Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sea Salt Caramels from Sugar Mamma

There are certain foods that no matter how simple they actually are to make if you actually endeavored to learn how still have a mystique about them. Caramels, for me, fall into this category.

Honestly, we're talking just four basic ingredients--butter, cream, sugar, and corn syrup. But this quartet, once cooked together, is the foundation of sweet magic--that is, if you use really good ingredients and have the finesse and creativity to take it to a sublime level of deliciousness.

Nancy Flint understands this. In fact, five years ago she created a small business--Sugar Mamma--around caramels. She's taken these four basic ingredients and elevated them with various flavorings to create 17 flavors of caramels that you can find all over San Diego County.

Flint, once a lactation consultant, had to give up her calling in 2002 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma right at her 40th birthday. She survived and acceded to her two daughters' request to spend more time together by homeschooling them until high school. During that time she had been making sea salt caramels as Christmas gifts, tweaking various recipes until she came up with her own version. Over the years friends and family were on her to enter the caramels into a food competition. Finally, in 2012, Flint entered them at the San Diego County Fair--and won. From there she was featured on the CW. When asked by the TV hosts where people could buy her caramels, she had no answer. But a lightbulb went off. And that's when she started her home-based business.

Today, her small-batch caramels (and marshmallows) are sold primarily at boutiques and hotels in San Diego County--the Hotel del Coronado, the Manchester Grand Hyatt, Pigment in North Park, Vom Fass in Hillcrest, and the Perfect Pineapple in North County are just some of the venues that carry her sweets.

I found her caramels at the new SoCal Made shop in Mission Valley. The flavors are on rotation by season for the most part, ranging from Sea Salt (recipe below),  Chai, Chili Pepper, and Bourbon to Meyer Lemon, Coconut, and Passion Fruit. In fact, Flint grows the passion fruit and Meyer lemons that go into her caramels. She partners with local vendors when she can. So, she uses Dark Horse Coffee for her Coffee Caramel. And if you're vegan, no worries; she's conquered that, too.

I tasted three flavors. The Chili Pepper is a sweet powerful spice bomb. The heat is there but it's quite enjoyable. The Chai, with its cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg flavors, is Christmas in a sweet bite. And the Beer and Pretzels has that mellow hops flavor with a happy pretzel crunch. Flint, an accomplished home cook, has a flair for flavor and works hard to perfect her vision. Her Coconut Caramel, for instance, is layered with five versions of coconut--coconut cream, flakes, toasted flakes, extract, and coconut sugar.

"Don't be afraid of flavor," she said. "Build them. Test them them. And adjust them until you have them just right."

So, instead of just tossing dried chilies into her basic four ingredients to cook them together, Flint now steeps the seeds and dried chilies in cream for two hours to infuse the cream not just with heat but the essence of chili flavor. "Initially, I did it simply and people kept telling me they didn't get any heat. So I kept playing with technique until I got what I wanted. The steeping really made the difference."

Flint makes everything by hand by herself out of her Talmidge home kitchen, usually working in the neighborhood of 12 hours a day every day to meet her orders. She starts by combining her foundational ingredients--the butter, sugar, cream, and corn syrup, in a large pot, heating the mixture over medium high heat until it reaches 248° F--stirring all the while.

"Once the sugar dissolves, you can step away briefly, but stay close," she advised. "You can stir every minute instead of constantly but you don't want it to stick or burn."

With a jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper next to her, Flint stirs until she reaches the temperature she wants, at which point she removes the pot from the heat. Then she adds kosher salt and vanilla, stirs to incorporate them and pours the mixture into the pan. If it's Sea Salt Caramel, she'll give the mixture a few minutes to set, then sprinkle Maldon sea salt over it. In general, fruity flavors get the fruit addition during the cooking process. Any alcohol flavor gets that at the end of the cooking process, once it's off the heat.

Then it sits for 12 hours/overnight to set. Once fully set Flint cuts the caramel into 1-inch squares, wraps each individually by hand and packages them. Home cooks can use wax paper squares or cellophane candy wrappers (found across the internet, including Amazon) for wrapping individual caramels, which can last several weeks at room temperature.

