Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Gourmet Club Turns the Lights Back On

We're back! Hurray! We have a new engineer and we're ready to roll.

San Diego County and about 30 farmers markets and one of the newest and coolest entries is the Little Italy Mercato. Mercato manager Catt Fields White is joining us on Wednesday to fill us in on her grand plans for the market, including some of the latest vendors to join her on Date St. How has she grown this new market so quickly and with such interesting foods?

Maureen is in Vienna but she may just call in to tell us about her adventures. Robert has just returned from Paris, so we'll be sure to talk about new discoveries in one of our favorite cities in the world. And, I'll be sharing my recent experience at Catalina Offshore Products.

So, tune in for the hour. The Gourmet Club is the tastiest meeting in town. Join Robert Whitley and me this Wednesday morning on signonradio.com from 11 a.m. to noon Pacific. You can also podcast the show and listen at your convenience.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Riding the Waves with Catalina Offshore Products

File this under adventures in food shopping -- because at Catalina Offshore Products you won't find beautiful counter displays of seafood; aisles of seafood-compatible condiments, crackers and seasonings; or bottles of wine to complement your planned meal. It's a 16,000-square-foot warehouse on a small street alongside railroad tracks near Morena Blvd. and the 8 freeway.

What will you find, once you go through the doors leading from the business's busy office into the large chilly warehouse? A practical, price-conscious seafood lover's idea of nirvana. Catalina Offshore Products is a wholesaler to restaurants, caterers and other businesses around the country, even around the world. They've been around for more than 25 years, beginning when founder Dave Rudie, a professional sea urchin (uni) diver, and his wife Kathy started processing the uni and seaweed he caught. The business has since expanded to include fresh seafood caught in the waters of San Diego and Baja California, as well as frozen seafood (primarily for sushi restaurants) from Japan and elsewhere around the world. The emphasis is on sustainable fishing and providing the highest possible quality and freshness.

When I visited this week, I was met by Tommy Gomes, who handles sales, buying and public relations for the company. He's been there for ages and is a member of a family that came to San Diego from Portugal in 1892 and has been fishing in San Diego since that time. He lives, of course, in Pt. Loma (a Pt. Loma High School grad). Tommy's a wealth of information and a great guy who welcomes individual walk-in customers so long as they understand that:

  • there may be a wait before he can help you
  • there may be forklifts traveling around the warehouse floor that you need to keep away from
  • there may be lot of activity in terms of trimming fish, cleaning sea urchin, cleaning the premises, packing boxes
  • it's a working processing plant so there may be blood and other goopy things
  • most of what is sold is fresh catch so you have to be flexible with your order and willing to take what's in stock at the moment (get to know Tommy and you can call in with your order and just pick it up)
  • and that Tommy prefers to work with folks who are nice, courteous and patient
The benefit to being that perfect customer? You'll get ridiculously fresh, delicious seafood at even more ridiculously low prices compared to places like Whole Foods (whom they sell to) and Pt. Loma Seafood. And, you'll be in good company. Local police and firefighters are big shoppers here. Active military in uniform are positively drooled over. And regular folks are embraced as treasured customers.

Two weeks or so away from the commencement of lobster season, the warehouse was prepping for the arrival of the crustaceans, with men busily organizing styrofoam boxes and hay-like packing material. It was relatively calm so Tommy gave me the tour, showing me enormous refrigeration rooms behind stainless steel barn-size doors. In one, were several whole yellowtail from Mexico, a shark and a salmon from Nova Scotia.

There was a magnificent bluefin tuna as well and that was claimed within moments by Russell Hawkins, chef at the Escondido restaurant Tango. The fish was taken to a large cutting table and quickly trimmed to its essence for the young chef.

Another refrigeration room was filled with 20,000 salmon heads -- soon to total 140,00 -- for lobster fisherman in anticipation of the season opening.

Just outside the refrigeration rooms were deep chest freezers. These were primarily holding imported specialty seafood from Japan for sushi restaurants -- sushi-grade salmon, monkfish liver, masago, farm-raised hamashi. Another chest held frozen Croatian toro, a bluefin tuna from the Atlantic prized for its combination of color and high fat content (usually you get only one or the other).

