Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Got the Blues Because I Got Tagged

There seems to be a blue virus circulating and I have it! Jennifer of Chez LouLou passed it on to me. But, that's okay. It seems utterly benign.

Here's the deal. I must share seven blue things in and around my house, with photos, and then tag seven others to do the same. Of course, competing with provincial France from suburban San Diego hardly seems fair, but I do adore blue. Even at its most vibrant it's a cozy, comfortable color. My garden is filled with blue pots. My home with blue pottery. At my desk now, I'm looking at blue pens and hi-liters, blue notebooks, a small rustic-looking blue bowl holding tiny red hots, and a blue leather box holding my fountain pens. Even Mr. Potato Head has his blue shoes on.

I must start with Lily, my bluepoint snowshoe Siamese. She's my shadow--in the office, in the kitchen, wherever.

Followed by the late, great Moses, my oversized blue tabby.

Sorry, but I don't know his name.

Ah, so who's blues would I like to see? Think I'll tag Alice, Amy (I know this will tick her off just a little but maybe she'll go along with it ;), Sean and DPaul, Helen (I want to see some of her South Carolina), Erika, Judy, and Kalyn (an excuse to see details of the remodel).

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Little Italy Mercato Hosting Slow Food Urban San Diego Event

On Saturday, Oct. 3, the Little Italy Mercato will have more than the usual wonderful fare you find weekly. There will be a special tribute to the Slow Food movement with a food demonstration by Chef Pete Balistreri of Tender Greens and a talk/book signing from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. by Douglas Gayeton, photographer and author of "Slow: A Life in a Tuscan Town."

Chef Balistreri will offer a cooking demonstration from 11 a.m. to noon, incorporating the foods featured in Gayeton's book, using produce, meats, and eggs from Mercato vendors.

Locally owned independent bookseller Mysterious Galaxy Books will have copies of the book for sale at $50 each, which includes tax and a donation to Slow Food Urban San Diego. You can purchase them during the farmers market hours of 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The Little Italy Mercato is located on Date St. at India St.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Lamb Shanks with a Peruvian Touch

What's in your pantry? Mine is stocked with an eclectic array of products from all over the world, thanks to my endless ethnic market hopping. Well, recently I met Chef Ron Oliver of The Marine Room at a little place he knew of in Hillcrest that sells Peruvian foodstuff. I can't call Latin America Travel & Services a market. It isn't. But, the owners, Tomas and Nelly Centurion, have a little area in an ante room where they sell Peruvian food products. I'll write more about this later with some recipes from Chef Ron, but I did pick up some interesting products, including a jar of Panca pepper paste. And, I decided to try it with braised lamb shanks.

Panca pepper paste and Chimayo red chile powder

The panca peppers are a deep red, mild pepper grown in Peru. They have a lovely smoky tone to them, along with a nice fruitiness. Usually they're sold dry or, as what I found, in a paste, and are perfect for dishes like stews and sauces. They go well with fish, but also poultry and meat.

I also added some other unusual ingredients to the dish--cinnamon sticks, Chimayo red chile powder (a favorite smoky chile powder I discovered in Chimayo, New Mexico, near Santa Fe), fresh red chile pimentos I found at Specialty Produce, and artichoke hearts.

Red chile pimentos

These, with more of the usual fare for a braising created a thick, rich complex sauce for the lamb shanks, which did so well in the braising that the meat started falling off the bone.

Someday, we will have cooler weather in San Diego, although it doesn't feel like it right now. But in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy my second helping of the shanks this evening and would recommend it as a dish to make next year for Rosh Hashanah or looking forward, for Chanukah.

Braised Lamb Shanks with Panca Pepper Paste and Artichokes

Serves 4

4 lamb shanks
2 tbl. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 head of garlic, with sliced cloves
4 carrots, sliced
1/2 bottle of full-bodied red wine (I used a Barolo)
1 cans of low-fat, low-sodium chicken stock
2 sticks cinnamon
4 tsp. Chimayo red chili powder
6 tbl. Panca pepper paste
6 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
4 red chile pimentos or 2 red bell peppers, cut into one-inch pieces
12 oz. bag of frozen artichoke hearts, thawed

1. Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees. Sprinkle lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Add olive oil to warmed heavy pot that can go in the oven, then add lamb shanks and brown on all sides.

