Gardening in San Francisco: Al fresco in December

Even though people think we do not have seasons in California, we do.  The changes are just more subtle than those elsewhere.  December is a month for pruning, planting, and garden cleanup and fortunately the weather here in San Francisco has been fabulous.  But there still are plenty of things that are growing.   The last of the tomatoes are still on the vine and it is mid December!   There is plenty of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, rhubarb, peas and herbs growing happily in the compost.

While the seasons in San Francisco may not be as dramatic as those in New England, change is evident as we finish our late Fall and early Winter gardening.  In early February, we will begin to see Mother Nature’s unfolding show of color that starts with a few bright spots here and there, and then crescendos in March and April where there is color everywhere you look.

Organic lettuce anyone?

I planted this space with patches of bright red and pink “Impression” tulips (Darwin Hybrid 24” tall – early Spring) surrounded by daffodils.   I’ll take a few pictures in the Spring and you will be able to appreciate nature’s beauty grows skyward.

Think color in Spring!

Time for a salad.  There is nothing like fresh lettuce, good olive oil, juice of one lemon picked right of the tree, and fresh herbs.  I sometimes add sliced almonds and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.  Add some fresh baguettes and you have a feast.

Puntarelle with Anchovy Sauce

Walking the halls of Eataly, brought back vivid memories of Rome. I have heard it said that the sense that connects quickest to the brain’s memory bank is the sense of smell. Now I have no way of knowing if there is any scientific explanation for this theory, but I have long felt that a keen sense of smell is a  far more reliable judge of character than sight and hearing. Dogs would certainly agree, but then dogs are enthusiastically agreeable to most things; except when it comes to taking a bath, which probably is a clear proof of the smell theorem.   

While the smells of Eataly were most reassuring and particularly helpful since I had forgotten to bring my glasses, my thoughts turned to Rome when I received this lovely photo from Anna and Claudio Allais who were in Rome celebrating Italy’s 150 anniversary as a Republic.  Standing in front of this 15th Century building, Anna is obviously trying to make sense of graffiti that unfortunately now deface many of these landmarks of civilization.  I suppose the barbarians that did such a marvellous job decorating the subways of New York have now turned their attention to Italy.    Now many will argue that this is progress, but I do recall that Michelangelo was painting on walls some 450 years ago and did a hell of a lot better job.  In any event, Anna assures me that the graffiti does not say, “Gourmay go home!”

Spring in Rome reminds me of puntarelle, this delightful bitter green leaf which is painfully hard to find, even in Rome.  Each Spring, we would walk from our home in Trastevere across the Tevere (the Tiber)  to Piperno  in the old Jewish quarter.  Piperno is one of our favorite restaurants and we are delighted to see that it is still in business after so many years.  In fact, Piperno has also just celebrated its 150 year anniversary.   We always had the same meal:  carciofi alla giudia (fast-fried artichoke hearts), puntarelle salad (see recipe below), abbacchio al forno (roasted lamb) and  palle del nonno (literally translated “grandfather’s balls” and very similar to profiteroles).  Funny, I don’t remember the palle being that small.

I would like to share this recipe for puntarelle from Amanda “Searching for Mr. Latte” Hesser,  which was published in Jan 27, 2002, in the New York Times Magazine.  Puntarelle is most difficult to find  (although we did managed to find some in Eataly) and Amanda suggests frisée as a substitute.  It is not quite the same, but “serviceable” as the English would say.  Make sure that there is a distinctive anchovy taste. 

Puntarelle with Anchovy Sauce

Ingredients (serves 4)

4 handfuls frisée, torn into small pieces (a good substitute for puntarelle, which is rare)
1 head of Belgian endive, cut into long strips
1 clove garlic
4 plump anchovy fillets, rinsed (Note:  You may need to increase the number of anchovy filets as the dressing requires a distinct anchovy taste)
2 Tbs red-wine vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper


  • Fill a large bowl with water and ice.  Add the frisée (preferably the puntarelle if you can find it) and chill for 30 minutes or so
  • In a mortar and pestle, mash together the garlic and anchovies until a smooth paste forms.  Stir in the vinegar.
  • When ready to serve, drain and dry the greens and place in a large bowl.  Pour a Tablespoon or two of olive oil over the greens and season with pepper.  Toss until lightly coated.
  • Divide the puntarelle and place in four shallow bowls.  Serve each with a spoonful of the anchovy mixture dolloped on top, or simply leave the mixture on a spoon set on top of the salad.  Each person should mix his or her own salad, using a fork and spoon.

I have no doubt in my mind that God invented puntarelle, but it was the Romans who found the perfect counter-balance with this delightful anchovy paste.  Enjoy.


Chinese Chicken (or shrimp) and Walnut Salad

This recipe is in honor of Amy “Red Bull” Taylor who celebrates her birthday today, July 20th.   Just to avoid any misunderstandings, Red Bull is neither a “chicken” nor a “shrimp”, but the verdict is still out on whether she is a “nut!”   Nevertheless, she is certainly no Wall-flower!  (Clarification for Langston: as in “Walnut”).

This recipe is a summer favorite and we normally serve it with shredded chicken rather than shrimp, but for those who are feather-challenged we provide you with a harvested-shrimp alternative.    A note on the dressing:  Use it sparingly since it tends to overwhelm the rest of the ingredients.  Toss in half of the dressing, taste and then add more if needed.  This recipe is derived from several sources from Thérèse’s vast archives.

Chinese Chicken and Walnut Salad

Ingredients for Dressing

1/2 cup of oil
1/4 cup on hoison sauce (maybe less)
1/4 cup of soy
1/4 cup of red wine vinegar
1 tsp (heaping) of garlic
1 tsp (heaping) of ginger
1/8 cup of sesame seeds

Salad ingredients

1 bunch of spinach
1/2 bunch of Napa cabbage (don’t substitute)
4 carrots julienned
1 1/2 cups of walnuts
1 red pepper julienned
4 scallions sliced
2 cups of shredded chicken or shrimp
2 stalks of celery sliced
1 small jalapeño thinly sliced


  1. Toss salad ingredients together.
  2. Mix dressing thoroughly and then add about half of the dressing to the salad and toss thoroughly.  Taste and then add more dressing to suit your taste.

A note to David and Langston:  Yes, the chicken is cooked and so are the shrimp.  Enjoy!   Happy Birthday Amy!