Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Making Banchan at Saja Korean Kitchen

I first fell in love with banchan, the little side dishes served at Korean meals, traipsing through L.A.'s Koreatown with chef Debbie Lee. These are tastes designed to be shared throughout the meal. Have a bite of bibimbap and a bit of pickled cucumber. Dig into bulgogi and then pick up a bite of scallion pancake. The variety of flavors and textures can be enormous even if the portions are deliberately petite.

At the new Saja Korean Kitchen down in the Gaslamp, executive chef Jason Velasquez (mostly recently at Katsuya), has create a menu that plays on traditional Korean food but introduces some new flavors and techniques that you probably wouldn't find at your favorite haunts on Convoy.

Hired by restaurateur Alex Thao (Rama and Lucky Liu's), Seattle-native Velasquez has trained extensively with Japanese chefs and also attended classes at Le Cordon Bleu to learn French technique. Korean cuisine wasn't in his wheelhouse, so he spent months eating Korean food here and in L.A. to develop his palate so he could then develop his menu.

Given Saja's lower 4th Ave. location near the San Diego Convention Center and consequently the need to appeal to a broader audience, Velasquez felt that his menu should be Korean inspired, but not literally locked into tradition. He's toned down some of the strong flavors. For example, he doesn't use as much fish sauce in dishes that call for it and uses a milder Japanese variety. He's also keen on cutting down on sugar in his dishes--and, in general, keeping them lighter.

But his banchan reminds me of some of my favorite places here and in L.A. Typically, he services flash boiled and marinated bean sprouts, edamame, pickled cucumbers, kimchi, cabbage with daikon in chili paste and dashi, and marinated broccoli--although he does switch out all but the cucumbers, edamame, kimchi, and bean sprouts. After visiting Saja for dinner last month, I asked Velasquez to teach me how to make a couple of his banchan dishes: his kimchee and pickled cucumbers. He agreed.

"Banchan to me is very simple--it's a way to get the palate started," he says. "It's not so much that it will fill you up but enough to start up your appetite. It's something you can enjoy eating communally."

Both of these recipes are home-cook accessible, though you'll need to make a trip to an Asian market for ingredients like fish sauce, sweet rice flour, sesame oil, konbu (dried edible kelp), and Korean red pepper powder. And you'll need to plan ahead, since these dishes thrive on time to soak in the flavors.

So, let's start with the kimchee. Done right, the salad will be crunchy where the cabbage is thickest but very pliable with the thin part of the leaves. It definitely has a nice kick to it, but the spice is full of flavor, along with the mild tangy fishiness of the shrimp fish sauce. The flavors are complex and irresistible.

Saja Cabbage Kimchee
From Jason Velasquez of Saja Korean Kitchen
(printable recipe)

Yield: 3 cups

1 head Napa cabbage
Sea salt
2 tablespoons salted brined shrimp
2 tablespoons grated garlic
1/2 grated yellow onion
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
1/3 Korean red pepper powder
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of sea salt
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup shredded green onions

Slice the cabbage head in half lengthwise and partially cut through each half, keeping the quarters intact. Place the cabbage in a large bowl and generously sprinkle the leaves throughout the head with sea salt. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or at least 12 hours. The cabbage will wilt and liquid will release to the bottom of the bowl. This allows the cabbage to act like a sponge to absorb the flavors you'll add.

You can make the sauce while the cabbage leaves are salting or the next day. In a food processor, puree the shrimp, garlic, onion, and fish sauce. It can be a little chunky.

In a bowl, combine the rice flour, red pepper powder, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Place it in a saucepan with enough water to make a slurry. Whisk the mixture over medium heat on a burner. As it heats up it will form a light paste. Take it off the heat and let it cool. Once cooled, add to the shrimp mixture.

Rinse the salt from the cabbage. Then wring out the water. Place the cabbage in a bowl and add the carrots and green onions. Pour the sauce over the vegetables and work it into the cabbage, including between the leaves. Fold each of the four quarters of saturated cabbage in half lengthwise and place into a container. Cover and let sit for 24 hours on the counter, unrefrigerated. Then refrigerate. It will taste fine in a day or two, but if you can, wait a week for the flavors to truly come together. Serve as chunks in a small bowl for banchan.

