Want 15 kinds of lettuce, 5 kinds of berries? Try the Berkeley Bowl

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The cognoscenti around San Francisco Bay refer to the place simply as ''The Bowl.'' Not to be confused with football bowls or symphony bowls, the Berkeley Bowl at 2777 Shattuck is closer to a huge salad bowl.

A few miles down from Alice Water's Chez Panisse restaurant, a Berkeley landmark like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, The Bowl is a place where people once went bowling, which makes the name more edifying.

Now people come to shop for groceries, walking down from the Berkeley hills, taking a bus, or driving a car. But this is an exhibition of beautiful fresh products which has to be seen to be believed.

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In California, a land of marvelous foodstuffs as far as the eye can see, you might wonder what all the fuss is about until you get inside and count the variety of lettuces available for tonight's tossed salad.

Six? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Can you count baby bok choy as a salad green? There are probably 15 kinds or more.

Grocery carts look as though they've been arranged for a gourmet magazine photograph, with half a dozen kinds of lettuce, three or four colors and kinds of peppers, and three kinds of bananas, including plantains.

Four or five kinds of fresh berries have just come in: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and a hybrid of what looks like a combination of all three.

Fresh coriander comes with two lengths of stem, the longer ones a little more expensive.

A crowd waits to get standing room in front of the fresh mushrooms. And what a selection. There are fresh shiitaki, packaged by the half pound or loose in a box, allowing you to pick and choose.

There are also tiny white enoki, charming clusters of abalone mushrooms, Black Forest, and more strange, unusual shapes and mysteries to make an Easterner's heart thump with the excitement of it all. It is a bazaar, not Oriental, but a Berkeley bazaar, something for everyone.

The question becomes, where to start?

It is early, and only a few customers linger around the fish cases in serious discussion with the men behind the counter. An anatomy lesson is under way concerning an enormous Dungeness crab.

The fish case is filled with your usual Pacific catch, including what looks like a mountain of sand dabs.

A white enamel pan in the middle is filled with odds and ends. The sign says ''soup fin shark,'' and one Pismo clam looks large enough to make four quarts of New England chowder all by itself.

In back, trucks of fresh foodstuffs seem to be arriving at five-minute intervals. Dan and Glenn, as everybody working there calls them, carefully examine each crate.

Back in 1977 Dan Kataoka and Glenn Yasuda took over the old bowling alley and carried in crates and baskets of the best produce they could find to set up shop.

One by one, the spaces around the edges filled up with other categories of the menu - fish, meat, cheese, and candy. Most recently a small room opened up for grains and Oriental packaged goods.

The new room is successful. In fact, with all the fresh-grown Oriental produce, the home cook need never go to San Francisco's Chinatown - except for the fun of it.

That day in Chinatown, the stores churned and bubbled with excited shoppers. A special green had just arrived and was in perfect condition, bright tender leaves tied together in plump bunches. What was it?

None of the customers could say, some because they didn't have the English and others because they had plenty of English but not that specific word.

It would have remained one of those culinary mysteries, except for my visit to the Berkeley Bowl. There it sat in all its brilliant green, and the sign behind it read ''Gai Lan - Great for stir-fry.'' Obviously there is no English word.

Back home in New Hampshire, the produce manager of our best supermarket had no trouble at all. There was gai lan in all its glory, and the sign behind read ''Dandelion Greens.'' Good grief. It was no more dandelion than the pile of hot Italian peppers beside it.

Later in the week in Berkeley I had eaten at Greens, a restaurant that is old-style California vegetarian without a hint of meat or fish.

A delicious and remarkably inventive approach to the food makes the steak-eaters forget to ask where the steak is. This Black Bean Chili is a re-creation of what I had for lunch, and almost as good. Black Bean Chili

Beans:

1 pound black beans

1 to 8 cups water

1 small onion, sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil or lard

1 large bay leaf

1 tablespoon salt

Chili:

1/4 cup olive oil or lard

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 large green pepper, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely minced fresh, pickled, or canned jalapeno pepper

2 tablespoons hot chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 8-ounce can tomato sauce

Garnish:

Shredded mild cheese - Monterey Jack or Muenster

Sour cream

Mild green chili, canned or parboiled fresh, chopped

Fresh cilantro (coriander), shredded

This can be a soup or main course, depending on how much water is used to cook the beans.

Pick over beans for small pebbles and wash. Without soaking, combine with water, onion, oil or lard, bay leaf, but don't add the salt until beans are cooked.

Bring to a boil, turn heat to low, and simmer gently, covered, about 2 hours, or until beans are soft but not mushy. Stir in salt.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil or lard and slowly saute onion, garlic, green pepper, and jalapeno pepper until soft, but not brown, stirring often.

Stir in chili powder and cumin and saute 1 minute. Add tomato sauce and simmer gently 10 more minutes. Combine with beans and continue to cook 20 minutes. For best results, cool, cover, and refrigerate overnight to blend flavors.

To serve, reheat gently. Place a generous spoonful of shredded cheese in soup or bowls, and add chili.

Drop a tablespoon of sour cream in center of each serving and sprinkle with a teaspoon of chopped green chili and a sprinkling of fresh coriander. Serves up to 10 for soup and 6 for chili.

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