On Eating Out

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

A mere 8 days remain until the third anniversary of our arrival in San Francisco. On that Tuesday 155 weeks ago, we dragged our over-packed bags out of the airport into a crisp, starry evening and took a yellow cab to our new home. The celebratory airplane champagne and anticipation of the unfamiliar proved a heady combination. We beamed stupidly at each other as the cab flew high in the air over the 280 ramp, making its way towards the twinkling high-rises of the metropolis stretched out before us. I remember it as wildly futuristic, like a scene from Blade Runner and although we’ve repeated the journey many times now, day and night, I can’t ever imagine tiring of that skyline welcoming you home. The cab dropped us on the corner of a street with a number for a name and we pushed through revolving doors into the lobby of an apartment building where a 15 foot garland of pumpkins and gourds stood in proud welcome. We took the elevator to the 17th floor and collapsed into a bed that was a fairytale height from the floor and where we could stretch wide without finding one another. We slept well.

And then we did what we had fantasized about during the manic and stressful weeks of organization and admin leading up to that day. We got up, we walked, and we went for brunch. The brunch dish in question was one suited for those with the kind of rabid hunger accompanying adrenalin and jet-lag: the playfully named French Toast Orgy. Chunky slices of sourdough soaked in eggy custard and caramelized in the pan before being topped with a mountain of fruit and granola, themselves capped by thick, creamy yoghurt and honey. We ordered one each and licked the plates clean, a feat never yet to be repeated. But to get to the real point: the particular restaurant and dish were unimportant. What mattered to us was that we could get up, survey the day, and choose between a plethora of restaurants. On our previous trip to the city, when the prospect of our actually living there was still more in the realm of fantasy than reality, I had remarked excitedly that you could eat out in a different restaurant every night and never get bored. It was the comment of someone who had spent most of the previous 10 years frustrated by a small college town but it is still an excitement that resurfaces today from time to time. And we proceeded to spend our first few months trying to do just that, until we moved to our permanent apartment and had a kitchen with a gas hob and had adjusted to the real meaning of the silly numbers and monopoly money.

The pleasure of food lies squarely in ritual and relationships, for me at least, and eating out provides its very own version of that, whether it be standing in a noisy line with a group of friends for a late night burrito, or a spontaneous dinner for two, just because it’s Tuesday and you can. I don’t want to write routinely about restaurants on this site, mostly because the nuances of San Francisco pizzas might be endlessly fascinating to a small group of us, but clearly not to all (although I will at some point add a fixed page of SF restaurant suggestions because I do (surprise surprise) have opinions). But where cakesnail and my eating-out-life intersect are those happy points at which I discover a new dish at a restaurant and it inspires me in the kitchen and thus, dear reader, we arrive at the delight that is the dish of ful medames.

The discovery came on a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. The food in Seattle was inspirational across the board, with the rightly famed seafood of the region highlighted at every point, and in the form of simple yet innovative dishes. Indeed, my favourite meal of the trip, at Anchovies and Olives, would be highly difficult to repeat outside of the Pacific Northwest, and that was precisely why I adored it. The Ful discovery came at a place I was particularly excited to try: Sitka and Spruce which is in the beautiful Melrose Market at the lower end of Capitol Hill. It’s exactly the kind of restaurant I love: a small, thoughtful menu changing frequently with the seasons to make the most of local produce, a busy open plan kitchen to ogle from the long communal table, and a casual modern rustic décor that invites lingering with a coffee or glass of wine long after you’ve polished off the food.

Ful Medames is a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast dish consisting of dried fava beans which are gently simmered until soft and creamy and then coarsely pureed with garlic and spices before being topped with a variety of good things. At Sitka and Spruce this included a soft-boiled egg, pistachios and dill. Other traditional options could involve yoghurt, olives or cucumber and tomato salad. For my version at home I stuck with the dill and pistachios and swapped out the egg for some crumbled Bulgarian sheep’s feta which I needed to use up. The feta and dill complimented each other perfectly but you should feel free to play around with combinations: the beans provide a mild enough base that they will stand up to experimentation. And although we had this for dinner it would be a fun dish to serve up to friends for brunch: you could put a variety of toppings in the middle of the table and let each person choose his or her own combination. I would consider serving it for our anniversary brunch next week, but I expect we’ll be eating out.

Ful Medames
Adapted from Sitka and Spruce and Claudia Roden

Yield: 4 servings

2 cups (approx. 350g) dried fava beans
½ cup (a handful!) pistachios
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp za’atar (optional)*
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tbsp dill, chopped
feta, to taste (approx 50g per serving)

*Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice mix, usually consisting of thyme, salt and sesame seeds, sometimes with other additions like sumac. It’s readily available in Middle Eastern grocery stores. I have approximately 1lb in my cupboard (Ottolenghi uses it frequently) so I use it liberally but you could skip it without ill effect.

Soak the fava beans overnight, or for at least 8 hours. Drain the soaking water and place in a large pan. Cover with fresh water so that it covers the beans by an inch or two. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook the beans for 2-2 ½ hours, until soft.
If there is a lot of water left at this point, reduce it and smash the beans to a coarse puree.
In a skillet, toast the pistachios over medium high heat then leave to one side. Toast the cumin seeds in the same pan until fragrant, add to a pestle and mortar and grind (you can use ground cumin if you like but the flavours are fresher and more pungent if you take this extra step). Stir in the za’atar if using and leave to one side.
Add 1 tbsp oil to the same skillet, add the chopped onion and cook over medium high heat for 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chopped garlic to the onion and continue cooking for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the cumin and za’atar to the pan and stir into the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring, for a further minute, allowing the mix to become fragrant, and then add the fava beans. Stir to combine and re-heat the beans, and then taste for seasoning (bearing in mind that if you are going to use feta it will be very salty so sightly under-season at this point).
Serve topped with the dill, pistachios and crumbled feta, or with the toppings of your choice.


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