Browned lamb shanks

Remove and set aside the lamb. Drain the pot of the fat, add a little more olive oil to the pot, and use a spoon to scrape the brown bits. Add the onion, garlic, and carrots. Saute until softened. Add the wine and bring to a simmer until it reduces to one-half the original amount.

2. Add the chicken stock, Chimayo red chili powder, Panca pepper paste, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, and thyme to the pot. Return the lamb to the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, then cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook for 1 1/2 hours, periodically stirring the mixture and turning the shanks.

3. At 1 1/2 hours, add the pimentos and artichoke hearts. Return the covered pot to the oven for another hour. Remove when the lamb is tender. Put on the stove top and tilt the pot to remove any fat that's risen to the top. Bring the lamb shank sauce to a boil, uncovered until the sauce thickens enough to coat a spoon, about 20 minutes. Discard the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and thyme stems.

Serve over rice or noodles or polenta/grits.

Braised lamb shanks and rice

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Change It Up a Little for the High Holidays

We love our traditions, but sometimes it's nice to mix it up a little with new recipes and new approaches to longstanding habits. The Jewish High Holidays -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- begin at the end of the week. Erev Rosh Hashanah starts on Friday at sundown. Kol Nidre starts at sundown on Sept. 27th. These are days marked by the sweetness of a new year--we dip sliced apples into honey--and 24 hours of fasting that help us reflect on our lives and repent for sins we committed in the previous year. Then comes the breaking of the fast with foods that are flavorful yet easy on the stomach. In my home, it was with dairy and pareve dishes like blintzes, herring or other fish, salads, and bagels, lox, and cream cheese.

There are a number of foods that have symbolic meaning this time of year, in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. The apples and honey, of course, but also pomegrantes, which are now coming into season. One of the reasons pomegranates are considered special is that they're said to contain 613 seeds, which is the same as the number of commandments, or mitzvot, in the Bible. And, with such a large number of seeds, there is, of course, that connection to fertility.

I recently learned fish heads are a traditional Rosh Hashanah food. We never had them in my home growing up, but they represent the "head" of the New Year and, again, abundance and fertility. As in being as abundant as the fish in the sea...

The round challah, a beautiful bread, departs from the traditional braided version eaten on Shabbat, and represents the circle of life and continuity of the Jewish year. Do you add raisins to your bread? Well, that just makes the challah--and life--extra sweet.

If you're looking for symbolic protection of the Jewish people from enemies, you can look to foods like leeks, beets, and dates that serve that function during Rosh Hashanah.

And, more common among Middle Eastern Jews, is the consumption of the herb fenugreek. That's because the Hebrew word for fenugreek has a similar sound to the Hebrew word for "increase." According to, when eating fenugreek, a special prayer is recited to ask God to increase our merits.

I don't know about you, but between my stalwart Jewish cookbooks and my family recipes, I could work with my mom to make a holiday meal without thinking too much about it. But since these holidays are about reflection, maybe it would be a good idea to also give some thought to the dishes we prepare for our famlies and friends. A new recipe requires a bit of concentration and openness to how others feed their souls.

In that spirit, I thought I'd share a collection of interesting blogs and sites that might inspire you to break out of old, familiar habits and explore something a little different. And, if you have some new resources for holiday recipes, I hope you'll share them here in the comments section.

L' shanah Tovah!

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

L'shanah Tovah, San Diego, From Ralphs La Jolla

For most of my life I lived in Los Angeles and New York, two cities where being Jewish meant that during the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) schools were closed or attendance was negligible, nobody asked if the "chai" pendant around your neck was your dog (it's a Hebrew letter meaning "life"), and nobody expected a deli to carry cinnamon raisin or jalapeno cheese bagels. In other words, being Jewish was not an anomaly but pretty mainstream. As a Jewish American who has lived in San Diego for 20 years, I still miss that feeling of belonging, of taking for granted that the people around me understand my Yinglish slang, are familiar with the food I grew up with, and would never ever schedule important events on the holiest of Jewish holidays.

But, this is San Diego and even with a population of almost 90,000 Jews in the county, our cultural impact on the region has remained, well, limited. And, that includes, food. Einstein Bagels, which took over the marvelous Baltimore Bagels years ago, decided to eschew the most important step in bagel making: boiling the dough before baking, which gives it a shiny coat and a firm crust with a chewy interior. So, now they sell a round baked roll with a hole in it. It's certainly not a bagel. And, while I'm on a rant, is there a local deli that sells hand-sliced smoked salmon or Nova? Can you find a good Jewish corn rye? And, for those Jews who keep kosher, is there anywhere to shop for kosher food?

