Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I wish you and your families a wonderfully sweet Christmas with good health and good fortune in all aspects of your lives. Lots of joy and crazy fun, too!


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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Taste: Holiday Helpers in Hillcrest

Years ago I was invited to the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena for a three-day cheese course. It was a total immersion that also included wine pairings, learning how to make homemade mozzarella and even how to make corn tortillas. I tasted everything from the nutty Vella Dry Monterey Jack and luscious Strauss organic yogurt to Bellwether Farm’s oh-so-gooey Crescenza (try it on focaccia with a little truffle oil drizzled on top). I met many of the local cheese makers as well as local wine makers and even got a chance to cook in the CIA kitchen to try out new cheese-infused recipes. It was fabulous.

Then I came home to San Diego.

While other writers and editors were swooning over the cheeses and making notes of specialty cheeses to pick up at their local cheese shop back in San Francisco, I could only hope that some of these cheese makers could do mail orders. My best hope back then was that perhaps Whole Foods might carry some of the bounty I’d discovered and fallen in love with.

Times certainly have changed and here we are at the end of 2007 with three thriving cheese shops in San Diego—Venissimo, Aniata and Taste—along with pretty good selections at Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, Trader Joe’s and other more enlightened markets.

Despite carrying very similar products, each of our local cheese shops is wonderfully unique. Having spent an afternoon at Taste last week I’m going to declare it the party shop. This is where to go not just for wonderful cheeses and other epicurean treats, but to simply have a good time. And, why not? It is in Hillcrest after all and shares space with Wine Steals next door. Call a friend and meet up on a weekend afternoon for a glass of wine and an international tour of fabulous cheeses. Go this weekend and pick up last-minute holiday or hostess gifts or fill the larder for the inevitable parties you're hosting or attending through New Year's.

Owned by Mary and George Palmer, Taste is a true reflection of their gregarious, open-armed approach to retail. Their clear enthusiasm for playing with food and educating customers is very endearing and will likely send you out the door with several delicious bundles.

There are no counters at Taste. The cheeses are on display on tables and shelves or in the refrigerated case that lines the wall next to a collage of cheese labels that goes to the ceiling. Want to sample something? Mary will bring the cheese to one of the tables to slice and probably tempt you with a pairing or two.

Enjoy the deep muskiness and incredible sharpness of Old Quebec vintage cheddar? Try it with a dab of red onion confit. It improves the taste of both. How about Colston Bassett Stilton? Oh, it’s mellow. But with a little dried fig compote mellow turns to memorable. The ultimate? Parmesiano Reggiano with rich, syrupy 12-year-old balsamico. Stunning on the palate.

Jars of these confits, compotes and vinegars are displayed throughout the store, along with local artwork that’s also for sale.

One wall of shelves holds gems like truffle salt (perfect on eggs, pasta or steak), honeys, pasta, crackers, olives and the very special Fra’Mani dry salami made by former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli. Try this—it’s very mild but carries a splendid burst of garlic.

On a table against another wall are rich and fruity olive oils from Spain, Portugal and Italy, and balsamicos varying in age from 12 to 25 to 40 years.

And, from Sardinia, there are jars of Saba, a very sweet grape must that’s made by reducing grape juice to a syrup. (Grape must is the juice pressed from grapes before fermentation; it's also used to make balsamic vinegar, which then undergoes fermentation as it ages.) With must, acid plays no role, nor does age. It’s all about the reduction and this sauce marries well with oil to create marinades and dress salads, but use it solo over ice cream, fruit or pastries.

Another table nearby is all about chocolate.

There are the elegant orange boxes of hand-crafted local chocolates by Dallmann Confections in flavors like jasmine, pistachio, fleur de sel, Provence (lavender, of course, with Bourbon vanilla) and rose water. Taste also features Eclipse Chocolat made by local artisan chocolatier Will Gustwiller (his shop is on El Cajon Blvd. in North Park). Try his exotic salted caramels, rich distinctive flavors topped by just a sprinkling of artisanal salts and infused with flavors like ginger and lavender. These are perfect and unusual holiday gifts.

Also on display are bars of Vosges, Casa Don Puglisi chocolate from Modica and Chocolates El Rey from Venezuela. I enjoyed the smooth as silk sweetness of the Bucare dark chocolate bar.

Mary and George moved to San Diego several years ago from the Bay Area. They started as wine geeks but began focusing on food, especially cheese. It was George’s idea to start a cheese shop and they met Bob and Martyna Stonebrook who opened Aniata in Flower Hill Mall in 2001. Bob invited the Palmers to come work for him to learn about the business and the groundwork was set. Three years ago the couple opened Taste on University Ave. and have been building the business since.

The Palmers share resources with Venissimo, whose owners have since bought Aniata so that the Stonebrooks could focus on distributing cheese. The same fabulous blue-and-white cheese paper you see at Venissimo is also used by Taste (more about that later), but the collaboration also allows them to split wheels of cheese that would otherwise be too much stock for one shop to carry.

