Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Eat Well Guide Helps San Diego Consumers Find Locally Grown Sustainable Food

Photo from GRACE Communications Foundation
Recently, San Diego Magazine writer Troy Johnson stirred up the proverbial hornet's nest with a story revealing the less-than-honest practices of restaurants that claim to serve meals made with locally grown, seasonal products. It's something he and I have discussed and that I've experienced as well. It's bound to make local diners skeptical that what's on the menu is really coming out of the kitchen. The farm-to-fable fraud he wrote about is, as he says, unfair to the reputable restaurants and other food vendors who are working so hard to do what they feel is the right thing in terms of sustainability, our health, and supporting local growers--not to mention the farmers and diners who are being cheated by the unscrupulous.

So I was intrigued when about this time I learned about the launch of a free new website that claims to be the largest curated directory of sustainable food vendors. The Eat Well Guide has some 25,000 listings of restaurants, farms, farmers' markets, and food co-ops across the country. It is produced and maintained by the GRACE Communications Foundation, whose mission, they state, is "to develop innovative strategies to increase public awareness of the critical environmental and public health issues created by our current food, water and energy systems, and to promote a more sustainable future." Originally created in 2003 to help people find animal products from sustainable guides, the guide has evolved and grown. Now the idea for the guide is to make it easy for consumers around the country to find sustainable food vendors for free.


There are eight listing categories: restaurants; farms; farmers markets; stores; beer, wine and cocktails; chefs, caterers, and meal delivery; bed and breakfasts; and organizations.

San Diego is one of the initial 18 cities included. To be listed in the Eat Well Guide, the organization says that vendors must demonstrate a commitment to supporting sustainable agriculture. According to GRACE Communications Foundation's Samantha Sanchez, the organization determines conformation to the standards through the vendor's website, "and if we aren't sure, then we make phone calls, find out about their purveyors, find out more about the chef, look for certifications, etc." And, she emphasized, vendors can't pay to play.

Basically, I think this is a great idea, but it doesn't quite feel like it's ready for primetime. For one thing, it's unclear how they've developed their initial list. Locals will scratch their heads at the inclusion of places like Trader Joe's (love them but local?). The website's info page explains that, "restaurants, markets, food co-ops and other businesses included in the Eat Well Guide demonstrate a sincere commitment to sourcing local, sustainably produced food." So, intent seems to factor high here. If you sell products that include organic ingredients, that may be enough, even if they aren't local or sustainable. As they say, "Our goal is to allow for a spectrum of sustainability, encouraging businesses to adopt increasingly sustainable food sourcing practices as they are able." I worry that that caveat allows for more skeptical consumers.


Another issue I have is that some of the vendors and organizations I found show up only in searches, including searches for other, non-related vendors. Currently, there are only 31 listings on the San Diego home page--all but two are restaurants; those other two fall under beer, wine, and cocktails. However, there appear to be many more local vendors and organizations in the database. For instance, The Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge is on the San Diego page, but not sister restaurant The Red Door--until you do a specific search for it. That search also pulled up vendors like Bread and Cie, Charlie's Best Bread, Trader Joe's, Eat Right Chef Service, and The Counter Burger, as well as Slow Food. Huh? I also did a search for the Little Italy Mercato and it, too, came up independently. The Hillcrest Farmer's Market showed up in another targeted search, but along with several other farmers markets (including one for Tierrasanta, which hasn't existed for years; I know because I live in the neighborhood), Whole Foods, and OB People's Market. Somehow the site hasn't swept them all into the San Diego page and clearly the search mechanism is a bit funky. Hopefully, that will be corrected soon. I also suggest those of us who are knowledgeable, are vendors, and are eager to help this become a more robust offering go on the site and suggest listings.

The listings themselves contain contact information and basics about the vendors and organizations, as well as a map, hours/days open, and other vendors close by--thanks to its incorporation of Google maps. So, as it matures it will be a handy guide for locals, as well as for travelers looking for places to eat that represent what's local and sustainable in the area.



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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lumpia Made Sweet: A Taste of Turon



Next week, I'll have a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Filipino food. It's a rich and complex cuisine much overlooked for some reason and I hope to help urge San Diegans to turn that around. I want to give you a bit of a preview of it here, mostly because I want you to meet someone special who helped me with an addictive dish that will be featured in the story.

