One of the things I knew I was giving up when I moved to San Francisco was al fresco dining. The summers here are cold — sometimes unnaturally so — and even when a warm day occurs it usually dissolves into a misty night.
But two weeks ago, San Francisco had a string of hot days that stretched into beautiful evenings. People played in the park and the line for ice cream wrapped around the corner. I headed to a friend's for dinner. "We'll cook together," Laura said when she invited me.
Laura Parker is the artist behind the Insalata's Mediterranean Table cookbook. Insalata's Restaurant, an escape in itself, is just north of San Francisco in the city of San Anselmo. The cookbook is page after succulent page of recipes from Insalata's chef and owner, Heidi Insalata Krahling.
There are dishes like grilled figs with goat cheese bruschetta and prosciutto, fattoush salad, roast duck with pomegranate glaze, and a cataplana with clams, chorizo, and tomato salad. One flip of the cover and you're on an impromptu vacation to the Mediterranean.
I washed a bunch of kale, made a piquant cilantro pesto, and then pulled out a saucepan to toast cumin and coriander. When the crushed seeds were mixed with paprika and cayenne, the kitchen became heady with an exotic scent.
As we cooked we talked: summertime, travel, food. At some point, Laura looked towards the deck and said — "should we eat outdoors?"
This is how rare al fresco dining is in San Francisco. We are so used to windy, chilly nights, we forget that it is July.
She pulled out a tablecloth and moved candles outside. We found extra chairs and grabbed a sweater. Moments later, there we were: gathered around the table on a mid-summer evening, wine glasses full, plates with piles of spicy greens and slices of pork roast. Big hunks of bread to catch the drippings.
Only blocks from home, I felt like I was on vacation. Turkey, Greece, Spain, Italy, France — somewhere days and nights stretch and people gather around the table and stay for hours. Good food, friends, conversation: the perfect summertime escape.
Insalata's Spicy Greens
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 1/2 pounds green chard, kale, or a combination of the two, stems removed; drained but not dry
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon coriander seed, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 to 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup chopped cilantro
3/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
lemon wedges, for garnish
In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the wet greens; cook until wilted; cover and reduce the heat and cook until the greens are soft, about 10 minutes.
Add the cumin, coriander, paprika and cayenne; cook, stirring occasionally, until the greens are very tender, about 10 minutes.
Make the cilantro pesto, by combining in the jar of a blender or food processor the oil, cilantro, garlic, salt and pepper; puree until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning and add a little water or a splash more oil if it is too thick.
Once the greens are cooked, stir in the pesto and heat throughout. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.
• Find the cookbook: Insalata's Mediterranean Table, $32 at Amazon
(Images: Laura Parker)