Tuesday, May 19, 2015

La Jolla Salt Company: From the Pier to the Plate

We Americans love our salt. But as we grow more conscious of using it judiciously, the emphasis focuses on the quality and flavor of this powerful mineral. You likely grew up with the idea that salt magically manifested from a blue cardboard cylinder sporting a young girl in a yellow dress with an over-sized umbrella. Morton Salt may still be the go-to for most households and restaurants, but the market for artisan salts--particularly finishing salts--is rising. In San Diego we have several options, now including La Jolla Salt Company.

La Jolla Salt Company's salts are different from some of the "artisan" sea salt brands you may already buy since those often start out coming from a business called SaltWorks. The salts are then mixed with flavor ingredients and repackaged. There's nothing wrong with that. The salts are usually quite good.

But La Jolla Salt Company harvests its salt from the Scripps Pier in La Jolla. Chris Polley, the founder and owner of La Jolla Salt Company, started out in this venture as a chef for Matt Gordon at Urban Solace, where he's been working for three years. Given that the restaurant makes so many of its own condiments, Polley thought it would be a good idea to make their own salt, too.

He admits that the salt at first wasn't all that good, but he continued to make adjustments to perfect it--working on this project at his home during his off time.

So, how does it work? Polley goes to the Scripps Pier, where there's a purified water hose available for public use. Filling buckets of water that he takes to his new space rented from graphic designer Daniel Heffernan of Clove St Press in Barrio Logan, Polley evaporates the water over three induction burners to create sheets of salt that fall and break into crispy flakes. The process takes two days. He keeps some of the salt in its natural state. He also creates several flavors--lime, black truffle, smoked, ghost chili, rosemary, lavender, and bacon. Polley then packages the salts in pouches, jars, and even small tins that you can take with you to a restaurant to use when you eat out.

I've been besotted by the flavor and texture of these salts. I love sprinkling the bacon sea salt on scrambled eggs. You get a smokey crunch that complements the creamy eggs. I've taken to sprinkling the lime salt on salmon and other fish. The black truffle salt is perfection in a baked potato, on popcorn, or blended into a vinaigrette.

I'm not the only fan. Richard Blais uses the salts at Juniper & Ivy. Gordon, of course, uses the salts at his three restaurants. And Matt Richman uses them at his Table 926.

You can buy La Jolla Salt online and at several retailers in San Diego, including The Heart & Trotter Butcher Shop, Geographie Shop, Teter, Urban Beach Girl, Urban Beach House, and Azucar.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tarragon Thyme Rub

Now that water restrictions are bearing down on Californians, I look around my little garden and have to prioritize what I want to spend my limited water resources on. Ornamental flowers are pretty much out. I have mostly succulents these days. There are some vegetables and some dwarf citrus. And herbs. Oh, my, herbs--rosemary, sage, basil, thyme, oregano, chives, and tarragon. I love these herbs and rely on them in the kitchen.

About six-and-a-half years ago, I wrote about this rosemary oregano rub I learned how to make from Judy Witts Francini and David Lebowitz. It's become a staple in my pantry. I use it for pork, chicken, and turkey. I sprinkle it on eggs. I immerse it in olive oil to create a dip. And as much as I love the flavor, it's the overwhelmingly seductive aroma it creates in the kitchen that is the real impetus to making it. It makes me so happy to walk into my house when I have a batch drying on a sheet pan in my kitchen.

French tarragon
But I realized I needed to come up with a new version. I have two varieties of tarragon--French and a thicker leaf Mexican that is more heat tolerant and produces beautiful little yellow flowers in the summer. Why not create a rub with them? I combined the herbs with chives, garlic, and coarse sea salt. No chili flakes this time. I may add lemon zest next time. What resulted was a heady fragrance with an anise flavor punctuated by salt and a little garlic. Perfect for seafood and chicken.

Mexican tarragon with silver thyme
Like the other rub, this is very easy to make. You'll gather up your herbs, wash and dry them, then strip the leaves from the stems. Peel the garlic cloves.

Then gather all the ingredients together and, with a sharp chefs knife, start mincing (or put it all into a food processor).