The person is Rosario Cruz. She's the grandmother of the very talented Evan Cruz, Arterra's executive chef and my recent and ongoing guide through Filipino cuisine. Evan, who was born in the Philippines, invited me to visit his family's little market, JNC Pinoy Food Mart, in Chula Vista recently and made sure his grandmother was there to demonstrate how to make his favorite childhood snack, turon.

Evan Cruz, grandmother Rosario Cruz, and aunt Nora Cruz, who owns the market with her husband Felix
Now the market, which is literally across the street from Southwestern College, is really less a market than a family-style cafe. Yes, you'll find a freezer packed with lumpia wrappers, frozen casava root, and beef empanadas; shelves filled with packages of noodles, bottles of vinegar and fish sauce, condiments; and some produce--but really, you want to go there for the prepared food.


Evan's Aunt Nora plied me with a spread of wonderful distinctly Filipino dishes that are made in house, introducing me to their version of pancit and lumpia, kare-kare and beef steak, crispy pork belly served with liver sauce, and taro cooked in coconut milk. There was atsara, a pickled papaya and vegetable condiment eaten like salsa with fried fish. And skewers of very tender and juicy grilled chicken.

Clockwise from upper left: Kare-kare, beef steak and onion in soy sauce, turon, longaniza (Filipino sausage), and grilled chicken skewer
Clockwise from upper left: fried pork joint, sweet rice, taro cooked in coconut milk, pancit and lumpia
Then there was turon. Okay, so what is turon? Think of it as a sweet lumpia, or spring roll. It's the kind of snack, known as merienda, you'd find in front of elementary schools that has kids flocking around the vendor.



Turon is a very simple dish--just slices of plantain or pear banana, a slice or two of jackfruit (usually the canned version), and a generous helping of sugar rolled in a lumpia wrapper that's held in place with a slurry of water and cornstarch, then fried in canola oil and tossed in caramel. The result is an irresistible sweet and crispy pastry.

At the market, the family has a large dedicated wok for making turon. At home, you can use a wok or a frying pan. I won't post the recipe here because it will be included in my UT story, but I wanted to share a video I took of Mrs. Cruz making the dish so you can see how simple it is.


From there, you can put the turon in the freezer for a day so that the sugar stabilizes when it's fried. Evan showed me how to fry them off at his kitchen at Arterra.

Fill a frying pan with canola oil and add the turon.


Let them brown on both sides and remove the rolls. Drain off most of the oil and add a couple of tablespoons of sugar to make a dry caramel. Swirl the sugar around.


Once you have the caramel bubbling, add back the turon rolls and roll them in the caramel.


Then remove them to a baking sheet lined with silpat to keep them from sticking. Let them cool a little so you don't burn your tongue.


Then enjoy!



JNC Pinoy Food Mart is located at 943 Otay Lakes Road in Chula Vista. 


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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sicilian-Style Risotto Two Ways


I recently attended a dinner at Solare in Liberty Station featuring prosecco from Villa Sandi, which is located in the heart of the Prosecco region of the Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG hills. Valdobbiadene-Conegliano is Italy's certified region for making the sparkling wine. The four-course dinner created by executive chef Accursio Lota was stunning, but one dish in particular stood out for me: the risotto with saffron and bay scallops--"Risotto Capesante e Zafferano," described as risotto carnaroli mantecato with salted butter, Sardinian saffron, and bay scallops. It was lighter than I am used to and beyond creamy. I'd been talking with Accursio about setting up a cook date but we hadn't settled on what I wanted him to teach me. After just one fragrant bite of the risotto, I knew--especially when he told me that his method of making it required far less butter than more traditional recipes.

Accursio invited me and my friend Robin Ross of Cupcakes Squared, who had attended the dinner with me, to his kitchen last week and we got not one, but two ways of making the dish. This was important for him to convey because it wasn't--and never is--about recipes to him. It's about technique. When he teaches others--whether it's his line cooks or students at the classes he offers at the restaurant--he wants them to be able to expand on what they learned and use the techniques as building blocks to create other dishes using other ingredients. For him it all rests on technique and ingredients.

So, the first thing Accursio wanted us to be clear about is that southern Italian risotto is different from northern. Northerners, he said, expect their risotto to be al dente--with bite. Sicilians, and he is Sicilian, like a truly creamy risotto.

The other point Accursio wanted to convey is how important the rice is. In fact, it's all about the rice. Now that seems obvious, but when it comes to risotto, we have choices. Many of us by habit default to arborio, an Italian short-grain rice named after the town of the same name in the Po valley, where the rice is grown. The problem, Accursio said, is that most of us aren't buying rice from that region. It's now grown all over the world--and he can't be sure of its quality. Instead he uses one of two rices: Carnaroli or Vialone Nano.


