Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Taking the Easy Way Out in the Kitchen

It's the night before Thanksgiving and about to rain in San Diego. Our celebration tomorrow will be at my parents' house. A small gathering but for the first time I get to do the cooking since my mom recently had surgery and is still not quite up to the job. At least, that's her story. I've been doing some advance work at my house and the plan is to haul part of the meal or the makings of it there tomorrow morning, along with the dogs and dog beds. Well, you get the picture.

So far, so good (except for a major cranberry recipe mishap--it's not always a great idea to try out something new for a gathering and, really, beware of cloves!). I've got round 2, much improved, batch of cranberry sauce made; have boiled, peeled and chopped the chestnuts for the stuffing; peeled, cored and sliced apples for the pie; made a vinaigrette for the string beans. You get the picture. There's a lot to do tomorrow but it should be quite manageable.

One of the reasons why this has been fairly smooth going is because I have some great kitchen tools. None are particularly extravagant but they've made the job of chopping, slicing, storing and hauling pretty easy. So, I thought I'd share some of these with you and perhaps help alleviate some possible kitchen frustrations you might be having.

Chefs will always stress the importance of a great knife. I'm with them and my go-to, take-when-I-evacuate-for-the-fire knife is a Wusthof Culinar Santoku.

One of the reasons I so love this is because the size and shape of the handle perfectly fit my small hand. I feel a lot more in control than with other knives I've had in the past. I keep the blade sharp and it never lets me down. However, out of curiosity I've also just purchased a seven-inch Kyocera chef's knife and am really relying on that for some of my more precision slicing needs.

This ceramic knife--which may need to be sharpened in, oh, about five years--and two very cool Oxo tools got me quickly through the apple peeling, coring and slicing phase this afternoon. I'm now committed to a serrated peeler. There's no flat blade that dulls, no struggling with putting pressure on at just the right angle. It just goes and takes the peel with it. The corer is new to me and while not absolutely necessary, I liked the fact that I didn't haven't to waste cuts getting rid of the seeded part of the apple. Just shove it through the center and remove the inner stuff in one fell swoop. Then my Kyocera knife could do the rest.

The other knife my family and I rely on for the chestnut stuffing is a chestnut knife. My mom got one for each of us kids, mostly so we could help her. Having done the job myself this year, I totally get it. Peeling chestnuts is no fun, although Maureen Clancy introduced me to a technique that I'm all over: microwave the chestnuts. Don't boil them, don't roast them. The amount of time depends on your microwave oven's power. In my mom's it takes 4 minutes on high doing about half a dozen at a time. The nuts pop right out of the shell. As for the knife, sure, it's a one-function tool but its little beak-shaped blade really digs in to make a quick, accurate cut. A food blogger was complaining this week of the blood drawn when she was making cuts into her chestnuts. I suggested this to prevent further mishaps.

Plus, so long as chestnuts are in season, I buy them for roasting and snacking. So, my knife gets a fair amount of use during winter.

Everyone has a set of measuring spoons. One of my biggest irritations is needing one and having the rest dangle in my way as I'm trying to dig into a spice jar or bottle of honey. I discovered a set of measuring spoons from Progressive International that fit together magnetically but separate when you need to use one or the other. And, they have both a round measuring spoon and an oval to fit into narrow openings.

The one down side is that they are plastic, so go back to your metal spoons when you're dealing with something that could melt them -- like hot bacon fat. Don't ask. But for everything else, they're great; you only have to wash what you use and the magnet keeps them tightly together in a drawer.

One of the dishes on the menu tomorrow night is sauteed Brussels sprouts with shallots and chestnuts. These will need to be sliced fairly thin and I haven't decided if I'm going to just use a knife or my mandoline. I've had a couple in my time and the one I use now is also an Oxo. What can I say? They are good designers. I like its lightness, sturdiness and ease of use. And, it's done a good job of slicing for me.

For some reason it hasn't scored well on Amazon but I've had mine for several years and it's worked great. Be sure to use the food holder so you don't inadvertently cut yourself.