Now on to the pickled cucumber. I'm particularly partial to these flavors because I've been doing an extremely simple version of this for years that I enjoy during heat waves. With this recipe I can ratchet up the flavor with a sweet, slightly spicy, tangy profile, thanks to Valasquez's dynamite vinegar solution and the addition of very smooth, aromatic sesame oil.

Saja Pickled Cucumber
From Jason Velasquez of Saja Korean Kitchen

1 English cucumber (or other seedless cucumbers)
Sea salt

For vinegar solution:
2 quarts Japanese wheat rice vinegar (called suhiro)
1 cup brown sugar
pinch of sea salt
piece of konbu

2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup sesame oil
2 cups of the vinegar solution
1 tablespoon Korean red pepper powder
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Slice cucumbers in 1/4-inch thick slices so they retain their crunch. Toss with sea salt. Let sit 15 to 20 minutes.

Make the vinegar solution. Heat one quart of the Japanese wheat rice vinegar until it reduces by half. Combine with a second quart of vinegar, 1 cup brown sugar, a pinch of sea salt, and a piece of konbu. Heat the mixture until it's combined. Note: keep the konbu in the mixture. (Velasquez also uses this mixture in his sushi rice.)

Rinse the salted cucumber slices, then place in a kitchen towel and squeeze to remove the liquid.

Empty the cucumber slices into a bowl. In another bowl whisk together the brown sugar, sesame oil, 2 cups of the vinegar solution, the Korean red pepper powder, and the sesame seeds. Pour over the cucumber and let marinate at least six hours but preferably overnight. Serve in small bowls for banchan. 

The marinade can also be used as a base for vinaigrette. Add grapeseed oil, Chinese plum sauce, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Test Driving AmazonFresh

I guess you could say that I've been a professional grocery shopper for almost eight years now--since launching San Diego Foodstuff. I love shopping and markets--whether it's chatting up vendors at our farmers markets, discovering new ingredients at ethnic markets, or ooohing and ahhhing over the annual reappearance of seasonal produce at Whole Foods or Sprouts. Don't even get me started on Trader Joe's.

So, when I received Amazon's notice of the San Diego launch of AmazonFresh--their fresh produce and grocery delivery service--I was curious. How would it work? They brag that they offer products from local vendors, but who would they be and why wouldn't I just head over to their shops? How easy would it be to order what I want? How long would it take to get to me? Sure, we've been through other online grocery delivery businesses, like FreshDirect and WebVan. But this is Amazon. I have certain expectations.

Well, before I go any further with this let's bring up the shock factor--the annual $299 fee for what is called AmazonFresh Prime. So, if, like me, you already are an Amazon Prime member for $79 a year (yes, that fee is increasing, too, and I've lately noticed that the two-day free delivery is edging closer to three or four or more days), you now have to spend another $220 a year to be able to order and get grocery delivery, along with all your other Prime membership benefits. This applies to you whether you're in San Diego, L.A., or San Francisco. (Interestingly, in Seattle Amazon Fresh is open to anyone, so long as you pay an $8 to $10 delivery fee or place a big enough single order or are part of the Big Radish, their frequent buyer program.)


I'd love to hear from you about whether or not you think a grocery delivery service is worth $299 a year--remembering that you only get "free" delivery if you spend more than $35 on an order. Clearly the rationale on Amazon's part is that you'll feel compelled to spend an awful lot on Amazon groceries and other goods to justify paying that annual fee. Good for them. But is it good for you?

The company also promotes the promise that if you order by 10 a.m. you'll have delivery by dinner. If you order by 10 p.m., you'll have your order delivered by breakfast.

Not so fast. Literally. On Tuesday morning I ordered a combination of groceries that were part of their basic AmazonFresh list and some local (meaning Southern California) groceries. But once my selections went into my cart, it turned out that some would be available Wednesday and others not until Thursday. Consequently, I set my delivery date for Thursday late morning.

