Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Curing the Heat Wave Blues: Favorite No Cook Summer Recipes

I know I'll just get rolled eyes and the tiny violin playing gesture from those in other parts of the country, but, hey, it's been hot and humid in San Diego, especially inland where I live. Sticky, sweaty, can't get your sports bra off weather. I don't want to cook. I don't want to eat foods above room temperature.

Fortunately, I have a bunch of recipes to turn to that require little effort and no oven. So, I thought I'd do a round-up of some of my favorites and share them with you in case you've got the summer kitchen blues as well.

Evie's Chunky Gazpacho
Okay, you knew this recipe of my mom's would be included. It's the most wonderful combination of flavors and textures. It's healthy. It's cold. Add some cooked shrimp or crab, a hank of crusty sourdough bread, and a cold beer and you've got a great meal.

(printable recipe)
Serves 8 – 10

5 - 8 large tomatoes, quartered
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
½ English cucumber, roughly chopped
1 or 2 red peppers, roughly chopped
6 – 8 scallions, roughly chopped
6 - 8 radishes, roughly chopped
½ medium onion, peeled and quartered
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped
½ bunch parsley with major stems removed and/or 1 bunch cilantro
2 tablespoons lime juice
2-6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
A few dashes of Worcestershire sauce
A few dashes of your favorite hot sauce
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1 regular-sized can beef broth
1 can low-salt V-8 juice
1 cup corn kernels (fresh, frozen or canned – if fresh is unavailable, I like the frozen roasted corn kernels from Trader Joe’s)
1 pound pre-cooked bay shrimp, lump crab (optional)
Sour cream or Mexican crema

Pull out the food processor and a very large bowl. Process each of the vegetables until the pieces are small -- but before they're pureed -- and add to the bowl, then add the rest of the ingredients, except for the proteins and dairy, which I keep on the table separately for guests to add as they wish. Refrigerate until cold and then adjust seasonings to taste. Top when serving with sour cream or Mexican crema. Serve with fresh tortillas or even hearty sourdough bread.

Spicy Kale, Corn, and Mango Salad
I came up with this about a year ago during a killer heat wave. It was so refreshing. Add cheese or some other protein like roasted chicken from the market to bulk it up a bit, but it's a great base for some serious eating.

(printable recipe)
Serves 4

1 ear of corn, shucked with kernels sliced off
1/2 slightly ripe mango, peeled and diced
1 large tomato, diced
1 jalapeño, diced
1/2 medium onion, red or white, diced
4 large kale leaves, spine removed, chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and soaked

1/2 cup of Country French Vinaigrette made from Penzeys' mix -- or your own vinaigrette

Combine vegetables, add dressing. Marinate for about an hour. Serve.

Cucumber and Radish Confetti Soup
For at least 30 years I've been making a cucumber soup with yogurt and tomatoes that's been a go to on hot summer days. But one day I found myself with radishes as well and thought that I'd change things up a bit. This is still a classic for me, but I now also add a bit of low-fat buttermilk to the soup.

(printable recipe)
Serves 4

1 large English cucumber or 3 good-sized Persian cucumbers (about 6 inches long)
1 dozen radishes
1 1/2 cups unflavored yogurt
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 small cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fenugreek (for a different flavor, try dill or mint -- they're all equally good)
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Slice the cucumbers in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and discard. (If you're using a conventional cucumber first peel the skin; for the other types, leave the thin skin on for color.) Cut into chunks and put in the bowl of a food processor. Trim all the radishes and cut all but one into chunks and add to the food processor. Save the remaining radish for garnish. Add the rest of the ingredients to the food processor and blend thoroughly. Remove to a bowl, cover, and chill at least two hours or overnight. Just before serving, slice the remaining radish very thinly, again with the little mandoline, and use it to top the soup. Feel free to add a little hot sauce when serving.

Stone Fruit Salsa
And now for dessert! Yes, you could use this on a taco or pork tenderloin--but it's so fabulous over a couple of scoops of ice cream!