One of the most important tools you need if you're cooking poultry for Thanksgiving--or any meat at any time--is a good thermometer. I have a collection of them, mostly because they don't work well and I've been in search of one I can live with. After watching seasons of "America's Test Kitchen" I finally caught on to what they were using and did a search for it. This is what I use (it's called a Super-Fast Thermapen). It's sturdy, the needle bends out at any angle and is easy to insert into the meat. The digital face is easy to read and registers swiftly. Fold the needle back in and the thermometer's power shuts off. Plus, it comes in a variety of colors. I'm actually taking it with me to my folks' house tomorrow. Until it breaks down, it'll be the one I live and cook by.

The other tool I'll take to my parents' house is a Cuisipro collapsible roasting rack. This is very cool. You roast the bird on it and, because it has handles, you can lift it out of the roasting pan (I have a pair of turkey lifters and always stab myself on the pointed tines, so forget them). Once you set the bird on the platter or carving board, you pull a pin down the length of the rack and the two sides come apart from under the bird. So, you don't have to wrestle with it.

And, here's a turkey roasting tip in two words: high heat. Really high, like 450 degrees. No brining necessary. All you do is rub the bird down with olive oil, garlic salt and paprika (or whatever you prefer). Roast the bird uncovered breast side down until the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees. Then turn the bird breast side up until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees (you'll stick the thermometer into the meatiest part of the thigh, keeping it from touching bone). For a 14- to 16-pound turkey, it probably takes just over two hours. Take the bird out of the oven and let it rest at least 20 minutes. It should continue cooking inside and reach the correct temperature of 175 degrees. You'll have moist meat and crispy skin. I got this idea from Gourmet Magazine and nothing could be easier or more fool proof.

Tomorrow morning I have to pack the car and one of the coolest little haulers I have is a collapsible red cloth picnic basket. It stores flat but when I need it, I can carry a lot around. It frequently goes with me to The Gourmet Club when I want to bring products to the studio for everyone to taste. I've already got the mandoline and a turkey lifter in it. I'll be adding a container of cranberry sauce, another of the vinaigrette, a bag of chestnuts, two bottles of sparkling cider, a huge pomegranate and the turkey thermometer. I used it over the weekend to take over my other provisions for storage in my mom's refrigerator.

What won't go into the basket? My apple pie. Transporting pies has been an issue with me for years. Usually I have more than one and I've done cardboard boxes, towels, plastic containers. You name it. I did finally find something that kind of worked: a series of plastic boxes that attached vertically and could be carried with a handle but I always worried it would break. I picked up a pie carrier by Sterilite at Target this afternoon that I'm pretty confident about since I already have the larger cake carrier.

Mine is a bright, happy red. It's got a very secure feel to it and the fit is so snug the pie won't slide around while I drive.

I could probably go on. In fact, I'd love to hear what others find as their essentials. This time of year we can all use as much help as we can get.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoy the people you're with. I'll be with these two...

And, a couple of friends will join us. As much as we're all about the food, really it's about being with our loved ones. With a mother recovering well from surgery and a father who looks pretty darned healthy, I'm very thankful. And, I'll be even more thankful to see my niece and nephews this weekend!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Gourmet Club Talks Turkey

Robert, Maureen and I could probably fill an entire hour chatting about our Thanksgiving traditions, but we've enlisted three people to call in whom we think you'll enjoy even more: Matt Gordon, executive chef and co-owner of Urban Solace; Matt Rimel, co-owner of the La Jolla Butcher Shop and owner of Zenbu and Rimel's Rotisserie; and Karen Krasne, owner of Extraordinary Desserts.

These three each have a unique take on Thanksgiving and you'll want to hear what they're preparing and how they're celebrating. And, we'll ask them for the best ideas they have for the inevitable leftovers.

Getting hungry? Well, 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 from 11 a.m. to noon Pacific. You can also podcast the show and listen at your convenience.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Saluting the Troops Through Shopping

No, I don't mean the Bush dictum to "go out and shop" as a way of keeping the home fires burning. You're probably aware that while our service men and women, including the National Guard, are in harms way on our behalf, they and their families frequently have a tough time making ends meet at home. As do those who are retired from the services. One of the benefits devised to help has been the system of commissaries that offers foodstuff and other essentials at discounted prices. Only the families of active and retired military, including the National Guard and reservists, can shop at these commissaries, so unless you're part of this family it probably hasn't been on your radar.

