Monday, January 19, 2009

Jewish Comfort Food? How About Prakas?

This is one of those seat-of-the-pants pieces, inspired by a call for stuffed cabbage recipes on Twitter this evening by Judy Chiappini of No Fear Entertaining. I couldn't resist offering my grandmother's recipe and the query then took on a life of its own.

When I was in my 20s I hounded my grandmother, Tillie Gould, to write down her recipes for me. The result was a small denim loose-leaf notebook with a photo she taped on the front page of her with my grandfather carving a Thanksgiving turkey. The photo was taken before I was born and I treasure it and the notebook, which is filled with all sorts of family favorites.

The recipe is in that notebook but her handwriting was moving toward illegible and she had a tendency to leave out ingredients or directions in her old age. So I took out a red folder filled with recipes my mom has given me over the years. There it was. But the ingredients list was slightly different. I gave her a call and together we reviewed the process with me typing and editing as she talked. So now it's accurately documented. My mom hasn't made the dish in awhile so now we're going to get together and make it. The great thing is that this fairly labor-intensive dish is freezable, so I'll be able to take home packages to reheat and eat at my leisure.

Stuffed cabbage, or prakas in Yiddish, is one of those peasant dishes that makes great use of inexpensive ingredients to create a large filling meal. Traditionally, it's made with ground beef but I've had it with ground turkey and it tastes wonderful too. The most important element is the sweet-and-sour sauce. Play with the lemon juice and sugar amounts until you get it just right. It should have some punch to it.

And, I apologize for the lack of photos. That's what happens when you're spontaneous. I'll add photos once my mom and I make the dish.

Tillie’s and Evie’s Prakas (Rolled Cabbage)


1 large green cabbage

1 1/2 lb. lean ground beef or turkey

¼ c. cooked or instant rice

1 tsp. garlic salt

Pepper to taste

Large can of crushed tomatoes

Small can of tomato sauce

About a dozen or more seeded prunes and dried apricots

About a dozen ginger snaps, crushed to crumbs (optional)

1 bay leaf

1 ½ cups of sugar

Juice of one lemon

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Core the cabbage and submerge it in the boiling water. Let it cook for a few minutes and as the outer leaves become pliable, pull them off and continue cooking until the leaves large enough to be rolled are cooked and pulled. Don't worry about the small leaves in the center. On the back of the leaves is a thick membrane. Slice a thin piece off to make the leaf more flexible for rolling.

Mix together the ground meat, rice, garlic salt and pepper. Place about 1 ½ tbsp—depending on the size of the leaf—toward the bottom of the cabbage leaf. Fold the bottom up and over the meat mixture. Then fold in the sides and roll to the top. It should look like a cylinder. Place each roll on the bottom of a high-sided pan with the seam on the bottom. You can stack a couple of layers.

Scatter the prunes and apricots around and on top of the rolls. Pour the crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce over the rolls. Add the bay leaf. Add the crushed ginger snaps (optional). Cover and bake.

After 45 minutes, baste the cabbage rolls with the liquids. Do this a few times in 20-minute intervals (more or less). Cook for about 2 hours or until the leaves begin to look wilted. Remove the prunes and apricots. Put them into sieve over a bowl and mash the fruit to create a puree (or blend them in a food processor). Put the puree back into the sauce and mix it around.

Pour off some of the liquid into a bowl. Add about a cup and a half of sugar to the hot liquid to dissolve the sugar. Then add the lemon juice and create a sweet-and-sour sauce. Pour this back into the pan and stir around. Taste and correct with more sugar or more lemon juice until flavors are balanced sweet and sour but not bland. Spoon the juice over the cabbage so it absorbs the flavors. Let it cook for up to another half hour. It can be served at this point but the flavors are best when this is made a day ahead. It can easily be frozen.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

An Early Spring?

There were some marvelous surprises at the Little Italy Mercato on Saturday that I wanted to share.

