir always being an excellent match to soy sauce. Half way through the ribs, we proceeded to the next level - a 1998 Barbaresco "Marcarini" by Cantino Vignaioli - a mind-bending wine, drinking perfectly now, so complex, so delicious, so "faded flowers meet truffles" - what a great wine (kudos to both Garagiste and Gary Vaynerchuk for recommending)!

Two salads made from my garden veggies - one from Japanese cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes, and another - from Butter lettuce and Romaine lettuce - provided textural counter-point to the meat. Rona dressed the lettuces with Dijon mustard, a dash of sea-salt, a splash of olive oil and apple cider vinegar, and freshly minced garlic. The bright green and the fresh-off-the-plant crunchiness of the lettuce is something totally different from your usual super-market crap.

5. As the 3 lbs of ribs disappeared, we grabbed the rest of the Barbaresco and moved off to the couch to watch Netflix and eat Rona's home-made strawberry ice-cream, slowly falling asleep...

Ah, what a way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Palo Alto, before the hustle and bustle of the work week ensues. Good food, good wine, good friends, good city, good living - that's what it's all about for me, my friends!


Oh, will you share one of your recipes with us at this month's Grow Your Own blogging event, which celebrates the urban farmer (and home gardener)?

I live in MP and while my garden does not look as wonderful as yours, I enjoy my own slice of farming through bees and chickens. And I tend to cook seasonally and locally, based on what is in our CSA box each week. Glad I found your blog!

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