Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Spring = Asparagus

Happy spring! Even in usually balmy San Diego, it's been so long in coming. Thanks to a nasty flu I've been dealing with since mid-February I've had little inclination to cook but I'm perking up and decided it was time to indulge in my favorite spring vegetable: asparagus.

Back in the day, asparagus was exotic and pricey. At least pricey for my family. I may have first discovered them in their canned form. Not a winning introduction. Canned asparagus is overcooked and kind of slimy. But fresh! Oh, that's another matter entirely. Especially grilled or broiled.

Now over the years two questions about asparagus persist:

1. Pencil thin or thick? (As if my preferred medium girth weren't an option.)
2. Eat with your fingers or your fork?

The way I enjoy them the most requires medium girth and a fork at the table--because I cut the asparagus into two-inch pieces. You see, I love them sautéed in olive oil and garlic, before being caramelized by lemon juice, and tossed with toasted sesame seeds and sea salt.

This is the simplest of dishes and yet, to me, is all about the asparagus and how well it marries with each of these few ingredients.

Here's how it goes down: Wash the asparagus and then snap off the tough, woody bottom end. Slice into two-inch pieces (or as close as you can get). Mince a couple of cloves of garlic. Lightly toast a couple of teaspoons of white sesame seeds. Get a nice juicy slice of lemon (I use Meyer lemons from my garden but a conventional lemon is fine, too).

Now pull out your favorite sauté pan and place it on the stove over medium high heat. To be honest, I have a Scanpan wok that I've had forever (purchased at the late Great News! years ago). I rarely use it for Asian cooking (I have a "real" wok for that) but love to sauté veggies in the Scanpan wok because the flat bottom perfectly fits one of my ceramic stove's front burners and the swooping sides give me more cooking room.

Add a couple of teaspoons of olive oil and let it heat up a bit, then add the garlic. Once you can smell the garlic's aroma, add the asparagus. Stir it in to coat with the oil and garlic.

Then be patient and let the asparagus cook for a couple of minutes. Stir and let it sit some more. It takes about six minutes for the asparagus to show signs of browning. You don't want it overcooked, just a little seared. Then add the lemon juice. Stir and let the juice reduce and caramelize the asparagus. The garlic will turn into brown bits that actually are delicious, not to mention crunchy. Sprinkle the asparagus with sea salt, then toss in the sesame seeds. Mix well. That's it. Time to plate it.

Sautéed Asparagus with Garlic, Lemon Juice, and Sesame Seeds
Serves 2
(printable recipe)

2 dozen medium-width asparagus spears (about a pound)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 teaspoons sesame seeds, toasted
Juice from 1/4 lemon
Sea salt to taste

1. Wash and trim the asparagus to remove the woody bottom. Slice into two-inch pieces.
2. Heat a sauté pan over medium high and add minced garlic. Once you can smell the garlic, add the asparagus. Stir to coat the asparagus with the oil and garlic. Then let it sit for a couple of minutes. Stir and let it sit some more. Continue to stir a couple of more times until the asparagus starts to brown--about six minutes.
3. Add the lemon juice. Stir and let the juice reduce and caramelize the asparagus. Sprinkle with sea salt and stir in the sesame seeds. Serve.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Revisiting St. Patrick's Day Corned Beef and Corned Swordfish

Normally I'm not a big St. Patrick's Day celebrator. It was one thing when I lived in New York City and all of Manhattan turned into a green boozy, sudsy party. But as someone who's not much of a drinker, it's not one of my top holidays. Nevertheless, if St. Patrick's Day is your thing, be assured that celebrations will be going on (including a parade and Irish Day) and special menus and brews will be on San Diego restaurant and pub menus. So, release your inner leprechaun!

And, with the holiday falling on a Saturday this year, there's more opportunity to get in some St. Paddy's Day cooking and, who doesn't love the essential holiday meal?

That would be, of course, corned beef. Now there's nothing more Irish (or, yes, Jewish...) than corned beef. Several years ago Iowa Meat Farm's butcher Richie Vought taught me how they make theirs. It's perfect with the traditional boiled cabbage and potatoes, but I'm partial to enjoying it in a sandwich.