If you make these at home--Flint has generously given us her Sea Salt Caramel recipe--follow these additional tips of hers:

  • Use the best ingredients you can.
  • Pour what comes out into the pan. Don't scrape the dregs of the pot into the pan because they won't crystalize. Instead, scrape them into a silicon ice cube mold.
  • Got bubbles? Don't worry. Flint said they tend to pop on their own over the 12 hours.
  • Got a sticky pot? Soak it in hot water to melt the sugar so the mess will release.

Sea Salt Caramels
from Sugar Mamma

Yield: 240 1-inch pieces

3/4 cup of unsalted butter
4 cups heavy cream
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups corn syrup
2 teaspoons kosher stalt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Maldon sea salt to sprinkle

1. Line a 10- X 15-inch jelly pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Combine the butter, cream sugar, and corn syrup in a large pot. Bring to the boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.
3. Once the mixture comes to the boil continue stirring by just every minute instead of constantly. Add a candy thermometer to the side of the pot reaching into the caramel mixture. Once it reaches 248° F, remove the pan from the heat.
4. Stir in the kosher salt and vanilla. When mixed well, pour into the jelly pan.
5. After 5 minutes sprinkle the Maldon sea salt over the mixture. 

6. Let set for 12 hours or overnight. Cut into 1-inch pieces and wrap them individually in wax paper.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Do You Roast Your Radishes?

Roasting root vegetables is such a wonderfully obvious way to enjoy the fruits of the underground. Fennel, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, and celery root--and, of course, potatoes--all benefit from the sweetness roasting brings out in them.

But radishes? Really? Isn't the whole point of radishes to bring a spicy crunch to salads and snacking?

Well, there's no saying you can't have it both ways. I love snacking on chilled radishes but roasted radishes, bathed in olive oil and flavored with salt and pepper, are a wonderful thing. Even better? Place them on a bed of sautéed radish greens. Yes, those very greens you whack off and toss actually are quite delicious.

Roasting radishes is easy and quick. You don't even need a recipe. Just a bunch of radishes (or more, depending on how many people you're serving), extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, ground pepper, and your favorite herbs or green onions.

Here we go:

1. Separate the radishes from the greens and set the greens aside.
2. Wash the radishes and trim them, leaving a bit of stem on top.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 450° F.

4. Once the radishes are dry, slice in half lengthwise, then place in a bowl and toss with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and ground pepper.

5. Place cut side down in a cast iron pan and roast for 13 minutes.
6. While the radishes are roasting, slice a green onion or mince parsley or other herbs.
7. Remove the radishes from the oven. Plate and sprinkle with the herbs. Eat right away. They're best hot.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Berry Thyme Pie with Crisp Topping

If you know me and my writing, you know I love to bake pies. With berry season in full swing, I decided to make a mixed berry pie. Only instead of two crusts, I opted to top the berries with my favorite crisp mixture.

My berries of choice were strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. To thicken the inevitable juices I used a mere tablespoon of cornstarch. And for a bit of a twist, I added a tablespoon of fresh French thyme leaves from my garden.

I made the pie for a lunch I threw for my mom and a few of her friends. What made it easier was that I had a pie crust disc in the freezer already. I made it for a meal awhile ago and it was so handy to have that ready to defrost and roll out. So, if you're making pie, make an extra crust or two, shape them into discs, wrap them in plastic, then put them in a freezer bag. The night before you want to bake, defrost what you need in the freezer overnight.

You can do the same thing with my crisp recipe. This is something I always try to have on hand. A batch made with the recipe below will give you enough for a couple of pies at least. Or if you just want to make single serving crisps, cut up the fruit, place in a small baking dish, and then pull out the crisp from the freezer to top the fruit before baking.

I've included one of my favorite pie crust recipes below. This is from Belgian pastry chef and owner of Michele Coulon Dessertier. It's very easy--made strictly with butter, not butter and lard or Crisco. That means you should invest in the best butter you can find. For more tips I've learned from Michele, take a look at the piece I wrote years ago when she taught me how to make this crust.