I won’t list the 80 to 100 cheeses Taste carries at any given time; you can visit the shop or check out their website for that. But, I found some favorites that I had to buy or will return for that you should put on your list:

  • Parmigiano Reggiano: Taste carries a Reggiano Doc, meaning that it is certified as coming from Northern Italy and meets the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese Consorzio criteria. It’s branded with the Consorzio’s logo once it’s been inspected and passed at 12 months. Cut straight from the wheel, this hard, granular cheese resembles nothing like the stuff in the green cardboard container. It’s earthy and crumbly—irresistible to nibble in little slices with a red wine or dry champagne.
  • Purple Haze: I love chevre and this soft goat’s milk cheese ups the ante with the addition of lavender and fennel pollen. Because it’s so perfect crumbled in a salad, I pulled out my Grandma Anna’s weathered old wood salad bowl and filled it with organic baby romaine, fresh mizuna from Nijiya, chopped scallions, toasted walnuts, orange heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market and ruby red cherry tomatoes. No vinaigrette on this salad—just a good drizzle of unfiltered Italian extra virgin olive oil and Saba. Now, I loved the Purple Haze in the salad, but Mary also suggests adding it to mashed potatoes at the end of preparation.
  • Ewephoria: This Dutch ewe’s milk cheese is one of my favorites because it is all big nutty flavor. I adore it on toast in the morning but try slices on a crisp apple or pear accompanied by a big, robust red wine.
  • Idiazabal: This is a something of a curiosity. It's a raw sheep’s milk cheese from Spain that has a burst of smokiness but, surprisingly, it actually isn't a smoked cheese. Instead, it gets that crazy flavor because it’s aged in chimneys. Go figure. But, it’s a tremendous hard cheese—nutty and just a little oily.
  • St. Agur: Oh, I did love this blue cheese from France’s Auvergne region. This is simply one of the best blue cheeses you’ll find because it’s so creamy. A full fat blue, it has a sumptuous flavor that finishes with bacon. Dreamy.
  • Roquefort Carles: Another sumptuous blue cheese that comes, of course, from Roquefort. It’s strong, it’s tangy and I adore it.
  • Vacherin Fribourgeois: My grandpa Sam was a stinky cheese kind of guy, and was especially fond of the astoundingly pungent Limberger. He’d have loved this strong smelling small batch Swiss cheese. I certainly did. While he would have eaten it straight up, you might want to balance the strong flavor with some crusty bread and a robust red wine or Porter. Mary suggests using it for fondue or raclette.

I tried a lot of different cheeses at Taste but bought only a few because I hate the idea of these magnificently living foodstuffs going moldy or hard before I can finish them. Cheese storage has been on my mind and over the years I’ve gotten a lot of different advice on how best to keep cheese fresh. Aside from buying small portions and eating them promptly, what do you do? First some don’ts: don’t wrap them in plastic wrap, Ziploc bags or moistened paper towels covered by wax paper. Instead, Mary pointed directly at the lined blue-and-white paper she wraps the cheeses in. She calls it “Gore-Tex” for cheese. The liner wicks moisture from the cheese. The paper keeps the cheese dry. You can also use parchment or wax paper enveloped in foil. Label your little packages with a Sharpie pen. They should keep for several days. Ideally, you don’t buy more than what you can eat fairly quickly.

Taste Artisan Cheese & Gourmet Shop is located at 1243 ½ University Ave. in Hillcrest.

Have some thoughts about Taste or other cheese purveyors in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Taking on Thanksgiving

I’m not normally a fan of potlucks, but let’s face it, Thanksgiving is the ultimate potluck dinner and the best. Of course, every family has its ironclad traditions when it comes to food—don’t bother to rhapsodize about your mom’s oyster stuffing or your grandma’s cornbread stuffing; I want my mom’s chestnut stuffing. Period. So, if you’re a guest, it’s going to be a challenge to make everyone happy with a dish that works with the dinner you’re invited to. And, if you’re the host, how do you get your guests to bring a dish that complements what you’re serving?

I think the answer is to keep all the hardcore dishes intact—the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the mashed potatoes and the sweet potatoes probably all revolve around recipes handed down through generations. They’re the immovable objects of the meal. So, do the novel flourishes at the periphery—the appetizers, side dishes, salad and dessert.

Certainly, the recipes for Thanksgiving dishes overfloweth. But, if time or talent is in short supply and you need to bring something smashing to the big meal, you’ve got a great selection of high-impact, low-fuss prepared foods from around San Diego County that you can choose from.

Let’s address appetizers. No, we don’t want to fill up on them before the main act, but no one wants a crowd so hungry they feel compelled to pounce on the food as it makes its entrance. So, here are some suggestions for host assignments or guest offerings—and some will work well as side dishes, too:

  • Brie en croute or a plate of luscious cheeses from Venissimo (Del Mar and Mission Hills). If you’re confused about what to order, Gina and her staff can help you select just the right cheeses, along with crackers, bread or fruit to accompany it. And, in Mission Hills, head across the street to Sausage King to pick up sliced Hungarian salami to accompany it.
  • Homemade vegetable salads from the newly revamped Aaron’s Eatzz on Convoy—the spicy Turkish salad with carrots, tomatoes, onions and spices like cumin; the Matbucha salad (also with a bit of a bite) with tomatoes, eggplant, red and green peppers, onions and garlic; the sweet Spanish sliced eggplant with tomato sauce and the grilled chopped eggplant that’s magnificently rich in flavor. They also have tahini and baba ganoush and chopped liver, and in their refrigerated section, smoked mackerel in oil, herring and vegetarian chopped liver.
  • Fresh ceviche (fish, shrimp or octopus) from Northgate Gonzalez Market, along with freshly made tortilla chips.
  • Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) or other stuffed vegetables (cabbage leaves, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and kale), fried eggplant and grilled eggplant are a little exotic and truly delicious. And, is there anything easier than buying cans of these at Balboa International Market, North Park Produce, Aaron’s Eatzz or Parsian? I’ve tasted them all and, yes, they are perfect party pleasers. All you need to do is plate them. Another option is a plate of fresh sliced feta, olives, hummus and freshly baked flat bread.
  • The beet salad at Continent European Deli in La Jolla. It converted me to beets, with its sweet accompaniments of walnuts, prunes, garlic and mayonnaise. And, that beet vinaigrette salad with potatoes, pickles, carrots and sauerkraut is delicious with sliced mini rye bread. Like garlic? Try their mushroom salad. Finally, I’d suggest the Israeli salad, with its mild flavors of eggplant, garlic and mayo.

Assigned to make the green salad? Trader Joe’s comes in handy here. All you need to do is buy some bags of pre-washed lettuces—perhaps baby spring mix or the herb salad mix—along with a bag of dried cranberries, a package of candied pecans, a container of pomegranate seeds and their cranberry, walnut and gorgonzola salad dressing (or make a vinaigrette yourself). Add some thinly sliced red onions and slices of peeled orange and you have an amazing salad. Want to really impress? Add crumbled cranberry stilton from Venissimo (yes, I do love the place).

Speaking of Trader Joes… they really are the go-to resource for prepared foods for Thanksgiving. My friend Paula is a sucker for their corn and chile tomato-less relish, as am I. She loves to serve it as an appetizer with tortilla chips on a bed of greens. Pick up a few jars of one of their tapenades—olive or roasted red pepper and artichoke—or bruschetta—plain, mixed olive or mixed grilled vegetable—and loaves of sour dough baguettes to slice. Just stand in front of the refrigerated section of dips, close your eyes and pick. You’ll land on something amazing, like their spinach and artichoke dip, cilantro roasted pecan dip, artichoke jalapeño, or three-layer hummus (traditional, cilantro jalapeño and spicy). Then all you need are some boxes of crackers or, better yet, bags of pita chips with sea salt or “everything” bagel chips.

What about dessert? Again, Trader Joe’s is easy with their fresh pumpkin and pecan pies and a delicious-looking pumpkin cranberry pecan upside down cake. They also have pumpkin and apple pies as well as a lovely French apple tart in the frozen food section.

Of course, Julian pies are always a pleaser. If you can't get up to Julian, lots of shops sell them year round. I can find them locally at my little Tierrasanta Farmers Outlet and their sister store off Friars Road and Mission Gorge.

Want to send the crowd swooning though? Go for the non-traditional but oh so amazing pastries at Sage French Bakery on Convoy, next to Nijiya. Owned by a Korean baker, this Japanese-style French Bakery is one of the best in town and you can focus on chocolate with the Chocolate Mousse cake, Raspberry Ganache or Elby or enjoy the raspberry Mistral. This man is truly gifted.

I’ve only touched the surface. So, I leave it to you, dear readers, to offer some other irresistible ideas. Just click on “Comments” below and add your thoughts.

And, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!


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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Iowa Meat Farms: Meet the Butcher on Mission Gorge

When was the last time you bought meat from an actual butcher? It’s so easy to hit the supermarket or Costco and pick up a couple of steaks, a roast or chicken, but how good are they really compared to a shop that specializes in these products?

It had been awhile since I’d been over to Iowa Meat Farms on Mission Gorge Road, but it was my turn to host my book club last week and after seeing Ina Garten (aka The Barefoot Contessa) make a gorgeous roast loin of pork, I thought I’d head over there and pick one up. After all, Iowa Meat Farms is a 25-year staple of San Diego, opened by the Cohn family before they even started Corvette Diner and their other dozen or so restaurants. For the last few years, they’ve also owned long-time competitor Siesel’s off Morena Blvd.

I’m glad I went for a variety of reasons, but the first compelling one was that the recipe from the Food Network website called for a five-pound pork loin roast, bone in, tied and frenched (this is when the meat on the end of the bones is scraped off to create a little “handle”). When I called Iowa Meat Farms to tell them what I wanted in case it had to be ordered, the butcher asked how many people I’d be serving. “Eight,” I said. “Well,” he replied, “five pounds isn’t going to be enough—not with the bones in and shrinkage from cooking.”

That’s important information and not something I’d have gotten had I just picked up a pre-wrapped roast at the supermarket.

So, already I was experiencing a butcher conversion. Then I met up with Stan Glen, Iowa Meat Farms’ meat supervisor. He’s been in the business for 50 years, 15 of which have been with the store. He explained that while they don’t do the kind of butchering that involves an entire side of beef, “We do everything, carry everything and have access to everything.”

I told him my story, but he said that the real reason people should go to a butcher is the quality. “It’s what people who shop here are looking for,” he says. Both Iowa Meat Farms and Siesel’s carry nothing but mid-Western prime and choice beef—no chuck here. Because they’ve found that the quality can vary between slaughterhouses and packing houses, the company has signed on to a branded beef program, which certifies the source and quality of the meat. Their choice beef comes from a certified plant in Grand Island, Nebraska; it’s hand selected and can be tracked back to the source.

