Sunday, January 31, 2010

Comfort Food: The Culinary "Blankie"

Is "comfort food" a culinary or a psychological term? How do you define it? Historically, we can see that it goes back to at least 1958, when a Dr. Gerald Brill, physician in charge of a New York City nutrition clinic at the time, used it in an article in The Catholic Digest (thanks, Erica Peters of the Culinary Historians of Northern California and the ASFS ListServ for finding this for me).

"Psychologists call these 'comfort' foods. Comfort foods are remembered from childhood. The child who scrapes a knee is comforted with ice cream. 'A comfort food,' says Dr. Brill, 'no matter what the food is, helps do away with the cause of stress. It is better, in such cases, to eat it than to eat an unsatisfying 'digestible' dish of cereal."

Bret Thorn, food editor at Nation's Restaurant News, explains that "as a general rule, comfort food is used to describe the cuisine that takes you to a safe emotional place, usually your childhood." He reminded me of the scene in "Ratatouille" when the critic took a bite of Rataouille's food and was immediately transported back to his childhood.

But, of course, some of our cravings for comfort food come this time of year, when it's chilly and perhaps we need an emotional or culinary blankie. But, even that has an explanation, Peters pointed out. Comfort food "didn't really take off until the 1970s. And it didn't become connected specifically with warm, wintery foods until the 1980s when the soup industry decided to market soup as comfort food."

Food has always been a source of comfort, both historically and from birth. But now in the U.S. comfort food's become culinary slang for dishes like macaroni and cheese, chicken soup, and rice pudding. We eat it in Mom's or Nana's kitchen or in a diner. In different cultures, you'll obviously find different common comfort foods. Congee in China, perhaps. Goulash in Hungary. Bangers and mash in England. Ramen in Japan. Menudo in Mexico. The list could go on and on. And while typically what it's all had in common is that it's inexpensive, uncomplicated, and easy to prepare, we're now seeing upscale chefs adopting the basic concepts of comfort food but using the more refined techniques and ingredients of haute cuisine to create an elevated version of comfort food.

A local chef who has built a restaurant around the concept (and will be launching a second this year in Encinitas) is Matt Gordon of Urban Solace in North Park. He doesn't make macaroni and cheese. He makes duckaroni. Pot roast? Nope. Now, it's beef cheeks. And if dessert is your culinary blankie, try his red velvet cake.

Matt and I will be on KPBS radio's These Days Tuesday, Feb. 2 from 10 to 11 a.m. to talk about comfort food with host Maureen Cavanaugh. We'll talk about our favorite comfort foods and how to make them, traditional winter comfort foods, economical tips for making these dishes, local restaurants that offer delicious comfort foods, and we'll finish with dessert.

Now, just because I've bought into the soup industry's marketing doesn't mean it isn't valid. This time of year I love making big pots of soups and stews that I can freeze in individual servings so that when the overwhelming craving hits, I have it at the ready. One of my favorites is something my friend Laura Levy of introduced me to: Green Chile Stew. She's since altered it to include a variety of different vegetables. I still prefer the original because the flavors are purer and the texture is richer. That's the recipe below. Next summer when Hatch chiles from New Mexico are available, be sure to pick up as many as you can afford. You can usually find them at Bristol Farms or at the Hillcrest Farmers Market or Little Italy Mercato sold by Richies Roasted Products. Roast them, peel the skin, and either use them or freeze them for winter so you can make this stew.

Laura Levy's Green Chile Stew

3 cups chopped roasted New Mexico or Hatch chiles - skins and seeds removed
2.5 - 3 lbs cubed pork shoulder
3 Tbsp - Masa Flour
2 Tbsp - Oil
1 large yellow onion - chopped
2 Tbsp - butter
32 oz - Chicken stock
2-3 Yukon Gold potatoes - 1/4 inch cubes
8+ cloves of garlic - chopped
2 Tbsp - Fresh chopped Oregano
1 Tbsp - Fresh chopped Thyme
2 Additional Tbsp - Masa (if needed to thicken)

• Dredge pork cubes in Masa Flour in plastic bag until all pieces are coated.
• Brown in oil in large Dutch oven or pot - set aside
• Add butter to same pan, lightly cook onion until slightly colored (not browned) - then add garlic cook 1-2 minutes until aromatic.
• Add small amount of chicken stock to browned bottom of pot/dutch oven - as stock heats up, scrape browned bits off of the pan to create a roux. After all bits are scraped, add remaining stock to pan
• Add remaining ingredients to same pan (except added Masa). Bring to slow boil, then cover, reduce to simmer and cook until pork is tender - an hour is usually good - too long and the meat will toughen. Make sure it isn't boiling too much as it will cook too fast. Sometimes I turn the stove off after about 40 minutes to make sure it cooks slowly.
• Add salt/pepper to taste
• After 45 minutes, check consistency - if it needs to be thicker slowly add a small amount of Masa at a time and stir until thick - shouldn't be more than 2 Tbsp. The chiles will breakdown into the roux while cooking. Taste for heat - if you like it spicy, add a couple of diced serrano chiles. Garnish with sour cream and cilantro. Serve with corn bread or homemade tortillas... and several Tecate's or margaritas!!

