Eating Well: San Francisco - #104

BURT WOLF: San Francisco, California. A city whose present-day gleam began with the discovery of glittering gold. It's our most picturesque big city. It's the place to tour Chinatown, and take a look at some of the finest Chinese cooking anywhere. To see the fish that lives in the desert. Discover who tamed wild rice. And we reveal at last why Marilyn Monroe loved artichokes. What a town! Join me, Burt Wolf, Eating Well in San Francisco.

The first people to live here were tribal groups that migrated from Asia across the Bering Straits and down along the Pacific Coast. They arrived here about 20 thousand years ago. Their culture worshipped the earth as a source of wealth and well-being, and they cared for it. Not a bad idea for us to pick up on today. 

The next to show up were the Spanish. They were looking for a passage from Europe to the Orient. Same job that Columbus was working on. Twice they missed the entrance to San Francisco because of the fog. That's something that could easily happen these days.

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake showed up. He'd been sent here by Queen Elizabeth of England with instructions to annoy the Spanish. Interesting choice of words. To annoy, as in the French Revolution annoyed Marie Antoinette? Anyway, Francis got bored after a while and headed home, and not much happened for about 200 years until the Spanish missionaries showed up to convert the local natives to Christianity. They built the Presidio for protection, and the Mission Dolores for worship.

The structure was put up in 1776. About 65 years later, the governor of California gave San Francisco to a man named Sutter, a native of Switzerland, who had run away to avoid debtors' prison. Those were the days when a government would give you a huge chunk of land if you would just develop it. 

During the 1840's, Sutter allowed a few hundred Americans from back east to settle on his ranch. Not a great move for Sutter. When the United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, an American naval expedition joined up with the local Americans living here and took over California for the U.S. 


Almost all the frontiers in our country were settled by farmers, families that came in, cleared the land, settled down and built a place for themselves a little bit at a time. Not so in San Francisco. When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, the population went from 850 to 25,000 in just three years. People came from all over the world, not interested in building a family, but interested in finding gold as fast as they could. And the Gold Rush set the tone for this city. It was the singlemost important event in its history.


In France, they had lotteries for trips to the gold fields. Many French first saw San Francisco as crew members of French cargo ships. Quite often these sailors would jump ship and head for the gold. If they didn't do well they'd come back to town and open a restaurant. A German arrived with a load of canvas to make tents for the mines. He found he could do better making pants for them. His name was Levi Strauss, as in Levi 501 jeans. A hard-working prospector with a little luck could be wealthy beyond his wildest dreams in less than a month.

Prices in San Francisco went through the roof. Eggs were 50 dollars a dozen. These guys were rich and they wanted the best of everything. And it was actually the Gold Rush environment that set the basis for the good food that you find in San Francisco today. People came here from all over the world, kept their love of their national cuisines, and because of their wealth wanted the best and the newest of everything.

Wherever you are in San Francisco you will be magnetically drawn to Chinatown. 


The entrance is marked with an imperial dragon gate that was sent here as a gift from Taiwan. The gilded inscription on the top translated into English reads: “Everything in the world is in just proportion.”

Behind the gate almost ten thousand Chinese live in their own distinctively Asian neighborhood.

At the time of the Gold Rush in 1848, China was a total wreck. The Manchu dynasty was falling apart and totally unable to govern. There was widespread starvation, and the peasants were in rebellion all over the country. Any town in China was a great town to get out of, and that's what tens of thousands of Chinese did. They headed here to San Francisco for what they believed would be their golden opportunity.

The Chinese community had a major impact on this city from the beginning. Chinese herbal medicine was very important to a community that had only a few practicing doctors. Since the gold miners had no time to do anything but go for the gold, and almost everyone was more interested in mining than anything else, laundry was often sent by boat to China to be washed and returned. A group of enterprising Chinese settlers cut out the clipper ships and opened the first Chinese laundry in San Francisco.

The Chinese loved their native cuisine, but the rooming houses that they lived in didn't have kitchens. So the Chinese restaurant business took off. Gold miners of all nationalities quickly discovered that the Chinese restaurants produced the best-tasting food. At the same time, the prospectors who struck it rich and built their own mansions looked for the best Chinese chefs to work for them at home. 