“It’s reminiscent of when I was a kid and there were two slaughterhouses in National City,” recalls Glen. “I used to go to them with my dad, who was also a butcher, and he would hand stamp the beef.”

Glen took me into the cooler room—a very chilly 36 degrees, where beef was dry aging.

There were roasts the size of watermelons that would soon be cut for steaks and others that would be some lucky families’ prime rib roast for Thanksgiving.

But, I had gotten there just before the delivery of the Thanksgiving turkeys. Glen said that between the two stores, they’d sell over 3,000 for Thanksgiving. Once the turkeys were gone, 600 choice rib roasts were to be delivered along with 300 prime rib roasts. These would begin the aging process in anticipation of Christmas. Glen expects to sell 1,200 rib roasts at Christmas time.

Ah, but let’s return a moment to the turkeys, since Thanksgiving is approaching. To my surprise, Glen sells both Zacky Farms private label turkeys and free-range turkeys—but doesn’t necessarily recommend the free-range turkeys. “There’s a huge difference between conventional chickens and free-range chickens,” he explains, “but not much in turkeys. The conventional turkeys have more fat on them and are much more forgiving to cooks who only prepare turkey once a year.”

Since we’re on poultry, let’s follow up with the chicken discussion. At both Iowa Meat Farms and Siesel’s, only Sonoma Select free-range chickens are sold.

Glen claims there is a huge difference in flavor and safety between them and conventional chickens. And, he adds that chickens that are marketed as “air dried” are no better than conventional chickens.

“They plunge chickens into hot water to pick out the feathers, then they’re plunged into cold water, which soaks up the water. You get as much as 15 percent water in a conventional chicken,” Glen says. “With air drying, you get the same bird going through the same preparation process, but at the end they let them air dry. They lose some water, but that’s it.”

The free-range chickens aren’t stacked in cages and basically take in the outdoors. They’re given no hormones or antibiotics or animal by-products. They’re fed corn—and maybe indulge in a worm or two. The only trick in cooking a free-range bird is keeping the skin of the bird moist while roasting or grilling. But a little oil on the skin before cooking should keep in from drying out.

I bought a couple of whole chicken legs and was kiddingly talked into a half of a “Baja chicken,” a bird marinated in lemon juice, cilantro, garlic, pepper and a commercial Baja seasoning—reportedly the same one that El Pollo Loco uses. Over the weekend I baked both. I treated the chicken legs to a bath of citron honey from Trader Joe’s diluted with a little lemon juice, along with olive oil, garlic salt and pepper. They baked at 350 for about an hour and were tender and juicy with a lovely crispy skin. More to the point, the meat had flavor.

Then I tried the Baja chicken. The butcher instructed me to bake it at 350 for an hour, but in my oven it took more like an hour and 15 minutes before I got the caramel skin tones I was after. I’m a dark meat eater and thoroughly enjoyed the sweetness and moistness of the thigh and leg. It was especially delicious with the Brussels sprouts I thinly sliced and sautéed in olive oil and garlic, then finished off with a tablespoon of the porcini sage Epicurean butter I bought at the store.

Its dark, woody undertones were a perfect match with the Brussels sprouts.

I ate the leftovers the next night—and, to be honest, wasn’t keen on trying out the white meat, which I usually find too dry. This, to my surprise, wasn’t. Even with reheating, the breast meat was moist and absolutely delicious.

And, how was the pork loin I served last week? Actually, I served two. I bought the conventional pork loin roast but Glen insisted that I also try Berkshire pork from Eden Natural and had me take home a little over a pound to prepare exactly like the conventional pork so I could compare them.

There is no comparison. I made The Barefoot Contessa recipe—it calls for a mixture of rosemary, fennel seeds, lemon zest, garlic, Dijon mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper blended into a paste and pressed onto the top of the roast. Both were magnificent and after letting them rest, I sliced them and put them on a platter with sprigs of rosemary from my garden.

Everyone enjoyed the conventional roast, but none of us could get over the sublime flavor and texture of the Berkshire pork. It was an entirely different animal and I don’t think there’s any going back.

“These are free-range pigs,” Glen tells me. “They’re fed better and as a result they taste like pork did 40 years ago before the suits decided we wanted it as lean as possible.”

So, what’s the difference in price? The conventional pork is $4.99 a pound. The Berkshire pork is double that, but to my mind absolutely worth it. It has finer marbling and shorter muscle fibers, which, in turn, lead to more tender meat. Oh, and if you’re in a fine restaurant and see “Kurobuta pork” on the menu? It's not some exotic Japanese imported pork that's the porcine equivalent of Kobe beef. It’s Berkshire pork—Kurobuta pork is just what it’s called in Japan and it means “prized black hog.”

So, let’s say you go to Iowa Meat Farms. What else will you find there? Essentially, it’s a full-service grocery with everything from soup to nuts: Yes, soup, nuts and also produce, cheeses, wines, coffee, jam, El Indio tortilla chips, olive oils, vinegars, mustards, breads. You’ll go crazy trying to figure out which barbecue sauce to choose. Do you dare to pick one of the Beverly Hillbillies or stick with Paula Dean or the Iowa Meat Farms house blend? Or one of the other hundreds of bottles?