To that last question, the answer is now yes. Happily, I can say that our deficits made San Diego, or more specifically La Jolla, the first choice for Ralphs supermarket when it came to establishing a full-on kosher department. There may be more demand in L.A., but there are also more options for kosher Angelinos. So, two months ago, Ralphs remodeled its La Jolla store and vastly expanded its kosher section, calling it "The Kosher Experience." Zack Plotzker, the kosher department manager, told me that in San Diego there are an estimated 1,000 kosher-eating families, and that doesn't include vacationers searching for kosher food to eat. Even with the high expectations for the department, it's already exceeding sales projections.

And, amazingly, people are even driving down here from L.A. to shop. I met a mother and daughter yesterday from the Pico-Robertson section of L.A., who were at the deli counter for just that reason, and noodging Plotzker about having Ralphs establish a kosher department in their neighborhood.

The Kosher Experience sits where the produce used to be and what you'll find is a large deli counter, extended refrigerated and frozen sections, breads and sweets, and several aisles of packaged goods along with wines and spirits.

There's even a small display with Jewish-themed books, holiday tchotchkes, and gift items.

The deli counter is striking for its set up. The store sells various cheeses, salads, deli meats, and takeaway items. Nothing unusual there, but being kosher means keeping dairy and meat products separate and not mixing utensils. So, if you look closely toward the rear of the deli section, you'll notice a plexiglass wall dividing the handling and tools for dairy and meat products. Knives and other utensils and tools are marked with different colored labels to avoid a mix-up--dairy is blue, pareve (foods that are neither dairy nor meat, like produce) is green and meat is red. Plotzker said that, other than on Shabbat when it's closed, the deli counter always has on-site kosher supervision to make sure all the rules are obeyed, and includes oversight by two organizations, Vaad of San Diego and the Rabbinical Council of California.

The deli also prepares a variety of sandwiches, including hamburgers and hot dogs, egg salad, and sliced meats such as corned beef, turkey, and pastrami (both lean and naval, which is fattier and better for hot sandwiches, since the fat keeps the pastrami moist). There is a selection of kosher rotisserie chicken and even containers of house-prepared buffalo chicken wings, perfect for tailgating parties. And, there are all sorts of salads--macaroni, guacamole, and carrot, among them.

What you can't see behind the scenes is that a kosher butcher cuts meats Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The meats, sold in a refrigerated case next to the deli counter, includes beef, lamb, and chicken (Empire brand, of course). There's also fresh fish and even kosher sushi, made fresh two hours a day by Yellow Bamboo.

You'll also get a selection of three soups, made by Tabatchnick. While I tend to prefer homemade soups, if you have to eat prepared soups, Tabatchnick has long been a favorite of mine (try the mushroom barley).

The wine and spirits selection is pretty good, making it much more convenient to find kosher wines to serve at holiday dinners. You can even find kosher tequila and brandies here.

Much of the daily stuff of the pantry can be found in a kosher version here--beans and potato chips, candy and cereal, even microwave popcorn and Turkish coffee. Of course, you'll see several varieties of matzo, soup mixes, Dr. Brown's soda (including my dad's favorite cel-ray flavor and my cream soda), Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup, and Nathan's mustard.

The refrigerated sections are filled with childhood--and adult--favorites and necessary condiments. There are Batampke and Bubbies pickles, pickled tomatoes, and sauerkraut, herring, smoked salmon, horseradish, and cream cheese.

Nearby, the freezer holds perhaps a dozen varieties of Tabatchnik soups and frozen meals, including mac and cheese and chili. And, that's just one brand. You can stock up on all sorts of prepared meals, ice cream, and snacks.

The bakery sells brand-name and house-made goods like baguettes, sourdough bread, ciabatta, green-and-black olive bread, dinner rolls, and some of the largest, most delicious rugelach I've ever eaten.

According to Plotzker, the bakery sells 150 challahs on Fridays for Shabbat. Surprisingly, this time of year, they also have fresh hamentachen, a pastry traditionally made for spring holiday of Purim. There are a rainbow of cupcakes and large sheet cakes. And, combining two or three specialty needs, Ralphs sells kosher gluten-free and sugar-free pastries.