The Chinese chefs were certainly one of the earliest and most important influences on the cooking of San Francisco. But so were the French. The French opened the first really good restaurants to cater to the new class of freshly wealthy. They set the tone for fine dining in the town.

A restaurant that combines the French and Chinese influences is Tommy Toy's. The dining room feels like a classic French restaurant, but it's actually patterned after the reading room of the Dowager Empress of China. The kitchen is definitely Asian, but the dishes are a combination of both traditions. Chinese cucumber and duck with French escargots in a bird's nest. A French approach to scallops with Chinese lotus roots. Nevertheless, even with all this French technique, there are lots of Chinese classics perfectly prepared. Like vegetable stir-fried rice. 

Chef Howard Wong coats a hot wok with vegetable oil. Two eggs are beaten together and quickly scrambled. If you're at the limit of your cholesterol intake for the week, you can substitute four egg whites for the two whole eggs. It's almost impossible to taste the difference. Remember the old commercial that said, only your hairdresser knows for sure? Well, when it comes to substituting egg whites for whole eggs in a cooked dish like this, only your cardiologist knows for sure.

Next, two cups of rice that have already been cooked. A cup of minced vegetables, celery, green peppers, carrots, a little salt, a squirt of sesame oil that the chef keeps appropriately enough in a squirt can. A little soy sauce, a lot of stirring, and two minutes later, it's ready to serve.

One of the common ingredients in Chinese cooking, as well as many other cuisines, is celery. And for good reason. It's available all over the country all year long. It's inexpensive, it adds a crunchy texture to whatever you're cooking. It's used in first courses, main courses, soups, salads, stuffings, and all by itself. Don't wash your celery before you store it in your refrigerator. The moisture that stays on it will shorten the storage life. Cut off the top leaves and take off any limp outer stalks, and into a plastic bag, and into the refrigerator. They'll hold for about a week. Just before you use them, give them a quick rinse in cold water to refresh the ribs.

A cup of celery has about twenty calories. It's a good source of dietary fiber, and virtually fat-free. Celery's been around for thousands of years, but for most of those years it was used as a seasoning or a garnish, the way we use parsley today. In the 1600's in Italy, it became a salad ingredient. They'd serve it with a little vegetable oil and a pepper dressing. And in the early 1800's, in the United States of America, it became a very fashionable food, kind of like caviar is today, with lots of snob appeal. It was served in its own specially designed vase in the center of the table as a centerpiece. And those pressed glass vases became the most popular wedding gift that anybody could receive.

Right next to Chinatown is an area called North Beach. There in the 1830's, it was just a big ranch on the edge of a small town called the Yerba Buena. Yerba Buena means good herb. It was a reference to the sweet-smelling mint that grew in the area. The ranch raised cattle and sold fresh meat to sailing vessels that would stop by for provisions. Many of those sailing vessels were Italian trading ships that came here from the town of Genoa. When gold was discovered, a lot of those Italian sailors decided to trade in their rigging for digging, and settled here in North Beach. It became an important Italian community. Eventually it became a home to writers and artists. Jack London lived here, Mark Twain lived here. It was a place for free-thinkers and noncomformists.

The area has maintained its place as an authentic Italian neighborhood. There are classic bakeries with biscotti and cheesecakes. Each block has its own espresso and capuccino cafe. The one called Tosca has a jukebox that plays Italian operas. Even the street signs proclaim the neighborhood's heritage. Foot for foot, there are as many Italian restaurants in North Beach as you would find in any Italian city.

Of all the great gastronomic gifts that American has received from the Italians who have immigrated here, at the top of my list is pasta. And when the sauce is made with tomatoes, shrimp and artichokes, hey, I'm ready to cook.

A sliced red onion goes into a pan with a little vegetable oil and cooks for a minute. When you're choosing a cooking oil these days, try to pick one with a very low level of saturated fat. All the research tells us that a diet low in saturated fat is better for our health.