In San Diego, we have the largest commissary in the world. The non-profit Naval Base San Diego Commissary on 32nd St., near downtown, opened on April 20, 2007 to serve a customer base of 267,000. Today, the average number of transactions is 4,000 a day, with much more on paydays. More numbers? The building itself is more 127,000 square feet, with 75,000 of this making up the sales floor. The Commissary's 18 aisles are wide, at least a third larger than conventional markets (but no more directional shopping arrows). There are more than 800 linear feet of frozen food. There are 29 cash registers. Think of it as a very large Costco in terms of size but focusing almost exclusively on food.

I accompanied Lisa Schmidt of A Blog About Food in early October after she commented on Twitter about the amazing buys she found there. "Price is number one, with the extreme best deals being in milk and dairy, the meat department and spices," she said. "These can be up to half off (and more when referring to spices) what I pay in civilian stores."

In fact, store director William Vick said that a family of four could save over $3,000 a year shopping at the Commissary. All commissaries sell products at cost plus a five percent surcharge, which is used to build new stores and modernize existing ones.

The other reason Schmidt shops at the Commissary is selection. "Sometimes they have foods available that are not usually found in this region of the country. Like I found some dumplings in the frozen food section that I'd only seen in Kentucky."

In October I jokingly asked if I could send her a shopping list and instead she very kindly invited me to tag along with her so I could see the place. I couldn't buy anything, of course, but I did get a wonderful new friend out of it and a great opportunity to see a place usually out of bounds to civilians. Following that trip, Vick took me on a more formal tour of the Commissary. Ironically, although he manages a team of 190 employees, he can't shop there either, having been with the Air Force for a tour of duty but not long enough to take retirement. So, for those of you who have no military affiliation, here's a peek at a place you might not ever be able to visit or at least shop at. And, for those who have access to the Commissary but somehow don't make it there to shop, here, perhaps, is a little incentive, especially going into Thanksgiving and the holidays.

The store itself is a an enormous stucco structure that's not much to look at from the outside. But inside is a mighty food emporium that is clean and bright, thanks to skylights and automated lighting that adjusts to the natural light, an energy cost savings that Vick enthusiastically bragged about.

At the entrance is a massive produce section, almost 11,000 square feet in size. Vick explained that they try to get as much of the produce as they can from local sources, using Coast Produce Company in Los Angeles.

You'll see the variety of everything you'd expect to find in a civilian supermarket in Southern California only in tremendous quantity. Plus, since the Commissary has a large Asian customer base as well as customers who have been based in Asia and enjoy Asian cuisine, there are displays of more exotic produce that you'd usually find in Asian markets, like taro root, long beans and banana hearts. And, a considerable amount of Hispanic products to appeal to their many Hispanic shoppers or those who like Hispanic cuisine.

Also in the produce section is an interactive computer kiosk. Given the enormity of the store, the management decided to set up a screen that allows customers to place an order in the deli department (on the opposite end of the Commissary) so that it would be ready for pick up before they check out.

About 5,000 orders monthly are placed through the kiosk. Allison Chase, a regular customer, loves this service and has been encouraging her friends to take advantage of it, too.

Vick is also proud of the organics sections that he's established in produce, dairy and packaged goods. However, he acknowledges that organic produce is limited because the shoppers here are naturally price conscious.

Nevertheless the options are there. In the packaged organics aisles, you'll find cereals, breads, juices, soups, snacks, beans, condiments, raw whole flax seeds, cookies and candy bars. There are selections in gluten-free and soy products. Red Mill products are here as are other familiar brands. In the refrigerated section are eggs, juices, dairy, frozen foods, and, of course, produce.

Without venturing too far, you'll also enjoy cooking demonstrations at a booth in the produce section outfitted with a stove, sink and prep area. The morning I was visiting, chef Valerie Salatino was making an "Italian paella" using a variety of products sold at the store.

Vick took me over to the Seafood section and there I noticed something interesting that I haven't seen in the markets I shop at. Digital price labels. According to Vick there are about 5,000 of these throughout the store.

The technology allows prices to be updated automatically, eliminating a lot of time spent manually switching out prices and enhancing the accuracy of price changes. As you can see, among the seafood products sold at the Commissary are those by San Diego-based Anthonys Fish Grotto.

The New England clam chowder is just one of a whole case of Anthonys products that include prepared or semi-prepared seafood meals. Across from the seafood case is another large case of what Vick describes as dinner kits.