Carnaroli is grown in Northwest Italy and it, too, is a short-grain rice, often referred to as the "caviar of rice." Carnaroli rice is usually pricier than other Italian rices because it's more difficult to grow and harvest. The plants break easily, they're more disease prone, and the grains of rice break more during processing. But it's also more forgiving during cooking; it can absorb large amounts of liquid and creates a very creamy risotto.

Vialone Nano is similar to Carnaroli. It's very rich in starch and its high amylose content allows it to keep its shape and absorb lots of liquids during cooking. It's grown in Verona, which specializes in growing rice, said Accursio. You can find both varieties online, but also check with Mona Lisa, Specialty Produce, and other gourmet stores in San Diego to learn if they carry it.

For both these risottos, Accursio uses a vegetable stock made with celery, carrots, onions, and a whole tomato, which he simmers for about 40 minutes. He pointed out that when making risotto it's important to customize the stock based on the other ingredients you're going to use. Add lobster, mussel, shrimp, and clam shells to the stock for a seafood risotto, for instance. And he usually uses a three-to-one ratio of stock to rice, although we ended using four to one this day. The rice just kept absorbing the liquid.


Using the two varieties of rice we created two dishes. With the Vialone Nano, we started with toasting the rice gently--not to brown it but to eliminate whatever humidity it was starting with from the packaging. That way, Accursio said, the grain can better hold its shape as it absorbs the liquid. Then he added olive oil to coat the grains, then diced shallots, then the liquid. In the version with the Carnaroli, he added olive oil to pot first, then diced shallots, then the rice, then the liquid.

So, two techniques, both concluding with the same approach in creating creaminess--what Accursio told me is called mantecato--which is done by adding butter and cheese and stirring. Altogether it should take about 20 minutes, depending on the rice. There's a lot of stirring. Yes, you'll find plenty of recipes these days which dismiss the importance of constantly stirring, but that's not how Accursio does it. And, he noted, make sure that you keep incorporating wayward grains that end up on the wall of the pot. You don't want any lingering grains that wind up crunchy at the end.

And, with that, here are the two recipes:

Risotto with Sardinian Saffron
from Accursio Lota
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 servings

1 cup short grain rice (Here we used Vialone Nano, but you can use arborio or Carnaroli.)
4 cups vegetable stock
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon diced shallot
A few pinches saffron (Accursio prefers Sardinian saffron.)
2/3 cup Grana Padano cheese, grated (You can use Parmesan.)
1/8 cup butter
salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan, add the rice and toast briefly over medium heat. Do not brown it. Add enough olive oil to coat each grain of rice by stirring. Add the shallot and mix together.


Begin adding the stock, stirring well. As the rice absorbs the stock, add a little more, and continue stirring. After about seven minutes, add a couple of pinches of the saffron. Keep stirring.

Remove from the heat and add the butter and another pinch of saffron. Stir for three to four minutes.


Add 1/3 cup of the cheese and continue stirring. If the mixture is getting too thick, add a bit more stock--and keep stirring. Add the rest of the cheese and stir. Add salt and pepper. Taste, adjust seasonings, add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and serve.


Risotto with Summer Truffles
from Accursio Lota
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 servings

Extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon diced shallots
1 cup short grain rice (Here we used Carnaroli, but you can use Vialone Nano or arborio.)
4 cups vegetable stock
1//8 cup butter
2/3 cup Grana Padano cheese, grated (You can use Parmesan.)
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 ounce, thinly sliced summer truffles (Accursio gets his from Umbria.)
1 teaspoon white truffle oil


In a saucepan, add about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add shallots and saute until translucent. Add the rice and stir together.

Begin adding the stock, stirring well. As the rice absorbs the stock, add a little more, and continue stirring.
Robin Ross of Cupcakes Squared stirring the risotto.

After about seven minutes, remove from heat and stir in the butter. Add the cheese and stir well for about three to four minutes. Then season with salt and pepper.


Add about 2/3 of the truffles and a teaspoon of white truffle oil and stir. Plate the risotto and top with the rest of the truffles. Serve.



Solare is located in Liberty Station in Pt. Loma at 2820 Roosevelt Road.