(printable recipe)
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

2 dozen cherries, pitted
2 plums
1 large, firm peach
1/2 serrano or whole jalapeño pepper
1/4 medium red onion, diced
1 1/2 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
juice of 1 lime
pinch of salt
freshly ground pepper to taste

Chop the fruit and the pepper (removing the seeds if you want to reduce the heat intensity). Add to a bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Mix well and refrigerate for an hour. Adjust the seasonings. If you want it sweeter, add a little honey to taste.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Chocolate Cream Pie with Tough Culinary Love on the Side from Pastry Chef/Instructor Tina Luu

I first met Tina Luu in 2008, when I was researching a roundup of holiday sweets for an appearance on KPBS, which I then turned into a post for San Diego Foodstuff. At the time she was the chef at Heaven Sent in North Park and, no surprise to those who know her, she plied me with taste after taste of remarkable, decadent holiday pastries. In the years since we've become good friends. Going out for a meal with Tina is an experience in extravagance. Typically, at a meal at Bankers Hill not long after it opened, we had our savory dishes and then, with a wink, Tina ordered the entire dessert menu for us to try. Delicious insanity.

You see nothing of that impishness in the classes she teaches at The International Culinary Schools at The Art Institute in Mission Valley. There she's all business and sharp-eyed focus. I've been trying to wrangle an invitation for years to see what she does and finally got to attend her Pies and Tarts class last week. The four-hour class begins with a quiz from the previous lesson and then Tina begins a short lecture to her 25 students on the topic at hand. On that day, she launched into the differences between tart and pie doughs, how to create a flaky pie crust, the three ways to use pie dough, types of fillings, the three types of tart dough, and where puff pastry fits in with all this. She worked in French terminology, health issues related to ingredients like Crisco and lard, and environmental concerns.

Then she began the demos, simultaneously working on a pie crust and pastry cream. Sure, you may have recipes. But the nuggets and gems of information--and corresponding tastes--make these sessions the essence of education--like using a combination of vanillas, both bean and extract, to create layers of flavor; like using other extract flavors such as coffee; like making sure to use just your fingertips when cutting in the butter and shortening so as not to melt the fats; like how to temper the pastry cream; like being sure to always strain pastry cream to get rid of particles; like placing plastic wrap on top of the finished pastry cream before refrigerating it to avoid forming a skin.

Pastry chefs are, of course, the epitome of precision. She circled around the classroom as her students got to work on their pie and tart doughs correcting technique, nudging them where needed, praising where deserved. And the students seem to thrive on this tough love. I was getting off on it, too. Sure, I knew Tina as a gifted pastry chef, but seeing her teach was something else. These students and I were in the hands of a consummate professional--one who lives up to an impressive resume that includes working with world-class chefs like Michael Mina and Jeremiah Tower, working in Asia with the Stars Restaurant group, lecturing at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at the University of Hawaii, and contributing as a writer and photographer at Gusto Magazine.

As part of my mini class experience I also got a couple of recipes--one for pie dough and another for chocolate pastry cream so you can make a chocolate cream pie. The dough recipe will make six patons--or 10-ounce pie crusts. Tina came to this measurement as a way to avoid waste. You'll have just enough to create a crust for an aluminum pie tin that will shouldn't need to be trimmed. Making six will allow you to freeze whatever you don't need. I've got two in my freezer now, thanks to one of her very sweet and charming students. Want to make a pie? Just pull out a paton or two and defrost overnight in the fridge or for 20 minutes at room temperature.

Flaky Pie Dough
Tina Luu
(printable recipe)
Yield: 6 patons

1 pound, 8 ounces all purpose flour
10 ounces pastry flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 pound cold butter, cut into big chunks
7 ounces Crisco
1 3/4 cup ice water

Sift together dry ingredients. By hand, cut in cold butter and shortening until they are a mix of fava bean and pea size.

Add water, starting with 1 1/2 cups and only adding more as necessary. Add too much water and you'll have dense dough that won't rise and will look a little gray. Mix until the dough just comes together. It should be rough with striations of butter.

Scale (measure each piece so it weighs 10 ounces) and form patons into a short square that will make it easier to roll out later. Wrap individually in plastic wrap and chill at least two hours but preferably overnight. Or put them in the freezer.

When you're ready to make the pie, flour your surface and roll out the paton until it's 1/6th of an inch thick. If you're making a cream pie, you'll do a blind bake--meaning you'll place the dough into the pie tin and add weights like beans. Bake at 350˚ for 15 minutes or until golden. Remove the weights and bake for another 10 minutes. Let cool, then fill with the pastry cream.