Clockwise from the upper left photo, the chopping process
Ultimately, you want the herbs, garlic, and salt minced enough to just still have some texture but not so well ground (if using a food processor) that you've created a paste.

Spread the mixture on a sheet pan and let it air dry for about three or four days, depending on how much moisture is in the air. Everyday you'll want to mix it around to keep it from sticking to the pan, get more exposure to air, and eliminate clumping. Don't slow dry it in the oven. You'll lose those aromatic oils that create the flavor.

Once the rub is dry you can pack it in tins or glass jars. Just don't store it where it will be exposed to light. Then add it to poultry (great in chicken salad) and seafood, to a vegetable or seafood soup, or sprinkle on steamed or roasted veggies.

When my rub was ready, I put about a teaspoon in a little bowl and filled it with extra virgin olive oil. Then I let it sit for about an hour. Dunking slices of fresh baguette into this flavor-packed little bowl provided a real rush of anise and salt, with overtones of sweetness from the thyme, a bit of heat from the chives--all punctuated with a rush of garlicky goodness.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Make Your Own Hot Sauce!

Photo courtesy of Todd Renner

I love hot sauces, but I know people who are so passionate about them that they treat them as collectibles. I think they're mostly focusing on the labels.

Now marketing is all well and good, but you and I? We love the flavor, right? And that means a sauce that has a kick but isn't going to knock you on your keister. After all, if your mouth is scalded, you're thousands of taste buds away from enjoying your food.

While I admit to having some favorite ready-made hot sauces, I have a few I enjoy making because a) it's a great way to control the flavor you want and b) it's so easy! Years ago, I learned how to make a dynamite hot sauce from some friends during tamale-making season. This is Consuelo's Hot Sauce and I love it! Yes, it's hot but in moderation it can create the most wonderful mouth tingle and chile flavor. I enjoy incorporating it into salsas or adding to soups or drizzling on fish. Then Lorri Allen taught me her thick sriracha-style sauce and it's always in my refrigerator. The tangy heat that comes from the combination of chiles and vinegar, with a garlic finish just makes me swoon in happiness.

Recently I interviewed Chef Todd Renner of Tender Greens in downtown San Diego. The interview was for a piece I wrote for my Edible San Diego blog, Close to the Source, on their new breakfast menu. But Renner started telling me about his passion for condiments, especially hot sauces. He's working on a signature line of them that Tender Greens will sell.

And, then he invited me to come back to learn how to make them.

Renner loves canning and preserving. He also loves mixing savory and sweet. After all, he was trained as a pastry chef. So, his ideas for new sauces basically come from that background--he has all sorts of various flavor combos in his head.

What was fascinating to me as he talked me through the process is just how versatile it is--and the very reason why you should make your own sauces. We made a classic thin Louisiana-style red hot sauce--ready to pour on everything from scrambled eggs to a shrimp taco. Then we made his Mango Habanero Sauce. The mango flavor pops, for reasons you'll understand in a moment. But that mango? It could easily become pineapple or coconut or banana. Renner even suggested adding spinach or beets. You don't even need to use habanero chiles. Jalapeños or serranos will do just as well. And you can switch up the vinegars. Renner is not a rigid traditionalist. As he says, "It makes it exciting!"

At first glance, the quantity of ingredients called for in both these recipes will seem pretty high. But it all cooks down to a reasonable amount--meaning if you like canning, you can have a couple of jars for yourself and some to give to people you really like to enjoy.

A couple of tips from Renner:
  • To get the smoothest consistency, be sure to blend the mixtures while they're still hot--just be careful since steam will create enough pressure to blow the blender lid off. Make sure the lid is on firmly and use a folded towel while holding the lid to protect your hands.
  • If you want to change the yield but don't want to do the math when it comes to the liquids, Renner says the idea is simply to cover the ingredients with the vinegar in the pot. 

Classic Red Hot Sauce
from Todd Renner
(printable recipe)

This sauce is hugely versatile. Really, it can be your go to for just about anything you'd add hot sauce to. Renner enjoys it on fish--as do I.