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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Chillin' with The Baked Bear's Ice Cream Sandwiches


Back in the day, an ice cream sandwich was a straightforward, even boring summer dessert. Two rectangular slabs of ersatz chocolate cookie encasing another slab of Neopolitan ice cream. Or perhaps just vanilla. It was okay, but it was no Sidewalk Sundae--my favorite Good Humor truck ice cream bar when I was a kid. (Yes, back in the day, ice cream came to you--with a song.)

Well, today ice cream sandwiches are the elevated stuff of food blogs, BuzzFeed videos, and food TV shows. And pretty much anything goes. One of my recent favorites was a Korean ice cream sandwich I found in the now departed First Korean Market on Convoy, where Dumpling Inn now does business. This was a fish-shaped crispy pastry enveloping red bean ice cream. I'm hoping to find that again somewhere else.

In San Diego, ice cream sandwiches have actually become a destination food. A few years ago two young guys, Rob Robbins and Shane Stanger came up with the idea of opening an ice cream sandwich shop, which they named The Baked Bear. Their first shop launched in May 2013 in Pacific Beach. They've since opened three more locations in town in La Costa, Petco Park, and at the end of June, in Carmel Valley. A fifth location in Carmel Mountain will come next.

I stopped by the PB shop a couple of weeks ago to get a fix. The idea is to customize your own sandwiches with the variety of house-made cookies--from chocolate chip and snickerdoodles to Red Velvet and White Chocolate Macadamia Nut--and a dozen ice cream flavors and then toppings like nuts, sprinkles, chips, fudge, mini M&Ms or (God help me) Fruity Pebbles.


Or (lots of "ors" here) you can make a brownie sandwich or a donut sandwich or a combo brownie/cookie sandwich. No, the donuts are not made by The Baked Bear. Nor is the ice cream.


You can also get a "Bear Bowl," which is a warm chocolate chip cookie bowl topped with ice cream.


You want to "heat" your ice cream sandwich? They use a press to warm it up. This is particularly wonderful with the donut version below. Then get it slathered in caramel sauce.



And, for the not-so-adventurous, you can simply get ice cream in a cup or cone--or get a root beer float. Or just buy some cookies.

Got kids? This is where you want to head over the summer. And you won't be the only one. The line at the PB shop often winds out the door and down the street. But it's worth it.

The Baked Bear is located at 4516 Mission Blvd. in Pacific Beach, at 100 Park Blvd. in Petco Park, at 7610 Via Campanile in La Costa, and 5950 Village Center Loop Road in Carmel Valley. The next opening in Carmel Mountain will be at 11640 Carmel Mountain Road.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bencotto and Monello Pastas Go Organic


Okay, let's just establish that whatever I say about the new, improved house-made pasta at Little Italy's Bencotto and Monello, the pasta dishes they've been serving all these years have been superb. But even superb can be improved--and this is something that owners Guido Nestri and Valentina Di Pietro and executive chef and co-founder Fabrizio Cavallini have been mulling for awhile.

The decision to go organic with the semolina flour they use to make their pasta entailed several variables. Cost was one. The difference in price between the flour they were using and what they wanted to use was the difference between $40 and $75 per 25 kilo bag--almost double. And even if the cost proved to be worth it, there was the question of reliable delivery at the quantities they need. And even if those two factors could be addressed, the reality is that organic wheat flour of the quality they were considering is very difficult to work with. "Durum" means hard after all--and softer, cheaper flour is so much easier to form into pasta.

Between the two restaurants, Fabrizio's kitchen produces 120,000 portions of pasta a year, so this was a pretty significant decision. In their pasta lab on Bencotto's second floor, he and his crew began experimenting with different wheats and recipes to perfect this new pasta and once happy with the results, began quietly serving the new pasta to customers, as well as new organic dried pasta from Italy. Eventually they found a reliable flour distributor and the change over was on. And, no, the menu prices haven't changed.

With their production perfected, the restaurants just officially announced the switch over and I stopped in to both try the pasta and have Fabrizio teach me how he makes it.

Non-organic pasta (l) and new organic pasta (r)
So let's start with why this has made a difference. The flour they use now is a combination of organic wheat semolina from Parma--which is organic and less refined and from a higher quality of grain--and doppio zero, or 00, extra fine wheat flour at a ratio of 90/10. Previously, the ratio was 65/35 using extra fancy semolina from General Mills. As Fabrizio explained, the 00 flour adds structure to the pasta that semolina lacks. He also noted that this new organic flour needs more liquid--a hallmark of a high-quality semolina--and creates a better quality of gluten. Like wine, terroir plays a factor in flavor, so this new flour also benefits from the wheat being grown and milled in Parma--and ultimately reveals itself in the pasta.

