Monday, June 29, 2009

2009 Beer & Sake Festival

Last week I attended the 2009 Beer & Sake Festival in Del Mar. The event is hosted by the Japan Society of San Diego and Tijuana, and benefits the Japan Society of San Diego and Tijuana's education programs. As you can imagine, there were plenty of opportunities to sample imported Japanese beers and sakes, local microbrews and domestic sakes. There was, of course, also a feast of sushi and other Japanese-style food to try from restaurants on both sides of the border, including Japengo, Zenbu, Sea Rocket Bistro, Negai and The Oceanaire, The Local, Sea Rocket Bistro, and Harrah's Resort Restaurants.

I did discover a couple of interesting sakes, both of them are the marvelous milky unfiltered or partially filtered sakes. Senkin Nigori comes from Japan's Tochigi prefecture. It's got a creamy consistency and is rather sour -- in a good way. The gentleman serving it said that locally we can find it at Ichiro Restaurant on Convoy.

The other sake I really enjoyed was Sake One's Nigori Genshu. These sakes are made in Oregon. The Nigori Genshu is partially filtered, and while the texture is coarser and heavier than the Senkin, it's far sweeter. It's also 19.9 percent alcohol compared with the Senkin's 15 percent, so it packs more of a wallop. You can find this at BevMo and Holiday Wine Cellar in Escondido.

Okay, on to the sushi competition. Formally, this is the SushiMasters California Regional Competition. The winner at this competition goes on to compete for the SushiMasters title in Los Angeles in September. The sushi chefs who participated were Atsushi Okawara, Sanraku Four Seasons San Francisco; Tomohiko Nakamura, Takami Sushi & Robata, Los Angeles; Hyun Min Suh, Sushi Ran, Sausalito; Katsuhiro Tamashiro, Toshi Sushi, Los Angeles; and Akifusa Tonai, Kyo-ya, San Francisco.And, there was a bonus competitor, Bob Blumer, host of the Food Network's "Glutton for Punishment."

Sam, the Cooking Guy, Zien clearly had a wonderful time emceeing the event. But, I was jealous of these folks:
Brian Malarkey, Executive Chef of The Oceanaire Seafood Room; Takuya Matsuda, Executive Chef of San Diego’s Sushi Bar Nippon and winner of 2008 SushiMasters Los Angeles Regional Competition, and Peter Rowe of the San Diego Union-Tribune. They were the judges and they got to sample the sushi dishes created by these masters.

I put together a slide show of the chefs as they were working, along with the final products. Take a look here to see the magnificent creations as these masters did their magic. The winner was Sushi Ran's Hyun Min Suh, who created two stunning plates, the towering Secret Garden Roll with lovely little micro flowers on each corner of the plate and the stunning plate with little jars topped with sushi.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Top Less (in Calories)

If you live in San Diego and are planning a trip to Costco, check out their latest product offering, VitaTops. These two-ounce, 100-calorie "muffin tops" have 6 grams of fiber and only 1.5 grams of fat. I think they're also only one Weight Watchers point. Plus, they have no cholesterol and no preservatives (meaning you'll want to store them in the freezer, defrost, and heat them up in the toaster to bring out their flavor).

But how do they taste? I tried the deep chocolate flavor (they have 15 altogether) and was impressed. Is it like getting your favorite muffin or cupcake from the bakery? No. But I still liked the texture -- perfect when you're watching calories but craving that unique sensation of biting into a piece of cake -- and the flavor was rich and intensely chocolate. Really, it's not a bad alternative to eating rich, fattening baked goods.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hey Guys, So How is Everything? Dealing with a Bad Restaurant Meal

I am just back from one of the worst meals, in fact, worst restaurant experiences I've had in years. It's a new place called Country Kabob #2 in Pt. Loma. My parents had read Caroline Dipping's review of it in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Thursday and wanted to try it. I read it as well, and it sounded pretty good so we went there for a Father's Day lunch.