But, let's start with how it works once you get on the site. You'll enter your address to see if you qualify for delivery service. If so, then you sign up for a free, 30-day trial, entering all your crucial info, including payment details--all the usual stuff for this type of commerce. Once you get on the shopping site you have the option of shopping bestsellers, recipes, shopping with coupons, shopping neighborhood shops and restaurants, shopping grocery or Amazon.com items, or household, baby, health & beauty.

My initial interest was in seeing who was represented locally. And, remember that in this case local means Southern California. So, yes, there are shops and vendors you know like Eclipse Chocolate, Dallmann Fine Chocolates, Waters Fine Food & Catering, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, San Diego Honey, Sadie Rose Baking Co., Cafe Moto, Venissimo, The Cravory, and Seaport Oil & Vinegar.

What this L.A. native also appreciated was the appearance of some old neighborhood favorites of mine from living in West Hollywood--Western Bagel, Canter's, and--be still my heart--the Diamond Bakery on Fairfax.

So, off I went to order. I bought a couple of heads of garlic, a jar of Medaglia D'Oro Instant Espresso Coffee, a 6-ounce container of blueberries, a bunch of organic dinosaur kale, turbinado sugar, and organic air-chilled chicken--items that already were on my shopping list. Then I picked up two loaves of corn rye bread from Diamond Bakery and a couple of potato knishes from Canter's--treats I can only buy when visiting L.A. Lastly, I scanned our local folks and picked up a pound of decaf coffee beans from Cafe Moto and both burrata and bucherondin chevre from Venissimo.

That's it. The total came to almost $68--meaning my delivery would be free. But, as I was checking out the form gave me the option of adding a delivery tip. The recommended amount was $4, but I could modify that or not include it. Their delivery people don't take cash. As for delivery, you get a choice of days and times, as well as a choice of selecting front door delivery (they just drop it off) or in-person delivery (you must be there and sign off on delivery).

Clearly, my list was not the usual weekly grocery list. For someone who isn't into marketing, doesn't have the time, or is unable to get around easily, grocery delivery is a tremendous service. The question is whether that $299 fee is justified.

It's a potential boon for local vendors. According to Venissimo owner Gina Frieze, who was approached by Amazon to participate as they were expanding into San Diego, it is a way to get visibility to potential customers in the county, as well as give them a presence in Los Angeles.

"That means millions of people who might never get to try our cheese would have a chance to try them," she says. "Even some of our regulars are thrilled to have this convenient option available to them. Same great cheese, cut fresh off the wheel, delivered next day to your doorstep. Not a bad deal."

So far their product selection on the site is smaller than in the shops. Currently they include a combination of customer favorites along with some that staff love and that they always have in stock--from cheeses and charcuterie to crackers, sweets, savories, and gift collections. Frieze says that her understanding is that as they get up to speed with real-time inventory, they'll be able to offer an even greater selection. And, AmazonFresh customers also get the full description of the cheeses that Venissimo's store customers have come to expect.

I'm hoping that product expansion applies to the other vendors. I wanted to order a package of chocolate nibs from Eclipse Chocolate, but they weren't to be found. I love Bird Rock coffee but their decaf beans were only available in a pricy and impractical five-pound order.

Similarly, even some basic grocery orders are limited. The only DeLallo whole wheat pasta I could find was spaghetti--a 16 pack.

For me, that's part of the limitation of online shopping--another issue for you to weigh, along with whatever preferences you have in the area of brands, whether you want produce that's already ripe or a few days from ripeness (think avocados), or what size produce you want (I like small russets not ginormous ones). In short, how picky are you about your groceries? Do you like to sniff and press?

It will also be interesting to see who else in San Diego will eventually participate. For example, Santa Monica Seafood is part of AmazonFresh, but Catalina Offshore Products says it hasn't been approached. Cupcakes Squared has been approached but hasn't decided. Another vendor I know felt that it wasn't worth it, while another is considering it. Will there be a way for farmers or other growers to get in on this directly?