With the high holidays approaching (Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset Sept. 18 and Yom Kippur/Kol Nidre on Sept. 27), even non-kosher Jews like me will be looking for special items for family meals. Plotzker says that they'll be selling traditional round challahs, honey cakes, whole briskets, and even tongue, as well as yahrzeit candles.

Oh, and if over the next couple of weeks someone wishes you "L 'shanah Tovah, just say thank you and wish them the same. They're wishing you a sweet and good year.

L 'shanah Tovah!

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Friday, September 4, 2009

No Muss, Not Much Fuss with Healthy Creations

I can't help it. I'm a skeptic when it comes to the proliferation of prepared meals businesses. Some have you come in and do the prep yourself so you can go home with ready-to-heat meals. Others do it all for you and deliver it to your door for you to put in the freezer, defrost, and reheat when you want it. And still others prep the ingredients so you can put it together yourself at home.

I'm a home cook so I have a hard time understanding why it would be worth spending money on something I could easily and happily do myself. But, I obviously am ignorant of the time constraints on busy couples and families because when I mentioned this on Facebook I got an earful.

This brings me to a place in Encinitas I visited last week. Healthy Creations, owned by a young woman named Rhiana Glor, offers an eclectic menu of 12 to 14 organic, nutritious meals each month with ingredients primarily from Jimbos down the street. The meals aren't pre-cooked; instead the ingredients are prepped--meats marinated, shrimp cleaned, vegetables chopped, sauces or toppings bagged, pasta measured out and also bagged--and packaged in plastic bags with directions for assembly and cooking on a label inside the largest bag holding all the ingredients. Meals come in two sizes: full serves of four to six servings a meal and half serves of two to three servings a meal. They run around $30 for a full serve and $17 for a half serve, depending on the actual meal.

Yes, that's a lot of bags. I think there could be some improvement on that by adopting reusable containers and, well, making it more attractive. But, that said, the meals I had were delicious. I ordered three meals and a dessert: Flank steak laced with blue cheese butter and a side of roasted asparagus, pistachio-crusted pork tenderloin with yam fries, baked shrimp scampi with whole wheat pasta, and an apple crisp.

I decided to share this dinner with my parents, so I brought everything to their house. Now both of them have health issues which severely limit their fat, salt, and spice intake. So, my mistake was not reading the ingredients list carefully enough because clearly what we chose wasn't going to work. But, what I could have done--like any of Glor's customers--was ask her to make modifications in the dishes that would reduce the fat. She's happy to work with people to make healthy meals tailored to individual needs.

So, we made some modifications on our end, and I also took the scampi dinner home with me to freeze for later. My mom added some vegetables and lentils for herself, but shared in the pork tenderloin. My dad and I also had the flank steak (good, but a little salty for both of us).

The pork tenderloin was a big success. The tenderloin had been marinating in a house-made plum sauce. The pistachios were already crushed. All I had to do was spread the nuts on a flat surface and roll the tenderloin on them to coat, then bake. The results were lovely tender and sweet slices of pork complemented by a crunchy crust of pistachios. It was a great dish.

The apple crisp, too, was very good, but prepping that was a good example of how things can go wrong. My dad decided to handle it. He poured the sliced apples into a baking dish after coating it with nonstick spray. But, he got hung up on the instructions to work the crumb and butter mixture together and instead of really working them until they were fully blended, he started dumping it on the apples. I had to retrieve it all, blend thoroughly with my fingers, and then spread them again on the apples. So, it helps to have some idea of how to cook to make these meals come out as Gor envisions them. (Okay, he could have done better reading the directions, too!)

This week I made the baked shrimp scampi and invited my friend Alex to join me in trying it. The package had a bag of black tiger shrimp mixed with herbs that needed to be defrosted and drained. That was a bit of a challenge since I wanted the herbs in the dish, but they tried to escape as I drained the shrimp. But, okay. No big deal. I coated a baking dish with olive oil, spread the shrimp around the bottom, and then emptied a second bag which had wine and oil over the shrimp.

In another little bag was butter and garlic. The directions called for me to mash them together (in the bag) and spoon half of it over the shrimp, which was kind of awkward to do, but it got done. To the rest, I added breadcrumbs, the contents of a fourth baggie, and mixed that together before pouring it over the shrimp.

