Friday, June 27, 2008

Pata Negra: The Beautiful Black Pig of PB

Recently I had dinner at Costa Brava, the Spanish restaurant on Garnet in Pacific Beach. My friend Ines and I shared about half a dozen lovely little tapas dishes—briny aceitunas con anchoa (olives stuffed with anchovies), flaky empanadillas de Atún (tuna in pastry), sweet and salty dátiles con tocino (dates wrapped in bacon), a gorgeous tortilla Española (Spanish potato omelet with onion and egg) and a couple of other delicious plates.

So, I was looking forward to heading over to the little market, Pata Negra, that Costa Brava’s owner Javier Gonzalez also owns. It was closed by the time we had finished but I went there for a visit this week in anticipation of Javier being a guest on The Gourmet Club.

The shop is charming and filled with everything I’d imagine would make a homesick Spaniard melt in happiness. From cheeses and olive oils to wines and sausages, you could create some delicious meals from the products here with little effort. After all, much of what Gonzalez is importing comes already packaged. Of course, with some great effort, you also have the makings for traditional paella, from the rice and sausages to paelleras of every size—they have them from almost eight inches to 27 ½ inches in diameter, enough to feed 30 people.

Those mouth-watering olives stuffed with anchovies? You can buy a can of those as well as plain olives; mildly spicy long green pickled chili peppers (very similar in taste to pepperoncini), and tapeo Mediterraneo, a mix of pickled onions, carrots, capers, cornichons and peppers—all wonderfully crispy and briny.

Spain is known for its tuna fillets in olive oil and at Pata Negra you can buy them in a jar or a can. If you are looking for some other seafood in olive oil, there are also sardines, mussels and baby eels. I found cans of squid stuffed in their own ink—delicious with their soft flavors and chewy texture. You can also buy squid ink at the shop to color homemade pasta or rice—how about paella negra or black paella? I found this recipe on the Arizona Republic’s website:

Black Paella

2 cups Calasparra rice or bomba rice
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 cup tomato sauce
5 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons paprika
2 cups fresh or canned snails
3 pound squid, cut into medium sized pieces
1 teaspoon squid ink
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
Olive oil for brushing
1 lemon
Parsley for garnish

Add rice, garlic and tomato sauce to a 12-inch paella pan. In a medium stockpot, add chicken stock and paprika. Heat on medium until warm. Place paella pan on medium-hot burner, and add 2 cups of the chicken stock. Stir continuously until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Add another 2 cups and repeat until liquid has been absorbed. Add the remaining liquid, the snails and squid. Continue cooking, stirring constantly almost all the liquid is gone. Add the squid ink, salt and the peas. Stir to get ink evenly through the rice. Transfer to 450-degree oven and bake for 15 minutes or until rice is tender.

Remove paella, brush with olive oil. Zest the lemon and place on top. Squeeze the juice of lemon over rice and garnish with parsley.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

There must have been two dozen cheeses offered at Pata Negra. Certainly, the shop had a full range of Manchegos, a complex sheep’s milk cheese, but there also were the two Tetillas from Galicia—one a sweet and creamy cow’s milk formed in the shape of a breast, the other smoked in birch wood, also with its unique udder-ish shape. There was the semi-soft Don Wine goat’s milk, washed in red wine, and the Mahon from the Mediterranean island of Menorca, a very mild sheep’s milk cheese marinated in paprika. I picked up the Idiazabal, a sheep’s milk cheese similar to Manchego but sharper and about as close as it gets in Spain to a Parmesan.

Pata Negra also has a couple of pates—cod with baked peppers and the other, which I bought, made of anchovies. It has that lusciously smooth texture you expect from a pate and a sweeter than expected flavor. For those who turn up their noses at anchovies in all of these products, this is a very different fishy beast than the salt-laden, dried out flecks on pizza that can turn people off. The Spanish treat anchovies with respect. They’re rich and plump and a pleasure on the palate.