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Winter's Charms at Hillcrest Farmers Market

It's not unusual for farmers markets across the country to close for the winter. But not only are San Diego's markets open, they're packed with gorgeous produce. Looking at the bounty at last Sunday's Hillcrest farmers market, it's hard to believe we just endured a week of heavy, chilly storms.

Clearly, it's not strawberry or tomato season yet. Or is it? There were a couple of farmers from Carlsbad with flats of bright red juicy strawberries. And there were several stands with tomatoes, including gorgeous heirlooms of vibrant shades of green, red, yellow, and orange at Valdivia Farms. Are they grown in greenhouses? I asked and was told they're growing outside under the sun. Now, I don't think they have the depth of flavor that long hot summer days provide, but it's kind of nice to have fresh local tomatoes in the dead of winter.

I bought several after tasting samples chopped in a delicious spicy chile mix they're selling. But instead of buying the chile mix, I more or less replicated it, first making a simple little chopped salad of the tomatoes, tiny Mexicola avocados from Koral's Tropical Fruit Farm (more about them below), green garlic, and stemmed red onions-also from Valdivia. These were tossed in a dressing of locally produced avocado oil from vendor Bella Vado,green Hatch chile powder from Richies Roasted Products (whose stall is near the Joe's on the Nose orange coffee truck), fresh lime juice from limes in my garden, and salt and pepper. You could also marinate shrimp in this dressing, grill, and add to the salad, served with homemade corn tortillas. Or serve the salad as a salsa-like condiment with fish, chicken, beef, or pork. It's a wonderfully bright flavor surprise in the middle of winter.

Leafy greens are abundant this time of year. I saw a lot of Swiss chard on Sunday. At Sage Mountain Farm, I picked up some beautiful rapini (also known as broccoli rabe) and a bunch of broccoli. Now, while rapini has those little yellow buds that look they they're going to explode into little broccolis, they're actually not even in the broccoli family, but related to turnips.

These greens are slightly bitter, but it works for them when you counterbalance it with other flavors. After you trim the ends of the stalks, use everything else on the plant, including the yellow buds. Cut the stems into one-inch pieces and blanch in boiling water for about a minute. Then drain and sauté in olive oil and garlic. I like to add about a teaspoon of chopped preserved lemon to it as well, along with toasted pine nuts, dried pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. You could also add pancetta or bacon. Rapini makes a nice side dish, of course, but try tossing them with pasta and add some feta cheese.

As you're walking down the main aisle of the Hillcrest market, rising over the sounds of live music will be the energetic voice of Barry Koral.

Playing the part of the carnival-style barker, the 68-year-old Koral, who owns Koral's Tropical Fruit Farm in Vista, is hawking the flavors and nutritional value of his produce, which this time of year is mostly citrus. I saw oranges and tangerines, limes, sweet lemons, Meyer lemons, and conventional lemons. But he also had some interesting fruits like guavas and Mexicola avocados.

Mexicola's are a tiny avocado variety with a thin purplish, almost black edible skin. They have a nutty, almost almond taste to them. Don't use them to make guacamole. Slice them in half and serve with a tray of crudités or chop them and add to the tomato salad I described above. Look for fruit with smooth shiny skin and that are firm but give a little when you touch them. You don't see these beauties  regularly in the markets, so grab these as a special seasonal treat.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Spotlight on 30th St.

The 30th St. corridor running through central San Diego is known for its wonderfully quirky and interesting independent restaurants and bars. How better to publicize what's happening in the area than with a website and blog. The new site is

So, what's up? Just starting in January is a monthly event called 30th on 30th. The Linkery's Jay Porter explains that on the 30th of each month -- okay, it'll be on the 28th in February -- various restaurants and bars on or near 30th St. will offer specials, such as a feature appetizer for $2. Participating restaurants this month include Alchemy, The Station, The Linkery, Urban Solace, The Whistle Stop, Ritual Tavern, Jayne's Gastropub, and Sea Rocket Bistro.

