Blogger Laura McLively of My Berkeley Bowl. Photo: Mike Byrne
Blogger Laura McLively explores some of the more exotic and unique produce at Berkeley Bowl in her blog, My Berkeley Bowl. Photo: Mike Byrne

Laura McLively first visited Berkeley Bowl as an undergraduate at Cal. The Sonoma County native took the bus there to pick up an item for a class assignment, and, like many who encounter the Berkeley institution of a grocery store for the first time, she went a bit nuts. She bought way more than she could carry home on the bus.

Soon, she borrowed a huge rolling suitcase from her mother to take on her frequent shopping trips to the store.

After a year of living in Spain with her husband, she returned to the East Bay. When she came back to Berkeley Bowl, it was like she was seeing it with new eyes. “I noticed this vacancy that had been left by not doing this kind of explorative cooking that I had been doing in Spain,” she said.

In the organic section, she saw a black Spanish radish, and wondered what she could use it for. The fact that it was Spanish was not lost on her. “It wasn’t a coincidence,” she said. “It sparked a need in me. I needed to know what [it was].”

Her desire to learn about every exotic item in the produce section of the Berkeley Bowl has become a passion project — McLively blogs about her these culinary experiments on her blog, My Berkeley Bowl, where she “explores new realms in cooking with ingredients most people don’t use.”

Some of her latest entries: McLively transformed salsify, a long, hairy, brown root (she compares it to “decomposed witch fingers”), into both a soup and a fried chip garnish. An orange and spiky horned African cucumber, also known as a kiwano in New Zealand, became a gin-based cocktail with lime and mint. She made a salsa out of milpero, “a baby brother variety of the tomatillo,” according to McLively, and served it on top of fried plantains. Pepino melon, which tastes “like a honeydew with a hint of cucumber,” was a key ingredient in a glass noodle salad. And she used cherimoya, a fruit Mark Twain called “the most delicious fruit known to man,” to make panna cotta.

Salsify soup with salsify chips on the My Berkeley Bowl blog. Photo: Laura McLively
McLively transformed salsify into a puréed soup garnished with fried salsify chips. Photo: Laura McLively

McLively’s mother is Spanish, and her father is of Greek descent. In her family, food was always an important part of her life, where she spent a lot of time cooking with her mother. At UC Berkeley, she noticed that many of her fellow students hadn’t been exposed to the wide range of foods that she had.

Though she was studying nutrition, she really enjoyed her classes in food science. She also learned through projects like designing hospital menus that creating recipes came easily.

“Being a good dietician doesn’t necessarily mean you like to create recipes,” she said, “it could just mean you’re a good counselor. I realized that was one of my talents.” Indeed, McLively works as a dietician at the Native American Health Center, a community clinic in Fruitvale.

However, she traces the real origins of the blog back to living in Spain. There, she volunteered at a local market, where she helped elders navigate the many stalls and walked them home, sometimes carrying their purchases. Fluent in Spanish, she began asking what they were going to make with the ingredients they bought.

“It was like I had a walking cookbook in front of me,” she said. “They were so excited to share. Maybe they were more open [to] divulging secret recipes because I was a foreigner.”

Laura McLively peels prickly pear. Photo: Mike Byrne
Laura McLively peels prickly pear. Photo: Mike Byrne

Meanwhile, she met a fellow volunteer whose husband was not as excited by food as he was. In McLively, he found a kindred spirit. One day, he suggested they start cooking together.

“We’d walk around the market and choose whatever exotic ingredient caught our eyes,” she said. “They don’t have what we have here. While they’re into their typical veggies, they have much more exotic seafood.”

They’d then go back to his house, and he’d invariably know how to use the ingredient and teach her how to cook with it. They’d cook with tiny clams, squid in its own ink, octopus, crawfish. “I loved pushing those boundaries, and not just cooking the things you’re comfortable with, but opening doors to new exotic ingredients,” she said.

During that time, McLively had taken a sabbatical from her job, and when she returned to the Bay Area, it took a while for her to be able to return. So she had some free time.