In fact, when I accompanied Gonzalez to the restaurant for a sampling of tapas, he put out plate of three anchovies, naked to the world. They were delicious on their own, similar to pickled herring, actually, but he showed me how to wrap one around an olive (stuffed with anchovies, of course) and then pop into the mouth. Absolutely delicious.

A good Spanish kitchen needs olive oil and vinegar and you’ll find a nice variety of quality goods here. I bought a bottle of the Castillo de Tabernas single variety olive oil (there’s also a blend of three olives). At .1 percent in acidity, this is used only for flavor, not cooking. If you want to cook with olive oil, don’t use any olive oil over .4 percent acidity or you’re simply wasting good oil.

You’ll also want an assortment of paprikas—and, don’t mistake these for the stale stuff you find in the supermarket. These are highly charged, flavorful paprikas. They come in picante, dulce (mild), bittersweet and smoked. Use them singly or mix some together to layer flavors.

My favorite part of the shop is dedicated to the sausages and, of course, what Pata Negra is now known for locally, its Jamón Ibérico, or Spanish ham. The best place to learn more about this ham is on the Costa Brava website, but briefly, these hams, newly available to the U.S. market, come from black-hoofed Iberico pigs who feed freely on acorns and wild plants. The Jamón Ibérico has a gorgeous rich red color and is served paper thin. The nutty flavor is reminiscent of those acorns and yet very delicate. Because this is such a rare and expensive treat, even in Spain, Jamón Ibérico is reserved for special occasions and generally eaten simply on its own or perhaps as a wrapper for shrimp that had been sautéed in olive oil, garlic and paprika. Below store manager Fernando Hernandez shows it off on a jamonera and you can see the difference between the Jamón Ibérico and Serrano ham, which the shop also sells.

Serrano ham, often compared to Italian prosciutto, is a dry-cured Spanish ham, actually sweeter and sliced thicker than its Italian cousin. The majority of these hams are made from Landrace white pigs and are far more affordable than the Jamón Ibérico.

Pata Negra also carries blood sausage and a variety of chorizo, including the Basque region’s chorizo de Bilbao, one of Spain’s most popular cooking chorizos and made with garlic, pimenton and pepper. At Costa Brava, I enjoyed pieces of grilled chorizo de Bilbao, both unadulterated and nestled in a piece of steaming freshly baked roll. Buy a package and butterfly each one for grilling, then snuggle it in a hot roll and enjoy with a good cold beer.

You can also find bacalao, boneless salt cod, that in its dried state doesn’t look like much. But, soak it in fresh water for a couple of days to leach out the salt and you have the makings of some wonderful dishes, including cod balls, peppers stuffed with salt cod and cod croquettes, which I enjoyed at Costa Brava.

Finally, Pata Negra has an impressive wine selection in the back room, with Riojas and Tempranillos and many others. And the prices seemed reasonable.

Have some thoughts about Pata Negra or other ethnic 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:

Print Page

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Gourmet Club Goes to La Costa Brava

Well, actually, it comes to The Gourmet Club in the person of Javier Gonzalez, owner of the Pacific Beach tapas bar and restaurant, Costa Brava, and neighboring wine and cheese shop, Pata Negra. We'll be talking to Javier about the restaurant, of course, but more broadly about trends in Spanish cuisine and that gorgeous tasting Iberico ham that he's now importing. This is a first for San Diego and a really savory, if expensive, treat. I just spend a couple of hours with Javier and my new buddy Fernando Hernandez, who runs Pata Negra and will be writing about the shop later this week. In the meantime, enjoy the conversation we'll be having with Javier on The Gourmet Club.

And, since it's the first time in awhile that Robert, Maureen and I have been in studio together in awhile, we'll be doing some catching up on where we've been eating and what we've been cooking -- including my cooking classes at Rancho La Puerta's La Cocina Que Canta.