Berry Thyme Pie with Crisp Topping
(printable recipe)
Yield: 1, 9” pie, 8 servings

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
5 cups assorted fresh berries
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 pie crust (see recipe below)
Crisp mixture (see recipe below)

1. Mix together sugar, cornstarch, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Add berries and thyme and gently toss to combine. Let stand, stirring occasionally while you roll out the crust. 
2. Roll the pie crust on a lightly floured surface into a 13” to 14” circle. Carefully transfer into a deep, 9” pie pan. Trim overhanging dough to 1” and fold underneath along the edge of the pie pan, then crimp decoratively. Freeze the crust for 20 minutes and pre-heat oven to 400° F.
3. Spoon berry mixture into chilled crust. Evenly sprinkle crisp topping over the berries. Place pie on parchment-lined baking sheet to catch any runover. Bake pie until crust and crisp topping are lightly brown—about 55 minutes. Cover the pie loosely with foil if the topping browns too quickly. 
4. Remove pie from oven and let cool before serving—at least 3 hours. 

Pie Crust à la Michele Coulon
Yield: 2 pie crusts, top and bottom. Cut recipe in half for 1 crust.

4 cups flour
1 teaspoons salt 
1 pound cold European-style butter cut into 1-inch chunky pieces

1.  Mix until coarse crumbs form.
2. Add 12 tablespoons or 160 grams ice water.
3. Mix until just blended. Shape into two discs. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate. 

If you don’t plan to bake the pie within a couple of days, wrap well and freeze. Later you can defrost the discs overnight in the refrigerator.

Caron’s Crisp Mixture

What I love about this recipe is that I can make the mixture in advance and store it in the freezer. 

Makes 8 to 10 servings, depending on how much you use per serving.

Mix together:

2 cups quick cooking oats
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 ½ cups lightly packed brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
1 cup unsalted butter, melted

Store in the freezer until you’re ready to bake.


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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Easier Way of Entertaining--With Spanakopita

Over the years I've adapted my approach to entertaining. Raised by parents who constantly had people over, whether it was family or friends or entertaining for business, I learned from an early age that "the right way" to do it was to make everything yourself--except for Thanksgiving, which is the official potluck holiday. My mom would slave for days to perfect every dish. The meals were always delicious, the table always beautiful. As proud as she was in the achievement, I often wonder, though, if she enjoyed the gatherings themselves.

Nevertheless I adopted that approach and for years took pride in crafting--okay, controlling--meals that I alone made. It was both exhilarating and exhausting--and often very expensive. I was an entertaining snob who looked down at potlucks. My experience with them--from college through book clubs well into middle age--was that those not as particular about food would contribute dishes that were either, well, crappy, or parsimonious. (Yep, that old saw that the food was terrible and there wasn't enough of it.)

That was then. Much as I still love to create an entire meal, I pick and choose my solo ventures. And since so many of my friends are chefs or in the culinary industry, why wouldn't I want them to help create a meal? But, even on my own, I've learned--and my mom eventually evolved to this, too--to pick just a couple or few dishes to make myself and then buy the rest.

This is just what I did a couple of weekends ago when I invited her and three of her friends to lunch. It's spring, my garden is reaching the height of prettiness, puppy Casper at a year old is now ready for prime time, and I thought we'd all enjoy some fresh air and home cooking.

What I decided on was a Mediterranean-style meal. At its heart would be a large spanakopita, filled with spinach, leeks, feta, and plenty of herbs. A large Greek salad with homemade lemon dressing would accompany it. And, for dessert, a berry pie topped by a crumble.

That's what I would make. After all, I also had a living to earn and the days leading up to lunch were working days for me. Everything else would come from Balboa International Market--the pita, the baba ganoush, the tzatziki, and the tabbouleh. I bought a container of mixed olives with garlic, dolmas, a half dozen baklava, and Persian pastry that looks like mini churros but are infused with honey and rose water. (One of the idiosyncratic things about the market is that they don't label their pre-packaged deli or dessert items.)

It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon. The sun was shining and comfortably warm. The patio table was overflowing with food--and no flies descended on it. The ladies spoiled the dogs with attention. Best of all I could sit down, relax, and enjoy the meal with them. And then everyone got to take home leftovers.

So, my lesson in all this? Plan a beautiful meal but just pick a few dishes to make yourself and either welcome contributions from others or pick up the rest at your favorite market. That way you can enjoy the gathering, too.