First, huge, red, sweet strawberries from Kawano Farms in Oceanside! I bought a basket and they are ripe and juicy, thanks to our recent heatwave. Tonight, I'll be slicing up what I haven't already noshed on with blueberries and blackberries to enjoy with a slice of lemon cake I made yesterday.

A lovely selection of mushrooms from Mountain Meadow Farm in Escondido, being sold by Kawano Farms, also caught my eye -- particularly the ethereal looking oysters.

They also carry crimini, white and shitakes.

A vendor I hadn't seen at the market before was drawing crowds to her homemade pasta and sauces. Jordan Stone's Delaney Culinary Fresh makes linguini and spaghetti in a variety of flavors, spinach parmesan cannelloni and wild mushroom and homemade pillows of ricotta ravioli. I bought a package of the garlic linguini and the ravioli. All I did to the latter was drizzle citrus olive oil and sprinkle grated parmesan cheese over it. The dough is soft and with a little chew to it. The wild mushroom stuffing is subtle.

The sauces and pestos, the flavored butters and tapenades are all freshly made and their flavors are impressive. I tried an artichoke cream sauce, the marinara and a red pepper sauce before settling on a garlic pesto. My plan tonight is to create a pasta sauce with tomatoes, eggplant and the garlic pesto to put on the garlic linguini.

And, finally, I also finally stopped by Joes on the Nose -- the big orange coffee truck in the middle of the market -- and bought a small decaf mocha. Not only is the organic coffee delicious, but that little squirt of coconut infused whipped cream? Really good. Plus, Joe -- actually David -- is a dog lover and had treats and water for the shopping dogs in the crowd. My Rhodesian Ridgeback, Ketzel, was thrilled.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

San Diego Gourmet Finds Comfort Food in La Jolla

In case you missed the announcement, The Gourmet Club is now San Diego Gourmet. And we're going podcast only. But this week we air live one last time and our guest is Ryan Johnston, executive chef and partner with Arturo Kassel at neighborhood restaurant Whisknladle.

Whisknladle, at 1044 Wall St. in La Jolla, is about to celebrate its first anniversary. It's all about comfort food. But, not your mom's version of comfort food. This is seasonal fare, made from local organic ingredients. Chef Johnston also does most all dishes from scratch -- baking, churning, smoking, aging, curing and pickling. You'll find in-house cured and aged meats, churned ice cream, homemade pasta and even freshly made pickles.

You can enjoy a traditional main entree or enjoy a variety of small plates off a menu that can include seared scallops topping a fennel risotto, a platter of house-cured meats and artisan cheeses -- and those yummy pickles -- brick Jidori chicken on creamy mashed potatoes and a Moroccan vegetable stew.

We'll talk with the CIA-trained Chef Johnston about his approach to food and learn what his influences have been. Perhaps we'll even get some tips home cooks can use.

Tune in this week to San Diego Gourmet on Wednesday at 11 a.m. for our live conversation. Or go to and download the show to listen at your convenience.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Resolved: Enjoy Great Food

I'll be making my monthly appearance on KPBS radio's These Days tomorrow morning at 10, this time with my friend chef Deborah Schneider. We'll be talking about healthy eating and cooking, something she knows a lot about, especially with the publication of her latest book, Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta.

No, this isn't going to be about dieting. Nor is it going to be about denying yourself great tasting foods. If anything, it's going to be about embracing them and figuring out how to keep them foremost in your life, even when greasy fast food beckons. Every year at this time, we hear the same old, same old about eating right and exercising, but it's so easy to get sidetracked with all the demands on our busy lives. We often don't stop to actually taste let alone savor what goes in our mouths and end up eating stuff we don't even much enjoy. We're just refueling. But those of us who love good food know that refueling is a mere byproduct of the joy of eating and cooking. It's about celebrating the remarkable foods grown and raised in our region and the ability to turn them into breathtakingly tasty meals.