And I also must mention that Fabrizio is now using organic, cage-free eggs in the pasta. He maintains that this higher quality egg makes a difference in the final product, creating a silkier, more pliable pasta that better absorbs sauce.

Well, does it?

Guido and I sat at Bencotto's bar as Fabrizio brought out pastas. First we attacked a plate of plain, naked tagliatelli. Even visually it was pretty easy to see the difference. On the left is the old school pasta. It was very good, but suffered somewhat by comparison after tasting the pasta on the right, feeling rather thick and chewy compared with the organic tagliatelli. That pasta was softer and lighter--more delicate, although it still had a bite.


We moved on to add olive oil and the flavor was rapturous, clinging to the pasta, adding herbaceous notes and making the pasta silky.

We did the same with the fusilli, although Fabrizio only gave us the new, organic version. I shouldn't have, but pretty much cleaned the plate.


Then Fabrizio came out with the tagliatelli bathed in a splendid, rich lamb sauce. There's no question that the organic pasta melded beautifully with the sauce. In any case, we demolished both versions. Like I said, the previous version was really good. It's just that this new organic version is sublime.


So, how do you make this pasta? Fabrizio showed me in about 15 minutes. And, he told me that home cooks can purchase organic semolina as well as 00 flour at Mona Lisa, down the street.

Here's how he does it:

Hand-made Italian Pasta
Fabrizio Cavallini
(printable recipe)
Serves 8

Ingredients
2 1/2 pounds extra fancy semolina
1/2 pound 00 flour
12 large eggs

Combine the two flours and make a large well.


Break the eggs into the center of the well.


Use a fork or your fingers (Fabriazio uses a fork, like his mom and grandmother) to mix together the eggs and flour, gradually pulling in flour from the inside edge of the well.


Once the eggs and flour have been mixed, pull the mixture together to start kneading.


Knead the dough for about 10 minutes. It will become smooth and elastic.


Shape the dough into a ball and cover with olive oil. Then wrap the ball in plastic wrap and let it rest at least half an hour. Fabrizio suggests letting it sit overnight in the refrigerator for better pasta.


Then shape and cut into the pasta of your choice.

Bencotto and Monello are located at 750 Fir St. in Little Italy.


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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Watermelon Salad "Pizza"


Several months ago I came across a little piece online somewhere that showed a watermelon pizza. It immediately caught my eye, but I was disappointed because it was really just a fruit salad on a slice of watermelon. Interesting, but it was fruit salad. But the concept stuck with me and what I realized was that I wanted it to be a savory watermelon pizza.

Watermelon salad is one of my favorite dishes this time of year as the temps start to climb. One of my all time most enjoyable versions is Matt Gordon's at Urban Solace. Every bite is different, filled with cherry tomatoes and arugula, feta and currants, toasted pine nuts and cucumbers. And it's tossed with a sweet vinaigrette.

So, I've been waiting for the seasons to change so that I could translate this concept in my head to a dish and today I finally did it. I gathered a baby watermelon, cherry tomatoes, a hot house cucumber (Japanese or Persian--all with no seeds--will do as well), an onion, pine nuts, kalamata olives, arugula, currants, and goat cheese.

I also went out to my little garden and nabbed some a couple of stems of my treasured mojito mint (it's a little less astringent than peppermint or spearmint) and basil. This is a "pesto perpetuo" variety of basil, which grows as a perennial.


With these herbs, along with white wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper, I made a vinaigrette.

Basil Mint Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
1 tablespoon fresh mint, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together all the ingredients except the olive oil. Then slowly whisk in the oil until all the ingredients are blended together and the dressing emulsifies.

With that done, I sliced what needed slicing and put the "pizza" together.

Slice the watermelon about an inch thick and place on a flat surface, then start layering.


First add slices of cucumber.


Then come the tomatoes. If you can find heirloom cherry tomatoes you'll get even more color--and flavor.


Next come sliced kalamata olives and onion. I like a sweet white onion, like this, or red onion.


Goat cheese can be difficult to work with, so I use a small melon baller.


Finally, I scatter the top with currants and toasted pine nuts. Make a bed with the arugula and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Then quarter the slice.

You can serve quarters as an appetizer or a whole slice as a lunch, accompanied with some crusty bread or biscuits.



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