(printable recipe)
Serves 8 to 12

So, why spanakopita? First, it's delicious and easy to make--yes, even with filo (just defrost overnight in the fridge, unroll it, and keep the stack of leaves covered with a damp towel while working with it). It's also vegetarian and I didn't know if anyone had any meat issues. Finally, it's easy to build a meal around and looks beautifully rustic. You have a choice of olive oil versus melted butter to brush the filo leaves. I used olive oil but butter will add a rich flavor to it. And a tip here: Cooking down 2 pounds of spinach requires some skillet space. I use my wok because it gives me the cooking elbow room it needs. This part also just takes the most time. Once that's done the rest will go by fairly quickly, even with the filo. Don't worry about tears in the filo. It's all very forgiving, thanks to all the layers.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek, or melted butter, plus a lot extra for brushing filo
3 leeks, white and light green parts, chopped and rinsed
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds fresh spinach, well rinsed and dried
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ pound Greek feta cheese, crumbled or diced
½ cup fresh dill weed, minced
½ cup fresh mint, minced
¼ cup fresh oregano, minced
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 pound filo, defrosted overnight in refrigerator

Preheat oven to 375° and place rack in middle of oven.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add leeks and garlic and sauté until fragrant and soft, about 4 minutes. Add spinach in handfuls, stirring in as you add each batch. Let it wilt and cook down before adding the next handful. Once all of the spinach is in the pan, season with salt and pepper.

Remove from heat and spoon mixture into a colander. Place over sink and, using the back of a large spoon, press down to release excess liquid. Set aside to cool.

Once spinach mixture is at room temperature, add feta cheese, dill, mint, oregano, and eggs. Fold together until well incorporated. Set aside.

Brush the bottom and sides of a 9”-by-13” baking dish with olive oil. Keep ½ cup of olive oil (or melted butter) nearby. Unroll the feta and lay flat. Carefully pull the top sheet and place it into the baking dish with ends hanging well over the sides. Brush lightly with oil. Continue placing sheets one at a time into the dish at different angles so the entire pan is lined with sheet ends hanging down over the sides. Do this until you have only 3 sheets left.

Pour the filling into the dish, then fold over the hanging ends to cover the filling and brush with oil. Layer the remaining 3 sheets on top, brushing each sheet with oil. Fold the excess into the sides of the pan.

Use a sharp knife to cut through the layers to the filling in a few place. Brush the top with oil or butter and bake for 50 minutes until the top is puffed and golden brown. Let sit on counter for 10 minutes. Then cut into squares and serve warm.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cloak & Petal's Glazed Duck Breast

Step into the new Little Italy restaurant Cloak & Petal, which opened last December, and what's most striking are the two strikingly large faux cherry trees in breathtaking full bloom that sit in the middle of the main dining room. They immediately signify that you're in a Japanese restaurant, but not a traditional room. As new executive chef Dominic Valenzuela (he started in the restaurant as sous chef but took over the kitchen recently after the departure of executive chef Trace Jerome) described it, it's "Japanese Soul." By that he means Japanese in essence but "continuing to strive for perfection, for a balance of flavors."

The menu reflects an eclectic Japanese style that also takes into account its location in San Diego. So, seaweed salad, sashimi and nigiri sit cheek by jowl with grilled beef tongue and salmon tostada. There's elk sashimi, a variety of rolls, including a wagyu roll, and manilla clam miso. And glazed duck breast, which Valenzuela taught me how to make.

Japanese soul is an intriguing way to look at Valenzuela's own background. Born and raised in Albuquerque, he knew he wanted to be a chef as a high school freshman. He took community college cooking classes before enrolling in and attending Johnson & Wales University in Denver. He earned money and got experience working as a breakfast cook at a golf course and at a Mexican restaurant, where he learned how to work on the line.

Following his graduation, Valenzuela moved out to Southern California and worked for three years with Travis Kamiyama of Kamiyama Sushi in Torrance. "I loved it," he said of his experience with sushi. "It's instant gratification to give someone something you just made."

Since that experience, Valenzuela went on to work in a variety of sushi restaurants, but he also took some detours, including time in Hawaii where he worked for six months under Hank Adaniya at Hank's Haute Dogs, making traditional regional dogs--Chicago, Polish, chili, bratwurst, and the like, but also hot dogs made from lobster, alligator, rabbit, and even duck and foie gras. From there he returned to Albuquerque and launched Dia de los Takos, a food truck that he set up at breweries around town--something the breweries loved since he used their beers as the base of his fish taco batter.