Same with the rubs. Go for spicy, Asian, maple and sage, chili cocoa or the intriguing Butt Rub? Or just close your eyes, stick your hand on a shelf and see what you get? There are so many to choose from.

All this, plus the meat—of which there’s a huge selection.

Rich-looking homemade sausages, thick-sliced bacon, dry aged steaks, brisket, pork ribs and chops and butt roast, short ribs, shrimp, salmon, ahi and swordfish. And, this time of the year, you’ll even find turducken. That’s a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken that are each stuffed with a different dressing—Louisina cornbread, apple/cinnamon, and sausage and herb. And, no worries, the butcher will send you home with written cooking instructions.

So, you get quality; you get experience and knowledge. But most of us would assume that shopping at a butcher is a sacrifice in price. Surprisingly, the price is right. “Our starting philosophy,” says Glen, “is how good can I get it? Then we think about cost.”

Iowa Meat Farms is located at 6041 Mission Gorge Road and Siesel’s is at 4131 Ashton St.

Have some thoughts about Iowa Meat Farms, Siesel’s or other markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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Monday, October 29, 2007

More Market News

This came in from George Schnurer of Betty B's Ranch (You probably see him at the Scripps Ranch and La Jolla Farmers Markets. He also sells at the Santa Monica Market every other week):

"Thanks for your concern. I was very fortunate. The firefighters saved my house. I did suffer damage to my grove. I lost about 50 to 100 avocado trees and a portion of my irrigation system was melted. The wind stripped alot of leaves and fruit from the trees. My front gate also burned down.

To sumarize - I was VERY,VERY fortunate. (Many of the farms and homes in the Western part of Highland Valley were badly damaged or their homes burned down.)"

I'm still hoping to hear from other market managers and farmers. Please let me know if you have information.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Market News

This is sort of a hodgepodge of information, but I’ve been trying to learn the status of some of the farmers markets and even the farmers in the wake of the fires. I’ve managed to contact several – so, now you know what I know. As I get more information I’ll post it.

The Carlsbad Farmers Market was cancelled last Wednesday and is cancelled again tomorrow, Oct. 27, according to Christy Johnson, the market’s manager. “Not only are some of our vendors recovering, but the air quality is still too bad to spend a day out in it,” she says. She’s relatively sure that they’ll reopen Wednesday, Oct. 31.

The Hillcrest Farmers Market will be open on Sunday, according to manager David Larson ( . I’m trying to find out if he’s also opening the North Park Market on Thursday, but he didn’t respond to that question.

The Tierrasanta Farmers Market was closed on Thursday. I believe they’re reopening next Thursday.

Margo Baughman intends to open the Vista Farmers Market this Saturday.

And, I've just heard from Mike Manchor of the Rancho Bernardo Farmers market. The good news is that no one from his market lost any farms and they'll resume market at the Bernardo Winery parking lot next Friday -- only a block away from the burn area.

I’ve heard from a couple of farmers, including Paul Smit of Smit Orchards. They’re fine, he says, but tells me that Rancho Chico has been wiped out and others are severely damaged. He also says that the Ocean Beach market did open on Wednesday, drawing a surprisingly high crowd, “probably anxious to be outdoors.”

Cunningham Organic Farms in De Luz, which raises avocados, exotic citrus (meiwa, nagami, kumquats and buddha's hand citron), nine kinds of tangerines, cocktail fruit, guavas and cherimoyas, is currently picking fuyu persimmons. Gale Cunningham, who also manages the Temecula Farmers Market, says all their crops are fine. All the calls she has received from participating farmers have been with good news. She is opening the market on Saturday. She also says that they’re a very tight group and eager to help, so if any farmers do need help, let her know (

If anyone knows the status of other markets or farms/orchards, please let me know. Post a comment or drop me a line.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Firestorms Take Over San Diego

For those readers outside of San Diego, we've been hit hard with fires since Sunday afternoon. More than 500,000 people here have had to be evacuated and 1,000 homes have been destroyed.

So far, my area has been safe. However, for obvious reasons I'm not going exploring new places to food shop until the emergency is over. Schools and many businesses are closed. People are being advised to stay off the streets unless they are being evacuated and all of us are otherwise preoccupied.

People here are being asked to help their neighbors in evacuation centers with the basic necessities. The well being of pets, this time, is being addressed. There are a number of places that are taking pets but also need supplies.

Things are still perilous today and don't look like they'll be abating before tomorrow when ocean winds are expected. But, as the fires are contained and life returns to some sense of normalcy, those people who lost their homes will need help. FEMA is on its way, but, well, it is FEMA. If the Cedar Fire experience of 2004 is any indication, the Red Cross and United Way, as well as local synagogues and churches and other groups will be taking donations to give to those who need financial assistance. In fact, I think the local Red Cross is already doing this. Please give what you can.

I will be back with more foodstuff soon!