Also on the website is information about who's serving local craft brew and cask conditioned ale, which places have sunny patios, who serves lunch or late nite eats or breakfast. It's a great micro resource for a very popular up-and-coming neighborhood.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Incredible Edible Wall

The kitchen garden. It's something those of us who cook at home hope to have just outside our kitchen door, accessible for quickly snipping a few sprigs of oregano, picking some lettuce leaves, or pulling a few radishes. But if you live in a condo or apartment you're probably limited to a small balcony or terrace. And, if you're a chef in the city, you may not even have that surrounding your restaurant.

Enter Jim Mumford, owner of the San Diego-based plant company Good Earth, and his edible walls, an idea so cool in concept that chef Mario Batali is his first restaurant customer. According to Mumford, Batali wanted a roof garden at his restaurants Osteria Mozza and Pizzaria Mozza in Los Angeles, but couldn't get it to work with the building specs. So, if he couldn't go horizontal, how about vertical? After doing some research on his own, he found Mumford, who has been playing with the concept with several types of materials and styles.

The granddaddy of living walls is Patrick Blanc in France. Le Mur Vegetal, or vertical garden, grows without soil, indoors or out, and is designed to be lightweight. Mumford has taken some of these concepts and begun trials with five different systems, not just for edible plants, but also succulents and tropicals.

There's a foam-based unit with foam cells holding onto air and water. A drip emitter with fertilizer is injected into the foam or sprayed onto the surface. There's another that's a synthetic fabric pocket system. The indoor version has a rubberized liner to prevent water leaking.

And, there are a couple of units that have dirt-filled modules covered with landscape fabric to keep the soil in when the wall is erect. Cut a slit into the fabric to plant each seedling, let the units rest horizontally while the plants root and grow, and then install them vertically.

That's the process Batali's wall is undergoing right now. His walls are eight inches thick, compared to the usual five inches. There are three units totalling 18 modules that when put together will create a wall 12 feet wide by six feet high and an opening on the top is allowing the planting of lettuces. No space goes to waste.

What's in Batali's garden? Edible geraniums and mints. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and Chinese celery. Beets, spinach, dandelions, and chicory, with lettuces along the top. The garden is still taking root, but the plan is to install it at the end of January. And, it'll look something like this demonstration wall:

The soil is a blend designed to be lighter in weight. And, yes, you'll always see the frame to some extent. The trick is maintenance--watering, pruning, feeding, and replanting plants that have reached the end of their life or just thinned out.

Another issue Mumford is working out is the installation itself. He'd like these to be accessible to homeowners, particularly those with small outdoor spaces. "The problem is we have to put holes in the walls, plus you need automatic irrigation because hand watering creates too many failures," he points out. So, he's working on the engineering to figure out a workaround that would enable people in condos and apartments to install them in their outdoor spaces and have a way to grow their own fresh produce.

"As we become more dense in our urban areas, we need to come up with new ways to garden," he says. "Vertical farming is a way to do that in small spaces."

Good Earth Plant Company is located at 7922 Armour St. in Kearny Mesa. The phone number is 858-576-9300.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Move Over Kettle Corn, Green Kernel Debuts

I adore popcorn. I've loved it since JiffyPop and Cracker Jacks. Since it made family trips to Fedco and Sears as a child palatable. In the last several years, Kettle Corn made me swoon. I love the crunch and the sweet and the salt but more recently I've come to love it with truffle oil and parmesan cheese. I just love it.

So, when my friend Kristine Valenzuela announced her intent to launch a new business called Green Kernel, selling flavored organic popcorn at the local farmers markets, I was like the woman in the old Mervyn's commercial... Open, open, open! Well, this morning, Kristine was at her spanking new booth at the Little Italy Mercato with her inaugural bags of popcorn, choosing three flavors to start: Italian, Spicy Thai, and Mexican Chocolate.

 All of the ingredients are fresh and organic. I enjoyed bitefuls of the Italian that yielded a bit of citrus flavor from lemon zest, followed by a clear zip of rosemary. The Spicy Thai has a nice kick to it. What I ended up buying, though, is the Mexican Chocolate. Made with organic milk chocolate, ground cinnamon, butter, raw cane sugar, and canola oil -- and, of course, popcorn kernels -- I just liked this combo of savory and sweet. And, I like that the popcorn isn't greasy but actually feels like you're treating both body and taste buds well.

Kristine is selling concession cones for $2. Bags are $6 apiece or $16 for three bags. A bit pricey, but hopefully with brisk business she'll be able to bring the prices down.

Catch Kristine's Green Kernel popcorn at the Little Italy Mercato on Saturdays from 9 to 1:30.

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