Not a meat eater? Well, there's nothing saying you can't "corn" fish, especially very sturdy fish like swordfish that chef Tommy Fraioli made at the late, great Sea Rocket Bistro. The brined swordfish is moist and tender, with a hint of cloves and a slightly pickled flavor. And you can add carrots, cabbage, and potatoes to the cooking liquid to add flavor.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Honey Skillet Chicken Thighs with Meyer Lemon, Garlic, and Anchovies

I am, I admit, a creature of habit. And so after a long day of work and chasing after a puppy recovering from hip surgery I just usually default to my reliable dinners. That includes roasting chicken thighs brushed with garlic salt, paprika, olive oil and lemon juice. By roasting them at 400 degrees for over an hour I really tasty crispy skin. It just works for me.

But the repetition can get to be a bit much so I thought about how I could augment what are clearly favorite flavors for me and change things up. Over the years I've seen skillet chicken prepared in all sorts of ways and decided to go with that, and in the process create a finger-licking sauce that made me shiver with happiness.

I like to caramelize chicken skin with honey on occasion so honey seemed like a good ingredient to start with, along with garlic--such a great pairing. But I wanted something to offset the honey's sweetness. Anchovies! I had ordered a large tin of salted Sicilian anchovies and thought they'd be perfect to mince with the garlic. I grow Meyer lemons so clearly they, too, would factor in.

Finally, butter. Yeah, butter, browned and foamy and nutty. That would pull it all together.

Making this dish isn't just a matter of throwing the ingredients together and shoving the pan in the oven to bake for awhile. Nope, you have to hover over the stove to build the flavors. So, I pulled out my reliable cast iron skillet and added a tablespoon of unsalted butter. While the butter melted over the heat, I seasoned the chicken thighs. I like thighs as much as I dislike chicken breasts, which I find dry and easy to make unpalatable. Thighs are forgiving. Thighs have flavor.

So, with a little salt and pepper, the thighs went into the skillet to sear, skin side down first, then turned. Then removed, along with most of the pan juices, which I discarded (the juices, not the chicken, of course). I added just a bit more butter to the skillet, scraping up the bits, and gradually the stirred butter foamed and browned. To that I added the honey, stirring it to get it to dissolve, then came the garlic and anchovies. Now don't make a face. The anchovies are fairly indiscernible in the dish, but create this lovely underlying salty umami.

Once the aroma becomes this side of mouth watering, add the lemon juice. Now you've got sweet, salty, and tart in a molten sauce. That's when you add the chicken back to the pan and continue cooking, spooning some of that sauce over the chicken to baste. You'll cover the pan to finish it up before running the skillet under the broiler for a couple of minutes to crisp the skin.

And that's it. For the effort, you get tender, juicy chicken bathed in one of the best sauces you'll ever love. Serve it over rice. Serve it over greens. I chose arugula for the spiciness. Then spoon the sauce over it all and swoon a bit.

Honey Skillet Chicken Thighs with Meyer Lemon, Garlic, and Anchovies
(printable recipe)


3 chicken thighs
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons honey
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 anchovies, minced
Juice from 1 lemon


Preheat your oven to broil.

Melt one tablespoon of butter in a 10-inch oven-proof pan or cast-iron skillet over medium high heat. While the butter melts, season chicken thighs with salt and pepper.

Sear chicken thighs, skin side down first, until the skin is crispy. Turn and sear again until golden. Drain all but about 2 tablespoons of the pan juices. Transfer chicken to a warm plate.

Melt the rest of the butter in the same pan or skillet the chicken was seared in over medium heat, scraping any bits left over in the pan from the chicken with a spatula. Stir the butter and swirl the pan occasionally for about 3 minutes as the butter changes color to golden brown and has a nutty fragrance.

Add the honey and stir it into the butter to dissolve. Then add in the garlic and anchovies. Sauté for about 1 minute until fragrant. Add the lemon juice. Stir well to create a well-blended sauce.

