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2014 Asparagus Festival, Stockton CA

stages of growth of an asparagus plant

stages of growth of an asparagus plant

Asparagus is 93% water. That’s what Stockton, CA felt like on the first Friday of the 2014 Asparagus Festival, as it rained enough to shut down the first of a three-day foodie event. Thankfully the rain stopped long enough on Saturday for droves of people to come out and celebrate asparagus together under an overcast sky. Most of the droves drove and the numerous parking lots within blocks were filled quickly, but at least street parking in Stockton isn’t metered on the weekends.

We attended last year and sampled every bite (and sip) of asparagus. Of course this year we wanted to enjoy some more, but to avoid redundancy we also wanted to try other creative cooking. If only there was time to do it all in just one visit!

The festival takes up a large area, so there is plenty to experience while shuffling from food stand to food stand. While we walked around, we listened to Berlin as they played on one of several entertainment stages billed to host a variety of bands and singers. There were also chef demonstrations, shopping vendors, children’s activities, a farmers market, eating competitions, dog agility competitions, a hole-in-one golf competition, paddleboats for rent, and a sea lion exhibit.

Food, beverages, and alcoholic drinks are generally purchased with tickets, which are found in the white tents that are conveniently marked on the map in the free brochure – make sure to pick one up when you enter. The cost is $1 per ticket and most items were three to six tickets, but lots of food vendors were accepting cash, as well. We did not have any alcoholic drinks, but we know from trying them last year that they are good. These folks were happy to let us snap a shot of their yummy asparagus margaritas.

Asparagus Alley is the legendary collection of gigantic tents where groups of volunteers produce an asparagus spread en masse. Last year we tried the asparagus beef burritos, asparagus steak hoagies, and asparagus pasta, but the most popular item that people flock to is the deep fried asparagus. The batter itself was light and crunchy, sprinkled with a good amount of sharp Parmesan cheese. The asparagus itself was cooked perfectly – not mushy, and not stringy. It was hot and fresh, too, so the crew of volunteers was really working well together this year.

ice cream!!

ice cream!!

Did you think we wouldn’t have another round of asparagus ice cream? Truly it is tasty. Tasty enough that we each got our own instead of just “sampling.” The asparagus flavor is light over a rich and creamy vanilla base; anyone saying they didn’t like it was in denial and couldn’t get over the fact that there was asparagus in the ice cream. Little chunks are visible but it does little if nothing to the texture, so this is a delicious dessert despite a doubtful disposition.

We’ve met Castro’s BBQ Shack and Filipino Food before at last year’s Gilroy Garlic Festival, and we appreciated that they embraced the theme of that festival. They did the same here, with asparagus lumpia added to their menu for the weekend. While we waited for our order, we were gifted a sample of their famous traditional lumpia with a spicy, tangy dipping sauce. We noticed the traditional lumpia was more popular than the asparagus lumpia, but that’s not to say that the asparagus lumpia wasn’t selling fast.

asparagus lumpia

asparagus lumpia

No offense to the volunteers making the deep fried asparagus over at the Alley because it was great, but Castro’s asparagus lumpia had them beat. A delicately thin and crispy wrapper was fried just right so there was little excess oil, and there was zero difficulty in biting through the fresh asparagus. Of the three dips for choosing we went with the ranch; maintaining a balance of herbs and tanginess, it was a good choice to highlight the celebrated vegetable.

deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich

deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich

We admit, we walked by many food stands because they either 1) didn’t provide something new and/or different, or 2) we had tried them before and they had nothing new and/or different to offer. But of all the festival, the one non-asparagus item that made us melt was Castro’s deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If we had to sum it up on one word, it would be “ohmmfggd.” Pretty sure we actually said that as we chewed the first bite. It was similar to a Monte Cristo sandwich in terms of texture and presentation. The creamy and savory peanut butter mellowed the bright sweetness of the strawberry jelly, and together they oozed between slices of standard white bread. Despite being deep fried, since you’d think that the bread would soak up excessive oil, it was not greasy. In fact, all we needed to wipe our fingers when done was the wax paper on which it was served.