San Diego is home now and Valenzuela returned to sushi, working first for Rob Cassidy at Sushi on the Rock and then at Cafe Japengo under Jerry Warner. He also worked at Sushi Lounge in Point Loma. He briefly returned to Albuquerque and his Dia de los Takos food truck before coming back to San Diego in 2017 to help open Cloak & Petal.

Now to the glazed duck breast. It's a new menu item. Valenzuela created a yuzu marmalade for the glaze, and sits it in a swirl of vibrant green edamame puree, accompanied by confit turnips.

The dish Valenzuela taught me substitutes edamame puree for potato puree, but the technique remains the same and it's something you can recreate with your favorite, seasonal vegetable. The glaze, too, is something you can riff on with your favorite marmalade.

The first thing you'll do is brine the two skinned and boned duck breasts in one quart of water mixed with a tablespoon each of salt and sugar. Valenzuela pointed out that this simple brine works just as well for chicken and pork. Note that the duck breast is skinned but still has a nice layer of fat on it. You'll trim the excess fat--but, Valenzuela suggested, keep the excess to render and then cook scrambled eggs or sauté vegetables. Score the fat and place the breasts in the brine. You can brine it for a couple of hours or up to overnight.

Once the duck breasts have been brined, pre-heat the oven to 500° and score the breasts to help render the fat for crispness. Heat a skillet, preferably aluminum, cast iron, or stainless steel--not non-stick, and once it's smoking hot, add a little melted butter or ghee or even vegetable oil to the pan.
Lay the duck breasts fat side down on the skillet and cook for about a minute and a half. Sprinkle some ground black pepper onto the breasts before turning them and cooking for another minute. Then flip them again and place the skillet into the oven for 7 to 8 minutes for medium rare (think of duck as meat, not poultry). Add or subtract cooking time in 2-minute increments for rare or for medium to well done. Remove the skillet from the oven and let the breasts rest for 3 to 5 minutes, tented with foil.
To make the puree, dice and boil the potatoes until tender. Remove from heat and drain. Place in a blender with 2 teaspoons of salt and about 1 1 /4 cup of heavy cream. Puree, then pour into a bowl with a sieve to remove any lumps and make impeccably smooth. It reminded me of the texture of mayonnaise. Valenzuela explained that the puree can be made in advance and reheated in a pan with a little butter.

Valenzuela then sautéed mizuna, a Japanese green (you can substitute with other favorite greens), in butter, adding a splash of sake and lemon juice for flavor. He also placed his yuzu marmalade in a pan and added ponzu and unsalted butter to create the glaze, swirling it around to warm it until it reach a boil, at which point he took it off the heat.

Now comes time to plate. First place a mound of puree on the plate and using the back of a large spoon, push it into a swirl. Place the greens in the center. Then slice each duck breast and (tip) place on a paper towel first to drain the released liquid before placing on the puree, crispy side up on each plate, fanned out. Finally, spoon the glaze over the duck. Valenzuela then garnished the dish with cilantro oil and edible flowers.

Glazed Duck Breast
from Dominic Valenzuela of Clock & Petal
Serves 2
(printable recipe)

For duck
1 quart water
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 duck breasts, skinned and boned
1 tablespoon melted butter, ghee, or vegetable oil

For potato puree
2 russet potatoes, peeled
Ground pepper to taste
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 heavy cream

For greens
1 tablespoon butter or oil
2 cups mizuna or other greens
Lemon juice

For glaze
1/4 cup marmalade
1 ounce ponzu
2 tablespoons butter


Mix together water, salt, and sugar. Score the fat on the duck breasts and add them to the brine, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one to two hours or as long as overnight.

Do a large dice of the potatoes and add to a pot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are tender. Drain and add potatoes to a blender bowl. Add 2 teaspoons salt and 1 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Puree.

Place a sieve over a bowl and pour the potato puree onto the sieve. Press through into the bowl. Set aside the puree.