Return the chicken thighs skin side up to the pan with the sauce. Cook for 5 minutes uncovered in the sauce, occasionally basting the skin with the pan juices. Reduce heat to simmer, cover the skillet with a lid, and continue cooking until the chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Use a thermometer to measure the doneness. It will be fully cooked at 165 degrees F.

Remove the lid and transfer the skillet to your oven to broil for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the tops of the chicken are nicely charred. Then remove from oven.

Serve over rice or a plate of arugula. Drizzle sauce over the chicken and rice/arugula.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Trish Watlington's Second Act in San Diego's Food Community

The time is winding down now. Before long Trish Watlington will no longer be the owner of The Red Door. After opening the Mission Hills restaurant eight years ago and coaxing it into one of the most forward-looking farm-to-fork eateries in the region, including running her own small farm on her Mt. Helix property to supply it with produce, Trish is handing over the keys to Luciano Cibelli. Cibelli, an Italian chef who has lived in San Diego for 20 years, is bringing in two partners from Italy as chef and pastry chef. The plan is for them to keep The Red Door on its current path for now and slowly transition it into their own vision.

And Trish? What's going to be on her plate once she hands over the keys?

I met Trish about a year after she opened the restaurant, when farm to fork meant a special event tour of the nearby Mission Hills Farmers Market with then chef Brian Johnston before a market-driven dinner. She and I became great friends and I watched as both she and The Red Door evolved to  embrace a mission dedicated to highlighting local producers. Over time she even closed meat-driven sister restaurant The Wellington to open Bar by Red Door and celebrate craft cocktails and community. Over the years, with different chefs, including Miguel Valdez and Karrie Hills, the original special event that highlighted growers at the farmers market evolved into regular and distinctive Farmers, Friends and Fishermen dinners featuring the often anonymous hard-working people who grew, caught, or created what was served at The Red Door. And Trish isn't giving those up, even if she is giving up restaurant life.

"I intend to keep holding these dinners three to four times a year," she told me recently. She'll host them at her garden or at other restaurants.

The farm-to-fork movement is close to her heart and the focus of her activism. Last year Trish launched Farm to Fork San Diego. It's a synthesis of many of the issues she's worked on over the years. The most prominent element is the now annual autumn Farm to Fork Week, which promotes the chefs and eateries that are closely tied to local farms, fishermen, ranchers, and producers. During the week, there are special events and participating restaurants offer special menus and discounts.

"Farm to Fork San Diego is high on my list," said Trish. "I want to go big or go home with this." To that end, she said, Farm to Fork Week is part of a larger membership organization she's creating.

"I want to be able to connect everyone on the website via categories like farms, wineries, restaurants, farmers markets and farmers market vendors, food trucks, fish markets, and related businesses--say, breweries if they're sourcing from farmers. I want the site to become a big directory and database for restaurants that source locally."

Not only does Trish envision it as a resource for those in the industry, but also for consumers and tourism resources so that locals and visitors who want to eat at venues that have ties to local food production can be guaranteed that the listed eateries are legitimately "farm to fork." So far 18 eateries, 27 farms, and four wineries are listed as partners on the site. Trish is planning on establishing tiered memberships to make it affordable for everyone and wants to get even more sponsors to help support programs. Farm to Fork San Diego plans also include collaborating with the San Diego County Farm Bureau and the San Diego Food System Alliance's FishTales, which connects local eaters with local fishermen.

"The point of the program is to encourage eateries to source locally and to verify that they're doing it," she explained, "understanding that there's been a history of some fraud."

The qualifications aren't onerous: eateries must have at least one regular ongoing relationship with a farmer that the farmer would verify.

"Our job is not to vilify restaurants for not doing enough, but to encourage them to do it better," she said.

Trish will also continue her farming. She working on getting her Community Food Producers certification by the California Department of Agriculture so she can sell her produce directly to chefs.

And she's remaining active on the boards of the Berry Good Food Foundation and Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center, which includes chairing Olivewood Gardens' annual fundraiser, Seedling Soiree.