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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Today I Was Seduced by a Guava

Yes, it’s true. Well, actually, I understate it. A pile of gorgeous green guavas, none much bigger than a kiwi, conspired to woo me from my pre-guayabas ignorance. It was the heady musky fragrance of the tropics that took me down this morning at Foodland when I wandered over to the display where my friends Angela and her mom, Bertha, were bagging some fruit. I remember that when the powerful scent hit me, my mouth dropped and my eyes widened trying to figure out what I had walked into. I think I even laughed in delight. Bertha pointed to the fruit and told me they were guavas, something I'd obviously heard of and probably even drank as juice, but had never actually seen.

They were irresistible, though, and I immediately bagged half a dozen, not even caring about whether I’d like the taste. I simply had to have them. So, that sweet aroma—part jasmine, part passion fruit and a huge dollop of pineapple—trailed me home and has now taken over my kitchen. In short, guavas are to fruit what gardenias are to flowers. Intoxicating. Sure, one bite of that creamy white, pear-like sweetness sealed it for me, but, to be honest, their flavor was almost irrelevant. I got, well, olfactorily sucker punched.

I honestly don’t know how I’ve gone all these years living in Southern California without ever having been exposed to the guava before. They grow in San Diego, but I haven’t seen them in any gardens I’ve been in—at least I wasn’t aware of them.

So, I’m a late bloomer, pardon the pun. But, oh, does it really matter when you discover something wondrous once it finally happens?

Guavas, I learned today following a little bit of research, are in the myrtle family, and are native to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America. While the guavas I bought have white flesh under their thin green skin, other varieties range from pink to red on the outside and have orange-salmon flesh. All have lots of small, hard edible seeds. And, the best news is that they’re rich in vitamins A, B and C. In fact, they have more vitamin C than a typical citrus fruit, mostly found in the rind. And, guavas are rich in calcium. So, eat them whole—enjoy the flavor and improve your health. They’d also be great cut up in a fruit salad and I can imagine them poached like a pear, but are often used to make preserves and juices.

Okay, I’ve calmed down now. I didn’t just freefall for guavas at Foodland today. I actually returned there to check out more of their prepared foods. I wanted to try their nopales salad again, see how their ceviche compared with Northgate’s quality and selection and try more salsas. Of course, I had to pick up their freshly made chips and tortillas. And, couldn’t possibly walk out without their sweet bisquetes.

The result was that I effortlessly had the makings of a feast of a lunch for my friend Angela and me. All I needed to do was reheat a stack of gorditas—thick corn tortillas. I took out a couple of the $1.50 trays I bought at Daiso and placed on them containers of guacamole with jalapeños, salsa fresca, roasted tomato salsa, fish ceviche, ensalada de nopales and a small wedge of panela cheese.

No surprise that the chips—again light and crisp—and the warm gorditas didn’t disappoint. The guacamole was rich but had a residual kick that needed to be toned down with the panela. I discovered that while I liked the flavor of the roasted tomato salsa, the consistency—like a thick tomato sauce—just wasn’t what I wanted in a salsa. I prefer the chopped freshness of the salsa fresca. As for the fish ceviche, that little container didn’t stand a chance. I couldn’t identify what kind of fish was used, but its sweetness melded nicely with the tomatoes and onions, and the lime juice gave it just enough of a punch. Angela and I ate about half at lunch and I polished off the rest for dinner. Now, was it as good as Northgate? Not quite. I simply prefer Northgate, which has a wider variety of ceviches (loved the octopus) and I like their recipe better. The flavors are just that much perkier. On the other hand, Foodland has a much, much better nopales salad. The primary reason is the salty queso fresco they add that slips in another layer of flavor and texture.

On a whim, I also picked up a small container filled with chocolate flan—well, actually a layer of chocolate cake beneath a layer of flan.

That went down nicely. The sweet smooth flan was nicely complemented by the rich, chewy chocolate. Neither was too sugary and the textures came together nicely. Definitely something to return for.

Have some thoughts about Foodland Mercado or other Latin markets in San Diego? Have you met up with a guava yet? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Mariscos España and Comercial Mexicana: Adventures in Rosarito, Parte Dos

As usual, my recent visit to Rosarito was all about eating and shopping. I always stop at The Convent on Juarez Blvd. to pick pieces of Talavera, the vibrantly painted pottery I collect. Since my counter-surfing Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, Ketzel, had managed to smash a treasured fruit plate this summer and I wanted to replace it, The Convent was at the top of my list. But, we also had other stops. My friend Tamara had some tchotchkes she was looking for, and I love to see what my friend Armando has in his art gallery at the Rosarito Hotel.

But, this trip, we added a new stop. My friend Paula wanted to show us Rosarito’s hot new (okay, two years old) market Comercial Mexicana. At more than three times the size of Rosarito's other Comercial Mexicana, which sits at the back of the La Quinta Plaza Shopping Center, the newer version is quite the hit among locals. Yes, it is Mexico’s version of Ralph’s or Albertsons or Vons. Sort of. Or maybe it’s like a Super Wal-Mart. After all, it is enormous, filled not just with groceries, but clothing, appliances, housewares, toys and more. The bottom line? It’s just the type of place that were it in San Diego, I’d probably be encouraging people to snub in favor of farmers markets and mom and pop stores. But, it’s in Mexico and I was a visitor and I was intrigued.

It was no surprise that from the moment I set foot in Comercial Mexicana, it reminded me of Northgate Gonzalez Market and Foodland. Walk into both of these, as with Comercial Mexicana, and the first section that catches the eye, not to mention the nose, is the bakery.