Tina's Crème Patissiere/Pastry Cream
Tina Luu
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 pies

We're adding unsweetened chocolate here to make a chocolate cream pie, but you can leave out the chocolate for a basic pastry cream that you can use for all sorts of applications, including fruit tarts.

1 quart whole milk
12 ounces granulated sugar
1/4 vanilla bean, seeds scraped (use both seeds and bean)
6 eggs
3.5 ounces granulated sugar
3.5 ounces cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3.5 ounces cold butter
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate

Create a slurry by combining eggs, 3.5 ounces sugar, 1 cup of milk, and cornstarch. Bring to a boil remaining milk, sugar, and vanilla bean, then lower the heat. Temper in egg mixture by adding five ladle fulls of the hot liquid to the cold and then adding the now warmed up mixture to the hot liquid, constantly stirring. This prevents the eggs from curdling.

Bring the mixture back to a boil, stirring constantly but gently as the mixture thickens to a cream. Be sure the bottom doesn't burn. You'll feel it coagulating. Keep stirring to smooth it out. Once it first bubbles (at 212˚), cook for an additional three minutes. Add butter, vanilla extract, and chocolate and mix well. Strain through a sieve. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To put the pie together, gently fill the baked crust with the pastry cream. You can then pipe whipped cream on top and garnish with shaved chocolate. To make whipped cream, whip together two cups heavy cream, 1/4 cup powder sugar, and 1 tablespoon vanilla.

*Bottom two photos courtesy Tina Luu

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Your New Summer App: Thyme-Infused Steamed, Marinated Eggplant

Everyone has their fallback technique in the kitchen. Mine is roasting, especially vegetables. I love how the extreme heat   coaxes out the sugars and creates a whole new flavor profile for squash, tomatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus... You name it; I roast it.

But with the current heat wave in San Diego, turning on the oven is a total turn off. So, what was I to do with these beautiful Choryoku and Gretel eggplants grown by Weiser Family Farms that I had picked up at Specialty Produce? Choryokus are a light green reminiscent of a Granny Smith apple, in a long body with sweet, white flesh. The Gretels are the white sister of a Hansel variety. They have a spongy flesh that makes them perfect for absorbing

Earlier in the week I had made a spice rub from a large finger of Buddha's Hand, some red toch garlic--also from Specialty Produce--sea salt, and thyme from my garden.

The Buddha's Hand is a marvelous citron that has all the flavor of lemon zest with none of the bitterness or the juice, for that matter. The red toch garlic is a soft neck variety with a lot of moisture.

It's got a powerful flavor without being too spicy. The blend hadn't completely dried yet but that would be fine if I created a vinaigrette with it. I noodled around online and was inspired by a recipe I found on Epicurious that steamed and then marinated eggplant to serve as an appetizer. Perfect!

I trimmed and sliced the slender green and white eggplants in half lengthwise, then put them in a steamer, skin side down and sprinkled them with a little kosher salt. While they steamed for about 10 minutes, I quickly whisked together a couple of tablespoons of the rub with aged sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. By then, the eggplant were tender. I let them drain for a couple of minutes, then arranged them in a dish and spooned the vinaigrette over them. There they sat at room temperature for the next two hours and I periodically basted them with the vinaigrette they were soaking in.

At the end of the two hours, without breaking a sweat, I had a fragrant dish, each bite packed with a sensational combination of the vinegar, garlic, and thyme. It was salty and herbaceous, oily and acidic. The eggplant's texture was soft and creamy from the steaming. Pair this dish with a bowl of briny olives, oil marinated roasted red peppers, Manchego cheese, a crusty loaf of bread, and refreshing glass of Cava or Proseco and you've got a perfect light summer meal.