Finally, said Trish, after all is said and done, her greatest joy that she's anticipating is being able to spend more time with her year-old granddaughter Sterling. "I'm just so excited to be able to hang out with her."

Stay tuned for Trish's participation in an upcoming episode of Nan Sterman's KPBS TV series A Growing Passion, which will feature three chefs paired with three farmers. 

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Preservation Pantry Ups Game in Food Waste Fight

Just when I thought I had all the preserving and canning books I needed here comes Sarah Marshall's new book Preservation Pantry: Modern Canning From Root to Top & Stem to Core (Regan Arts/$24.95). It's the subtitle that says it all. Marshall, creator of Marshall's Haute Sauce in Oregon, doesn't only offer unique recipes for preserving harvests, she includes--even stresses--the parts of fruits and vegetables we usually toss. It's the quintessential no-waste preserving book.

Preservation Pantry is organized to help preserving novices get their bearings. Like any good preserving book, it lays out the tools and equipment and steps to successful canning and preserving, and offers a thorough lesson in the step that most frightens the novice: water baths. What I love about this section are the illustrations that show everything from can jar sizes, chopping, what "headspace" looks like, and how to remove air pockets.

The come the recipes: first fruit, then vegetables, a to z. Within each section is a preserving recipe, a second recipe for the fruit or vegetable, then a recipe for the "discards" followed by a recipe for using the discards preserves. So, for apples Marshall starts with Ginger Liqueur Spiked Apples, made with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, and ginger liqueur. You'll remove the peel and core--and save them. The Ginger Liqueur Spiked Apples, she writes, can be used to make her Drunk Apple Crumble recipe a few pages away. The following recipe is for Matcha Tea Applesauce that you can enjoy as part of a breakfast bowl. Again, hang on to the peel and core. Then comes her boozy caramel sauce, made from those saved peels and cores, along with whisky, cinnamon, sugar, salted butter, and whipping cream. All this leads to--ta da!--her Drunken Apple Crumble, which contains both the Ginger Liqueur Spiked Apples and the Whiskey Apple-Core Caramel. Brilliant!

And so it goes with cherries (save the pits for making bitters), lemons (save the peel for a spice rub), beets (the leaves will make dolmas while the stems will pickle cauliflower), onions (Onion Peel Powder), and turmeric (Turmeric Skin Golden Cashew Milk). And, of course, there's more.

Finally, Marshall is an enthusiastic canning clubber, so she has a section at the book's conclusion all about how to start your own canning club and set up and work a trading table. You'll also find a section for stocking your pantry, with vendor contact information.

The recipes in the book are quite unusual so they're bound to be launching points for any enthusiastic canner considering how to use their own local, seasonal bounty.

Want to know more about Marshall's ideas on preserving? Well, guess what? She's coming to San Diego to speak at the 2018 InTent's Conference being held Sunday, February 25 through Tuesday, February 27. Marshall is scheduled to speak Monday afternoon on "Quality Products, Local Ingredients." And you can also catch her on Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. doing a book signing at the Little Italy Mercato's InTents booth.

This is the second annual conference, which is directed by Catt Fields White of San Diego Markets (Little Italy Mercato, North Park Farmers Market, and Pacific Beach Farmers Market). The InTents Conference brings together farmers, artisan food makers, farmers market managers, and others for educational panels, speakers, roundtables, and networking opportunities all geared to enhance the skills and increase the resources for small businesses to help them achieve financial stability, as well as launch entrepreneurs who have an idea they want to get off the ground.

Even if you're not an aspiring farmers market vendor but you are a farmers market vendor lover, you, too, are included. On Monday, February 26, from 6 to 9 p.m., White is offering InTents Flavors for the general public. For this event, farmers and chefs will be teaming up at tasting stations to create local farm bites, as well as beer, wine, spirits, and live music.

Featured chefs include Tae Dickey and Chris Osborn (Biga), DJ Tangalin (Bivouac Ciderworks), Joanne Sherif (Cardamom), Christina Ng (Chinita's Pies), Acursio Lota (Solare), Steve Brown (Temp° by Cosecha), and Davin Waite (Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub). Individual tickets are $95, with a portion of the proceeds going to Kitchens for Good, a San Diego local nonprofit that trains the underemployed for culinary careers and breaks the cycle of food waste and uses it to feed the hungry.