In a nearby room were large long tanks, one filled with colorful abalone.

One of the most fascinating areas in the warehouse was where the uni was being processed. I had missed the early morning cleaning of the sea urchin, but Tommy showed me white pails filled with what he calls "uni goop." Once a source of irritation because it clogged the drains as it was being thrown out, Tommy decided to start selling it as chum for sport fishermen.

The area was now spotless so Tommy took me into a little room where mostly women were seated at several tables for two. In front of them were piles of uni of various shapes, colors and sizes. The women were weighing and sorting the uni into more uniform piles, the best of which -- the largest and most deeply colored and with the best texture and firmness -- would go to sushi restaurant customers. They were packed in delicate little wooden trays for shipping.

Of course, I was looking for seafood for myself, specifically ingredients for an easy cioppino I was planning. Tommy brought over several cooked and frozen crab claws.

Next, he pulled together a bag of hand-picked diver scallops from Mexico and a handful of magnificently plump wild Mexican white shrimp.

Finally, he brought me a grouper fillet.

The cioppino was marvelous. A few weeks ago I had needed to use up various vegetables before traveling to San Francisco, so I roasted heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, garlic and onions with lots of olive oil until they were cooked through and caramelized. I put all that in a saucepan in which I had sauteed more onion and garlic and then added a can of plum tomatoes, salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes and, at the very end, chopped herbs from my garden. Then I took a stick blender to the mixture and pulsed it until it was just slightly chunky. I had a helping that night with pasta and stored the rest in two small containers that went into the freezer. That's what I pulled out for dinner, heating the sauce up in a large Le Creuset pot, adding another chopped tomato and a couple of slices of lemon. That's it. Once that heated, I started adding the seafood, beginning with the crab claws and one-inch pieces of grouper. After a few minutes of letting it simmer, covered, I then added the shrimp and scallops, also toasting a sour dough roll (for dunking, of course). It took very little time and actually was one of the best versions of it I've made.

If cioppino's not your thing and you're curious about the grouper, a firm, white-meat fish, I have a recipe for you from Catalina Offshore Products. Tommy pulls together a lot of recipes for seafood that you can find on a wall in the main office.

Baked Grouper with Wild Mushrooms

8 tbl. extra virgin olive oil, divided
in half
1/2 lb. chanterelle mushrooms cut in 1/4" slices

1/2 lb. Portobello mushrooms, cut in 1/4" slices

1/2 lb. oyster mushrooms, cut in 1/4" slices

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tbl. tomato paste
1 tbl. thyme leaves

4 grouper fillets (5 oz. each)
Salt & pepper to taste
1 1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup coarsely chopped Italian parsley

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a 12- to 14-inch oven proof saucepan heat 4 tablespoons of the oil until smoking. Add the mushrooms and garlic and saute 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and thyme and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Remove the mixture to a bowl and set aside.

Season the fish well with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining oil in the same pan and add the fish. Saute until deep golden brown on the first side. Carefully turn the fish, add the wine and return the mushroom mixture to the pan. Put the pan into the oven and cook for 4 minutes until the fish is cooked through. Remove from oven, sprinkle with parsley and serve. Serves 4.

Catalina Offshore Products is located at 5202 Lovelock St.

Hours for walk-ins are Monday through Friday from 9 to 2 and Saturday from 9 to 11:30. Make Tommy happy and bring in a cooler or ice chest with ice packs or bags of ice to fill with your purchases.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Too Many Farmers Markets?

I was talking yesterday with a vendor who sells at a number of local farmers markets in San Diego. I was marveling at how wonderful it is that the region now has 30 markets. People all over the County are increasingly being able to go buy their produce and other food products fresh from the farmer or artisan relatively close to home.

She, on the other hand, is not all that happy about this for a couple of reasons. New markets mean more markets she and her partner have to find a way to sell at. And, new markets mean a dilution of customers from already established markets as they peel away people who can now shop elsewhere.

So, I put it out there to the farmers market shoppers and to vendors/market managers. Do you think more markets are good or bad for you and the community -- and, importantly, why?