Thyme-Infused Steamed, Marinated Eggplant
Adapted from Epicurious
(printable recipe)

Serves 4 as an appetizer

4 long eggplants, trimmed and sliced in half lengthwise
2 tablespoons aged sherry vinegar
Kosher salt

For marinade
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped (look for Red Toch variety but any will work)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Zest of one finger of Buddha's Hand (or one conventional lemon)
2 tablespoons aged sherry vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Black pepper
Fresh thyme leaves for garnish

Place the eggplant skin side down in a steamer basket. Sprinkle with a little kosher salt. Fill the pot with one inch of cold water, add two tablespoons of the sherry vinegar, then cover with the steamer tray and lid. Turn the heat to medium high and steam the eggplant for about 10 minutes, until soft. Remove the steamer tray and let the eggplant drain for five minutes.

In a small food processor, blend the first four ingredients for the marinade. You can do this days ahead of time and spread the mixture on a tray to air dry. It makes a terrific rub for poultry, lamb, and vegetables--or, mixed with olive oil, a lovely dip for bread. Here you use a couple of tablespoons and whisk in the sherry vinegar and then the olive oil.

Arrange the warm eggplant on a small platter with sides and spoon the marinade over each half. Let sit on the counter for two hours, basting periodically. When you're ready to serve it, add a grind of black pepper and a sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chef Sara Polczynski's Three Refreshing Mexican Dishes for Hot Weather Dining

Chef Sara Polczynski is a global traveler who digs in deep, volunteering with her young daughter and mother, most recently in Guatemala with the organization Globe Aware to help lay concrete floors in the home of a resident of the small village of El Remate. (She's also volunteered with Globe Aware in Cusco, Peru and Surin, Thailand doing various humanitarian and animal efforts.) And, of course, throughout her travels, she's picking up recipes and invaluable cooking techniques that she's taken back to San Diego, where she's the consultant executive chef at downtown's The Blind Burro restaurant and associate professor in the San Diego Community College system where she teaches baking and culinary arts classes.

I've known Sara for years. The two of us annually bake pecan pies together with other friends at Just Call Us Volunteers for Mama's Kitchen. In fact, I've really thought of her primarily as an expert baker, but as she showed me last week in her home kitchen, she's remarkably versatile--and a terrific teacher.

The three recipes she demonstrated for me below are perfect examples of coastal Mexico's influence on her--which is, of course, perfect for neighboring San Diego. The day was just as hot and steamy as today--yet she didn't break a sweat and the results were truly refreshing for lunch.

She also gave me several great tips. Most are incorporated in the recipes, but one stands out. That is to "deflame" onions that are to be eaten raw. White onions, which are typically the variety used in Mexican cooking, can be harsh in their raw state. Deflaming simply means running the diced onion under cold water for 30 seconds to eliminate the bite. You'll see this instruction in her guacamole recipe, which is actually a base for other recipes--although you can, of course, eat it plain.

So, what did she make? As I mentioned, there's guacamole, but instead of your run of the mill smashed avocado dip this is a bright and flavor-packed Mango and Shrimp Guacamole. She starts with a basic guacamole, then makes a refreshing mango salsa that, again, you can serve on its own as a sauce over proteins or to top tacos. To this combo she adds chopped shrimp that she quickly poached, cooled, then marinated with olive oil, lime juice, and sea salt.

Then there was her Moon Scallop Aguachiles Tostada. Yes, you can use any other type of scallop but moon scallops, which you can find locally at Catalina Offshore Products, are so sweet and have such a nice firm texture that they stand out in each bite. Aguachile is a puree of serrano chiles, lime juice, and salt. That's your spicy, acidic marinade for the scallops, which are then chopped and combined with cucumbers, sea salt, and cilanto, then bedded onto a crispy flat corn tortilla (you can find them at Mexican markets) smothered in smashed avocado and topped with pickled onions and cilantro.

Finally, there was her unique and cooling Shaved Baby Squash and Blossom Salad. This colorful dish is so easy to make and really takes advantage of the bounty of summer squash we're enjoying now. All you need is a mandoline or hand slicer to get long thin strips of the squash that you'll add to the delicate yellow squash blossoms, diced red pepper, and greens like arugula. Add a terrific vinaigrette and you're set--although you could also add beans, shrimp, roasted corns, beets, nuts, seeds, cheese, or berries. The squash ribbons will soften slightly as they absorb the dressing, but still have an enjoyable crunch. Yes, it's quite versatile, not to mention brilliantly colorful.

In fact, Sara says that color is one of her greatest influences in her cooking. "Why wouldn't it be?," she laughs. "It makes you happy when you eat!"

