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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