And, it's often less expensive to do than you'd think. By eating seasonally, for instance, you get the benefits of bounty. Right now we've got lovely root vegetables, greens, citrus and squash at the farmers markets in San Diego. By eating inexpensive grains and legumes, you get a wealth of fiber, a lot of flavor and only the smallest dent in your wallet. Plus, they're so versatile you can create a wide variety of meals using the same basic ingredient. Barley is perfect in a hearty soup but also makes a delicious risotto. Add garbanzo beans to a salad for lunch or puree them with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt to make a bright tasting dip.

Yes, when it comes to something like grass-fed beef, you're going to pay more per pound but try using it as a flavor enhancer in a stir fry or just serve a smaller portion with your meal, balanced with more vegetables and grains. You'll be eating a protein that is better for you than conventionally raised beef and enjoying portions also more in keeping with better health.

Where to start? Let's look at places to shop:

Farmers markets top the list, of course. You can find a schedule for all of San Diego's farmers markets on the San Diego Farm Bureau's web site.

For good, inexpensive produce, check out the Farmers Market/Farmers Outlet shops in San Diego. The two I know are in Tierrasanta on Santo Road and in Grantville just off of Friars Road near Mission Gorge. They also carry organic packaged products from companies like Bob's Red Mill and Newman's Own. And, they stock a wonderful variety of ethnic foods, including Middle Eastern and Hispanic products.

I enjoy shopping at both Whole Foods and Bristol Farms, but it can get pricey. So I often go to Henry's to find wonderful produce, both conventionally grown and organic, a wide variety of specialty "health" foods -- flax seeds and agave syrup, for instance -- and bins of grains, nuts and flours. You'll do just as well at OB People's Market, Jimbos and, of course, Trader Joe's.

For fish and seafood I like to make sure what I'm buying is absolutely fresh and locally caught if possible. So, I go to either Catalina Offshore Products near Morena Blvd. or Pt. Loma Seafoods on Emerson off of Rosecrans. I buy free-range, organic, air-chilled chicken at Whole Foods or Bristol Farms. I get grass-fed beef at Whole Foods, Boney's Bayside Market in Coronado or the La Jolla Butcher Shop. I'm also a sucker for Iowa Meat Farms' Baja chicks. I don't know what they put in their marinade but it makes for tender, savory roasted chicken. And their Berkshire pork is astoundingly juicy, tender and flavorful -- nothing at all like conventionally raised pork.

How about getting out of your comfort zone and exploring ethnic markets? Just when you start getting tired of brocolli, how about going to 99 Ranch Market on Clairemont-Mesa Blvd. and trying Chinese brocolli. It's delicious steamed, then stir-fried with garlic and ginger and topped with oyster sauce. Or fresh water chestnuts (you'll never go back to canned again). Or Asian pears or persimmons. Or three different types of baby bok choy. Not sure what you're looking at or how to cook what you see? If a store employee isn't available, be bold and ask the customer next to you. You'd be surprised at how kind people are and flattered to be asked.

Among my favorite Asian markets are 99 Ranch, the newly renovated Mitsuwa on Mercury, Nijiya (with organic produce from its own farm) on Convoy near Aero Dr., Zion and First Korean Market.

There are plenty of wonderful items at our many Middle Eastern markets. At Balboa International Market on Balboa near Genesee I recently found beautiful Persian cucumbers, enormous pomegranates, roasted pistachios and a lot of interesting spices. Also worth visiting are Parsian on Convoy and North Park Produce in North Park and in Poway. They have my favorite short grain white rice. It's not labeled but you'll find it in a bin. It makes very tender, sweet rice, and is especially good when you add just a little freshly chopped dill.

I love our local Hispanic markets. Northgate Gonzalez, just off the 805 at 43rd St., has a remarkable produce section, where I've found fresh green garbanzos, magnificent peppers and lovely nopales.

They also have a wonderful array of ceviches -- shrimp, octopus, fish, spicy, mild. Whatever your tastebuds find pleasure in, they have it, already prepared and delicious. They, along with El Tigre and Foodland, have large meat and seafood sections and their own tortillerias.