These dinner kits do very well, said Vick. For those who prefer to put together a meal on their own is a large meat and poultry department. The Commissary orders up to 800 cases a week of Foster Farms chicken. The meats are all cut in-house daily by a full staff of butchers. In keeping with the cost-consciousness of their customers, the meats are USDA choice and select. No prime here. But, you can find bison, whole beef loins and a wide variety of pork and lamb.

The Value Aisle is like a trip to a membership store. Some three truckloads of products are displayed, many of which are club packs and now mostly holiday oriented.

Nearby is an aisle filled with various ethnic foods from around the world. There are shelves upon shelves of packaged German foods.

And, because of the large Asian customer base, there's naturally a large selection of Asian products, ranging from Japanese and Chinese to Korean, Thai and Filipino.

At the far end of the Commissary is a large bakery and deli. There are full selections of meats and cheeses, rotisserie chicken and breads and cakes.

In this same part of the Commissary is a 1,500-square-foot store-within-a-store concept called the Grab N Go. Vick acknowledged that this is still a work in progress. The idea was to have a place close to the exit where service people--probably single and not interested in a big shopping trip--could run in for the necessities, like milk, bread, eggs, soda and snacks. There are even 10, 15-minute parking stalls to allow people to run in and get what they need, along with eight self-checkout registers. Currently, the space is taken up with health foods but Vick anticipates that with the new single sailor housing quarters going up across the street, that the Grab N Go concept will once again be a go.

Alongside this little store is also a sushi counter, with two sushi chefs whipping up their creations for those looking for a bite for lunch or dinner.

And, if you have a special occasion, like a wedding or big birthday, you can special order cakes from Red Ribbon, a local Filipino bakery that also provides less lofty baked goods for parties or other gatherings.

The 32nd St. Commissary is located at 2525 Callagan Highway, Building 3629. Again, it is limited to active and retired military.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Gourmet Club Delivers

Here's a new twist on delivery: Delicious, nutritious meals. Not diet meals, but what you would make for your family if you had the time to shop and cook. We're talking red snapper with wilted spinach and tomato black bean corn salsa, braised beef tri-tip with pearl onions, fennel and fava beans, and even beef cheddar chili mac and cheese for the kids. And, who is doing this in San Diego? Chef Winston Edwards of Go Chef Gourmet Delivery.

Chef Edwards will be with us in studio on The Gourmet Club to talk about "What's for dinner?" And, we'll learn why a chef who honed his culinary skills at Four Seasons Resort and Hotel, The Lodge at Torrey Pines, Arterra, the Inn L'Auberge and other top establishments is cooking for home delivery.

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 from 11 a.m. to noon Pacific. You can also podcast the show and listen at your convenience.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Rainbow Soy Sushi Rolls--Or, Another Reason to Shop at Your Local Asian Market

My book club is meeting tonight and the book under discussion is Kiana Davenport's House of Many Gods. The book takes place primarily in Hawaii and so that's our dinner theme as well. My assignment is appetizers, so I thought I'd put a bit of a Hawaiian slant on sushi rolls. That took me to Marukai, a relatively new market in San Diego's Kearny Mesa neighborhood. I'm not a huge fan of the store, but they do have a section with Hawaiian food so I thought I could find some interesting things to include in the sushi rolls.

Making the rolls is relatively easy. You need short grain rice (I cooked up three cups with four cups of water). You need wrappers. Traditionally, these are nori, thin, dried seaweed sheets. But my friend Mineko Moreno (who is a superb instructor in the art of sushi making) introduced me to this new product, colorful soy wrappers. The large package comes five sheets to a pack. As you can see, they also make beautiful hand rolls, but I need appetizers for eight, so I'm going with the traditional long roll.

I picked up these, as well as some staples:

Kanikaba, or imitation crab


Flying Fish Roe

as well as Aokappa, or pickled cucumber

and, in the Hawaiian food section, I found a bag of shredded ginger.

You'll also need seasoned rice vinegar, which you add to the cooked rice to give it some flavor.

And, you'll need a sushi mat, which you'll want to cover with plastic wrap to keep the roll from sticking.

Now, you're pretty well set. Of course, you could also add slices of avocado, which I did, wasabi (the lovely hot green paste served with pickled ginger at your local sushi bar), which I also did, and fresh sliced cucumber (which I bought and promptly forgot to use), sprouts -- basically use whatever you like. I added some Chamoy sauce, a sweet/hot sauce found in Hispanic markets that's made of apricot.