The long loaves of pan and the football-shaped bolillos must have been just pulled out of the oven because their sweet, yeasty scent was in the air, pulling me over like a lasso. They were still warm with a crisp crust. What sandwiches they’d make. I turned and saw beautiful concha blancas with their powdery topping.

Paula and Tamara called me to them where they were hovering over a table piled high with sugar skulls for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, at the end of this month.

Individually wrapped in plastic, the sugar skulls are about three inches and cute as can be—for skulls. Their eyes are like sequins in green and blue and red. They have a horizontal patch of color—gold foil or blue, predominantly—which is covered by white icing swirls. According to Paula, you can get your name iced on them also.

As I walked off toward the refrigerated section, I passed by some of the prettiest cakes I’ve ever seen, including several with a whipped cream icing topped by glazed fruit.

It was late afternoon and time was short (I had to get back across the border and home to above-mentioned knucklehead puppy and her older sister), so I couldn’t linger. Instead I rushed past a large liquor section to where Tamara was eying bags of frozen maiz (corn) for pozole, a Mexican soup made with these traditional large white kernels of corn called maiz blanco or cacahuazintle.

The corn is slaked, or soaked, in a solution of cal (lime) to soften it in preparation for making the soup. The prepared corn is called Nixtamal or Nixtamalado and is then ready to go into the soup. explains the process and offers a basic pozole recipe.

The rest of the frozen food section looks very much like what you’d find in an American store, with only some products, like packages of frozen sopes dough, placing us firmly in Mexico.

Along the back of the store is where the food treasures really are. The fish counter is gorgeous, with rows of fresh rock cod, like what we saw at Elvira’s place at lunch, plus tuna, halibut, snapper and others you’d expect.

We were struck by the plump pink pulpos (octopus), nestled between piles of shrimp. Then we turned around to find the cheese counter, with its extraordinary bee-hive shaped panelas, the queso fresco and Oaxaca cheeses. The meat counter would be the envy of an American butcher, with its large cuts of beef and pork, and fresh-looking poultry.

Paula led me past visions of tripe my friend Angela’s mom would love to use to make her menudo to a table with row of trays filled with earthy brown and green concentrated moles, so thick and rich they look like pudding instead of sauces.

Now most people associate mole solely with the traditional mole poblano, which is prepared with dried chile peppers, ground nuts or seeds and Mexican chocolate. But mole is the generic name for a variety of sauces found in Mexican cuisine (think guacamole…). Mole verde is made with tomatillos. Mole pepián is made with pumpkin seeds (and, just to be confusing, its color also lends it to being called mole verde). Dark brown mole adobo is infused with cumin and oranges. (Paula and Armando use it as a marinade for turkey.) Mole cacahuate has a peanut base.

Now, are these concentrates, or the Doña Chonita packaged moles I picked up on Aisle 6 (pepián, adobo, green mole and “mole”), cheating?

Well, sure if you’re a purist. But if you’ve ever made a traditional mole or seen a recipe for one, you know that it can take hours to make and requires not just a wealth of ingredients, but several processes. If you want to have some fun, check out Bob Nemo’s “The Mole Page” and its recipes. You’ll see what I mean. This is definitely something worth making from scratch when you have the time. But, if you don’t, these prepared moles, including the seductive concentrates at Comercial Mexicana (dilute with chicken consommé), will do in a pinch and are great if you’re having company. Place pieces of chicken or turkey or pork in a heavy pan heated with oil, brown on both sides, lower the heat and add the mole. Cover and simmer until the meat is cooked through. Serve with rice and tortillas.

Right by the moles was a table spread with fruta cubierta, or crystallized fruit. Sitting in a basket at the back was the most fascinating—lime skins stuffed with coconut.

But, there were also white yams, pineapple, green watermelon, regular yams, pears and figs. You’ll find these everywhere in Mexican markets, ready to slice and eat for dessert.

Comercial Mexicana, of course, has an in-house tortilleria. Unfortunately, at this store, it’s alongside the produce department, which has displays so beautiful that my focus zeroed in on them and I just breezed by the tortillas. The peppers, for instance, were simply stunning.

They also had fresh herbs like chamomile along with squashes, tomatoes, tomatillos and the usual fare.

I came this close to filling a bag with blue corn kernels before realizing I couldn’t cross the border with them.

What I did leave with were the containers of prepared moles, as well as some cans of Herdez “chilpotle” and “5 chiles” salsas that Paula swears by.

Use them as “toppers” on eggs, sandwiches, guacamole or, of course, as dips or on fish or chicken. So far, I’ve tried the chilpotle and it’s delicious—very thick and spicy. The small cans are perfect for one or two people and should be a pantry staple.

Comercial Mexicana is located in the north central part of downtown Rosarito, right at the second Rosarito exit from the toll road.