All of these places help you do another thing well to make cooking at home easier -- creating a well-stocked pantry (and by pantry I also mean refrigerator and freezer). Here's just some of what you'll find in mine in no particular order:

Olive oils, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil

Variety of vinegars

Capers packed in salt

Dried fruit

Sea salt, whole peppercorns


Tube of tomato paste

Bags of lentils, rice, wheat berries, pearl barley, quinoa, etc.

Pasta, including whole wheat pasta

Walnuts, pine nuts

Cans of good crushed tomatoes – low sodium

Dijon mustard

Variety of spices

Oatmeal and high-fiber cereal


Fish sauce


Jars of homemade herb rubs

Flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds

Unbleached flour, wheat flour, rye flour

Sugar but also agave syrup

Real maple syrup

A piece of parmesan cheese

Homemade stock in freezer and containers of store-bought in pantry

Cans of beans – Great Northern, black, garbanzo, Cannellini

Dark chocolate

Plus, I always have heads of garlic, shallots, onions and lemons in my kitchen. And, I grow a variety of herbs in my garden just outside my kitchen. Rosemary, chives, thyme, oregano and Italian flat leaf parsley are always available and in the summer I grow different varieties of basil as well as cilantro. In short, I always have the makings of a meal.

Good ingredients easily on hand make it much more likely that you'll make good meals for yourself and your family. You might even try your hand at something very fundamental: baking bread. I've become a fan of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.

Yes, these recipes are good and the working time involved is minimal -- just a few minutes to mix the dough and another few to shape the loaf. And, yes, there's some rising time after you first make up a batch of dough, before you put it in the oven and while it bakes, but you can do other things in that time. I have been making their basic boule for months now, always keeping a container of dough in my refrigerator to make a loaf on the fly.

Today I made two loaves of their whole wheat bread. The flavor is rich and nutty with a hint of sweetness from honey.

Of course, we all enjoy dining out. With chefs so eager to incorporate and even feature farm-fresh produce, sustainably fished seafood, and the meat of pastured animals on their menus, it's not difficult to order healthy delicious food at most of the fine dining restaurants in town. But we also have a growing number of restaurants that specialize in healthy meals. And they're good, not like the "natural foods" places I used to try back in the 70s and 80s which had strangely plastic-tasting dishes that I found so off-putting. The farm-to-table movement has led to fresh, authentic approaches to cooking with the result that the food is good for you and also really delicious. I had a marvelous grilled ahi salad last week at Tender Greens in Liberty Station, along with a thick, comforting bowl of tomato soup.

Salad Style in downtown's East Village is becoming a popular place that friends of mine have enjoyed. We also have Spread in North Park -- admittedly not a favorite of mine but a favorite of many others. And there are a number of "fast food" places where you can get healthy dishes. La Salsa, Fins and Baja Fresh come to mind -- and that's just Mexican food.

Still looking for good vegetarian or vegan restaurants? You'll find many more options here.

Deb and I will discuss all these ideas and more. But the bottom line? Eating and cooking healthy food is not a sacrifice, it's a pleasure.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Gourmet Club Loves a Good Deal

Nothing beats a good deal and coming up next week is one of the best for San Diego food lovers: Restaurant Week. From Jan. 11 to 16, over 150 local restaurants will be offering three-course meals for $20, $30 and $40 per person, depending, of course, on the restaurant. This is the time to scope out great restaurants you've only heard about or visit your favorites.

Calling in to talk about this winter's Restaurant Week is Ingrid Croce, owner of Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar, along with Croce's Top Hat Bar & Grille, Ingrid's Cantina and Upstairs at Croce's. You can thank her for launching Restaurant Week back in 2004. We'll talk about the variety of great places participating in the event and what you can enjoy that week at Croce's Restaurant and Jazz Bar.

Maureen is still enjoying her holiday vacation, so Robert and I will compare notes on great holiday meals we enjoyed and what we're looking forward to trying out with the new year.