Briefly, the avgolemono soup was so sour my mom's mouth literally puckered after she took a sip. Her chicken kabob was so undercooked -- raw, really -- she had to send it back. I ordered the spanikopita after reading Caroline's take on it. Her one criticism was that the phyllo topping needed to be "a tad more flaky." I thought I'd see if the chef had paid attention. The phyllo was soggy. I sent it back and the server returned it upside down. It was a mess. The topping -- now the bottom -- was still soggy and the filling was dreadful -- the nutmeg overwhelmed everything and the texture was gummy and chewy. I even had to spit out an olive from the accompanying Greek salad because it was too bitter to eat. And, they have a thing about limes -- on the salad, in the iced tea and the water glasses. Fortunately, it being Father's Day, my dad was happy with his lamb kebab plate.

OK. Things happen and not everyplace you dine is going to live up to expectations. But I didn't expect the server to tell the chef I didn't like the meal and that the chef -- it turns out, chef/owner -- would come flying out to confront me. (By the way, he didn't know me or that I am a food writer; I was simply a paying customer.)

He asked why I didn't like his spanikopita and when I started to explain about the phyllo and the nutmeg, he yelled at me that he had been a chef for 26 years and that no one had ever complained about his cooking and what did I know. I told him I didn't want to argue, but he kept at it; my mom's word for him is "aggressive." What was wrong with the chicken kabob? What was wrong with the soup? Then said he wanted to make us something to take home for dinner. Obviously, his pride was hurt and he wanted to show us how good his food is. He wasn't going to let us leave without something so my folks settled on two Greek salads. The server brought out the two salads to go and the owner came out again, and pulled the top salad out of the plastic bag. He wanted us to admire how beautiful it was. And, yes, he charged us for the meals. (My mom just called to say that it turns out instead of providing them with the dressing on the side to be tossed together later, he mixed the salads with the dressing, which leaked on the way home; by dinner the salads will be limp and soggy.)

Okay, enough of that place. We've all had bad experiences. My question to you is do you take it on the chin (and in the wallet) or do you speak up? What do you do when you are served lousy food? How do you answer your server when she says, "Hey guys, so how is everything?" (We won't even go into the fact that I'm not a guy and this bugs me no end...) Do you ask for another dish? Do you just say everything's fine? If you do complain (politely, I hope), how do you want the staff to deal with it? Should an undercooked dish be returned to the kitchen for more cooking and brought back to you? Do you want to order something different? Will a free glass of wine or a free dessert do it for you? A free meal? A gift certificate to dine there again? What are your expectations? And what have been your experiences when you've complained?

If someone is going to charge you for a meal, you should get your money's worth. This is true in good economic times and times like today, when for many of us, dining out is a splurge and we feel it in the bank account. So, when you have an unsatisfactory experience, I'd like to know how you handle it. Think of this as an opportunity to enlighten restaurant owners and assist fellow diners when they go out to eat. And, even vent a little!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dishing About Dad

One of my earliest memories—maybe the earliest—is a weekend morning in the kitchen with my dad, making breakfast. I couldn’t have been more than three years old. He wanted to teach me how to make scrambled eggs but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the stove, so he picked me up and securely held me over the skillet, instructing me how to slide the spatula under the eggs and push them over to gently form the curds.

My dad, Mort, has always cooked. He's always loved being in the kitchen. And, why not? My Grandma Anna was a marvelous cook and taught him well. From the time he was a child, he would make dinner for himself and his younger brother, my Uncle Dave, if my grandparents were going out for the evening. But just as important, he grew up as the oldest grandchild of Henry Denmark, owner of The Park Manor, “the” kosher catering hall in Brooklyn, back in the late 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. This was the hot spot for Jewish boys in New York City to be bar mitzvah and Jewish couples to be married. In fact, we have pictures of its gorgeous marble staircase, with my grandparents posed in all their wedding finery.

It was an elegant place, but my dad’s favorite spot to hang out as a child was the kitchen, where he would surreptitiously snare a new, green pickle or two from a nearby barrel or learn how to make appetizers from Rosie, one of the ladies who worked in the kitchen. He obviously learned a lot. When I was growing up and my folks were entertaining regularly, usually it was my dad who made the hors d’oeuvres.

Here’s his memory of this: “One of the hors d'oeuvres that I loved consisted of a rectangular piece of crustless white bread on which was spread a mixture of skinless and boneless sardines, mashed with lemon and mayo. Then cuts of the white of a hard boiled egg were placed on the sardine mixture with a garnish of pimento and green olive. To this day I still love skinless and boneless sardines served this way.”