Yield: 4 pints

1 pounds Fresno red chiles, destemmed
5 ounces or 30 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 gallon distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup salt to start

Place all ingredients into a pot. Simmer 30 minutes until tender. Blend until smooth. It will be loose. Strain through a chinois.

Taste and add more salt or vinegar if necessary. Fill bottles or jars.

I recently made my favorite spicy coleslaw for a party. Instead of using Tobasco sauce, I used this Classic Red Hot Sauce and it was sublime.

For the Mango Habanero Sauce, Renner you'll fine that the recipe calls for dried, not raw, mango. He uses dried mango for two reasons--it doesn't add water so you just get pure concentrated flavor and you also get a consistent flavor. You can pick up dried mango--or other dried fruits--at most markets. Renner likes to get his from Trader Joe's.

Mango Habanero Sauce
from Todd Renner
(printable recipe)

I love the pure mango sweetness blended with the heat of the chiles and sourness of the vinegar. It's bright and tropical. And the color? Like the setting sun. Not sure about what to use this sauce for? Renner suggests grilled chicken tacos, jerk-style pork, and ribs. Make sure you apply it as a finishing sauce. It'll just burn up on a grill or under a broiler.

Yield: 5 pints

1 pound dried mango
7 ounces or 26 habanero chiles
4 ounces shallots( 2 or 3 shallots)
1/2 gallon unseasoned rice vinegar
Zest of 3 oranges

1/4 cup salt to start

Combine the first four ingredients in a pot and simmer 30 minutes until tender. Add the zest and salt.

Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust the salt and vinegar if necessary. Fill bottles or jars.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Last Chance Loquat Ginger Jam

Well, it's almost May and all those loquat trees in my community still have fruit on them, but they won't for much longer and I want to make the most of these sweet tart little fruits that are so fragile you'll probably never find them on display in a market. It took me a couple of morning dog walks to collect almost three pounds of fruit and I decided to make jam with them. By the time I seeded the loquats, I ended up with just a tad over a pound.

I decided to pair the loquats with fresh ginger. And, still looking for even more flavor, I added a couple of tablespoons of this marvelous fennel pollen blend I use as my secret weapon when I bake apple pies. It's Divine Desserts Seasoning, produced by Pollen Ranch for Chef Bernard Guillas. I love the mix of spices with the fennel, like cayenne pepper, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and clove. Perfect for the jam.

The process for making the jam is simple. Seed and trim the ends of the loquats (no need to remove the skin). Combine the fruit with sugar, flavors, and water in a large, heavy pot. Bring to a boil, skim any impurities, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Let it cook down for about an hour and a half. Prep your jars, fill them, and place the jam jars in a water bath for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, let them sit in the water for another five minutes, and then remove to the counter on a dish towel to cool overnight. With any luck, the lids will pop to let you know they're properly sealed. That's it. Then you have this luscious spread with a tropical flair that is not just perfect on toast, but as a topping for ice cream and even baked on poultry or pork, or--yum--spread on a slice of pound cake.

Loquat Ginger Jam
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 1/2 pints


2 pounds of seeded, trimmed loquats
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
2 tablespoons Divine Desserts Seasoning (optional)

1. Roughly chop loquats.
2. Combine all the ingredients in a large, heavy pot. Bring to a boil. Boil for about five minutes, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for about an hour and a half. Be sure to regularly stir the mixture and skim any impurities. Use a potato masher or stick blender to create the consistency you want. I like it chunky, but it can also be very smooth.

3. While the jam is cooking, wash and sterilize jars and lids in a large pot of heavily simmering water. Keep the jars in the water and keep the water simmering.
4. When the jam has reduced to the consistency you want, turn off the heat. Remove the jars from the water and fill them with the jam, leaving a half inch of head room and wiping away any smudges in and around the jar.
5. Seal the jar and gently twist the band. Do this with each jar and then return them to the water bath. They should be in actively simmering water for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the jars in the bath for another five minutes. Then remove the jars to the counter but out of a draft. To avoid breaking the glass, place the hot jars on a towel. Don't worry if there's water on the lids. It will evaporate. Let the jars alone overnight. Within minutes you should hear popping as the lids seal.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Saffron's Su-Mei Yu Featured in Sunday's Collaboration Kitchen

Su-Mei Yu, owner of Saffron and host of Savor San Diego on KPBS TV, will be featured, along with Ballast Point Brewing Co., at Sunday's Collaboration Kitchen, which runs from 5 to 8 p.m. at Catalina Offshore Products. There are limited tickets left.