Both events will be held at the Marina Village Conference Center in Mission Bay. You can purchase tickets here.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Herb Sourdough Crackers

You know that sourdough starter I've been nursing? Well I've got another way for you to use the discards you have before feeding it, courtesy of my friend Joanne Sherif, owner of Cardamom Cafe & Bakery. Joanne recently launched the San Diego Friendship Bread group on Facebook and she posted what I thought was the coolest idea!

Sourdough crackers!

Now if you've been intimidated by the idea of making bread, you should definitely give far less challenging crackers a try. And these, which she found on a wonderful blog called Sourdough & Olives, are very good and very easy to make--and adaptable to your own tastes.

When using discard starter, you have to understand what you're making with it to figure out if you can use it when it's flat (as in having spent the week in your fridge without having been fed) or if you need to rebuild it by feeding it with more flour and water to get it all nice and bubbly and yeasty again. If you're just going for flavor, then feel free to stir it up (since there will probably be some liquid sitting at the top) and use it as is. But if you're going to rely on it for a rise, then you have to feed it again and let it sit for several hours to reach its peak.

Crackers? In this case, at least, there's no rise. It's all about the sourdough flavor. So just stir up the starter discard and go for it.

This recipe, which can easily be doubled, calls for dried herbs. Now, depending on your taste or how you'll be using the crackers you can also just leave them out. But I used my dried herb rub. This is something I always have around--and making it turns my house into the most divinely aromatic environment. Once it's dried I use it on everything from olive oil dip to a poultry rub to vinaigrette. It's made up of rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic, sea salt, and lemon zest. Joanne said she has used nigella seeds and inspired me with bringing up everything bagel topping mix. The herbs and/or spices/seeds go into the dough, which after it's rolled out very thin is brushed with olive oil and then sprinkled with sea salt.

The other thing that can be a variable is the flour you use. I used King Arthur white whole wheat flour, but you could use cornmeal--which Joanne has done--or spelt flour.

One thing to caution you about. Every oven, of course, is a little different. Crackers can overcook or even burn easily. So even though the recommended bake is 20 to 25 minutes, check your crackers at 15 or 20 minutes to avoid over baking.

I really enjoyed these crisp, herbaceous crackers, especially with my Italian Marinated Eggplant. For this I didn't cut the crackers into small squares but instead into rectangles to better hold the eggplant.

Herb Sourdough Crackers
Adapted from Sourdough & Olives
(printable recipe)
Yield: 30 square crackers

100 grams sourdough starter, spent or active, made with equal amounts flour and water by weight)
60 grams white whole wheat flour
20 grams unsalted butter, softened
2/3 tablespoon dried herb rub (or other herbs/seeds/spices you like)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Olive oil for brushing
Flake sea salt for sprinkling on top

1. Mix together starter, four, butter, herb rub, and salt. Form into a stiff dour and shape into a rectangle.

2. Let the dough rest for 5 to 8 hours if you want a tangier flavor. Otherwise you can continue on to rolling it out.

3. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Flour both the work surface and rolling pin. Roll out dough to about 1/16" thickness. Trim for straight edges, and re-roll the excess to avoid waste. Transfer the rolled out dough to parchment paper on top of a sheet pan. Brush with olive oil and cut the dough into squares using a sharp knife of pizza cutter. Prick each square with a fork and sprinkle some sea salt on top.

4. Bake the crackers for 20 to 25 minutes, checking at 15 to 20 minutes to make sure they haven't already browned. Once the squares begin to brown around the edges, remove from the oven and use the parchment paper to transfer the crackers to a rack to cool.