Pre-heat oven to 500°. Remove the duck breasts from the brine. Heat a skillet until it's smoking. Add melted butter and lay each breast fat side down and away from you onto the pan. Sprinkle some ground pepper on each breast and let cook for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn over and leave for another minute. Flip again and place in the oven for 7 to 8 minutes for medium rare. Add or subtract cooking time in 2-minute increments for rare or for medium to well done. Remove the skillet from the oven and let the breasts rest for 3 to 5 minutes, tented with foil.

While the breasts rest, sauté the greens in a tablespoon of butter or oil. Add a splash of sake and lemon juice. Once the greens have cooked, remove from heat.

Make the glaze by adding 1/4 cup of marmalade, an ounce of ponzu, and 2 tablespoons butter to a warm pan. Swirl around to keep the butter from breaking. Once it reaches a boil, remove from heat.

To plate, place a mound of puree on a plate and, using the back of a large spoon, swirl it around. Place the cooked greens in the center. Slice the duck and place on a paper towel to drain the liquid, then fan the slices of each breast onto each plate. Spoon the glaze over the duck.

Cloak & Petal is located at 1953 India St. in Little Italy.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Isabel Cruz's Latin Table

Photo Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
I've been enjoying Isabel Cruz's food for years, whether at Isabel's Cantina in Pacific Beach, Coffee Cup in La Jolla, or Barrio Star in Bankers Hill--back when she still owned it. Now she has a book just published that features the healthy Latin food she grew up with and that her restaurants make.

The Latin Table (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.99) fulfills its statement of being filling with easy, flavorful recipes from Mexico, Puerto Rico (where Cruz's family comes from), and beyond. Cruz explained to me that the food in this cookbook--and on the menus of her restaurants--all derive from how she approached the menu of her very first restaurant, The Mission, which she had opened in the early 90s. "I put things on the menu I wanted to eat and would be healthful. But I didn't want to feel I was depriving myself."

Cruz grew up eating black beans and rice. Dinner was often black beans and rice with roasted chicken, plantains, and a salad. She built on that for her restaurants. "It was healthy and simplified. To be honest, with little kids at home I didn't want to be stuck at the restaurant training people to make complicated dishes."

All this translates into the recipes in The Latin Table. As Cruz has evolved, think Latin fusion, reflecting SoCal health consciousness, a focus on local and seasonal and sustainable ingredients, some Asian influences, and the wide array of flavors that span across diverse Latin cultures.

How do all these influences come together once you dig in? Well, I wrote a story on Cruz early this year for the San Diego Union-Tribune's food section that featured ways in which Latin food could be made healthy. She prepared a couple of dishes, Pepita-Crusted Sea Bass with Coconut Chili Oil and Turkey Albondigas. Both dishes proved her point. As Cruz creates her food, you get the Latin experience without feeling like you're depriving yourself, thanks to the complex flavors and textures in each dish. And, happily, you won't get that loggy or gross feeling from having over-indulged.

The Latin Table is divided into sections cookbook owners will be familiar with: starters; soup, salads, and sides, mains, sauces and salsas, drinks, desserts, and breakfasts. Cruz begins with a list of Latin kitchen basics--all the things Cruz shared that she had to insist her mom keep in her kitchen. The list includes a variety of salts, best quality extra virgin olive oil along with good quality olive oil for simple frying, a variety of spices, panko bread crumbs, short grain brown rice, black beans, and good-quality shrimp in the freezer--among other things, plus kitchen ware items. At the end of the book is  also a section on sources so you can purchase any special ingredients your local market may not carry.

My suggestion? Pay special attention to the sauces and salsas section. When Cruz made her sea bass dish, I fell in love with her Coconut Chili Oil. Her Orange Chili Oil is essential for all sorts of dishes, including the Coconut Chili Oil and Orange Chili Oil Dressing. Make it and keep it around as a go-to for elevating other dishes you make. Then try her salsas. Below are recipes for her bright Mango Mint Salsa and one of Cruz's favorites, her Chipotle Corn Salsa.