The Gourmet Club is the tastiest meeting in town. Join Robert Whitley, Maureen Clancy and me for our regular Wednesday morning gathering on from 11 a.m. to noon Pacific. You can also podcast the show and listen at your convenience.

Print Page

Monday, June 23, 2008

La Cocina Que Canta Sings Again

I've just returned from a week at Rancho La Puerta where cooking classes at La Cocina Que Canta topped the menu of activity options for me. Three cooking classes in as many days and each was a unique learning experience, not to mention just plain fun.

I've already written about the hands-on class with Chef Jesus Gonzalez that I enjoyed in late April. I did another with him last Thursday with a Mexican fiesta theme. But I also took two classes by visiting Bay Area teacher and author Peggy Knickerbocker. One was hands on and the other a demonstration. What I came away with were not just some marvelous new recipes, but also some new products and certainly novel techniques that led to some delicious dishes.

First the new products. There were three, and I found all of them intriguing.

The first is agave syrup. The Ranch is big on using this as a sugar substitute, both at the cooking school and for guest meals. Also called agave nectar, it's a sweetener commercially produced in Mexico--specifically Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato and Tamulipas. One reason it's become so popular at the Ranch is that it's said to be far healthier than refined white sugar. (I did, however, find a rebuttal online about its health benefits.) But, it's also a marvelous substitute for sugar and honey, especially in cold beverages, because it easily dissolves. Its consistency is a bit thinner than honey. If you use agave syrup as a substitute for refined sugar, use 1/3 of the amount called for in the recipe.

I bought a bottle at the Ranch but locally you can find agave syrup at Henry's, Jimbo's and Whole Foods.

Then there were Chia seeds. Actually, I found these not at La Cocina Que Canta but in the Ranch's dining room. Each morning, they sat in a small bowl next to a bowl of flax seeds.

Okay, so you know the first image that pops up when the word Chia appears.

I somehow missed the part that these are extraordinarily healthy supplements to a daily diet. I'm not the only one. The first person I spoke to by phone at the Hillcrest Whole Foods suggested I try calling Rite Aid or SavOn. Why? Because they sell Chia Pets there, he said.

What he needs to learn is that these tiny seeds are rich in Omega 3 and full of antioxidants. Because they are highly hydrophilic (they can absorb a lot of water), they're great for athletes. They also slow down how fast our bodies convert carbohydrate calories into simple sugars, so they're a great diet helper and they're good for diabetics. You can eat them whole. You can eat them raw. If you soak them in water or fruit juice (common in Mexico and known as chia fresca), you'll find the soaked seeds develop a gelatinous texture. This mixture can be added to puddings or cooked cereals. Or you can grind the raw seeds and add them to baked goods. I added a smattering to oatmeal at breakfast and tossed some on salads at lunch. I couldn't discern any specific flavor coming from them so it's a neutral way to add some good stuff to your body.

You can buy these online or at Whole Foods, Henry's and Jimbo's (when they're available).

Finally, a bit of a mystery was solved about the garlic I was so excited about finding recently at the La Jolla Farmers Market. We used the same garlic this past week, fresh out of the ground. And here was the source of my confusion. Instead of a head surrounded by dry paper with a dozen or so distinct cloves, the garlic I was trying to play with was spring garlic, more like a large green onion, sans paper and cloves. Peggy pointed out that what we're used to at the market is more mature garlic that developed its papery shield as it aged. The youthful spring garlic we were using was a little juicier (like an onion), not fully developed with cloves and far milder. So, if you happen upon these jewels at the farmers market, grab them and plan to use more in your cooking than you would with older, conventional garlic.

Or, try growing them yourself from cloves of garlic planted in the ground or a pot. According to The Garlic Store, it's best to plant garlic in the fall while the ground is still warm. FYI, bigger cloves equal bigger bulbs. If you want spring baby garlic, plant smaller cloves.