P.S. If you're an avid home baker in San Diego, you'll want to attend Grains: Learn, Eat & Drink! It's going to be held on Feb. 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Cardamom in North Park. Ca Grain Campaign and Slow Food San Diego have partnered with three local bakers and a brewer for this fun, informative and tasty event around the joys of whole grain. Come hear from Farmer Mai how to access flavorful California whole grain and support small farms. Learn about Slow Food's commitment to supporting local California Grain. Catt White of San Diego Markets will share how local Farmer's Markets may implement Ca Grain Campaign's 20/20 Goal. Taste whole grain products from Christina Ng (Chinitas Pies), Crystal White (Wayfarer Bread) and Joanne Sherif (Cardamom Cafe and Bakery) and drink local Brew (liquid grain)! Tickets are $20 and can be purchased on Eventbrite

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Brijette Peña: The Seed Starter

Tucked away in a hillside community--an extension of City Heights perched over the 94 freeway--is one of San Diego's more unusual businesses: a seed company. On a sprawling acre, replete with a couple of large metal storage sheds, and a chicken coop with seven busy hens, Brijette Peña trials seed production, currently growing aisles of red cabbage, carrots, green comet broccoli, fava beans, peas, nasturtiums, graffiti cabbage, and banquet dill.

San Diego Seed Company sustainably produces local heirloom seeds (non-hybrid and non-GMO) based on what she grows and what her contract growers produce. The seeds--vegetable, herb, and companion flowers--can be purchased online or at nurseries including Grangetto's, Walter Andersen, Mission Hills, and City Farmers.

"I'm trying to make this a regionally specific seed company," Peña explained. To that end she has been collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance and local farmers. Large wholesale growers may offer seeds for plants we know and grow in Southern California but the varieties may not be right for our climate.

And, Peña claims, they don't test the seeds they way she does. It can take her two years to produce an envelope filled with seeds for a new product. First she starts and grows them--what she calls trialing to evaluate their phenotypes, or characteristics. The plants are left to flower, the seeds are collected and dried, their germination is tested, and then comes the process of preparing them for packaging.

In an ancient clipper she found in Kansas and one considerably newer, Peña runs seeds through to clean them and separate them from debris. A fractionating aspirator, powered by a shop vac, separates the good seeds from those without embryos that won't produce. Ever buy and sow seeds only to have little success? Non-productive seeds may be the culprit. Not to mention seeds that just weren't meant to grow in our climate. At $3.50 a packet, San Diego Seed Company seeds are pricier than the seed packets you'd find at the box stores, but Peña says her process and attention to detail, will offer a better yield for Southern California gardens.

While the business is not yet certified organic, which is very expensive, Peña follows organic practices. It's at the heart of her lifelong interest in agriculture--a gimme given that she's originally from Kansas, having moved to San Diego several years ago when she married her San Diego-native husband Roger.

"I've always been into farming," she said. "In Kansas agriculture is king. San Diego is a great environment for growing, but I found there were no resources for local seeds, particularly varieties for small spaces. So I decided to start this business. Gardening with seeds means you can get varieties you can't always find in nurseries. And it's more economical than buying plants."

Understanding that seed starting can be daunting for novices, Peña has resources on her website as well as YouTube videos.

But she also gave me some tips to pass along.

1. Use good seed starting soil. It may also be called propagation mix and can be found at nurseries. The benefits, said Peña, are that the soil is sterile and is light, so it holds moisture well.

2. Keep the soil moist so they can germinate.

3. The depth you plant your seed is important. It should be three times the width of the seed. San Diego Seed Company packets will also list the depth so you don't have to figure it out. Peña uses 6-packs commonly found in nurseries to plant seeds unless they are to be directly sowed (such as root vegetables).

4. Light is very important as well. How much will depend on the seeds but, said Peña, the general rule of thumb is full sun.

5. Fertilizing comes when your little seedlings get their first set of true leaves. Peña recommends fish emulsion because the stinky liquid really gets into the soil. Once the seedlings get bigger, then it's time to transplant. To get them out of their little containers try a gentle tug.

Finally, Peña encourages home gardeners to save their seeds. "We produce heirloom seeds because we want people to save seeds and be part of the food supply," she says. "It's only going to get hotter and dryer in San Diego so we need to have seeds that can adapt.

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