Mango Mint Salsa
(printable recipe)
Makes 2 cups

1 mango, medium dice
1 jalapeños, seeds discarded, and minced
1/4 cup red onion, diced
1/4 cup of mint leaves, chopped

Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and toss gently to combine. This salsa keeps refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Photo courtesy of Isabel Cruz

Chipotle Corn Salsa
(printable recipe)

When using fresh summer corn, I just slice it off the cob, no cooking or blanching. If you have good, fresh corn, it will already be sweet and crunchy. If you can’t get your hands on fresh corn, use a good-quality frozen corn (it works much better then canned). If you do use frozen corn, make sure to thaw it first in a separate container by putting the corn in a small strainer over a bowl, for example, to let it thaw. You don’t want the water from the frozen corn to dilute the chipotle/juice mixture that makes this salsa so good.

Makes 2 cups

2 chipotle chilies in adobo, minced
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 cups roasted corn kernels (about 3 ears of fresh corn)
½ red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, small diced
½  cup cilantro leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped

Whisk first three ingredients in a bowl, set aside. Toss remaining ingredients together in another bowl, combine with chipotle/lime/brown sugar mixture. Season with salt to taste. This salsa keeps refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Cruz also changes up basic ingredients in novel ways that can break your home cooking boredom. Make sweet potatoes often? Make them for Thanksgiving? If you're yawning at the thought of another everyday roasted sweet potato, be sure to try her Oven-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Cinnamon and Chili. I made it over the weekend in, as she suggested, one of my cast-iron pans, and loved what a little chili powder and cumin could do to spark a new interest in a go-to evening side dish. It takes little effort and even that little effort is worth it.

Be sure to give her desserts and breakfasts a try. If you're keen to indulge yourself, make her churros  and pair them with her Raspberry Puree. Finish up a light meal with her Mexican Chocolate Tamales or Croissant Bread Pudding with Mexican Chocolate and Almonds. Or lighten it up this summer with Tropical Fruit with Rum Honey Drizzle.

If you've ever been to Coffee Cup you know that Cruz is a breakfast maven. So, how about her Breakfast Nachos or Green Chili Eggs and Ham Breakfast Muffins? Want a healthier alternative? There's her Quinoa Breakfast Cereal and her Coconut and Raspberry Chia Breakfast Pudding.

The recipes throughout The Latin Table reflect the tropical region and culture where Cruz's family--and culinary--heritage was born. Lots of great produce and seafood. Bold, bright flavors. It's simple food, but joyful. Most important for busy home cooks, they're accessible. As Cruz said, "At the core of what I make is food made from basic, simple ingredients like what a family eats, made from scratch and very healthy."

If you'd like to meet Cruz and buy her book, she'll be at Warwick's Bookstore in La Jolla to do a book signing on May 4 at 7:30 p.m. The address is 7812 Girard Ave.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Fish Pit's Flaming Poke Bowl

Zach Stofferahn looks like he could be one of the students at San Diego State who frequent his little restaurant Fish Pit that sits on College Ave. near El Cajon Blvd. In fact, he's an accomplished chef with a long-time love of Japanese food that is the essence of Fish Pit--sushi done his way. Fish Pit, which has been around since October 2016, is all about seafood--poke bowls, fish tacos, ceviche, salads, rolls, and more.

The first time I visited, my friend Trish Watlington and I shared his Green Papaya Salad, which was a refreshing mixture of julienned green papaya, mango, and cucumber with sprouts and roasted peanuts tossed in Thai Lime Vinaigrette and his sweet chili sauce. I then dug into a Jumbo Shrimp Taco, made with fired garlic spiced shrimp, mixed cabbage, fresh salsa, and cilantro.

Stofferahn started cooking at the age of 14, when he got a job at Wendy's Sukiyaki in Utah, where he was raised. He came to San Diego for his formal culinary education at the Art Institute. He spent time at Cafe Japengo training under chefs Jerry Warner and James Montejano. When he was all of 20 he relocated to Park City, Utah to cook for Sundance Festival attendees. At one point, Stofferahn ran his own catering business in Park City. But then came the financial crash and by 2010, he was back in San Diego where he opened and then ran Sabuku Sushi on Adams Ave. for four years as executive chef. And then he decided that once again it was time for him to go out on his own. He took random gigs, worked at Petco Park, making sushi for local big shots, including the Spanos family, and started catering again. In fact, he still has a mobile sushi bar he takes out to do catering gigs. Then he opened Fish Pit.

When you arrive at Fish Pit, you'll see its cool "shack" look. Think Moondoggie's beach shack in Gidget. In fact, Stofferahn built all of it using pallets, stacks of which he still has in his backyard. Seating is limited to about 10--all outdoors along a counter that wraps around three sides.