Barring event-cancelling weather, we encourage you to attend the Asparagus Festival at least once in your life, although it’s likely something you’ll want to return to. This was its 29th year, so it is reliably a festival that can be made a tradition for families to enjoy through generations. All those in your company will have a good time, whether or not they like asparagus.

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California State Fair 2013

typical, but a guilty pleasure

typical, but a guilty pleasure

There are ten days left to make your way to Sacramento for the California State Fair.  At the first fair in 1854, the main attractions were 72-lb beets and a 10-lb carrot.  It began as a celebration and promotion of the state’s agriculture in an effort to bring upstarting and pioneering people out West.  Well, it worked, and now we are the most populated state in the country.

a fitting display

a fitting display

Almost 160 years after its inception, we were amazed by the fair’s immense variety of family-friendly activities and attractions.  County pride exhibits, the bug museum, an expansive water park, a new 3D experience, live music, carnival rides and games, and so much more entertain all ages.  To hike around the 356 acres in blistering heat, though, you need fuel.  Some people wait for the fair to get their corn dog fix, or satisfy their funnel cake cravings for the year, but we were on a mission to find what’s new and different.  If you’re coming to the California fair, or if you’re attending a fair in another state, we hope you have the chance to find these kinds of items.

green flash west coast ipa

green flash west coast ipa

If you’re going to drink and be your family’s driver, please be smart about it.  Pick one beer from the draft station hosted by Ovations, sit in the misters, and enjoy it at least two to three hours before you drive.  There are around twenty beers to choose from, like this 7.3% ABV/95 IBU IPA from Green Flash of San Diego.  Crispy, hoppy, and floral, it was very refreshing on this hot California day.

bacon cheesecake on a stick

bacon cheesecake on a stick

Walking between the exhibition buildings, we spotted a nameless kiosk advertising chocolate covered bacon.  That caught our eye, but when we got closer we saw something more enticing: bacon cheesecake on a stick and dipped in chocolate.  August hadn’t had cheesecake in a few years, and this was better than she had remembered it.  A frozen slice of creamy and rich cheesecake is rolled in three slices of chopped, salty, crispy bacon, then dipped in milk chocolate.  This is perfect for the bacon and dessert lover on a hot day.  Steve, who was running this kiosk, told us where to find the main truck with loads of bacony items, and he actually beat us there so we got to chat with him further.

the bacon habit

the bacon habit

The Bacon Habit is also known as the traveling Mecca for lovers of bacon (August made that up, it’s not actually known as that [but it should be]).  The sights and smells from this food truck were intoxicating.  Lots of stands have giant turkey legs, but only The Bacon Habit had bacon-wrapped “caveman” turkey legs.  Its location this year is not in the main food court area, so walk past all those other legs and make your way here if you really want a leg.

caveman turkey leg

caveman turkey leg

Steve explained that they might go through about 90 caveman turkey legs in a day, making fresh batches every three hours.  This was the first batch today, glistening and beautiful.  We did not try one at this point standing here, but rather Steve wrapped up a leg for us to-go at the end of the day (now that’s customer service!).  Tender and moist, this is a huge mass of meat that can make any carnivore feel a little primal.  It’s hard to put down once you start, too, it’s so tasty, so you will definitely look a little primal gnawing on a giant bone.  And don’t be concerned about greasiness – even with all that bacon, it left little grease on your fingers.

grilling

grilling

A large crew of many family members and close friends runs The Bacon Habit’s truck and multiple kiosks throughout the fair.  Adept and friendly, everything they churned out was fresh and delicious.

pork'abella kabob

pork’abella kabob

The Bacon Habit’s kabob had thick, meaty mushrooms skewered with Gouda cheese, wrapped in bacon.  The cheese was gooey and the right choice of flavor to complement the mushrooms and bacon.

beer-battered bacon

beer-battered bacon

Bacon is usually fried to be prepared, but beer-battered and then fried?  It added an extra layer of crunch to already crispy bacon, and surprisingly it wasn’t greasy at all.

bacon-wrapped chicken

bacon-wrapped chicken

Like the caveman turkey leg, the bacon-wrapped chicken was moist and juicy.  A light batter gives just a bit of extra crunch.  We picture this to be ideal for the little kids who are envious of their parents’ caveman turkey legs, so they can have their own mini version of a bacon-wrapped bird.

cheesy bacon bomb

cheesy bacon bomb

Cheesy bacon bombs are The Bacon Habit’s bites of bacon heaven.  Fried mini sticks of pepper jack cheese have a nice kick, making these morsels zingy as well as gooey.  Wrap the fried cheese in bacon, and it doesn’t get much better.