And, as I ask this, I'm also hearing talk that a group is being formed to look into creating a permanent marketplace at Liberty Station in Point Loma and that a marketplace (a la Pike Place Market in Seattle) is being considered in the development at the Old Police Headquarters at the Embarcadero. An embarrassment of riches if either of these come to fruition. This could also impact the vendors and the vitality of the community markets.

Weigh in please!

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

New at the Market

Remind me, please, what city I live in! At the farmers market today, I bought cheese, butter, eggs, marmalade, a tall brioche and little spinach quiche, beans, heirloom tomatoes, nectarines, pluots and cookies.

Is this really San Diego? The San Diego I've lived in for close to 20 years? Well, it is now. Far from being depressed after visiting the astounding Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, I'm feeling energized about what's happening in San Diego when it comes to food.

I went back to the Little Italy Mercato this morning, mostly because its manager, Catt Fields White, regularly sends beautiful, informative email newsletters about all the latest additions she's making to the market. She, too, looks to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market for inspiration, hoping, she told me this morning, to build something similar in Little Italy. The market has only been open since June and she's at a fast pace making that happen. I can only hope that other market managers follow her lead and do a little more to promote their markets, help their vendors with more traffic and build our 30 markets into strong, indispensable community presences.

So, the items I bought and the vendors I spoke with in Little Italy this morning represent a larger picture of possibilities for San Diego. Some of these vendors have started in Little Italy but are also adding other markets to their rotation. And, Catt has some new folks coming in shortly, including the folks at Sea Rocket Bistro. Yes, they'll be grilling their marvelous sardines at the Mercato for you to munch on while you shop.

Let's start with the cheese. We don't have any local cheesemakers I'm aware of, but Spring Hill Jersey Cheese from the Petaluma area in Sonoma County is now selling at the Little Italy Mercato. (They're also found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.) San Diegan Rachel Peter, niece of owner Larry Peter, is running the operation down here. She's just started selling at the Coronado farmers market and you'll find her and her cheeses and butter (Butter!) at the Hillcrest farmers market as of Oct. 5. The plan is also to sell the cheese at The Ocean Beach People's Food Store.

Spring Hill has a long tradition in Petaluma. Peter has been running the dairy for more than 20 years. He has 400 head of Jersey cows whose milk produces higher butter fat than the familiar, more prolific Holsteins. The cows are pasture grazed six months of the year and the other six months they eat a forage mixture harvested from what Peter plants. The resulting cheese is certified organic.

And, they don't just sell cow's milk cheese. They have a very interesting collection of organic goat cheeses made from milk that comes from goats owned by the nextdoor neighbors. The cheeses include white cheddar, sage cheddar, garlic cheddar, feta, peppercorn dry Jack, brie, Teleme and dry Jack. The list of cows milk cheeses is long, but includes a variety of cheddars and Jacks, feta, dry Jack and Teleme. They have fresh curds, quark (a soft, unaged, cream cheese) and, of course, the butter.

Rachel has a lot of samples to try, which I dug into. Ultimately I bought the goat Teleme, which is creamy with that distinctive goat flavor, perfect with sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil; the garlic cheddar (give me garlic anytime; this combination really works) and a stick of fresh unsalted butter. When I got home, I enjoyed the butter with an unusual tall brioche studded with golden raisins that I bought from chef Michel Morlas at Patisserie du Soleil (and June Taylor's stunning Meyer Lemon marmalade).

Well, let's talk about Patisserie du Soleil. This European-style bakery has been in operation since 1993 and makes desserts for a number of restaurants and resorts in San Diego from home base on Sports Arena in Pt. Loma. The selection is broad and satisfying. I tried a sample of Morlas's flourless chocolate cake, to which he adds no additional sugar beyond what is already in the chocolate. The result is a light, delicate and just-sweet-enough cake that would be perfect with a cappuccino. He's got bread pudding made with his brioche, a tiramisu terrine and two styles of spinach quiche -- an individual one in a very flaky crust that I bought and loved and a tall, creamier crustless quiche sold by the slice. It's a pretty large display you have to see.