What's on Su-Mei's Thai menu?

Thai Ceviche
Marinated salmon in seasoning paste, including chilies, garlic, shallot, krachai (Chinese keys) and lime juice, dressed with coconut cream, slivers of fresh Thai chilies, and shredded green mango – served with Belgian endive and rice/sesame seeds crackers. Pair with Calico Amber Ale with nice Madeira and toffee sweetness balanced with a citrus bite from Cascade hops.

Laab Goong
Northern Thai style salad with grilled marinated shrimp in Ballast Point’s Wahoo White beer, garlic, and olive oil and toss with chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, krachai (Chinese keys), shallot, green onion, kaffir lime leaves, culantro, mint and lime juice – served on lettuce leaves. Pair with Wahoo White Beer – Belgian wheat beer inspired ale with orange peel and coriander.

Grilled Mussels
Seasoned with Thai chilies, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and rinds, Thai basils, coconut cream and Piper Down Scottish Ale. Pair with Indra Kunindra – export stout infused with madras curry, cumin, cayenne, kaffir lime leaves and toasted coconut.

Southern Thai Style Spicy Yellow Curry
Turmeric-infused curry paste with yellow tail and pineapple – served with red Thai organic rice. Pair with Dorado Double India Pale Ale with the bitterness that increases from heat from curry and hop aromas and flavors similar to that of pineapple and grapefruit.

Melon Balls with Coconut Syrup
Sweetened with maple syrup and infused with rose water. Pair with Sculpin India Pale Ale with a balance of bitterness with hop flavors of tangerine and ripe mango.

You'll enjoy hearty samples of all these dishes (along with tastes from Ballast Point) and the recipes will be on your seat waiting for you as Su-Mei demonstrates how they're created (I've been to a couple of her classes and she's a terrific teacher). And, of course, we'll have the enthusiastic comic duo of Tommy Gomes and Dan Nattrass emceeing the evening. Feel free to bring your own bottle of wine. And dress warmly; it gets chilly in there!

Tickets are $75 per person and can be purchased online here. All proceeds (yes, really, all proceeds) will be donated to the James Lebowitz Scholarship Fund, in honor of the 18-year-old Cal Poly Pomona student and San Diego native who died suddenly of an aneurysm in January. You can learn more about him and his amazing parents in a moving article by Ed Zieralski published in the U-T San Diego.

So, yes, your money is going to a great cause--but you'll also have a blast, learn a lot, and eat and drink well while doing good.

Collaboration Kitchen is a collaboration between Catalina Offshore Products and Specialty Produce. Catalina Offshore Products is located at 5202 Lovelock St. just off Morena Blvd.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Nick Brune's Buttermilk Pie

Let's call this part 2 of my time with Chef Nick Brune of revamped Cali-Creole restaurant Local Habit in Hillcrest. This is when he showed me how he makes his version of the classic Southern buttermilk pie. Now many of us in Southern California would probably raise an eyebrow; what is a buttermilk pie? But the name says it all--a custard pie featuring buttermilk. Some recipes call for lemon zest. Others mostly keep the flavoring to vanilla. And, in fact, that's what Brune does. It's a year-round pie, but this time of year with berries coming into season, it's perfect topped with fruit and accompanied by a berry puree.

The recipe here is just for the filling. You can bake the pie shell using your favorite recipe or even pick up a pre-made crust at the market. Just be sure you pre-bake it. Here are some pie crust recipes I've shared with you in the past:


So, let's get on with the recipe--super easy, very creamy, very luscious, and a great dessert to have in your back pocket when you are the point person for a sweet dish for a dinner party.