Now, I specifically chose to go to RLP to take classes from Peggy Knickerbocker because I've read her articles in Gourmet, the LA Times, Food & Wine and Saveur. She's also written several cookbooks, including The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook (with the wonderful photographer, writer and editor Christopher Hirscheimer -- also there last week), Olive Oil: From Tree to Table, Simple Soirees: Seasonal Menus for Sensational Dinner Parties (gorgeously photographed by Christopher) and The Rose Pistola Cookbook.

The classes were a treat, not only because she's just lit up while she teaches, but she has -- and shared with us -- lots of great tricks that translated into some wondrous dishes we tasted in class and ideas for dishes to try later at home. These are just a sampling but worth adding to your repertoire:

  • Chop the leaves of rose-scented geraniums and add to a bowl of strawberries.
  • You know you should toast most spices before using to bring out their flavors, but also toast whole peppercorns before grinding. Try doing this in a sesame seed roaster.
  • If you make your own frozen yogurt, first drain the yogurt in cheesecloth or a coffee filter for at least 3 hours and up to 8 hours (toss the resulting liquid) before sweetening and adding to your ice cream machine. Eliminating the liquid means that instead of having a grainy frozen dish, you'll have the creamiest of desserts, truly reminiscent of rich ice cream.
  • Roast strawberries. Really. We had this dish with the frozen yogurt and it wowed everyone. Using sliced strawberries, agave syrup (or a sprinkling of sugar), a little salt, freshly ground black pepper and balsamic vinegar, you roast them at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. The result is lusciously jam-like. (Be sure to let the sliced strawberries macerate in the agave/sugar for about an hour before adding the other ingredients.)
  • Slow roast tomatoes with olive oil, garlic, chopped herbs, salt and pepper. This is, of course, an old trick but if you're not going to use them immediately, Peggy suggested putting them in a jar and covering with olive oil. They'll last a week or so in the refrigerator. And, roast them on non-stick Silpat -- these fiberglass and silicone sheets are far better in aiding clean up than using aluminum foil. Sure, you use these on baking sheets for cookies, but they're terrific for simple roasting, too (I used one last night for roasted garlic shrimp).
  • Use your (impeccably clean) hands instead of utensils. Use them for tossing salad to make sure greens are evenly coated with dressing. Use them to mix bowlfuls of messy ingredients. Coached by Peggy, guest Beth Masegian was utterly blissed out mixing a batch of red snapper ceviche.
  • Finally, looks matter when it comes to taste. Think about how you're going plate your dishes -- what they're to be served in and how to arrange them in the serving piece. Peggy shared a tip that Christopher uses for photographing food. Instead of smoothing out something like a large bowl of lentil salad, let it form a more natural mound. It's a simple concept but it does look lovely.
I'm an acknowledged cooking class junkie, but the three classes I took at La Cocina Que Canta have given me a number of things to think about, not only for entertaining but also just going about my normal food routines. Toward the end of each week the Ranch offers a class in "how to take the Ranch home with you." These cooking tips may not have been exactly what they had in mind, but they work for me. That's a great gift.

Have some thoughts about Rancho La Puerta, La Cocina Que Canta or cooking schools 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:

Print Page

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Taste of Carica

One of the many delights of dining out is discovering something new. Last week I had a wonderful dinner at Sbicca in Del Mar. The restaurant, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, continues to draw big crowds, even on a week night.

Before I went to dinner I had gone online to check out the menu and noticed an interesting reference to carica, as in carica salsa and carica chutney. Somehow I'd missed carica -- I hadn't seen it on any other local menu -- but after some research I learned that it's a tropical fruit indigenous to Chile and related to papaya. In fact, locally, it is called papaya.

It's a beautiful looking fruit, honey colored with an elongated star shape. And, it's the fruit that has launched a new Chilean agribusiness company for the U.S. market. If you like carica, you owe some thanks to an MBA banker named Daniel Vitis, who collaborated with a Chilean agribusiness group called Tamaya. In 2004, according to Business Chile, they went into partnership and formed Tamaya Gourmet and immediately changed the papaya name to something more exotic, Chilean carica (taken from its scientific name, caricacea pubescens).