I met up with Dave Heafner of Da-Le Ranch. I had mentioned earlier that he would be at the market with his meat. Today, he was grilling pork and chicken breasts to give out as samples. Soon, he'll also be bringing meat from NTM Livestock (near Lake Elsinore), as well as lamb and rabbit. You can buy the fresh, organic meat by the individual cut or by meat package that could include ground beef, pork sausage, lamb sausage, chicken, pork cuts, lamb cuts, beef cuts and smoked ham bacon. The packages come in 25- or 50-pound weights. I didn't buy any today but what Heafner was grilling was very tasty.

As long as I was at the market, I stopped by one of my favorite vendors, Schaner Farms. Once again, I bought some gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and the lovely chicken eggs.

This time, I also bought a jar of tangelo marmalade made by Adina Rimmon in Los Angeles. Rimmon sells Schaner's wares at the Santa Monica farmers market and uses the fruit to make a variety of marmalades, such as pomagrante, 3 citrus (grapefruit, orange and lemon), blood orange and the tangelo I bought. Since I'm doing a piece for the U-T on preserves this was, of course, research ;)

Finally, I stopped by a booth operated by Chi Chocolat and The Cookie Chew. Chi, of course, has a shop nearby, and had a number of delightful sweets on hand. But, I ended up being more interested in accountant turned baker Liz Chou's cookies. She has cookies she stuffs with decadent fillings that she calls truffles -- some propped on sticks like lollipops, others in little cellophane bags.

I tried the peanut butter and it was a luscious, creamy experience in the mouth. I can't wait to try the Chocolate Toffee Crunch and the Orange Chocolate Coconut.

I also bought a quarter-ounce bag of cookie cubes, little squares at most an inch but most smaller in flavors like classic chocolate chip, oatmeal peanut butter chip, Cosmo (orange, cranberry, white chocolate oatmeal), white and dark chocolate raspberry martini (chocolate raspberry cookie with white chocolate) and White Russian (Kahlua cookie with white chocolate). See a theme here? I particularly enjoyed the Cosmo with its mix of textures and flavors. It's a nice little treat you can almost guiltlessly pop in the mouth.

As Catt and others add more vendors and, especially, more unique vendors to their markets I'll keep you posted.

The Little Italy Mercato is on Date St. between Kettner Blvd. and Union St. It's open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Gourmet Club Goes Dark

Well, I really have put off writing this, but we got the news that The Gourmet Club and all other live programming on signonradio.com is indefinitely suspended. So, instead of going to the studio this morning for a fun discussion with Robert Whitley, Maureen Clancy and guests, I've got a conference call, a phone interview and a story to work on. You tell me which sounds like more fun!

We may go back on. Who knows? But, regardless, I want to thank Robert and Maureen, who know everything about food and wine in San Diego and beyond, for being so generous and such great partners. We had a great time and were really getting into a groove together. Robert's assistant, Felicia Forbes, is the coolest lady and always such a help in getting us prepped for the show. Our guests made it all so interesting, especially our friend, Mike Mitchell, who regularly introduced us to new and exciting restaurants around town. Thank you very much! And, I want to thank my friend Ron James for bringing me on board last year. Of course, my really big thanks go out to those of you who actually took the time to listen and even call in periodically.

It was a great run and I hope against hope that the mikes go back on soon.

Meanwhile, you can listen to me monthly on KPBS radio's These Days with Tom Fudge. My next appearance will be on Monday, Sept. 22 at 10 a.m.

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

San Diego Foodstuff Quick Snack: Jericho Dates

Last night I was at dinner with my folks and friends of theirs in the Renaissance Towne Center near UTC. Next door to Chicago on a Bun (where I had some pretty good ribs, actually) is the new Renaissance Produce international market. So, after dinner we stopped by and the first thing that struck me was a pile of bunches of an unfamiliar fruit.

Not much to look at are they, but they looked interesting so I sneaked one from the pile and took a taste. Kind of crunchy. Sweet. There was a seed in the middle.

Now how I have lived so many years in Southern California without ever having seen dates on the vine is beyond me. But, that's in fact, what these are. The dates most of us are familiar with already are brown and dried. And sweet as candy. But you can get a sense of their future when you bite into one of these in their raw form.