Mango and Shrimp Guacamole
from Sara Polcyznski
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 cups 

Both the salsa and the guacamole can be served separately but combine them and add shrimp and you've got a uniquely flavored dish. For the salsa, Sara says the key is a small dice to make it pretty.

Mango Salsa
1/3 red bell pepper, small dice
1 mango, small dice (Tip, to slice the mango meat from the large seed, cut off the base, peel off the skin, the set on the counter and slice down.)
1/2 green onion, minced
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1/2 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
Salt to taste

Mix together all of the ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste.

Plain Guacamole Base
2 pounds avocado
3/4 ounce cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 ounces diced white onion, deflamed (run under cold water for 30 seconds after dicing)

Lightly mash the avocado with a potato masher and blend with the remaining ingredients (keeping the mixture slightly chunky for better texture).

1 pound raw shrimp, deveined and with tails removed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Fill a bowl with water and ice. Set aside. Bring water in a medium-size saucepan to a boil. Add the shrimp and cook briefly, just until the shrimp turn a light pink. Scoop out and place in the ice water bath to shock and stop the shrimp from cooking. Remove, drain, and loosely chop (Set several whole ones aside to garnish the dish). Then add olive oil, lime juice, and sea salt. Mix well.

When the salsa, guacamole, and shrimp are made, combine them and mix well. Plate and serve with chips.

Moon Scallop Aguachiles Tostadas
from Sara Polcyznski
(printable recipe)
Serves 8

1 1/4 cups fresh lime juice
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh serrano chiles, stemmed
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 pound moon scallops
1 Persian cucumber, sliced thin
3 tablespoons cilantro, minced
1 avocado, peeled, seeded, and smashed with salt and lime juice
8 flat crispy corn tostadas (available at Mexican markets)
1/4 cup pickled onions
1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves for garnish

To prepare the moon scallop marinade, combine the lime juice, chiles, and salt in a blender and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Poor over the scallops and marinate for up to an hour.

Chop the scallops, and add the cucumbers, sea salt, and minced cilantro.

Top each tostada with some smashed, seasoned avocado. The add the aguachile moon scallop mixture. Top with pickled onions and cilantro.

Shaved Baby Squash and Blossom Salad
from Sara Polczynski
(printable recipe)
Yield: 1 quart

1 pound baby squash (the smaller, the sweeter), sliced thin lengthwise to better absorb the dressing
2 cups greens, like arugula
1/4 diced shallot
1/3 (or 1/4 cup) red bell pepper, small dice
Salt and pepper to taste
8 squash blossoms, stamen removed
Vinaigrette of your choice

Toss the heavy vegetables with the dressing first. Let sit so that the squash softens slightly. Add sea salt and pepper to taste.

Add greens and carefully tear apart and add the blossoms. Add more vinaigrette to taste. Marinate five to 10 minutes and serve.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lemon Thyme Garlic Paste

I goofed up. I decided to make a batch of dill pickles last week and in my exuberance broke up more heads of garlic than I ended up needing. No big deal really, but I wanted to use up that garlic while it was still fresh.

So, I pulled out my stone mortar and pestle, a bottle of Greek extra virgin olive oil, a lemon, and some dried thyme--and made a small batch of flavored garlic paste.

Now while you could certainly blend these ingredients together in a small food processor, using a mortar and pestle really releases the oils of the garlic, with the olive oil, and transforms into a beautifully smooth and creamy spread.

You can use any combination of flavors--herbs like thyme, oregano, and rosemary or spices like cumin, smoked paprika, chipotle, or a curry powder mix. Add some salt, of course. And you can add zest from lemon, lime, or other citrus, plus some of the juice. What you create can be used to coat chicken or pork, toss with shrimp, spread on vegetables or on a baguette--all before roasting, grilling, or baking. You can add it to a pasta dish or add vinegar and create a dressing or marinade. And, you can blend it with sour cream and cream cheese to make a dip for crudites.

So, this is a very versatile little paste to have on hand. It's also extremely potent. But if you're a garlic lover, this is for you.