Get yourself organized with all your ingredients and then be creative. The wrappers go shiny side down on the mat, then you moisten your fingertips and press the seasoned rice uniformly on the mat, leaving about an inch empty along the top. In the middle of the rice, line up your filling.

Then, you'll lift the bottom of the mat and carefully begin to fold over and roll your filled wrapper, pressing down when you've got it in a roll to seal the deal.

Carefully move the roll and place it on the counter or a large plate, sealed side down and let it rest about 10 minutes. Refrigerate the rolls until you're ready to use them (hopefully soon). When you're ready to serve, let them come to room temperature and cut them in half and then repeatedly in half until you have eight pieces.

These are only cut in half to give you an idea of what the center looks like. I'll cut them up when I get to my friend Anne's house. (Tip: Run the knife blade through water for each cut to keep the rice from sticking to it.) And, I'll serve them with a citrus ponzu sauce, a Japanese dipping sauce made with soy, yuzu juice and dashi.

See? Easy. And, a fun departure from boring cheese and crackers.

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Too Hot to Handle: The 2008 San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival's Grand Event

If you don't live in San Diego and instead live in a cold climate, I apologize in advance. You're craving warmth, and a chance to walk around in shorts and flip flops. I understand. But, 90 degrees in November just isn't natural and we're fed up with it here. And, it's completely irritating when you attend a large outdoor food and wine festival.

That was the challenge organizers of the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival faced on Saturday. The Grand Event, held downtown at a gorgeous bayside setting, should have been a breezy stroll from one wine maker's booth to the next, with culinary fortification from some 60 chefs. But the heat wave wilted me before I even got started. I'm a lightweight anyway when it comes to wine but the temperatures kept me from trying any of it. Instead I was relieved to find some beers and the last bottle of water offered in icy tubs.

The food was what I was actually there for so I had high hopes. The quality should have been high. After all, among the restaurants represented were Arterra, Crescent Heights, Currant Brasserie, The Oceanaire, Nobu San Diego, Quarter Kitchen, Cowboy Star, Urban Solace and Sea Rocket Bistro. But, it seems that cooking for thousands at one time is more of a challenge than most were up to, particularly during a heat wave.

One of the first purveyors I hit was Brandt Beef. I was thrilled to see them grilling up a brisket. They had done a splendid job at last summer's Taste of Slow Food San Diego in Old Town. The brisket was like eating candy. This time it was good, but not divine. A bit disappointing.

Not much better was The Oceanaire's seafood shooter. With a raw quail egg, oyster and uni swimming in soy sauce with tobiko caviar, it should have been a winner.

But, while each of these ingredients can shine on their own, together, and particularly in the heat, it was pretty much of a mess going down. Of course, chef Brian Malarkey was having fun tossing sake shots down an ice luge, and he had everyone at his booth completely entertained, as usual.

Saveur Magazine made a big mistake with its cardboard-like slices of pizza.

There were, of course, some culinary highlights. I enjoyed the ceviche from Sea Rocket Bistro. There was a lovely little tamale from Indigo Grill. But, the best, by far, was something unexpected, a sensational grilled lamb chop with tabbouleh salad, punctuated with pomegranate seeds. This was offered at the Mondavi wine tasting and chef demonstration. They also had a lovely piece of seared tuna with a spicy white bean salad.

I also enjoyed the creativity of the folks at Arterra. It was county fair time, what with little root beer floats and bags of duck fat truffled popcorn.

Then, of course, were plump corn dogs.

And, given the temperatures, thank goodness for Vignette sparkling drinks. These non-alcoholic beverages come in three flavors: Chardonnay, Rose and Pinot Noir. I particularly enjoyed the Chardonnay, with its burst of freshness.

And, while I was happy tasting all sorts of wonderful desserts, the ones from Opera Patisserie I found to be simply terrific. The raspberry pastry was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, as were the lovely petite Parisian macaroons.

I think these large events have their place, but my preference is for the smaller tasting events like Celebrate the Craft. The chefs don't have to prepare as though they were fast food joints and can really focus on the ingredients and technique. And, perhaps if the weather had been less of a daunting presence I would have enjoyed the event more and tried some of the wines. But, if nothing else, The San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival is an opportunity for those unfamiliar with many of San Diego's chefs to get a taste of what they might find in the restaurant.

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