I was told by the owners that these dates (there are about 30 varieties) are Jericho dates. Jericho is known as the city of palm trees and, according to the book Food in the Ancient World by Joan P. Alcock, Jericho dates were held as supreme above all varieties. They were imported by the Romans and used most frequently in sauces, the flesh pounded and added to spices like cumin and pepper as well as thyme, fennel seed and asafoetida root (common in Indian cooking and tastes a little like garlic). In one recipe, vinegar was added to moisten the mixture and then honey, oil, wine and liquamen (a type of fish sauce) were also blended in to finish the sauce, which would be poured over cooked chicken or other fowl.

The dates in the bunch I bought are about an inch long and starting to show soft spots. This is good. You don't want to wait to eat them until they spoil, but as they ripen and start to turn kind of funky looking, they get soft and sweet. So, I tried one that I had been avoiding as iffy when I was picking a bunch. Unlike the more perfect, beautiful fruit I had thought I should buy, I could really taste the distinctive mellow sweetness in this ripening date.

So, what do you do with them? They're wonderful chopped and added to baked goods. Try them as a unique companion to sharp cheeses. Experiment and incorporate them in a savory sauce for fish or chicken or pork. Simply snack on them. If anyone has any other ideas, let us know.

Renaissance Produce is at 8935 Towne Centre Dr. (I'll write more soon about the other items they carry.)

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mercato Meat-Up

Catt Fields White, the Little Italy Mercato's "Market Maestra," is really doing remarkable things with this new market. The latest news? She's bringing meat to the market. It may be a San Diego first (let me know if I'm wrong). Catt's great little market e-newsletter says that starting Sept. 13 Da-Le Ranch, a family-owned operation near Lake Elsinore, will be at the market selling naturally raised, farm-fresh pork, lamb and chicken -- antibiotic and hormone free. And, as of Sept. 20, Chef Rey Knight, who worked at the Linkery in 2007 and continues to make salumi for Eclipse Chocolat, Ritual Tavern, Hamilton's Tavern and Urban Solace, will be offering his charcuterie at the Little Italy market. (Thanks, Jay Porter, for the correction!)

The Little Italy Mercato is held on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. year-round on Date St., from Kettner to Union.

Da-Le Ranch offers tours of its 22-acre ranch (which includes a nursery, gardens, worm winrows, animal pens and a dog kennel). Good luck trying to figure out where they're located, however. There's nothing on the site. Not even a phone number...

Update, thanks to Alice Q. She found their contact info here. Of course, Da-Le Ranch might want to consider adding it to their own site ;)

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Blatant Self Promotion

I'll get back to the market news shortly -- lots of photos to edit from San Francisco (Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Slow Food Nation) and need time to write.

But, I just wanted to let you know that my story on the City Heights Farmers Market is in the new fall 2008 issue of Edible San Diego. You can pick it up around town or, better still, subscribe. Go to www.ediblesandiego.com.

The community activists in this ethnically diverse part of town -- where some 40 languages are spoken -- are doing some amazing things to bring healthy, delicious food to its predominantly low-income residents. The more research I did, the more programs of importance I found. What a great model for other markets in San Diego County and beyond!

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Gourmet Club Returns to the Sea

We love Chef Bernard Guillas and so back he comes to The Gourmet Club to chat about his recent travels, cooking classes and the menu transition from summer to fall at The Marine Room. I saw him most recently at the Taste of Slow Food San Diego where he was handing out bowls of vibrant orange cold carrot soup with crab and caviar. Oh, the flavors and textures in that refreshingly sweet chilled soup on that warm summer night!

And, since it's the first Wednesday of the month, we'll be hearing from Mike Mitchell with his Mitchell Report on the best of the new restaurants that have opened.

If there's time, I'll share some of the highlights of the Taste Pavilion at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco last weekend as well as the experience of being at one of the most astounding farmers markets I've ever seen -- The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The size of the market and the breadth of the offerings were a revelation. And, fortunately, I was making dinner for friends that evening and got to actually buy wonderful products to use later.

And, Maureen and Robert will fill us in on their latest culinary adventures.

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

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