Now, let's talk about the actual delivery.

I had scheduled my delivery for Thursday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., knowing I'd be returning home from a doctor's appointment by 11. As I swung around the front of my house at 10:50 I saw green bags on my front porch. So an A for timely delivery--even if it wasn't same or next day. As you can see, each large green bag is slapped with a scanning sticker to assure accuracy.

Here is everything I ordered. Clearly, it all fit on my cutting board. Yet it required four large bags, two of which had two styrofoam coolers with the requisite ice packs for delivery. The coolers are in six connecting pieces like a jigsaw puzzle so you don't have to pull a big cooler out of the bag. And I guess you can reuse them if you put them back together in the bag. These will get recycled. The bags are your basic recyclable grocery bags only much taller and with velcro closures at the top and snaps on the handles. I guess you can take these to the market or find other uses for them, but they're kind of an ungainly size. And if you order from AmazonFresh regularly you're going to accumulate a lot of them, not to mention the ice packs. (Note: I've just learned that you're supposed to bundle the bags and cooler pieces together and leave them for pick up when your next delivery is made.)

Another thing I noticed is that there are holders on the side of the bags for product advertising. Those Bounty and Crest notices are just ads, not coupons. There are also ads on the site. So, Amazon is getting passive income from manufacturers.

As for the products themselves, everything arrived as it should, fresh, cold--if required--and intact. As it should, given all that packaging. Okay, one caveat, Gina Frieze, your Venissimo cheese package was moist so the labeling with the info you want your customers to enjoy is kind of smeared.

You'll have to determine for yourself whether all these factors will turn you into an AmazonFresh member. For me, the best thing about it was being able to order from Canter's and the Diamond Bakery. The rest, meh. But I'm a shopper so I don't feel a need for home delivery. What I wish is that there were no $299 fee. If this were simply part of my current Prime membership, I would feel compelled to take advantage of it periodically if I didn't have time to shop or at least head over to places to get specialty items--or order products from favorite spots in Los Angeles. But I just don't see spending $300 for a service I don't have much use for. And I simply think that number is prohibitively high. I hope the powers that be, Mr. Bezos, rethink that.

For those of you who do join, you can do your ordering online on the website, but there's also an AmazonFresh app for iOS and Android at their respective shops.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Noodle Kugel

Come September and it's soon time for the high holidays. Yes, there may (inevitably) be a heat wave in Southern California, but Rosh Hashanah and breaking the fast of Yom Kippur call for traditional Jewish comfort food--and in my family that always includes a sweet noodle kugel--or lokshen kugel if you want to go all the way with the Yiddish.

Noodle kugel (there's also potato kugel for Passover)--basically a noodle pudding--is dish usually made with wide egg noodles, sour cream, cream cheese, eggs, sugar, and butter. Made well, it's a sweet, fluffy, cheesy dish. When I was growing up, my grandparents would often show up at our house for Friday night dinner, almost always bearing three things--her Hawaiian chicken, a Pyrex dish bubbling with a warm kugel, and mandelbread. Because kugel is such a cholesterol nightmare it's no longer something I eat much of, but if I get half the chance I'm all over it. Plus, it holds up well as a leftover or frozen and reheated.

I've had many versions of noodle kugel over the years and tend to avoid it at most Jewish delis because at least our local ones don't do a great job with it. A lousy kugel is kind of flat and dense and unpleasantly chewy. Whether it includes raisins or other dried fruit, pineapple chunks, or peaches (as one friend prepared it), it should be a bite of rich creaminess under a crisp top. In looking at other recipes over the years I've found a key difference between my nana's and these others. Nana always separated the egg yolks from the whites and beat the whites until stiff. You can't miss with that technique--even if you use cottage cheese (yet another ingredient option).

This recipe below is about as traditional as you can get. But you can change it up with extra ingredients you enjoy, like reconstituted dried or fresh or canned fruit, and different toppings. I added a little brown sugar to my most recent kugel and enjoyed the deeper flavor it created.