Growing up, I found Dad to have a great way in the kitchen. You could—and can—rely on him to make a delicious sautéed rainbow trout, linguine with white clam sauce, or steamed mussels and clams. When it comes to seafood, his gurus are Jacques Pepin and Legal Seafood in Boston But he doesn’t need fine ingredients. On Saturday afternoons after religious school, Dad often made us lunch. It could be thin jelly omelets; grilled bratwurst smothered in mustard, chopped onions and sauerkraut; or gooey cheese rarebit from pieces of cheese that let’s just say had passed their prime. “Just cut off the bad stuff,” he’d say. “It’s fine.” And, it was. His lunches always have been utterly delicious.

Back in the ‘70s, our friend Tom van Leeuwen, who lives in Amsterdam, taught Dad to make Dutch pancakes—what we call “Tom-Aches”—and the recipe (see below) remains simply a list of unmeasured ingredients with my dad magically turning them into thin crepes onto which we spread melted butter, squeeze lemon juice and then sprinkle with powder sugar.

Dad’s our grill guy, although I wouldn’t say that’s his specialty. His specialty was and remains to introduce us—first his kids and then his grandkids—to wonderful food, whether it was a Japanese tempura bar in L.A.’s Little Tokyo in the ‘60s (long before sushi appeared in the U.S.), roasted street chestnuts in Manhattan in the ‘70s or dim sum in the ‘90s through today. I continue to mash canned red salmon with white vinegar and chopped onions, and mound it on a toasted bagel in a summer heat wave; it’s a reliable meal that’s a relief from cooking in a hot kitchen and has the added benefit of taking me back to my childhood. Our first house had no air conditioning, so he would whip that up for us when he got home from work, along with a big pitcher of the best egg cream in the world, using Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, of course. Thanks to him, my nieces and nephews know from egg creams, and still adore his grilled cheese sandwiches, or “toasties,” and “eggie on toast.” And, of course, whenever I scramble eggs, he’s giving me directions in my head.

I’m not the only daughter with great memories of their dad in the kitchen. Here are some others:

From San Diego chef Diane Stopford: My Dad is probably the single biggest culinary influence in my life. If it wasn't for my Dad's love of food, cooking and travel I probably would never of pursued a career in food and moved across to the U.S.

Some of my earliest memories of cooking in the kitchen involved baking on Sunday afternoons. Rhubarb crumble, apple sponge, scones, chocolate cake and of course Yorkshire puddings for the Sunday roast, these are some of the first recipes I remember making . I was given free range of the kitchen but needed help reading the weighing scales (we don't use measuring cups in Ireland) so my Dad would take a magic marker and mark off 2,4 and 8 oz on the scales so I could weigh out the ingredients without constantly interrupting him reading the Sunday papers.

Diane's dad, Peter Stopford, with a roast leg of lamb

As a teenager while my siblings and peers were competing on the sports field, I was competing in cooking competitions. My parents were extremely supportive of me entering these events, constantly buying the ingredients and equipment for me to practice. It was always my Dad who took the time off work and accompanied me to the competitions, helped me set up, smiled, gave me the thumbs up and and when it was all over did the most important job, the washing up!

From Sandi Timberlake, owner of A Little to the Left greeting cards: My dad was not really much of a cook. He worked 2 and 3 jobs at a time to support the family. But he did a few things that I will always remember.

First, he always had one glass of chianti with dinner—no matter what we had for dinner. Second, whenever we had steak for dinner, he had a habit of taking a piece of fresh Italian bread (the likes of which I have never found in any other place in the world except for the town where I grew up) and tossing it into the "juice" of the steak on the platter and saying "Ooops!" as if it were an accident that the bread "fell" into it. Third, in the summer, he would sometimes cut up a peach into chunks and immerse them into a glass of Tawny Port—dessert!
Or—he would manually crack ice and put it into a short glass and pour Crème de menthe over it, sipping it slowly to "settle his stomach."

It makes him sound like a real drinker, but really, he wasn't. What you see above was the sum total of his drinking habits. He was a great guy, a hard worker, a wonderful father and a real saint. I miss him still.