Lemon Thyme Garlic Paste
(printable recipe)

Yield: 1/4 cup

12 medium garlic cloves, peeled
4 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced or 1/4 teaspoon dried leaves
zest of half a lemon
juice from half a lemon
salt to taste

*several Altoids for after consuming (optional)

Add garlic cloves to a mortar bowl and use the pestle to crush them. Add one teaspoon of oil and mash with the garlic to create a paste. Gradually add two more teaspoons and continue mashing.

Add the thyme, zest, and salt to the garlic and oil. Work them into the mash, pressing against the wall of the mortar to crush the herbs and zest and bring out the oils. Add the rest of the oil and the lemon juice. Stir, taste, and adjust seasonings and oil to get the flavor and texture you want.

I used my paste to coat a chicken thigh and two halves of a Japanese eggplant from my garden. I sprinkled grated Parmesan cheese on the eggplant as well. Then I baked the chicken and eggplant at 375˚ for about an hour, until they were beautifully browned. Both were oh so tender and while the flavor of the garlic, sweet and mellowed from cooking, predominated, I loved the undertones of lemon and bright thyme.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Taking a Virtual Trip to the Islands with Monchong

Every once in a while I'll get a message from Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore Products that reads something like this:  If you have time, come by the shop this afternoon, I got a piece of fish that will knock your socks off!

Photo by Rebecca Gardon
Well, who can resist that? Not I! This time Tommy wanted to introduce me to a Hawaiian treasure, Monchong--also known as Sickle Pomfret. This beautiful fish with large scales and fork-shaped fins was line caught in Hawaii, where it's a delicacy, costing up to $45 a pound. Usually ranging from 18 to 22 pounds, the Monchong live in what Tommy calls the "twilight zone" of the ocean at depths 800 to 1,200 feet. Like salmon and mackerel it has a high oil content (and high Omega-3 fatty acids), making it great for grilling, broiling, baking, or sauteing--or to use for tempura. 

The fish came in recently with a catch of big eye tuna--another fish we'll talk about soon. This particular shipment is gone, but Tommy assures me that more will be coming in. He had one last half-pound piece that he gave me, slicing off a filet to saute for me at the warehouse so I could get a taste of what I was in for. His minimalist approach gave me the full flavor of the fish--all he did was put some oil in the skillet then add salt, lemon juice, black balsamic vinegar, and the Salt Farm 73, a smoky custom salt for Catalina Offshore Products made by Salt Farm. 

Back home I sliced 3/4-inch pieces, slathered on some olive oil, and added lemon juice and seven-spice shichimi togarashi seasoning. Then I put it on my stovetop grill. It took about three minutes or so to cook. 

The flavor of the Monchong is sweet and rich. Once cooked it has a white flaky flesh that seems impossible to overcook--a forgiving fish, not unlike black cod only not as oily. And, like black cod, I envision marinating Monchong in a mixture of miso and rice vinegar to broil in my next go-round.

Since I couldn't eat it all at one meal, I've saved a couple of slices to add to a salad or perhaps cut up and use for fish tacos.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Five Summer Veggies for the Home Cook to Grow

As a gardener I'm a great grocery shopper. I come from a long line of excellent gardeners, yet whether it's my lack of absolute dedication or the ever-compacting clay soil in my little pocket yard, I have yet to attain the success of my mother or her mother in growing a sustainable harvest even just for myself.

My Nana had a victory garden of at least an acre in East Los Angeles during the Depression and going into the privation of World War II. My mom recalls her using fish bones from the fish monger to fertilize the soil and growing every vegetable you can imagine, as well as berries and tons of flowers. My mom inherited this talent. She's like a plant whisperer. They respond to her with magnificent offerings--Meyer lemon trees weighted down with golden fruit, basil plants bursting with clean wide anise-scented leaves, eggplants and tomatoes enough to make Italians weep with delight.

Me? I compost and compost and the soil still seizes up. I get white fly on my Meyer lemon trees that never quite goes away. And some little varmints are stealing my ripe harvest.

And yet. There I am year after year tending to this lovely little space, and despite my shortcomings and that of the soil, I usually get a small if regular crop.

All this is to say if I can do it, so can you.

