Noe Valley Voice November 2009

Spring and Ewen Utting show daughters Sasha, 2, and Astrid, 4, how to prepare one of the family's favorite recipes: Grandma's pumpkin bars.
Photo by Beverly Tharp

Home Cooking in Noe--A Piece of Cake

By Olivia Boler and Corrie M. Anders

November--and the fall season itself--is generally a time when folks tend to stay in for meals. The shrinking daylight hours and the chillier weather are reason enough to eat at home. However, these days Noe Valleyans aren't just ordering takeout. They are dusting off their cookbooks, getting reacquainted with their pots and pans, and cooking up some prize-winning recipes.

Eric Fox and his girlfriend, Katrina Ferguson, are among those spending more time in their kitchen on 29th Street.

"We are spoiled to have great restaurants in Noe Valley and we take advantage of them when we can," says Fox. "But because of the economy, we are eating out less."

The couple also have been attending local cookbook-signings, where they're collecting new recipes and cooking tips.

"We've discovered some fantastic books," says Fox, who first learned to cook at age 6 when his mom taught him how to scramble eggs. "We've been able to foster the love of cooking we've had for a while."

Spring Utting of Sanchez Street also finds herself preparing dinner at home most nights, "because I have small kids and they need to eat balanced meals." For easy meals, she dishes up everything from taco salads to "hamburger soup," which always draws raves from her husband, Ewen, and daughters, Astrid, 4, and Sasha, 2.

For more elaborate repasts, she'll select recipes from her favorite cookbooks--switching between Alice Waters and Mark Bittner, or her other pet authors.

"A lot of things we do to get a good result take a month or a year in your job," says Utting, a former advertising account executive. "But cooking your meal is pretty much quick gratification. I enjoy it and find it very rewarding."

Authors Warm Up Crowds

Whether because of the economy or a desire to put more savory fare on the table, an interest in cuisine has people hungry to attend events at a neighborhood bookstore.

"Oh, God yes they're popular," says Celia Sack about the cookbook-signing parties she started last fall after opening Ominivore Books on Food at Cesar Chavez Street near Church. "Sometimes there will be people out on the sidewalk who can't even get into the shop." Often patrons fill up all 40 folding chairs.

Sack says 30 people were left standing outside in September when food blogger and pastry chef David Lebovitz (a former Noe Valley resident now living in France) came to chat about The Sweet Life in Paris. And it was standing-room only when Louisiana chef-restaurateur John Besh showed up in October to talk about recipes in his new book, My New Orleans.

The Omnivore gatherings are spiced up by staff and customers who prepare dishes to complement the topic. For Besh's appearance, Chattanooga Street resident Gloria Rodriquez cooked up one of his recipes, Creole-style shrimp gumbo, and watched it quickly disappear. A Scandinavian cookbook author prompted Rodriquez to make a smoked-fish plate for folks in the room to sample.

With signature guests like Michael Pollan, Frank Bruni, and Deborah Madison, the near weekly events have been a boon for sales of both new and vintage cookbooks. Even Besh spent $200 on "a couple of rare Cajun books," says Sack.

Over the summer, Omnivore sold lots of books on canning and on raising chickens, she says. "I can't tell you how many customers asked for books on how to build your own chicken coop!"

Sack says that in the fall and winter the books on comfort food--one-pot meals, soups, and stews--really start to move.

Still, with Noe Valley's varied palate, most anything can sell anytime. "I think people's interest in cooking for themselves is a trend that was winding its way here [to Noe Valley] well before the economy took a turn," says Sack. "It's a natural evolution that was already in motion."

Classes from Soup to Knives

That evolution is also evident at Cooks Boulevard, which has been offering cooking classes--one or two a week--for two years. The classes started in the store on Castro Street, but since August of last year, students have been meeting in a teaching kitchen at Katherine Michiels School on Guerrero Street near 25th. The class roster ranges from "All About Curry" to "Vegetarian Soups and Stews" to seasonal offerings like "Perfect Holiday Pies." There are courses in quick breads, ricotta fritters, and cupcakes and frostings.

While there's an occasional cancellation, more often the workshops are filled to the limit of eight to 10 students.

"The classes have done well. We're seeing lots of people who want to bake more and cook more at home," says Martha Quiteño, the cooking class coordinator. "They're trying not to eat out as much, be a little more thrifty, and see the classes as an investment."

The most popular class, ironically, is not about baking or cooking, but a short course in "Essential Knife Skills."

"People from all different levels of cooking" take the class, which teaches chopping and mincing and other techniques. "It makes it safer for you to be in the kitchen, and saves you a lot of time once you acquire those skill s," says Quiteño.

She says she's not surprised that cooking is in vogue.

"People in this town appreciate good food," she says. "We have all this great local produce and lots of organic stuff available--they're very much in tune with that."