Have some thoughts about Comercial Mexicana or other markets in Baja? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Mariscos España and Comercial Mexicana: Adventures in Rosarito, Parte Una

When it comes to great places to eat, experience has told me that if you hit on someplace fabulous in New York or L.A. you keep it to yourself or else you’ll never be able to get in again but that in San Diego you have to tell everyone you know so that it will stay in business. I’m of two minds when it comes to Mariscos España in little Puerto Popotla, just four miles south of Rosarito. After all, I hate to ruin it for my friends Paula and Armando, who live in Rosarito and are frequent patrons. Paula, herself, was apprehensive about my writing about it here. However, when the owner, Elvira España, hands you a four-color business card as you leave, then obviously she’s looking for crowds. And, why shouldn’t she enjoy more business? What she does exemplifies the essence of how treating fresh ingredients simply and with respect brings out their true flavors.

Now Mariscos España is not a market—we’ll get to that a bit later. It’s one of about 25 restaurants (and I use that term loosely) sitting on a very ragged road in the Popotla fishing village. Immediately south of the Fox Baja Studios/Foxploration, Popotla is a wonderful alternative to Puerto Nuevo and its now clichéd lobsters.

We’re talking fairly primitive facilities here, but if you want an authentic Baja experience, you’ll enjoy a splendid and inexpensive meal made from the catch of the day, if not the hour, along with tortillas, chips, salsas, rice and beans. And if the ambiance of plastic tables and chairs doesn’t move you, consider that they’re overlooking a gorgeous view of either the ocean or the fishing cove, and in the case of Mariscos España, both.

My friends Paula and Tamara and I enjoyed a huge and extraordinary meal there last week. Paula called Elvira in advance to let her know we’d be coming so she could prepare Paula’s favorite menu, which was to include fresh fried crabs. We were lucky. The day was warm and sunny, the ocean sparkling. We lugged in a cooler filled with cervezas, faux cervezas and sparkling water (yep, bring your own drinks and glasses) and sat down at our table overlooking both the cove and the ocean as fishing boats pulled in from the ocean and were doggedly lugged up the beach by tired looking pick-up trucks and vans. We even had a host, our own resident and very proprietary seagull who politely stood guard on the white tile wall, keeping his kin at bay while we ate. (Yes, he got his tip at the end of the meal.)

Elvira’s daughter started us off with a basket of thick chips and two salsas, a spicy roja and a much gentler fresh salsa cruda. Then she brought out three plates of plump shrimp quesadillas. The shrimp is gently sautéed with both salsas added at the finish, then they’re added to a flour tortilla with shredded cheese and more salsa, sealed and—get ready for this—flash fried.

What was presented was a terrific seafood indulgence, crispy on the outside with soft, sweet chunks of flavorful shrimp smothered in warm cheese inside. But, wait, there’s more.

Next what looked like softballs wrapped in foil were brought to the table. We each carefully unwrapped the packaging on our plate and discovered an enormous clam that had been steamed on the grill with chopped tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, parsley and Oaxaca cheese. This was more like an amuse buche, a lovely couple of bites to tease the palate. Elvira actually created this recipe for Paula years ago because Paula couldn’t eat raw clams, and has been serving it to her and Armando ever since.

Once we finished the clams, we went to the kitchen to select the main course—our fish. Unfortunately, Elvira, told us, she couldn’t serve us crabs. None had come in yet. So, we had our choice of freshly caught pescado rojo—rock cod.

Fish were everywhere in the kitchen—resting on the counter, hanging in a scale and on ice in a cooler. Paula, draped in one of the enormous white flour-sack towels she wisely brought in anticipation of the mess we’d make with the crabs, picked our fish in the cooler. After receiving several swift slashes on top, it too, was flash fried. Elvira is big on frying. Paula calls it "the Puerto Nuevo syndrome, what Rosarito is famous for." Fortunately, Elvira's technique is so good that you get crunch, not grease. The food is actually very light. And, there's no melted butter to be seen. So, we wonder after indulging in a full meal of flash-fried food, how bad could it be?

Served with hot flour tortillas, a small bowl of limes cut in half and more salsa, along with bowls of seasoned rice and beans, we had our feast. I rarely eat fried food, but this is the opportunity you wait for. The flesh was sweet and tender, the skin wonderfully crispy. We could have finished it off without a problem.

Except, that after about 10 minutes we got a surprise. As we were each digging into the fish, pulling it apart where Elvira had made her cuts, tucking steaming white chunks of cod into the warm tortillas along with the salsas and giving it a quick squeeze of fresh lime juice, Elvira came out bearing a platter filled with—crabs, one for each of us. We were tickled and she was so pleased; they had just come in and she quickly put them in hot oil. (Remember, keep it simple.)

Out came three worn wood cutting boards accompanied by gray beach rocks the size of a fist. In Baltimore, they may use a mallet, but in Rosarito, it’s beach rocks that do the job. The fish was pushed aside as we smashed the crabs with the stones and pulled apart the legs. They were fiercely hot, but once in the mouth, moist and naturally salty from the sea. Not a drop of oil to be seen; in fact, I had thought they were boiled. They were purely fun and satisfying finger food.

We sat outside, talking, enjoying our meal and the activity in the cove for a couple of hours. There just couldn’t have been a better or more decadent way to enjoy the surroundings. And, with tip, it cost us each $19.

Then it was off to go shopping, including a visit to Rosarito’s Comercial Mexicana—one of Mexico’s major supermarket chains. I know, the irony of it all. But wait till you hear about it.

Mariscos España is located in Puerto Popotla, KM 33.

Have some thoughts about Mariscos España or other seafood restaurants in Baja? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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