Next, two tomatoes cut into bite-sized pieces. A little freshly-ground pepper. A minute more of cooking, and in goes about a cup of artichoke hearts that have been cooked, cut, and packed in water. I first saw cooked artichokes packed in water in a restaurant I was filming in, and I was impressed with both the taste and the convenience. Finally a few pre-cooked shrimp. A little more pepper and the sauce is ready. It goes onto a half pound of cooked pasta and onto the table. Shrimp and artichoke hearts.

The artichoke has a rather interesting history, with beautiful women playing a part in its story from the beginning. The ancient Greeks had a legend that told of an angry god turning a radiant maiden into a thistle-like plant -- the first artichoke. Then there was Catherine De Medici of Italy. She married King Henry II of France in the 1500's. She loved artichokes, and she ate them all the time. But artichokes were thought to be an aphrodisiac, and she created quite a scandal. 

And most recently, guess who was the first artichoke queen? Marilyn Monroe. Quite a past for these little thistle plants. 

They grow best in an area that's cool but frost-free, and has lots of fog. And that's why the very heart of the artichoke growing industry in the United States is a place just outside of San Francisco, California called Castroville. 

Artichokes first came to the United States with French settlers who arrived in the area near New Orleans, and with Spanish missionaries who came here to California. They're low in calories, low in fat, and low in sodium, and high in vitamins A, B, C, iron, iodine and potassium.


April 18th, 1906. Five-sixteen a.m. Every church bell in San Francisco was suddenly clanging. There was a deep rumbling sound throughout the city. The earth opens. The pavement twists. Electric wires split apart and crashed to the ground. In 48 seconds over 5000 buildings collapsed.


In less than a minute, the great San Francisco earthquake is over.


And the fires begin. The entire metropolis becomes an inferno. A firestorm that burns for days until the town lays in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of people gather in tents.

One of the buildings that miraculously survived the quake and the fire was the Sherman House. 

The Sherman House was originally built in 1876 as the home of Leander Sherman. Sherman was an influential patron of the arts, and his elegant home became a center for San Francisco's writers, musicians, and artists. There are only fourteen rooms and suites. No two are alike, but all of them are elegant. The garden pathways are built of cobblestones that were once used in the roadways of the city's cable cars.

The Sherman House offers the kind of privacy and detailed attention to the needs of its guests that have made it a kind of a home away from home for superstars like Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby. There's a team of five chefs who do all the cooking for the fourteen rooms. That's roughly one chef for every three rooms. With a ratio like that, you can get some fabulous cooking.

And that is precisely what's happening under the direction of executive chef Donia Bijan. Donia says that expressing yourself through your cooking is like expressing yourself through a well-spoken language. You should try to be clear, direct, honest, and interesting.

Well, I can definitely hear what she's saying with her recipe for farm-raised tilapia fish. If you've never heard of tilapia before you're in for a real treat. It's an ancient fish with a modern taste.


Start by making a lemon and oil sauce. Squeeze and strain the juice of a lemon. If you're going to juice a lemon it's a good idea to take that lemon and roll it against a surface or your hands. That will concentrate the juices, and then when you slice it and you squeeze it to get at the juice, you'll get a lot more juice.

Pour the juice into a bowl. Add a teaspoon of chopped shallots, a little salt, some freshly-ground black pepper, a tablespoon of capers. About a quarter-cup of pitted black olives that have been sliced, and the zest of half a lemon. Mix that together, and slowly add in about a cup of vegetable oil. 

Chop up three tablespoons of Italian parsley; add it in. Meanwhile, take four boneless, skinless farm-raised tilapia fish fillets, grind on a little pepper, pour on a little oil, into a non-stick frying pan. If the fillets won't fit into one pan, use two. 

A minute of cooking on one side, then flip and another minute on the other . The tilapia comes out, asparagus and baby tomatoes get heated with some of the lemon sauce. The tilapia goes on a serving plate. The vegetables go on, a little bit of the lemon sauce, and a garnish of Italian parsley.

Americans interested in a healthful diet have been eating more and more fish. Filled with high-quality protein, generally low in fat and calories, and containing nutrients that may actually reduce the risk of heart disease, fish consumption has been increasing at a rapid rate. Delightful for our diets, but our fish supply is very shaky. Most of the coastal fishing areas that have supplied seafood to our nation in the past are either in serious decline or totally collapsed. As a result, we have begun to import extraordinary amounts of seafood. The nation is spending about six billion dollars each year to import the seafood we eat. Not too good for our national balance of payments or our foreign debt. 