Okay, it gets better if you’re a dessert lover.  Chocolate covered bacon is not new to us but we understand that it’s completely foreign to some readers, so please trust us, this actually works and it is good!  The Bacon Habit does it very well, using a rich chocolate to coat salty bacon pieces.  We couldn’t finish all of it, so we shared it with a sixteen-month old girl who devoured it and became our new best friend.

deep fried watermelon

deep fried watermelon

After parting ways with The Bacon Habit, we found ourselves confronted with more dessert but zero chocolate (or bacon).  Cardinali Pizza is known for its woodfire pizza, but we had to try the different dessert delights.  We spoke extensively with Tamee, and she started us off a wedge of deep fried watermelon.  It had a lightly sweet and buttery batter with the perfect amount of crispiness enveloping the juicy melon.  It was striped with strawberry syrup, dusted with powdered sugar, and topped with a cherry like a sundae.  It’s unlike any sundae in the world, but it’s good competition!  For those who doubt us, don’t be timid; it’s not a gut buster, it’s fairly light for what it is.

ghost pepper ice cream

ghost pepper ice cream

Tamee walked us from the outdoor truck to the exhibition hall where Cardinali had another station with different items.  Here, Zach tried a bite of ghost pepper ice cream.  It was smooth and creamy with a mild vanilla flavor behind the strong pepper taste.  He described it as hot, but “the ice cream cools it quickly.”  If you’re adventurous, give this a try and let us know what you think!  Would you make a sundae with it?

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Then we had one of the most creative presentations of a sundae we’ve ever seen, Cardinali’s spaghetti ice cream.  It was as much of a treat as it was a show to watch it be made!

spaghetti ice cream

spaghetti ice cream

Vanilla ice cream was pressed and extruded to make “pasta.”  A dollop of strawberry syrup with real fruit chunks represented marinara, and white chocolate was shaved just like Parmesan cheese.  To complete the motif, a mint leaf replaced basil for this pasta dish ice cream item like no other.

deep fried pop tart

deep fried pop tart

For anyone who loves sweets, this is the year to hit the fair.  There seemed to be an endless variety of dessert items, from the standard caramel apples and funnel cakes to the deep fried assortment from Sweet Cheeks Concessions.  We’ve seen deep fried Oreos and Twinkies before, but it was a first to see deep fried strawberry Pop Tarts.  Imagine the dough of the Pop Tart being coated in batter and then fried – yes, this is a lot of dough.  Most of the mass is dough.  But if you love strawberry Pop Tarts, we don’t blame you at all for giving this a go.

Our final stop on our tour of diverse fair food was at Hot Dog On A Stick.  We didn’t know it until today, but the famous mall food court franchise has catering services based out of Los Angeles that travel up to the Bay Area and even as far east as Utah, allowing them to post here for the state fair.  We almost walked by the truck, until we saw the cheese on a stick.  Pepper jack cheese was coated with a sweet corn batter just before getting dipped in the fryer, fresh to order.  The batter came out slightly crispy, sheltering the gooey warm cheese.  Zach says that if you love cheese, this is “an absolute must-try.”

Summer is fair season, and we hope you can make it to your local ones.  At county as well as state levels, these are the events where everyone comes to sport their pride, including the restauranteurs and caterers with their flavorful and fanciful food.  There aren’t many opportunities better than fairs to find palate-pleasing plates, and since they come once a year, go ahead and splurge!