From Leslie Wolf Branscomb, editor of San Diego Uptown News: My dad made a classic BBQ sauce we use to this day. (Secret ingredient: Grand Marnier) However, now that Dad's gone, we've recently come to debate the name and source of the sauce recipe, and whether Dad actually made it or Mom did. Brings back memories of the backyard barbecues, which, in our household of lawyers and journalists, always included a cheerfully robust, wine-fueled debate or two.

Leslie's dad, Bob Wolf, taking on the Thanksgiving turkey

From Debbie Petruzzelli, media relations for Balboa Park: Saturday lunch dad would throw every leftover in fridge in blender & make burrito filling. UGLY but tasty!

And, finally, from one of my favorite people, my 13-year-old niece Samantha Golden: It is amazing how people stereotype men and women. They say that the woman spends her time in the kitchen while the man is making the money and working hard. In this century stereotypes are being proved wrong; women go to work and men cook. I absolutely know that my dad is a better cook than my mom is. That being said, I know everyone says my dad makes the best ribs (at least in our city). Unfortunately, being a teenager restricts the areas where I am allowed, such as the grill, so that has inhibited my rib-cooking skills. On the other hand, he has taught me how to make a recipe that has been passed from generation to generation… egg on toast. Although I know how to make it I prefer making instant rice. I suggest to everyone out there to learn how to cook from their fathers.

Samantha and her dad (and my brother), Jay Golden

You heard her, learn to cook from your father! Dads, teach your kids one of the best life skills they can possibly have.

And, to my dad and to all the dads, stepdads and granddads out there who are so adored by their kids, thank you for all you do to show us how much you love us!

Happy Father’s Day!



Eggs (1 per person)

Mix flour and eggs in large bowl. Smooth with water and milk, plus a little beer. The batter should be as thin as light soup. Let sit for awhile. Add salt and more beer.

Heat frying pan. When it's hot, add butter to melt. Then ladle the very thin mixture into the pan as you would a crepe. It just just cover the bottom of the pan. Tilt the pan around as it cooks, to spread the uncooked batter so it will cook evenly. If bubbles appear, brush them with melted butter.

Serve with melted butter, lemon juice and powder sugar.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Weird and Wonderful: Three Spring Treats

I always like a good surprise and this past weekend I found three in the form of produce. Two of them you may have heard of or even tried. I'm pretty sure that the third is something completely new to anyone but the growers and sellers and a few chefs in the area.

First up is a rare treat if you're a garlic lover: garlic scapes. These thick, curly cues of deliciousness are hard to find in San Diego. Last year I found them at First Korean Market on Convoy near Jasmine in Kearny Mesa. They were there just a brief time in the spring and that was it. On Sunday I found them at the Hillcrest farmers market at Sage Mountain Farm's stand and immediately snatched up a bunch, along with some first-of-the-season heirloom tomatoes, elephant garlic and a bunch of lovely multi-colored carrots.

Garlic scapes are the flower stalks that grow out of the garlic bulb. As they grow they begin to curl, and ultimately develop a little bud. They have just a brief season so get them while you can.

Some say they are milder than garlic bulbs, but they can be pretty potent while raw. Once cooked, however -- at least in my experience -- they lose a lot of that garlic flavor. So, my favorite way to use them is to make pesto. Simply chop them into smallish pieces and drop in the food processor. Add grated parmesan cheese, toasted pine or walnuts, salt and pepper and slowly drizzle in really good extra virgin olive oil until the mixture becomes creamy. In this batch above, I also added fresh thyme from my garden and about a tablespoon of fresh lemon zest.

The pesto is terrific on baked chicken, fish, grilled beef and pork. Add it to an omelet or roasted vegetables -- especially roasted potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes or summer squash. And, of course, it's a no brainer with pasta. I chopped some heirloom tomatoes and sea beans (see below for the big surprise), and roasted a couple of Japanese eggplants I bought at the City Heights farmers market.

The result was a wonderful vegetarian pasta dish that made two meals. And it was just as good cold as warm.

Okay, I mentioned the sea beans here and on Twitter. They're definitely a curiosity. I learned about them at Specialty Produce with L.A. food writer Erika Kerekes, who was visiting for the day. Specialty's Kelly Orange was showing us around and we walked by a large plastic bag of these greens on a shelf. They look like little twigs, but have a crispy texture and very salty, really briny, flavor straight out of the sea. Sea beans, also known as glasswort, grow wild on beaches and marshes, including estuaries in San Diego.