It appears that the solution to our problem is something called aquaculture. It's the raising of seafood with the same approach that would be used by a farmer if he were raising fresh fruits and vegetables, meats or poultry. It's actually a technique that's been going on for thousands and thousands of years. When we first figured out that it was a lot easier to grow our food, rather than hunt for it in wild nature, we began to cultivate just about everything we could get our hands on. When it comes to the raising of fish, that's been going on for at least 4000 years. We have evidence of it from ancient Egypt.

The pharaohs loved fish and raised them on fish farms. It appears that the fish they raised were tilapia. It's also called St. Peter's fish, because it is thought to be the fish used by Jesus to feed his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, and it's making a comeback. 

Here in the warmth of the California sun, a group of dedicated aquaculturalists have set up a fish farm. They feel that today with America so concerned about health issues, and fearful of the pollution of our environment, a farm like this gives them the opportunity to control the safe environment for the fish, as well as what the fish eat. And that could very well lead to a supply of good-tasting, high-quality dependable fish.

Solar Aquafarms is developing the technology. Take a look at what might be the future of fishing.

A team of scientists used the most advanced techniques to study the environment that the fish live in, as well as the biology of each generation of the species. They keep the system pure and in balance. The biofilter tanks set the optimum water quality for the health of the fish. And the warm desert sun is used to supply most of the energy for the process. Grow-out tanks that hold 160 thousand gallons of water and 75 thousand fish are used to raise the tilapia from fingerlings to one and a quarter pounders. They are fed a scientifically designed meal that improves the way they taste. To make sure that only the fully-grown fish are harvested, the farmers in scuba suits walk a fence through the tank. The undersized fish slip through; the others go off on a watery causeway to the holding tanks. With the constant overfishing and pollution of our oceans, this type of environmentally controlled fish farming may become more and more important to our food supply.

Some of the finest and most creative cooking in San Francisco is found in one of the city's most popular restaurants. It's called Stars, and it was opened in 1984 by Chef Jeremiah Tower, who is to a great extent responsible for our country's renewed interest in our own regional cooking. Today Stars' sous-chef, David Robbins, is preparing a first course of sauteed red cabbage, grilled goat cheese, and walnuts. 

Thin slices of red cabbage go into a bowl. A splash of oil and vinegar dressing goes on top. A little fresh thyme, walnuts, salt and pepper. A small amount of vegetable oil is heated in a non-stick frying pan. The cabbage and the walnut mixture goes in and cooks for about two minutes.

Meanwhile a slice of goat cheese gets a coating of bread crumbs, goes on to a heat-proof dish, and under the broiler or into a toaster oven for about thirty seconds. Then the cooked cabbage and walnuts go on to a serving plate. The cheese goes on top, and there's a garnish of chopped fresh parsley. It's quite an impressive looking first course. Interesting tastes and textures. Soft, smooth cheese, crunch of the walnuts, and the cabbage texture in between.

The ancient Romans believed that the walnut was a physical model of the brain. The hard shell was the skull, the papery partition was the membrane, and the nut itself represented the brain's two hemispheres.

The ancient Greeks traded walnuts throughout the Mediterranean. They were a symbol of fertility and a very important gift at wedding parties. For many centuries they were ground up and used as a thickening agent in sauces. They were also chopped up and used as ingredients to give body to a dish, or as a garnish on top. By the way, those are both good ideas right now. They will add lots of crunch and flavor to a dish.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, walnuts were so important that there were many cities that had government officials whose entire job was to make sure that people got an honest count when they bought walnuts.

The Franciscan fathers brought walnut trees to the first missions in California, and that was the beginning of the California walnut industry. Today the state produces 98 percent of the walnuts eaten in America. The walnut is an excellent food, especially for people who are cutting down on animal protein, and substituting vegetable protein.

And Chef Robbins did a really nice job with them. For a main course, he's preparing grilled salmon with a potato and wild rice pancake.