The dish baked for 18 minutes in a pre-heated 375-degree oven, until the topping was brown and the shrimp were cooked through. While that was happening, I put up water in a big pot to boil and made the pasta.

Alex and I agreed that the results were quite good. The shrimp was tender and mixed with the pasta, it had that wonderful garlicky buttery quality you look for in a scampi. But, I did have to make a salad to go with it, and I did have some clean up to do--but, of course, not nearly as much as if I had started from scratch peeling shrimp and measuring ingredients.

So, the bigger question is, why do this? To which my friend Kate Zimmer, a mom with two young kids and a full schedule, who I learned is a fan of Healthy Creations, gave me a long list. "Because it's different, relatively healthy (i.e., not a bunch of sodium, etc.), and done for you," she explains. "You don't have to think. When I say 'done for you' I really mean 'done ahead of time.' Pretty much all you have to do is thaw and put in the oven. That's worth a lot to me. I plan my family's meals for the week each week and it's hard to come up with stuff for every meal, every day so that's certainly one benefit."

And, Kate points out that there's no chopping and no wasted ingredients. There's no need to keep a bunch of stuff on hand, like unusual condiments or seasonings, that might not get used again or often. "And," she says, "it's just great that I'm getting the meal on the table, forget about portioning out small bits of chiles in adobo and labeling/freezing it (and then remembering I have some frozen the next time I need it and thawing it). You get the picture."

In fact, Glor says most of her customers are like Kate, families with young kids and new moms. But, she adds that some customers are people with various health problems or seniors who need help preparing meals. She says some family members set up accounts with her and donate money into the account to provide meals for ailing family members. Glor estimates she prepares about 80 meals a day, with some customers ordering enough for a month at a time since most meals can go right into the freezer for later. She'll give customers a list of the meals and the date they were prepared to post on the refrigerator so they can keep track of what they have. While I was there, customers were coming in with coolers to pick up their meals, but Glor also delivers.

Healthy Creations has been in business for two-and-a-half years, but Glor recently opened a gluten-free bakery and cafe. I sampled some of the products and they were surprisingly good. A faux Twinkie, made with soy, eggs, milk protein, agave, and coconut flour, wasn't exactly Twinkie but filled with creamy deliciousness. And, of course, how could you replicate something with all those preservatives and weird ingredients. Would you really want to? Glor takes special pride in her very tasty oatmeal raisin cookie, and I enjoyed her packaged granola, made with lots of lovely pecans and other nuts. You can buy the granola at Healthy Creations or at Jimbos.

Healthy Creations also has sandwiches and wraps to go, using whole grain teff--an Ethiopian grain--or gluten-free bagels and bread. Glor's got roasted chicken breast sandwich, Thai peanut chicken or tofu wraps, a cranberry and goat-cheese salad, and even pizza by the slice, using a wholegrain pizza crust made with sorghum and brown rice flour.

Healthy Creations is located at 376 N. Camino Real in Encinitas. The phone number is 760-479-0500.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Groupon Hits San Diego

My friend Paul Bowers turned me on to this new discount site. Groupon launched last November and operates in about two dozen cities, including San Diego. The idea is that everyday, they offer a potential discount for events, services, activities, what have you in a specific city. We're talking everything from teeth cleaning and sky diving to Segway tours, manicures, and tennis lessons. Eclectic! For food lovers, this can mean restaurants, cooking classes, and other food-related discounts.

The concept is pretty interesting; it's all about collective buying power. Each day, Groupon posts a new deal with the discount listed and the number of people required to sign up for it for the deal to go into effect. Like it? Sign up, give your credit card info and the like, and wait to see if enough like-minded people do the same before the midnight deadline. The next morning, if enough people joined in, you'll get a printable gift certificate with redemption instructions in your email inbox. If not, the deal is canceled and you won't be charged for anything.

Recently 660 Groupons bought $15 worth of food, dessert, and wine for $5 at San Diego Desserts. In other deal, 824 bought a $25, two-hour Hornblower San Diego Harbor Tour for $12. Not bad.

Groupon claims they've saved people $10 million so far. I haven't yet signed up to buy anything, but everyday I get an email message with that day's deal and I'm hoping something comes up soon that I want to buy. I think it's worth checking out.

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