2013 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival

We came to Japantown in San Francisco for the day so that we could find every delicious bite at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.  At this Japanese/Japanese American/Asian American cultural celebration, around a dozen food vendors had their own block sectioned off and we were more than happy to support the various community groups that brought out their best for the day.  We enjoyed walking around, shopping, enjoying dance and musical performances, and obviously the food.  We’re proud of all the food providers today, and we want to specifically highlight our top favorites.

chinese chicken salad

chinese chicken salad

The Rotary Club of San Francisco Chinatown, District 5150, made an excellent Chinese chicken salad.  Fresh lettuce, cilantro, ginger, crunchy wonton strips, juicy chicken, and sesame seeds combined for this classic mix, but the ingredients were supremely fresh.  In fact, ginger isn’t usually tolerable for August, but she really liked this and Zach suggested that she stop eating or else she wouldn’t have room for all the rest!  It was a refreshing start to our eating escapade.

red bean soup with mochi

red bean soup with mochi

More like a dessert, this red bean soup from the Japanese American Association of Northern California was a warm respite when the wind gusted strongly.  Giant mochi were like gummy dumplings; August likes gummy candy and tapioca pearl drinks, so again, she had to stop herself from eating a lot of it.

sushi & gyoza combination

sushi & gyoza combination

Miwa Kai Dance Group impressed us with this selection of inari, California rolls, and gyoza.  Inari has always been one of August’s favorites but it was Zach’s first time.  For how simple it is, it was still full of flavor, sweet and tangy from fried tofu, and really delicious.  The vegetables in the California rolls were exceptionally fresh and crunchy.  With seven yummy gyoza, sharing was a hard compromise.

spam musubi

spam musubi

Boy Scouts Troup 58 made delicious musubi – grilled spam with teriyaki glaze, wrapped in rice and seaweed.  Zach worked his way from Webelo to Cub Scout to Boy Scout, thus he respects and understands the efforts put in by the families.  We like spam but don’t eat it that often; usually we find it as a heavy Loco Moco, or we even tried the Spam Festival but that didn’t pan out, so this was a real treat to have here.  The green oceany flavor of the seaweed added a nice layer.

báhn mì

báhn mì

Since finding a great Vietnamese restaurant on Concord, we really like báhn mì sandwiches.  The Vietnamese Community Center of San Francisco made these, like the combination that we tried (others had just pork, just chicken, just veggies, etc).  The bread was great, more like a sweet roll than a french bread, because it had a bit more pull and not as much crunch in the crust.  All the vegetables were fresh and some were pickled.  The chicken and pork were tender and marinated well.

unagi bowl

unagi bowl

San Francisco Taru Mikoshi, besides providing the traditional taru mikoshi, or mobile Shinto shrine, also made this unagi bowl.  The eel meat was super moist and buttery with great seasoning and a somewhat sweet glaze.  The pickled ginger was a nice touch.

The line for the riblets was really long, and multiple grills kept up with the demand.  Asian American Recovery Services, Inc. had a big crew cooking up lots of pork and coleslaw (this picture shows just one of several grills).  Sweet, savory, tender, and for the price as a combo, this couldn’t be beat; plus, you can’t go wrong with Asian-inspired slaw and Hawaiian rolls.

kalua sliders

kalua sliders

This picture does not do justice for how great it was.  Hula Sistas, innovative Hawaiian crafters, offered kalua pork sliders with wasabi mayo.  The mayo was “creamy and with just enough spicy zing that it shook you, but you just had to go back for another bite” (as per Zach).  The shredded pork was moist, succulent, and tender, and the vegetables were crisp and fresh.  Supported by sweet Hawaiian rolls, it was now Zach’s turn to keep himself from eating the whole thing!

kelly's cranes, in collaboration with cynthia sasaki designs

kelly’s cranes, in collaboration with cynthia sasaki designs

August’s thing is to look for a pair of unique earrings at each food event we attend.  She had luck at the Chocolate Salon and the Taste of Yountville, and she was delighted when she saw these delicate origami cranes by Kelly, niece of Cynthia, of Cynthia Sasaki Designs.  August loves everything miniature to begin with, so of course these showed up in her radar.

Zach found some goodies too, from Arakawa Pottery.  We spoke with Thomas Arakawa, the owner and artist, and while he doesn’t have a store front, we will be following him because we want to have a collection of his beautiful ceramics.  Plates and platters, serving and soup bowls, sake cups and carafes, all made with an extremely labor-intensive process, are works of art – but according to Thomas’s Artist Statement, it is half complete as art until it is filled and used. These are dishes that you’ll start to see in future recipe posts!

The Cherry Blossom Festival spans two weekends this year, and today was just the first day.  Make your plans to come April 14, 20, and/or 21 and taste for yourself the array of delights!