When I lived in Berkeley, CA for a year, all I did was eat. There were so many options. Chez Panisse was around the corner on Shattuck Avenue, an owner-owned and operated pizza collective called The Cheeseboard was across the street. The Saturday morning farmer’s market was alive and well, where vendors with Birkenstocks and forearm tattoos sold freshly-picked figs and avocados.
One of my favorite places to eat in Berkeley was a little Tapas restaurant called Cesar. Rodney and I would often stop in for a drink – it was reminiscent of our local haunts in New York: dark and vibrant with loud music and louder cocktails.
Cesar had a huge Sherry collection and over the course of the year, I became a fan of the Spanish wine. From the lightest Finos, to the medium-bodied Olorosos to the dark and syrupy dessert wine Pedro Ximinez, I drank it all. We’d talk to the bartenders, and bring friends for Sherry tastings. Sherry gets a bad rap because of brands like Harvey’s Bristol cream which are so cloyingly sweet, but if you take the time to learn about it, there’s a whole beautiful world of fortified wine out there, just waiting to be discovered.
The food at Cesar was equally impressive. Although all of the tapas were good, some of my favorites were the authentic Spanish bocadillos, little sandwiches made from cured meats, hard boiled eggs, cheese, or tuna. And no Spanish restaurant worth its salt would be without its own spin on Paella. A picture in the Cesar cookbook shows a kitchen paella pan so big that the chef is actually sitting in it. Who knows if it was actually used or just hauled out for symbolic value; whatever the case, it was impressive.
One of their most memorable dishes was also their simplest. They excelled at making fries. Thin and crisp, the defining feature a scattering of fried herbs that were tossed into the fries right before serving.
I was in my kitchen recently, wondering what I was going to make for dinner. A Japanese sweet potato was staring at me. It was hefty, over a pound in weight, with browning ends that suggested that it had a few more days left to live. It was time to use or chuck, but what to make?
As Jenny Rosenstrach of Dinner A Love Story often says, when you’re stuck on dinner ideas, just start chopping an onion. Something will come to you. Jenny was right. As I was peeling it, I remembered in Technicolor the crispy fries from Cesar. I hadn’t thought about those fries in years. I got out on of my favorite kitchen utensils – my Japanese mandolin – and shredded the peeled potato it into fine strips.
I wasn’t sure if my experiment would be a success. I don’t tend to fry much at home, more to do with the smell of oil in the house than for health-related reasons. But I figured the shoestring potatoes would cook quickly.
After soaking them in cold water, I dried the potatoes thoroughly. I learned a hard lesson in cooking class after I tried to sautee still-wet rice in a hot pan: water + blazing hot oil = one hell of a smoking, hissing, kitchen-clearing mess.