Cool backstory, but it's the food that counts, right? Read the menu on the blackboards and you'll see Stofferahn's dishes are whimsical takes on sushi but the ingredients are local and sustainable--seafood from Catalina Offshore Products, produce from Specialty Produce's farmers market section. He's also  conscious of how he deals with food waste. A guy in the neighborhood who grows coffee beans and produce in his backyard for his wife, who is ill and needs impeccably "clean" food, picks up produce and fish waste to fertilize his garden.

When it came time to make a dish for San Diego Foodstuff, we decided to focus on his Flaming Poke Bowl. I loved the fresh Big Eye tuna that's featured but it also featured grilled salmon skill. C'mon, who wouldn't want to just snack on grilled salmon skin.

Watching Stofferahn prepare a seemingly simple dish revealed his skill. Because it's not at all simple once you get past dicing vegetables. The daikon sticks, for example, require a thorough competency in katsuramuki, a Japanese technique for peeling away a thin, wide, even layer of the daikon around its circumference before slicing it into matchstick-size pieces.
There's the skinning of the salmon and then seasoning and grilling it. Stofferahn advises leaving some meat on the skin for flavor and when you grill it, starting with flesh side down, leave it for longer than you think you should--until it starts to lift off the grill, then turn it over to the skin side.

Finally, there's the defining Triple X Sauce that is the "flaming" part of the poke bowl. This is a sauce you can use in other dishes. But here's the thing, combine the ingredients a few days out from when you plan to use it because you want the chili slices to marinate in the vinegar. Then you have pickles, some of which will be turned into sauce, some left to top the poke bowl.

There are lots of steps to this bowl, but it's not at all complicated. And it's so worth the effort.

Flaming Poke Bowl
From Zach Stofferahn of Fish Pit
(printable recipe)
Yield: 1 bowl

1 tablespoon each olive oil and canola oil
¼ red onion, sliced
1 piece of raw salmon skin about 3” by 6” with just a little meat on it
Salt and pepper
4 to 5 ounces raw Big Eye tuna, diced into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup hothouse cucumber, seeded and diced
1 ½ ounces seaweed salad (available at Asian markets)
¼ avocado, diced
1 ounce daikon, peeled, thinly sliced into matchsticks (keep in cold water to stay crisp)
1 quarter fresh lime
1 cup white or brown rice, cooked
Handful of mixed greens
1 tablespoon Triple X Sauce (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
2 ounces Ponzu sauce
Peppers from Triple X Sauce
Sesame seeds

1. Heat oils in a skillet and add onion. Sauté until caramelized, then remove from heat and set aside.
2. While the onion is cooking, season the flesh side of the salmon skin and place flesh side down on a hot grill or griddle. Season the skin side and let cook until the flesh side of the grill almost lifts off the grill. Flip it over to grill the skin. Remove and let cool, the slice thinly.

3. In a bowl, mix together the tuna, cucumber, seaweed salad, avocado, and daikon.
4. While putting together the dish, grill the lime quarter on both sides. Set aside.
5. In the bottom of your serving bowl, place the rice on one side and the greens on the other. Spoon in the tuna mixture. Add the three sauces. Arrange caramelized onions on the tuna mixture, then spoon the pickled pepper slices over the top. Add the salmon skin slices and sprinkle the dish with sesame seeds. Finish with the grilled lime quarter.

Triple X Sauce
Yield: 24 ounces

Mix together the ingredients for this spicy sauce at least three days before you expect to use it so the chili slices can absorb the garlic, vinegar, and sugar. Then reserve some of the pickled slices and blend the rest.

6 garlic cloves, skinned
20% habanero chilies
12.5% serrano chilies
12.5% fresno chilies
35% jalapeños
20% Thai chilies
Rice wine vinegar—enough to cover chilies
Handful of sugar

Slice chilies crosswise. Mix together with garlic cloves. Cover with rice wine vinegar and add sugar. Mix well and refrigerate for at least three days. Remove a couple of tablespoons of the pickled chilies and set aside. Blend the rest until smooth.

Fish Pit is located at 4632 College Ave. Visit the website to find out when it's open.

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