Buttermilk Pie
From Nick Brune
(printable recipe)
Serves 8


2 beaten eggs and 3 egg yolks
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
4 teaspoons flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch salt
1 basic pie crust, pre-baked

Preheat oven to 375˚.

In the bowl of a stand mixer add eggs and sugar. Whip until the sugar dissolves and the mixture turns pale yellow.

Add melted butter, then small amounts of flour and buttermilk, alternating until you've added all. Add the vanilla and pinch of salt. The mixture will be loose.

Pour custard into pre-baked pie shell. Bake 30 minutes. The top will be a little brown and have a bit of a jiggle to it.

Let cool and then refrigerate for four hours to overnight. This will thicken the custard.

Serve with fruit.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Nick Brune's Dark Roux Noodles

Sometimes a chef shows me a technique that makes me totally rethink how I do things in my kitchen. Like making pasta, for example. Now maybe this has occurred to you--or you've seen it on Food Network or some other food blog--but the idea of toasting AP wheat flour to create a deep brown pasta with other-worldly flavors was, well, new to me. And I may not ever think about pasta in the same way again.

That's what chef Nick Brune of the Hillcrest restaurant Local Habit and owner of Eco Caterers did when I came in for a visit. Brune, who launched but no longer owns Local Habit, is still there to help shape its new "Cali-Creole" concept. This isn't a stretch for the chef, who was born in Louisiana. What is unusual, though, will be the additional Asian influences, drawn from Brune's recent travels and training in Southeast Asia.

And that's where this dish comes in. These dark roux noodles can be used any way you enjoy pasta. Heck, the deep, almost buttery flavors the toasting yields makes me want to just toss with olive oil and grated Romano and call it a day. But Brune swirls them into a Creole Noodle Soup that's reminiscent of a complex pho. Brune refers to the dish as "gumbo meets ramen."

The soup is astounding in its layered flavors, but what I was smitten most by were the noodles, so that's what will be the focus here.

Now don't be put off by the measurements. Weighing is far more accurate than measuring by volume, especially since this dough can be affected by relative humidity.

Dark Roux Noodles
from Nick Brune
(printable recipe)

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

300 grams toasted wheat
360 grams all-purpose flour
15 grams kosher salt
4 eggs
1/4 cup (or 62 grams) water (to start)
23 grams extra virgin olive oil

Semolina flour for dusting
Salt for boiling pasta

1. To toast the wheat, pre-heat oven (not convection or the flour will fly) to 375˚. Spread 300 grams of all-purpose flour on a baking sheet and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Rotate the sheet every 10 minutes or so to enable flour to brown evenly. Remove and let cool.

2. Sift together toasted and raw flours along with salt and add to the bowl of a stand mixer. Then add eggs, one at a time and mix.

3. Combine water with olive oil and add slowly, pausing to let the dough come together before adding more liquid. Mix until crumbly.

4. Turn out dough and work it in small amounts. Use your body to put weight into kneading the dough and knead for 2 minutes. Wrap in plastic and form into two balls and let rest for 5 minutes. Then flatten into discs. Let rest again for 5 minutes to absorb more liquid.

5. Roll out in small batches to rectangles 8 to 10 inches long. Trim the edges to make as uniform as possible, but leave a tab at the top to have something to hold onto when lifting the pasta. Sprinkle the dough lightly with semolina flour. Fold the dough up to the tab. Slice into pieces about the width of fettucine.

6. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add salt. Cook for two minutes and drain. Add to soup or toss with your favorite sauce.

So, what's in this crazy Creole Noodle Soup? Well, it starts with a broth made with pork bones and chicken backs, along with chard, onion, coriander, all-spice, a bay leaf, bonita flakes, and Bragg's Liquid Aminos. The broth cooks overnight and concentrates into a powerfully rich ambrosia. To this Brune adds a Creole-style pickled egg, braised pork, green onion, andouille sausage, micro greens, and pickled onions--and the noodles. It's become one of the restaurant's most popular dishes and for good reason. This funky soup is just bursting with competing and complementary flavors.

Local Habit is located at 3827 Fifth Ave. in Hillcrest.

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