Part of the charm of these vegetables is their crispiness so I would use them fresh or maybe pickle them. But, certainly, you can saute or steam them or use them however you would any other vegetable. Make a salty pesto with them. Or just use them as a very interesting garnish. I added them to my pasta and looking forward to experimenting with them further.

While I was at Specialty Produce, I noticed they had pink lemons -- something I'd never seen. So I took home several to try. They're a variety unique to the average Eureka lemon. They start out with a very pretty yellow-and-green variegated skin but the flesh inside is pink and so they're often used to make pink lemonade. As the fruit matures, the skin starts to flush, as you can just see in the photo below. This is the result of lycopene, which also colors pink grapefruit.

Use these lemons just as you would a regular Eureka lemon. I thought they were too pretty to just squeeze and toss, so I made another jar of preserved lemons. If you haven't done this yet, give it a try. All you need are lemons, sea salt and a wide-mouth sterile jar.

First, cut the lemons vertically half-way down on one side, then flip the lemon over, do a half turn and make another cut. Then, stuff the inside of the lemon with the salt on each side.

Fill the jar as you stuff each lemon with the salt and press down to release the juice and make room for the next lemons. By the time you fill the jar, you should have no room for more lemons and they should be sitting in juice. If they don't release enough juice, squeeze more lemons and fill the jar with the juice to the top. Then, all you do is secure the lid and let the jar sit on your kitchen counter for a month to six weeks. Periodically turn the jar over and back upright to remix any salt that's settled at the bottom. If the lemons begin to collapse, you can add more split and salted lemons so the jar remains full.

At the end of a month to six weeks, you'll have a wonderful condiment to include in pastas, sauces, salads and sautes. Keep the jar refrigerated and pull out what you need. Trim away the flesh, rinse the peel and chop it. It adds a wonderful salty, sour flavor. But, remember, a little goes a long way for the best effect.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Behind the Scenes with Jsix's Christian Graves

For those of us who love food, there are often secretly harbored dreams of running a restaurant. Well, the reality of it is that running a restaurant is truly only for the bravest, but if you want to have some fun behind the scenes and really understand what it takes to put together a lovely restaurant meal, Jsix restaurant is offering "Chef's Kitchen Experience" with chef Christian Graves.

The program is being held on the second Sunday of every month, starting August 2 (with the exception of December since that's Graves's birthday this year). You'll truly get the farm-to-table experience, from shopping for the meal at the Hillcrest farmers market, to helping Graves prepare hors d'oeuvres for the group and then sitting back and enjoying a chefs table feast.

"We meet here at 10 and travel together to the market," explains Graves. "I'll set up guidelines for shopping that are based on what the plan is for the meal and what's in season. We'll talk to the farmers like Phil Noble of Sage Mountain Farm and learn what to look for in everything from fish to strawberries so we pick the best ingredients and we'll get some insight about how they live their life."

There's a back kitchen at Jsix where the group -- up to a dozen people -- will gather around a large prep table. "Typically the ladies want to get in and have fun cooking and the gentlemen want to kick back and have wine," says Graves, "but everyone's welcome to join in and help cook."

Graves will then assemble the hors d'oervres and bring them out to the dining room where the guests will enjoy the rest of the day with a full chef's table experience. Of course, if the group is into cooking, they can join Graves back in the kitchen.

"For me, it's fun because it brings together everything," says Graves. "I really love cooking. I love food. I love cooking off the cuff. Truly it's farm to table, which I want to promote the most."

So, here are the details:

  • There's transportation to and from the Hillcrest farmers market from Jsix.
  • You'll enjoy a three-course meal featuring ingredients you and Chef Graves select and he (and maybe you) prepare.
  • Wine or cocktails will be paired with each course.
  • The $120 per person cost includes gratuity and complimentary parking at Hotel Solamar, adjacent to Jsix.
For reservations, call the restaurant at 619-532-8744.