Four years later, this delicate fruit has become one hot product, sold in bottles, already cooked with a syrupy juice. With flavors that are reminiscent of the tropical fruits we already know--papaya, mango, pineapple, guava--the fruit and the juice are really versatile, used for everything from sauces and protein accompaniments to vinaigrettes and sophisticated drinks like Chilean Carica Martinis.

At Sbicca, I chose the coconut panko prawns with ginger carica salsa and wasabi-ponzu drizzle for a first course. The prawns were delicious, crispy on the outside but juicy within and the salsa, with its sweet exotic flavors, perfectly complemented them. It was easy to pull out the flavor and texture of the carica in the salsa, which reminded me of mangoes but with a hint of pineapple-like tartness. It married beautifully with the salsa's ginger and jalapeños. Chef/owner Susan Sbicca was kind enough to give me the recipe to share:

Coconut Prawns with Carica Salsa

Coconut Prawns

12 large prawns (peeled and deveined, tail intact)

Bowl of flour (for dredging)

½ cup Coconut milk

2 large eggs

½ tsp vanilla

¼ tsp salt

1 cup shredded sweetened coconut

1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs

2 tbls olive oil


Bowl 1: Mix together coconut milk, eggs, vanilla, and salt

Bowl 2: Breading mix together shredded coconut and panko bread crumbs


Toss prawns in flour and shake off excess

Place floured prawns together into Bowl 1

Then roll prawns in breading mix (Bowl 2)

Heat olive oil in non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat

Sauté prawns until golden brown, turn and cook until completely brown

Remove and place on paper towels (if necessary to drain excess oil)

Serve Immediately with Carica Salsa (below)

Carica Salsa

1 cup carica fruit diced

1 small jalapeño seeded and minced

1 tsp fresh ginger grated

2 tbls apple cider vinegar

½ tsp sesame oil

3 tbls cilantro chopped


Mix ingredients together in a bowl.

Susan also uses the carica juice in her truffled mixed greens avocado salad, which includes shaved red onion, tear drop tomatoes, French feta and carica vinaigrette. And, on the Sbicca website you can find a delightful recipe for pan-seared scallops with artichoke hearts, saffron-sherry cream and roasted peppers accompanied by carica chutney.

Susan gets her carica from Chef's Warehouse, which also sells to retail customers. Locally, the closest you can find carica in a store is at Gelson's Market, which isn't in San Diego but there is a store in Dana Point if you're up that way. And, of course, can find it online everywhere from Tamaya Gourmet to

Print Page

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Gourmet Club Goes Baja

We've got great flavors to talk about this week on The Gourmet Club. Chef/owner Javier Plascencia of Romesco in Bonita will be with Robert Whitley and me in studio to talk about Baja Mediterranean-style cooking, which you'll find not only at Romesco, but at one of the family's other restaurants in Tijuana, Villa Saverios.

Maureen Clancy will be calling in from New York, where she attended this year's James Beard Foundation Awards at Lincoln Center. Apparently, Kim Cattrall and Bobby Flay got down and dirty with their hosting duties. And, a former San Diego chef, Gavin Kaysen, now of Cafe Boulud in New York, won the rising star award. Maureen will tell all!

And, we'll have Mike Mitchell from Oceanaire on to talk about the new places he's been trying out. We'll also ask him how the restaurants in town are doing sans tomatoes.

It's going to be a busy meeting of The Gourmet Club. Join Robert Whitley and me for our regular Wednesday morning gathering on from 11 a.m. to noon Pacific. You can also podcast the show and listen at your convenience.

Print Page

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Gourmet Club Gets Great News!

As in, Allison Sherwood, director of the cooking school at Great News in Pacific Beach. This Wednesday, Allison will join Robert and me in studio to talk about the school, what makes for a great cooking class and how those instructors we've come to love and rely on for innovative technique and delicious recipes are selected.