Nana's Noodle Kugel

(printable recipe)
Yield: 12 servings, depending on how you slice it

1 pound dried wide egg noodles, cooked and well drained
1 cup raisins or other dried fruit (optional), soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, then drained
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted
1/2 pound cream cheese, softened and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pint sour cream
6 eggs, separated

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Beat egg yolks with sugar and add to cooked noodles.

Beat egg whites until stiff.

Add butter, cream cheese, and sour cream to noodles. Gently fold in egg whites.Yes, it will be loose. Don't worry. It will come together while cooking.

Pour mixture into buttered 13-inch by 9-inch baking pan. If you want you can make a topping with brown sugar, cinnamon, and granulated sugar (and/or breadcrumbs, crumbled graham crackers, streusel, or crushed cornflakes).

Bake for about an hour until the center is set and the noodles are light brown on top.

Let the kugel rest for 15 to 20 minutes before slicing.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sherried Lobster with Penne

It's not often that I get a gift of lobster, but last Chanukah that's what my sister gave me--specifically two well-wrapped frozen lobster tails. I put them in my freezer and, I'm embarrassed to say, kind of forgot about them. Whenever I had to move the package to get something else I would make a mental note to take them out soon and figure out a way to enjoy them, but days turned into weeks, then months.

But then, finally, I did just that. I let them defrost in the refrigerator overnight, then unwrapped them. To say there were well preserved is an understatement. It must have taken an engineering degree to get them this well protected and I wish I'd had that same degree to extricate them. Finally, I got the wrapping removed and there were these two gorgeous red-and-black lobster tails. I'm going to guess that each was about half a pound.

I already had some ideas of what to do with them. The weather was hot so I wasn't keen on turning on the broiler. Boiling? Nah. So, I thought I'd remove the meat from the shell, chop it into large chunks, then saute it all in olive oil, minced garlic, sherry, and a knob of butter for flavor at the end. Then I'd toss the meat with this sauce with whole wheat penne.

I found, though, that the lobster meat had ideas of its own. Namely that it didn't want to separate from the shell. While I was searching around for some kind of tip to accomplish this, the lobster sat on the counter for perhaps five minutes. I couldn't find anything useful so went back to the tails to try again. And, surprisingly, this time they easily yielded. So, my guess is that when you try this in your kitchen let the lobster rest at room temperature for about five minutes before removing the meat from the shell. And, don't toss the shells. Put them in a freezer bag and add other shells like those from shrimp and store in the freezer to make a seafood broth later.

After that, it was all pretty easy. First, put the water for the pasta to boil and when ready, add the pasta. Then turn to cooking the lobster. Saute the garlic in oil until it's fragrant. Then add the lobster pieces. After a couple of minutes add enough sherry to make a sauce. Let the lobster cook in the liquid until it's just cooked through. Add the butter and stir well. You can also add red pepper flakes and/or herbs and spices to make it your own--but not so much that you overpower the lobster. By this time the pasta should be cooked through. Drain and add it to the lobster and sauce. Mix well, then divide into a couple of bowls.

I also added some chopped cherry peppers to the dish. You could add chopped sugar snap peas or other vegetables. The big chunks of lobster were sweet and decadent, elevated by the luxuriousness of butter and sherry and the fragrant garlic. The penne sopped up the rich sauce. Be sure to have a hank of sourdough bread so you don't leave a drop.

Sherried Lobster with Penne
(printable recipe)
Serves 2

2 meaty lobster tails (about 8 ounces each), removed from the shell and chopped into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/3 to 1/2 cup sherry
1 tablespoon butter
salt to taste
red pepper flakes (optional)
4 ounces whole wheat penne

Fill a large pot with cold water and bring to a boil. Add the penne and a tablespoon or so of salt. Cook per directions.

While the penne is cooking, heat oil in a saute pan. Add garlic and saute until fragrant--about a minute. Add the lobster and after a couple of minutes add the sherry and red pepper flakes and any vegetables. Reduce the temperature to low, add the butter and stir well. Add salt to taste.

When the penne is finished cooking, drain and add the pasta to the lobster and sauce. Stir well and plate.

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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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