And the first time she entered the Berkeley Bowl after her time away, that black Spanish radish beckoned. “It was like it called to me, the idea just hit me,” she said. “I need to cook with every single fruit and vegetable in this entire store.”

She also spotted some kumquats and used the two to make a pickled kumquat and black radish salad. Then she thought, “I should blog about this challenge.” New to blogging, she set up a WordPress account and documented her first experiment. Within minutes, she had her first comment: “Cool concept.” The instant validation made her feel she was onto something.

Since she started the project in March, the blog has gained followers, quite a few of them in various parts of the world, perhaps where some of these ingredients are more commonly used. (Admittedly, she has a bit less time for the blog now that she’s back at work full-time. And since a cardinal rule of food photography is to shoot during daylight, her work is mostly limited to weekends.)

A gin cocktail made with horned African cucumber on the My Berkeley Bowl blog. Photo: Laura McLively
A gin cocktail made with horned African cucumber is a recent recipe on My Berkeley Bowl. Photo: Laura McLively

On each visit to the store, she takes photos of several ingredients with which she may experiment in future posts. If someone else is buying a curious fruit or vegetable, she’ll talk to the shopper. At home, she does research on her ingredients, and tries them raw, sautéed or boiled.

Unsurprisingly, Spanish cuisine has a large influence on McLively’s cooking style, as do the books of Yotam Ottolenghi. A pescaterian herself, she said her blog is vegetarian to make it accessible to a wider audience.

A few of her own favorite recipes she’s made so far include a version of a Spanish almond cake called Tarta di Santiago, made like a pineapple-upside down cake with star fruit; a Thai version Torta Española with cassava, taro root and a tamarind dipping sauce (“a funky adaptation of that recipe, totally unlike the real thing, but really interesting,” she said); and a prickly pear and Serrano chili sorbet that garnered such rave reviews at a dinner party that several guests later bought their own ice cream makers so they could make it themselves.

Dietician that she is, McLively often offers health benefits of the produce as well. For instance, on a recent post about pale blue Japanese Hokkaido squash, she wrote: “Like all winter squash, it is a great source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, potassium and iron, with some calcium as well. In fact, winter squash is considered one of the healthiest foods out there, with blow-your-socks off levels of carotenoids (a potent antioxidant). Its high fiber content is also a huge plus.”

McLively lives in North Oakland and shops at the original Bowl, a little over a mile away from her home. It’s also the store she first got to know as an undergraduate. McLively admitted she hasn’t visited Berkeley Bowl West, as it opened when she was abroad. When told that it has even more items than the original store, she said she should probably go investigate.

Prickly pear sorbet on the My Berkeley Bowl blog. Photo: Laura McLively
Prickly pear sorbet is one of McLively’s favorite recipes from her blog. Photo: Laura McLively
Prickly pear sorbet is one of McLively’s favorite recipes from her blog. Photo: Laura McLively

While her husband has asked what she’ll do when she runs out of ingredients for experimentation, she said there’s no worry of that happening any time soon — Berkeley Bowl constantly gets new items. But she has thought about eventually moving onto the grain section.

“Even people in the know haven’t explored at least 50% of the bins at the Bowl,” she said.

McLively hasn’t been in touch directly with Berkeley Bowl  about her blog. When contacted by Berkeleyside, Berkeley Bowl owner Diane Yasuda said: “It’s really nice she’s giving us publicity. We would love to meet her in person. We’re flattered — we just don’t want to run out of what she’s featuring!”

While McLively points to her experience cooking with unknown seafood and that black radish as the initial inspiration for the blog, her interest in fruit may have been sparked much earlier.

“I’ve never been religious but even as a little kid, fruit in particular could be a spiritual experience,” she said. “The simple act of opening something as mundane as an orange, and seeing each perfect section, and peeling back that membrane and seeing those beads so perfectly symmetrical, it’s like a miracle of the universe. I love going to this store and having that experience all over again.”

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...