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Awake at the Whisk: Tastes of Santa Cruz

Monday, January 31, 2011


Tastes of Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, known for its beaches and surfing, also offers a wave of delicious eats. In two short days, I tasted the creatures from its seas, unique ales brewed under its sun, local honey harvested by its farmers, bites handcrafted by its local food artisans, and spices blended into international fare prepared by its cooks. This is the best way to explore a city: by sip and by bite.

It also helps when you have the world’s best travel guide. My friend Shawn and his wife Meghan cooked, drove, and fed us on this delicious journey. Thanks go to them for making this post possible!

Sunset on the beach in Santa Cruz

Creatures of the Sea
When you live by the sea, local eating slurps briny and wet with oysters. It also cracks sharp from crab legs stuffed plump with light and silky meat. No added lemon or hot sauce to mask the ocean’s bright life in the flavor: just the simple, salty sea.

Crab meat. Lots of crab meat!

Made with Love & Yeast: Bread & Beer
Shawn is a hardworking home cook who does his research and practices his technique. It seems one of his favorite ingredients is yeast, because he’s mastered both home brewing and home baked breads. Lucky me! I got to enjoy both while visiting him.

Shawn’s bread was based on a recipe from the new cookbook Tartine Bread. Cooked in a cast iron skillet with the lid closed helps create steam while baking and results in a crackling outer crust and a center that’s spongy and yields smoothly with the salty tang of sourdough between your teeth.

Shawn's sourdough bread baked with the Tartine Bread recipe

Shawn’s ales ought to be bottled and sold on the shelves of the finest grocers. He knows his beer, and he knows what he’s doing with his home kettle. On this particular trip, we filled canisters of his brew and enjoyed them on the beach while watching the sunset. (Like I said: world’s best tour guide.) This beer was malty with a smooth caramel finish. It actually reminded me of Mammoth Brewing Company’s Real McCoy Amber (one of my favorite beers).

One of Shawn's delicious home brewed ales. This one was served at his wedding.

After the sun had set, Shawn took us home and introduced us to a new favorite: habañero beer! I’ve never had pepper ale before, but I can assure you that Shawn’s won’t be my last. I wasn’t sure what to expect when he told me he had dropped a raw habañero into the brew. Those naughty peppers can quickly take over the flavor of a thing by turning it to raw heat. But not Shawn’s beer!

The color of grains grown in sunshine and with the flavor of bold hops, this beer drifted across my tongue with smooth refreshment, ending with a fine “Howdy-do!” from the subtle habañero heat.

These beers were truly 5-whisk ales!

Kale Salad
The Tartine cookbook also produced, through Meghan’s hands, a deep kale salad coated daringly in the anchovy garlic of Caesar dressing made with citrus from the trees outside her front door. Sprinkled with freshly shaved parmesan, this robust salad shoved romaine leaves aside to replace the love in my heart. Topped with Shawn’s homemade bread glowing in olive oil and baked into croutons, this side dish threatened to steal the show. It also affirmed one thing for me: I must buy that Tartine Bread book! It yields delicious results.
Caesar salad recipe with kale from Tartine Bread

Sun dried orange slices at the Aptos farmers' market

Next on our tour: a delightful farmers’ market at Cabrillo College in Aptos. Unless you’ve explored a city’s farmers’ markets, you have not really gotten to know a place. Farmers’ markets convey the quiet patterns of the people who live and eat in a town. Here, farmers were selling freshly roasted corn on the cob, cardamom-spiced chai to awaken sleepy morning taste buds, and even jars of lard. I went home with several tasty items: sundried orange slices the color of crystallized sun, carrot honey, and two kinds of barrel-fermented sauerkraut.

Barrel-fermented sauerkraut at the farmers' market in Aptos

You win some, you lose some: this is typically the way with taquerias. Thank goodness I was being guided on my Santa Cruz journey by a self-proclaimed taqueria enthusiast. When Shawn recommended this spot for lunch, we jumped at the suggestion.

Vegetarian taco from Tacos Moreno

This tiny storefront had a handful of packed seats and a short menu board: tacos, burritos, or quesadillas with your choice of meat. Pretty straight forward. I ordered the vegetarian tacos, a simple dish of pinto beans (whole, not refried), cheese, lettuce, tomato, and salsa. The fillings came over-stuffed inside two corn tortillas: one fried crisp, the other left soft—a winning texture combination! While the fresh toppings spilled out with each bite, I continuously loaded on more of the superb salsa, which was slightly spicy, rich with tomato tang, and rounded with garlic, onion, and spices.

More salsa, please!

Muy bueno!

Our whirlwind food tour ended with a restaurant called Asian Rose Malabar, where everything on the menu was vegetarian. Hurrah! This spot was the recommendation of my new friend from camp, Da.

I’m used to ordering off menus with one or two vegetarian options, so the pages and pages of choices seemed overwhelming. I decided the waiter would know best. And he did. He recommended the spinach and ricotta fritters that came nestled in minted tomato broth. The fritters were delicate and melted in my mouth. The broth was rich and round and warm on a chilly night.

Other table favorites included the coconut corn soup, samosas (how can you go wrong with samosas?), and rosemary flatbread naan with cucumber dipping sauce.
Best. Tour guides. Ever. My pals Shawn & Meghan.

Santa Cruz Regret
My only regret? The trip was way too short! I have a feeling I didn’t take in all the taste experiences that Santa Cruz has to offer. I’ll just have to return again soon to pick up where I left off.

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I'm with you- think I need to purchase the Tartine bread book. It was written up in the Sac Bee (thanks Blair!), among numerous other places.

Shawn's bread looks pretty amazing. And your discussion of the salad made my mouth water. Nice to have a winter garden in our backyard with a multitude of greens. Think I may have to recreate it sans Tartine style bread tonight.
You soooo get California...the Tacos made me die to be home! Your whole write up made me smile! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I got to go home for a while. :)

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