And, big news: The Gourmet Club is now San Diego Gourmet and podcast only so listen at your convenience below:

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Food and Respecting the Body

I'm sure I'm not the only one who keeps getting questioned about New Year's resolutions. I hate them, to be honest, so I like the response Will Shortz gave Liane Hanson this morning on NPR's Morning Edition Sunday. He doesn't do them because he can improve himself year round.

But, of course, after weeks of indulging over the holidays it's time to recalibrate the eating impulses, get back to exercising and create a little more balance between the two. As a friend of mine said to me at lunch last week, she's not interested in dieting but in respecting her body. I love that approach. And, actually, throughout these weeks I tried to create some healthful meals to keep me from going completely over the edge and I also sought some ways to insert some extra nutrients into dishes I already enjoy.

One of the easiest ways to do this in cold weather is through soups. The tendency, of course, is to go for hearty, heavy, meaty soups, but one of my favorites, along with roasted squash soup, is red pepper soup. The recipe is something I rediscovered in a book I've had for about 25 years, "Martha Stewart's Quick Cook." The book dates back to before Martha Stewart was an empire and household name. But, it holds up and the soup is one I used to make with friends I cooked with in L.A. It's creamy but there's no cream involved; in fact, this is a very healthy soup but packed with flavor. And very easy to make. It actually was the perfect solution for me to make use of the half dozen gorgeous red, orange and yellow peppers my mom gave me after a trip to Costco.

The recipe calls for butter but you can easily skip that and just add more olive oil. I, of course, also add several more cloves of garlic. I also skipped step 4 and simply used a jar of roasted red peppers I had bought at Trader Joe's.

Red Pepper Soup
from Martha Stewart's Quick Cook

Serves 4 to 6

8 red peppers
3 carrots, peeled
3 shallots, peeled
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 pear, peeled and quartered
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 quart chicken stock
1 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Sprigs of fresh tarragon to taste

1. Slice thinly 6 of the peppers, the carrots, shallots, garlic, and pear.
2. Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet and saute the sliced vegetables and pear over medium-low heat until tender, 8 to 10 minutes.

3. Add the stock, dried red pepper, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes.

4. While the soup is cooking, roast the remaining red peppers directly on the gas flame (or under a hot broiler), rotating them with tongs until completely charred. Put them in a paper bag for 5 minutes to sweat. Wash off the blackened skin under cold running water and remove seeds. Drain on paper towels.
5. Puree the soup in a food processor or blender, adding one of the roasted red peppers. Pour the pureed soup back into the pan and reheat over low flame. (Note, I used my KitchenAid immersion blender instead, directly in the pot of soup. No muss; no fuss.)
6. Julienne the remaining red pepper into fine strips and add them to the soup. Garnish with tarragon and serve with French bread. (Note: As you can see, I left out the tarragon, opting instead for a dollop of low-fat soup cream.)

I'm also incorporating some interesting products into my dishes that give an extra punch of nutrition.

Bob's Red Mill has several interesting products. For awhile now I've been adding their flaxseed to cereal, soups, stews, salads and bread. They're a great source of protein, fiber and minerals like magnesium and copper. They have a new product, hulled hemp seed, which looks similar to sesame seeds, has no discernable flavor and yet apparently contains all 20 known amino acids, is high in protein and contains Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids.

I've been adding it to oatmeal, yogurt and tossing it on salads. Bob's Red Mill also introduced a hemp protein powder, but I haven't tried that yet since it's been too chilly for me to enjoy smoothies or shakes.

To add flavor to dishes without much fat, I've long been enjoying Majestic Garlic's line of spreads. I've written about them before, but it's a favorite of mine that you can find at various local farmers markets.

It's great in baked potatoes, with a vegetable saute, tossed with pasta, spread on toasted bread (and eaten with the red pepper soup above), even incorporated with scrambled eggs. In short, it's very versatile and delicious.

As I think about it, I'll add more suggestions, including interesting things I find at the markets that you might not have considered. The idea, of course, is not to diet but to enjoy really good food that's also good for you.

Happy New Year!

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