Jsix is located at 616 J St. in downtown San Diego.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

June Swoon -- For Food

There's so much wonderful stuff going on this month in San Diego where food is concerned I couldn't resist letting everyone in on some delightful and bound to be delicious events:

Saturday, June 6: Happy Anniversary! Celebrate the first anniversaries of two wonderful farmers markets: Little Italy Mercato on Date St. and the City Heights farmers market on Wightman St.

Sunday, June 7: Cooks Confab hosts "Meat!" This collection of 18 passionate chefs gathers every couple of months to create a theme-based meal at one of the group's restaurants. This month, Jason Knibb of Nine-Ten at the Grand Colonial Hotel in La Jolla takes his turn. He and his buddies will showcase dishes such as:

  • Beef Sliders – Amy Dibiase, Roseville
  • American Artisan Cows’ Milk Cheeses – Brian Sinnott, 1500 Ocean
  • “Stern to Sternum” Antonio Friscia, Stingaree with Andrew Spurgin and Donald Coffman, Waters Fine Catering
  • Tongue ‘n’ Cheek – T.K. Kolanko, A. R. Valentien with Katie Grebow, Café Chloe
  • Beef Tataki – Nathan Coulon, Quarter Kitchen
  • “Steak & Eggs” – Paul McCabe, Kitchen 1540
  • English Roast – Jason Knibb, NINE-TEN
  • Braised Short Ribs – Olivier Bioteau, Farm House Café
  • Sweetbreads’ “Cinnamon Roll” – Christian Graves, Jsix
The $90 ticket per person includes wine, tax and gratuity, and $5 from each ticket goes to Slow Food Urban San Diego. There's also $2 valet parking available. The event is from 3 to 6 p.m. Make your reservations by calling 858-964-5400.

Wednesday, June 10: Wines for Summertime at The Grand Del Mar's Resort Kitchen. I love wine director Jesse Rodriguez's accessible approach to exploring wine. You'll try the best but if you're new to learning about wines you won't find it at all intimidating. In this session, he'll focus on light, elegant wines with low to medium alcoholic content. Think German Riesling, Austrian Gruner Veltliner, domestic Sauvignon Blanc and domestic Pinot Noir. Amaya's chef Camron Woods will suggest food pairings with these refreshing wines. $75 per person. For more information, call 858-314-2000.

Sunday, June 14: The 26th annual Wine & Roses Charity Wine Tasting and Sale. This is my San Diego Gourmet colleague Robert Whitley's big event, held at the very elegant Westgate Hotel in downtown San Diego from 3 to 6:30. Enjoy gourmet food and wine, live music, a silent auction and drawings for roses and cases of wine. Add to that, the ability to buy cases of award-winning wine at a discount. The wine sale features wines that won gold and silver medals at the 2009 San Diego International Wine Competition. Admission is $65 in advance, $75 at the door. You can also attend "Tasting on the Terrace," a special event on Sat., June 13 from 5 to 7 p.m., which features boutique Sonoma wineries. Robert will host this event. Tickets are $30 per person. For more information about both events, call 619-583-9463 or go to the website. The Westgate Hotel is located at 1055 Second Ave. Ticket sales benefit Camp Oliver and the Charities of the Social Serve Auxiliary.

Saturday, June 20: 2nd Annual Father's Dady Chocolate BBQ. I'm not planning on running a long list of Father's Day restaurant specials, but chocolatier Will Gustwiller of Eclipse Chocolat does such unusual chocolate meals I couldn't resist adding this to the list. This year's three-course prix fixe chocolate barbecue features chile-roasted corn on the cobb with cocoa-nib infused butter, a chocolate caramel cheeseburger and for dessert, cherry vanilla bean buckle. Vegetarians need not stay away. He's also serving a gjetost, tomato and tarragon honey mustard panini in lieu of the burger. The dinner is $25. Seatings are at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. To make a reservation, call 619-578-2984 or email