This isn't a gardening blog, but many home cooks love to grow their own food. I'm no different. There's such joy in picking a cucumber or pepper or handful of tiny cherry tomatoes that I grew from seed or seedling. It makes cooking and eating them that much more satisfying. My year-round edible garden includes Mexican tarragon, Greek oregano, English thyme, garlic chives, Italian parsley, Meyer lemons, limes, Thai chilis, sorrel, and a basil bush that produces year round. Then there are the seasonal plantings. In late spring, I planted three types of cherry tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, zucchini, string beans, basil, more chiles, plus some strawberries. Some are in pots; some in the soil. All seem to be thriving so far.

So, given my tendency to growing failure, I thought I'd offer up some suggestions for what does work and, hopefully, give inspiration to the soil challenged.

Let's start with my annual favorite: Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. I grow these in a large pot on the sun-drenched part of my patio. In the 13 years I've lived in my house I think I've only had one year of failure. This variety is easy to grow and you may find that the only reason you have nothing to bring into your kitchen is because you've munched on all the ripe ones while hand watering. They're like eating candy. But if you do have enough ripe at one time to make a meal, halve them and serve with fresh ricotta and a drizzle of olive oil on toasted sourdough bread. Or toss with pasta and pesto. Or mix with watermelon chunks, feta, and basil leaves as a salad, drizzled with olive oil and thick balsamic vinegar.

Japanese eggplant: I've always grown this successfully in a pot but after working my garden soil decided to try planting it in the ground this summer. And, woo hoo, I've got gorgeous fruit coming in. I only have one plant so my harvest will be limited, but when the first little guy is ripe, it'll probably be sliced lengthwise, pierced in a few places, then layered first with a thick coating of minced garlic and olive oil, followed by a layer of grated parmesan before heading under the broiler for a few minutes. Of course, you can also stir fry or grill these slender eggplants, or even pickle them.

String beans: This was an experiment last year and they did so well, I got another couple of plants this year and, as you can see, they're popping out! These bush beans are pretty easy to manage and I love the sweet crunch they give when fully ready for picking. If I can keep from just snacking on them, I like to blanch them and include them in a summer salad with sliced radishes and cucumbers, tossed with a light vinaigrette.

Zucchini: This black zucchini variety--like almost any zucchini variety--has a mind of its own and its mind says "Be fruitful and multiply!" I can never decide whether to pick the gorgeous blossoms and stuff them or wait for the fruit. Currently I'm waiting for the first fruit to mature. Once I've had my fill, the blossoms will be snatched for stuffing with creamy cheeses before being dunked in a light beer batter and fried--or simply chopped and added to a quesadilla or omelet. I love having choices!

Peppers: No matter how bad things get in the garden, which includes stealing by varmints, peppers are my salvation. The local thieves don't seem interested in them. I've had one Thai chili plant for years and it keeps popping out the hot stuff every summer. Last year I planted a Hungarian pepper plant that produced beautiful round fruit. I never pulled it and once again it's heavy with green balls that will eventually turn a vibrant red. The same with my bell pepper plant in a big pot on the patio. It just keeps giving and giving so long as I water, feed, and weed it. I also have new serrano and jalapeño plants, both full of fruit, planted in the ground. It's so cool to make a salsa and just go out the door with a little clipper to harvest what I need.

This morning I did one of my favorite garden chores--I fed the plants with fish emulsion, a byproduct of fish waste. This stinky source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is fabulous for photosynthesis, flowering, and fruit development. And, with its potent odor, it's the rare plant food that makes you feel like something's happening from the moment it hits the soil. When I feed them fish emulsion I feel like I've really done something wonderful for all my little garden babies.

You don't need me to share the plentiful variety of gardening resources out there, whether online or at the bookstore (although I will give a shout out to my high school friend Nan Sterman, who has a terrific KPBS show called A Growing Passion). All I can emphasize is that you should buy non-GMO seeds or seedlings from reputable resources, use lots of compost to both amend your soil and protect it from the heat, and water as needed. I've gotten in the habit of keeping a pail in my shower to collect water since we're in a drought. That helps. So does composting. And to keep nasty bugs at bay, use natural pest control--whether it's planting flowers that attract insects that will eat your critters or spraying with non-toxic, natural pesticides. Soon you'll also start seeing bees and hummingbirds. That's when you know you've created a magical little ecosystem.

What else? Oh, how about have fun!

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