Mike Mitchell, general manager of The Oceanaire, will call in with his Mitchell Report. Who knows what happening new restaurant he's been to this last week... We'll find out tomorrow.

Join Robert Whitley and me for another meeting of The Gourmet Club on on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to noon Pacific. You can also podcast the show and listen at your convenience.

Print Page

Sunday, June 1, 2008

June: When Produce is Front and Center

Just outside my office window the big jacaranda tree is pushing out its mass of purple flowers. In my garden, dense clusters of Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are turning a fiery red and the basil leaves are growing almost large enough to consider picking. This is the time of spring in San Diego I love. And, it's when a trip to the farmers market means an explosion of color and, of course, flavor.

Today's La Jolla Farmer's Market was lit up with a rainbow of gorgeous produce defying the morning's June gloom. From baby purple artichokes to sparkling Bing cherries, from my favorite yellow and green squash to luminescent zucchini blossoms, the market stalls were ripe for the picking.

So, this is more of a photo tribute to what I saw this morning. Think of it as a little incentive, even push, to get you out to the markets and enjoy the current bounty.

Suncoast Farms from Lompoc has these wonderfully eccentric-looking baby artichokes. If you're a fan of the packages of baby artichokes from Trader Joe's try these. They're so easy to prepare and really delicious. It's just a matter of stripping the hard leaves from the thistle until you get to the soft ones. You can boil them or--what I like to do--blanch them for a minute or two, then cut in half lengthwise (no need to scoop out the choke since it's so tiny), toss with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, salt and pepper and roast in the oven at about 375, covered for about half an hour and then another half hour uncovered (try adding some grated Parmesan cheese during the uncovered phase).

The stand also had some of the most enormous green artichokes I've ever seen, perhaps twice the size of those you see at the supermarket (they're known for these). And absolutely beautiful. Perfect for stuffing.

Peterson Specialty Produce from Fallbrook has its bi-color yellow and green squash at the market now. With conventional zucchini I enjoy cutting them into matchsticks and sauteeing them with garlic and lemon juice or grating them for savory pancakes. But these are so beautiful, I think they should be halved (quartered in the case of the round summer squash), steamed and eaten with a vinaigrette or sliced extremely thin and marinated in a flavored olive oil and garlic and served like carpaccio. Or sliced and baked with herbs, oil and a blend of bread crumbs and grated Romano cheese.

If you love carrots, have some fun with the red carrots from JK Organics in Escondido. They're sweet and such a unique color.

I am a big fan of Smit Orchards and look forward to pluot season from them. It's here and I've got a handful waiting to be bitten into. They also have some stunning cherries--both Bing and Rainer--and bushels of blueberries.

The big deal for me today was that it was the first day of the season for heirloom tomatoes--and I found these at Valdivia Farms. That blushing big one up front? It's mine, along with a couple of others. I'm going to give them a couple more days to fully ripen and then they'll get sliced and eaten with mozzarella, fresh basil and roasted chili-infused avocado oil that I bought from the Peggy's Pasta stand (along with a dozen organic eggs).

They also had boxes of stunningly vibrant zucchini blossoms. Nothing shriveled up--everything full on healthy and beautiful. I bought four, attached to their little fruit, and will probably stuff them with cheese and saute in olive oil.

With some slices, perhaps, of the fresh garlic I found at the Sage Mountain Farm stand. It's not always easy to find fresh garlic at the markets here and I don't know why since they're so easy to grow. But, I saw my opportunity and bought a few. It's a whole different animal than the sad, often yellowing heads you find at the supermarket. And, you can trim the tops, clean them and chop them up to use like chives--garlic chives.

You'll also want to stop by Maciel Farms for their big beautiful greens, fat carrots and these magnificent red onions.

The La Jolla Farmers Market is held on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. It's located in the La Jolla Elementary School playground on Girard at Genter.

Print Page