Living in a Food Paradise

Utting says she does her shopping at local outlets including Drewes Bros. on Church Street, Bi-Rite on 18th, and the newly opened Whole Foods Market on 24th Street--stores that, along with the farmers' market, offer a variety of high-quality products.

Originally from Austin, Tex., she feels lucky to have choices. "In the Bay Area, the alternative is organic and local because we are at the forefront of the food movement. But it's not that way everywhere," Utting says.

Guerrero Street resident and fellow foodie Tom Baker agrees. The Colorado native, who works as a management consultant, has always been interested in cooking. Recently, he made his own sausage and called the process "surprisingly easy. Pig inte stine has a lot of integrity." He also has prepared duck confit and he's baked baguettes with his daughter Willa, 4, and son Gus, 2.

"There are a lot of interesting places to shop within Noe, the Mission, and Bernal Heights," says Baker. "In a four- or five-block radius from our house, we can find things like curry leaves, oysters, and fresh pasta. In Colorado, if you wanted to make something out of a fancy-pants cookbook, you'd have to mail-order the ingredients, but here you can just walk down the street and get them."

Swiss Chard Pie Triumphs

Thriving because of local residents' loyalty is the Noe Valley Farmers' Market, held Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Noe Valley Ministry parking lot on 24th near Vicksburg Street.

Richard Hildreth, who is on the board of the market, says the market is busier than ever. His theory about the popularity of cooking is that "folks may be eating at home more to save money, because eating out in Noe Valley is expensive."

In any case, he says a lot of recipes are being traded. The market recently held a bake-off contest that attracted 18 entries, Hildreth reports. Contestants entered dishes ranging from Peanut Butter and Jelly Mini-Cookies to an apple galette.

The winners were announced at the Noe Valley Harvest Festival on Oct. 24. First-place blue ribbons went to Noe Street resident Mindy Kershner for her Swiss Chard Pie, and Sharon Dinkin of Colma for her Persimmon Custard.

"The two top winners were among the most challenging entries in terms of difficulty to prepare and challenging in terms of taste," says Hildreth. "Think about it--Swiss chard pie and a persimmon custard. What you had were some very skilled cooks who really knew their ingredients and knew their recipes."

New Recipe for Pumpkin?

A few weeks earlier in September, the chance to win an Omnivore Books­sponsored pie-making contest sent 48 cooks into the kitchen. Three times that many showed up at the store to sample the entries and salut e prize-winner Hannah Berman, who won for her banana cream pie.

If you missed out on the fun, Omnivore will hold another challenge on Nov. 21. This time, the prize will go to the cook who makes the best pie, mole, bread--or any other dish--using pumpkin or pumpkin seeds. There's a $5 fee to taste and judge the entries at the 4 p.m. event. Those bringing a dish get in free.

Meanwhile, Eric Fox says his work-at-home girlfriend has taken to baking batches of cookies that are waiting for him when he arrives home. Sometimes there's a down side to home cooking: Fox says his pants size is getting bigger.

Congratulations to the Bake-Off Winners

The first Noe Valley Farmers' Market Bake-Off was a gastronomical success.

The competition, held at the Oct. 24 Harvest Festival on 24th Street, attracted 18 official entries. There were also three unofficial entries.

"Some of the judges just couldn't resist bringing some goodies to share," said Richard Hildreth, a Farmers' Market board member. "But of course, their entries were out of the competition."

First-prize blue ribbons went to:

* Sharon Dinkin for her Persimmon Custard

* Mindy Kershner for her Swiss Chard Pie

Second-prize winners (red ribbons):

* Marci Aiken for her Peanut Butter and Jelly Mini-Cookies

* Aline Brown for her Ollalieberry Nut Squares

* Sasha Harrison for her Strawberry Coffeecake

Third-prize (orange ribbons):

* Nicholas Chinn for his Raisin Walnut Bread

* Kim Stryker for her Fall Apple Galette

* Xi Hau for her Pumpkin Mini-Muffins

* Laura Wazna-Black for her Apple-Blackberry Pie

Prizes included $25 to $100 gift certificates to the Saturday Farmers' Market, as well as gifts from Phoenix Books, Cooks Boulevard, and Omnivore Books on Food.

--Corrie M. Anders

Sharon Dinkin invites you to try her Persimmon Custard recipe, winner of a blue ribbon at the Harvest Festival Bake-Off Oct. 24.

Persimmon Custard


6 medium, very ripe persimmons (pulp)

4 large eggs, beaten

1 cup heavy cream

Zest of one orange

1 teaspon of vanilla

Pinch of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Mix all ingredients together. Pour into ramikins or large glass baking dish. Optional: add chopped candied pecans and sugar to taste--although it's sweet enough without extra sugar.

Bake 20-25 minutes. Let cool.

Optional: Garnish with whipped cream.

Cooking, or at least thinking about cooking, is definitely in these days, as evidenced by this spillover crowd at pastry chef David Lebovitz' September book-signing at Omnivore Books on Church Street.
Photo by Pamela Gerard