Sunday, June 21: Chile Co's "A Tribal Conquest of Oceanic Fare II." Held at La Jolla's Beach at Torrey Pines, ChileCo's monthly socials are a mix of fine food and food education. This month, veteran fisherman and Slow Food evangelist -- and all around good guy -- Tommy Gomez of Catalina Offshore Products will lead a discussion of sustainable fishing practices and habitat preservation. Then guests will dine Caribbean style on the beach to the beat of drums. The menu includes:
  • Amore de Padre” Bacaloa Mofongo of sorts . . . You’ll see!
  • Catalina Offshore” Uni Risotto with a Smokin Diver Boat Sea Scallop Kabob
  • “Pina my Lada” Pineapple-Power Sour Sorbet
  • “Jerked Up” Fulton Valley Farms Chicken with a Deep Caramel Spiced Rum-Lick the Plate- Your Mamma wishes she Made it–Hell of good Sauce & Sofrito laced La Milpa Organic Collard Greens
  • “Tableside Taco Smores” with Gourmet Chuao Firecracker Chocolate Pods
Tickets are $95 per person. Email or call 1-866-66-CATER to reserve a space.

Sunday, June 28: Stagecoach Day. Show Slow Food Urban San Diego some love and have some fun yourself at their first fundraiser. It's a food-tasting celebration in the Plaza of Old Town State Park from 1 to 5 p.m., featuring a wealth of local restaurants and chefs, farmers, artisan producers, wineries and more. The idea is that you'll get to sample dishes that celebrate the food cultures of early San Diego. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased online.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

San Diego Gourmet Takes it Slow

With both Robert and Maureen traveling, I'm flying solo this week on San Diego Gourmet. So, I did something smart -- I invited my friends Dominick Fiume and Candice Woo of Slow Food Urban San Diego on the show.

We had a great time discussing this relatively new convivium in San Diego, and anyone who is even mildly interested in the Slow Food movement or getting to know people interested in good food, fruitful gardens and home cooking should listen in and then get involved.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Nod to the Nose: Truffle Oil and Herve Mons Cheeses

Lately, my desk has been the collection point for the wrappers and packaging of products that I've been sent and have tasted. Some food writers have a policy against receiving samples, but since I write about markets and a variety of products, I figure samples give me access to potentially wonderful items I'd otherwise not readily encounter. And, if I discover something fabulous, I can pass that along to you. Likewise, I can give you something to think about if I'm not altogether crazy about something I've tried.

I have a thing for olive oil and truffles, so naturally that makes me curious about truffle oil. There's been a lot of debate about the relative merits of truffle oil. Its existence alone makes some chefs cringe. And, well, who wouldn't prefer to have slices of white or black truffles adorning their pasta or scrambled eggs or integrated into sauces. But, the reality for most of us is that truffles are simply out of range for us financially. A good truffle oil -- and by that I mean a high quality olive oil incorporating real truffle pieces -- can add welcome earthy flavors to a dish and is far more affordable. I still remember the first time I enjoyed it --years ago at a restaurant in San Francisco; it was drizzled over very ripe Teleme cheese that drippingly adorned a pizza-like flatbread. I still like to make that combination.

What do you want to avoid when buying truffle oil? Those in which the primary ingredients are concocted in a laboratory using aromatic compounds that may or, more likely, not actually be derived from truffles. Sadly, when it comes to truffle oil, it seems it's all about the aroma and not the complex flavors that distinguish the real thing. A lot of companies have spent a lot of money trying to develop chemical compounds that mimic the scent, leaving consumers spending good money on products that only hint at what can be an extraordinary culinary experience. For an interesting read on this, check out this New York Times article.

So, I'm conflicted about the products I received from Susan Rice Truffle Products and which are sold, among other places, on On the one hand, her Charlie's Truffled Popcorn is absolutely addictive. The three-ounce bag is made with truffle aroma, yes, but also black perigord truffle and summer truffle. I brought a bag with me to share with friends last Saturday for a limoncello-making session and their first reaction was that it had to contain garlic, but there's none there. It's simply a powerful musky flavor, enhanced further by Sicilian truffle salt. This is good enough to serve in a bowl as an appetizer before a dinner party, but so good that you may not be able to hold onto it long enough for a party. I ripped into a bag last night while my dinner was cooking and -- poof -- gone.

The packaging claims that the company grows European black winter truffles on their 200-acre farm near Pinehurst, N.C. And that's fine, although experts inevitably quibble over whether truffles grown in the U.S. are of the same quality as those found in Europe. My question is where do they go?