Two cups of potatoes have been cut into cubes, simmered in milk for twenty minutes, drained into a bowl, and mixed together with an equal amount of wild rice that's already been cooked. Then the mixture of potatoes and wild rice is formed into a pancake, lifted with a spatula, and sauteed in a non-stick pan. Thirty seconds on one side, and thirty seconds on the other. Remember both the potatoes and the wild rice have already been cooked. We're just putting on a crust here.

Next, a fillet of salmon is given a light seasoning of salt and pepper, and sauteed for five minutes on each side. While that's going on, some asparagus gets cooked in boiling water.

DAVID ROBBINS: I'm going to add some salt to our water, drop them right in there.

BURT WOLF: Then the pancake goes on to a serving plate, the salmon on top, the asparagus, a little bit of chopped tomato, and a spoonful of mayonnaise, regular or low-fat, that's been flavored with saffron or curry. 

A number of years ago I demonstrated a wild rice recipe and got a letter from a viewer who said that he thought the wildest thing about wild rice was its price. In those days it was about fifteen dollars a pound. These days, however, thanks to a group of growers in northern California, you can get top-quality wild rice for about five dollars a pound.

Wild rice is actually not a rice. It's really a grass that grows in water. It's a good source of vegetable protein, niacin, B vitamins and potassium, with about 70 calories in a half-cup serving. It's also very easy to cook. One cup of wild rice is mixed together with three cups of boiling water. It's covered and simmered for 40 minutes and it's ready to use. 

The kernel expands to three or four times its size during the cooking process, so a cup of uncooked California wild rice will produce about three cups of cooked rice. As the rice cooks it opens and becomes two-tone -- tan on the outside, cream-colored on the inside.

It has a nutty quality and kind of a smoky taste. It goes well with poultry, pork, vegetables, or any meat or fish that's been grilled or barbecued. Leave it to California to tame the wild rice.

And now Stars' pastry chef, Emily Lucetti, is going to prepare a tray of her irresistible lemon bars.

Sweet butter goes into the bowl of an electric mixer. Then confectioners sugar. The mixer goes on, flour is added, and everything blends together into a sandy mixture. At which point it's emptied into a rectangular baking dish, and pressed down to form a crust which is baked for fifteen minutes. While that's baking, the lemon topping is made by beating together whole eggs, sugar, fresh lemon juice, and flour. When the crust comes out of the oven, the lemon mixture is poured on top. Then back it goes into the oven for thirty minutes more. Comes out, cools down, and is served with a light dusting of confectioners sugar, as a snack; or on top of a puree of strawberries, with a few whole blueberries, as a more formal dessert.

So what does San Francisco have to remind us about eating well? To begin with, there are the three most important things to remember about eating healthfully. Variety, balance and moderation.

Just take a look at the range of food available in San Francisco, the different cultures that have settled down here and kept on cooking with foods of their native homeland, and you'll remember variety. Variety tells you to eat as many different foods as possible. The more different foods that you eat, the greater your chance of getting all the nutrients you need. 

The dragon gate's message, "everything in the world is in just proportion", is a challenge to us to keep our eating in balance.

And when it comes to moderation, let me magnetically remind you - moderation simply means don't eat a lot of any one thing. There are no good foods, there are no bad foods, there are just inappropriate amounts. Unless you have some special medical problem, you should be able to eat whatever you want. The task is to limit the quantities. 

And Marilyn was right about her love of artichokes. They're naturally low in fat and naturally low in calories.

It looks like farm-raised fish are turning out to be a safe source of high-quality seafood. Tilapia is a perfect example.

Wild rice has been tamed. It was always a good source of niacin, B vitamins and potassium, with about 70 calories in a cup, but these days it's given up its wild price.

Walnuts. They're a good source of vegetable protein that can be used throughout a meal.

And when it comes to the fortune of good health, the Surgeon General of the United States put it quite clearly - if you don't smoke, and you don't drink alcohol in excessive amounts, it looks like the most important thing you can do to keep yourself healthier longer is eat properly.

That's Eating Well in San Francisco. Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for something that tastes good. I'm Burt Wolf.