In 1579, when Sir Francis Drake and his men first sailed up the northern California coast, driven by a search--for gold, glory, safe hiding, beauty, adventure--they sailed right past the magnificent San Francisco bay.   So shrouded it was in its viel of protective fog, the pirates were oblivious to the narrow mouth in the long Pacific wall of chert cliffs.  No doubt, looking for a scrap of land forgiving enough to pull ashore, they unwittingly kept the sails of the Golden Hind full and pointed northward.

In fact, the Golden Gate lay undiscovered for over 250 years after the first exploration of the California coast.  It played a perfect game of hide and seek for the 200 plus voyages bestowed with hardy explorers sent to discover what bounties California might have to offer.  One of the greatest natural harbors of the world shied behind her foreboding Golden Gates and pulled up its cover of fog.  While the San Francisco bay was, of course, eventually uncovered--by Don Gaspar de Portolá over land, not sea--centuries and revolutions later, the fog remains. 

Today, the fog does little by way of keeping people out, but it does force you inward in a way.  It quiets, isolates and when it chooses, magnificently reveals.  It may be blazing hot and clear skies fifty miles inland, but here, we live in our own world of moss greens, frothy teals and whirling, muted greys.  You can hide in the fog.  It provides a viel on reality that creates more room to dream.  The fog makes it seem that there is still space enough in the world for it to be plausible and possible to hope that:

"Now and then...if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates." 
- Mark Twain

Just past the forboding hills that gaurd the mouth of the bay is a little strectch of beach, carved into the clifts.  I first discovered this beach in Dave Edgars "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" in which the it represented the opposite of what it was for me today- a bright, sunny explosion of youth.  Whatever the weather, Edgars captured me with his description of the precipious, rollercoaster road plummeting to a black beach giving way to the hypnotic sea:

...and in a second we're driving parallel to the water, a few hundred feet up of course, for a while without even a visible cliffside to the left, just a sheer drop-and then suddenly we see the Headlands whole, green and mohair hills, ocher velour, the sleeping lions, the lighthouse far to the left, unbelieveable given we're ten minutes from the city, this vast bumpy land, could be Ireland or Scotland or the Faulklands or whatever..."

I first read those words in high school in Colorado, at 9,000 feet, far from the dizzying California coast.  But as soon as I found myself in California at university and in possesion of four wheels that could take me there, I determined to find out for myself what beach, of all the glorous California beaches, was worthy of such sopping laud.  I've since had the pleasure of discovering its black sands and salty air first hand many times, today on a beach day made not for bikinis but flannels and sweaters.  But of course, not shoes, never shoes.  We are pirates after all.

Such a day requires something warm to counter the lasting chill of the condensation of fog and caress of wind on skin.  Something that warms from the inside out, yet manages to scream SPRING.  And of course, something from the sea.  While this is far from the traditional San Francisician preparation of the glorious sanddab, it does conjeur up the scents of adventure and the flavors of treasure.   If you can't find sanddabs, you can substitute with halibut.  

The salad is delicious and bright.  Roasted fennel is one of my favorite flavors and it melds brilliantly with the apricots to create a slightly sweet, complex and surprising salad.  The peas provide a nice texture constrast and a bit of snap.

Shipwrecked sanddabs in harissa

  • 2 tbsp harissa paste (I like the spicy varieties)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 lb sanddabs, filleted and skinned (can be substituted with halibut or any white meaty fish)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions
  • 6 tbsp wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup water
  • 1.5 tsp honey
  • 1/2 c currants
  • 3 tbsp cilantro

Mix 1 tbsp of the harissa, cumin and a pinch of salt. Rub the resultant paste all over the fish fillets and marinate for at least 2 hours.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and fry the fillets for 2 minutes on each side.  You may have to work in batches depending on the size of your pan.  Remove the fish and set aside.  Add the onions to the pan and cook for 8 minutes, until golden.

Add the remaining harissa, vinegar, cinnamon, a pinch of salt and a generous bit of black pepper.  Pour in the water and let simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until rather thick.  Next, add the honey and currants and simmer gently for a couple more minutes.  Season as needed and then return the fish fillets to the pan, spooning some of the sauce on to the fish. Simmer for a minute or so more, until the fish is warm.

To eat the sanddabs, gently slide your fork between the meat and the backbone and peel the fish away from the bones.

Roasted fennel and apricot salad

  • 2 handfuls of arugul
  • 2 fennel bulbs, fronds removed and reserved
  • 6 apricots
  • Olive oil
  • 2 cups of snaps peas, ends removed
  • 1 cup of almonds
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • Sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons of bee pollen (optional)

Heat oven to 400 degrees.  Half and core the fennel blubs, then slice each half into 1/4 inch slices and arrange on a baking tray.  Drizzle about 2 tablespoons of olive oil on the fennel slices and season with two generous pinches of salt.  Roast in the oven for 35-40 minutes, until soft and golden.

In the meantime, quarter the apricots and remove and reserve the seed.  Grill apricots of a hot grill or on the stove over high heat, skin side down.  You want the skin to get slightly charred.  Remove and add to the fennel for the last 5 minutes of roasting.

Toast the almond in a medium pan over over high heat, stirring to ensure that they do not burn.  Coarsely chop the almond.

Add the arugula and snap peas to your salad bowl.  When ready, remove the fennel and apricots from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes.  When cool, add to the arugula, ensuring that the roasting juices from the fennel and apricots make it into the salad bowl.  Top with the toasted almonds and another pinch of sea salt and pepper.  Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the top and mix gently.  Depending on the juiciness of your lemon, you may need to add more lemon juice.  When plated, sprinkle the bee pollen over top as garnish, if using.