As in, are they in their truffle oils? If aroma is your basis for making a purchasing decision, have at it with the black truffle oil and the very unusual black winter truffle basil olive oil. But, if you look at the labels, you'll find that the ingredients include only olive oil and "tuber melanosporum" aroma. In other words black truffle aroma. In the case of the black winter truffle basil olive oil, you can also include basil aroma, not basil. Each has at first whiff that expected powerful musky perfume -- even more so the latter with the strong basil competing with the truffle scent. But where does the aroma come from? Certainly, if it were from real truffles, they'd be bragging about it and it would be on the label.

As it is with another brand: da Rosario. This is certified organic extra virgin olive oil that includes next on the label organic black winter truffles, and "100% organic truffles flavored extra virgin olive oil." From reading their literature, my understanding of this rather strange label is that the company's truffles are put into an extractor that pulls out the volatile molecules for infusion into the olive oil and then also adds pieces of freeze-dried truffle pieces to the oil. That gives it a push into at least the realm of real food and, to be honest, the aromas are gentler than the Susan Rice products but it has a nice truffle-like flavor.

Of the other two truffle oil products above, Roland White Truffle Oil, is made with Italian white truffles. Like the da Rosario, you can see small pieces of the truffle at the bottom of the bottle. It, too, is a combination of olive oil, truffle pieces and truffle aroma. A friend gave this bottle to me and I've been enjoying it on pasta, roasted vegetables and sauteed fillets of fish like red snapper and Dover sole. The other bottle -- on the right -- is something I bought at Whole Foods without even glancing at the label. It turns out to have been olive oil and chemicals or -- as it was described in the Times article "something from the truffle that is not the truffle." I ended up tossing it.

The bottom line, I guess, is that you have to decide if you want to enjoy the oils for what they are -- pretty much an artificial enhancer that approximates truffles -- and then find the brand that you think has the best flavor. Remember, a little goes a long way. And, it's best to use these as a finishing oil. It would be nice if the manufacturers would bottle them in dark glass to keep the light from ruining the oils but all of the ones I've tried have clear glass bottles, so keep them stored in a dark, cool place.

As long as we're talking about aromatic products, let's talk cheese. I received two small cheeses from Whole Foods to taste -- a Camembert and a Cazelle de Saint Affrique from Herve Mons. Herve Mons is an "affineur," a cheese ager, and many of the French cheeses imported into the U.S. are aged by Herve Mons; it's worth keeping an eye out for them.

I grew up with pungent -- and I stress pungent -- cheeses. One of my grandfathers was a zealous afficionado of Limburger cheese (he also chain smoked cheap cigars, making me think he had a terrible sense of smell, was out to torture us or simply had a need for strong olefactory stimulation). Camembert was another cheese I remember having at his house and given its strong earthy -- almost truffle-like -- aroma, that, of course makes sense.

With its papery rind and creamy interior, this Norman cows cheese is similar to Brie. Reportedly, during the French revolution a priest hid in the farmhouse of a woman named Marie Harel and taught her how Brie was made. She adapted the recipe and Camembert is the result. You'll always find these small rounds packaged in a thin wooden box that prevents them from getting spoiled during shipping. Camembert is among those foods granted a protected designation of origin as "Camembert de Normandie" and these true Camembert are made with unpasturized milk.

That brings us to the Herve Mons Camembert I sampled. Because it's pasteurized, it can't be identified as "Camembert de Normandie" but it's still a good tasting cheese that I enjoyed both at room temperature with a crusty loaf of bread topped with red onion confit and later incorporated into a very tasty dish of grits. Take a step away from "safe" brie and try this on a cheese plate.

The other cheese I sampled I had been unfamiliar with but enjoyed enormously. Cazelle de Saint Affrique (on the left above) is a sheeps milk cheese from the Midi Pyrenees near Spain. It gets it name -- and its odd stone shape -- from the squat little huts shepherds in Saint Affrique long used to protect themselves from the weather. This same breed of sheep, Lacaune, also produces milk used to make Rocquefort cheese. An artisinal cheese made in small batches, the Cazelle de Saint Affrique has got a firm, creamy texture thanks to the high levels of milk solids and there's a bit of bloom to the nose -- a sheeps milk cheese with attitude. If you're looking for something a little different to serve your friends, I recommend this little odd-looking gem.