Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thai-fun with Su-Mei Yu

Saffron's Su-Mei Yu teaches at lots of different venues, but she'd never actually taught a hands-on cooking class at her restaurant Saffron. So, when she announced she was going to do two classes that would include both a tour of Thuan Phat Market in Linda Vista and then a trip over to Saffron to learn to make a variety of traditional Thai dishes--well, that was simply irresistible.

Thuan Phat used to be Vien Dong and the new owners have done a wonderful job cleaning up the place and creating an inviting market that specializes in fresh seafood and traditional Asian produce. Su-Mei took students up and down aisles to show us everything from fish sauce to noodles. The trip to the produce section was eye opening as we examined beetle leaves (not for chewing, but to wrap food for cooking), Thai eggplant, pandan leaves (used in Southeast Asia like we use vanilla), chrysanthemum leaves (wonderful in a stir fry or omelet), and a host of other items mysterious to most of us.

Su-Mei Yu showing us whole jackfruit
And here's a pomelo (think oversized grapefruit)
Pretty little Thai eggplant
We then picked several vegetables to take back with us to the class to stir fry. Baby bok choy, water spinach, and Chinese broccoli were our selections.

Back at Saffron, we went upstairs to the garden, where we encountered this strange grouping.

Beyond were the outdoor work stations Su-Mei had created for all of us.

Our first lesson was Coconuts 101. Su-Mei gathered us around to show us how to select and then prep the coconuts so they could be broken down. Basically you check the eyes at the bottom of the coconut to make sure they're clean, that the coconut is heavy for its weight, and by shaking it, make sure there's lots of liquid sloshing around inside. Once home, use a Phillips screw driver and a mallet to poke holes into the eyes and drain out the liquid (preferably on your plants, which will love it). Then put the coconut in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. The heat should help separate the shell from the meat once you whack it open. Don't toss the shells; save them for the next time you use your grill. Can't use the coconut meat immediately? Place it in a plastic bag with a serrano or Thai chili on the meat and keep it in the fridge.

Then we shuffled over to the curious little stools. Turns out they are Thai coconut shredders. Here's how you use them (and we all took a turn at it):

No shredder? No problem. Pull the meat away from the shell and use a peeler to get rid of any excess brown peel hanging on. Cut the meat into one-inch pieces and put in the food processor and chop until you have tiny shreds.

At this point, we're caught up with those on the little stools. For directions on how to make coconut milk, you can see my recent Local Bounty post.

Su-Mei continued with teaching us a variety of techniques as we worked--how to use a mortar and pestle, how to stir fry, how to squeeze limes and section oranges--within the context of the recipes we all made. One of the best, if simplest, recipes is her Savory Thai Salad Dressing. Take a look at how she demonstrated this to us, starting with pounding the garlic, as we followed along at our stations.

The afternoon concluded with lunch--made by all of us--eaten on the floor, Thai style.

And that salad? Gorgeous and tangy with fresh greens, finely sliced endive, sections of orange, toasted peanuts, shrimp coated with The Big Four Paste and grilled, and topped with toasted shredded coconut. It was surely one of the best salads I've ever had and one I'll certainly try to duplicate at home. Isn't that the point, after all?

Su-Mei Yu's Savory Thai Salad Dressing
Makes about 1/2 cup

1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 to 3 Thai chiles, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (can substitute with agave syrup)
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon fish sauce (optional for vegetarians; if you leave out, increase the amount of salt)

Put the garlic, salt, and chiles in a mortar and pound with a pestle until the garlic is pureed and the chiles turn pulpy. Add the sugar and blend. Add the lime juice, orange juice, and fish sauce. Mix well. Taste for balance. Transfer to a bowl.

Saffron is at 3731-B India St.
Thuan Phat Market is at 6935 Linda Vista Rd.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Goes with Charcuterie? Pickles!

I left you in February with a little taste of the two-part hands-on charcuterie class I attended at Cups. We had learned the ins and outs of making chorizo and pancetta from Quality Social's Jared Van Camp and Sam Burman. Then they took our pork concoctions back to the restaurant to cure for a month. We reconvened about a month later to retrieve our work and learn how to make one of the best accompaniments to the salty unctuousness of a perfect salumi. Pickles. Specifically Bread & Butter Pickles and Natural Pickles.

Now, I grew up with a grandmother who made jars upon jars of kosher dills but she never actually showed me how to do it. I would simply arrive at her apartment to find several huge bottles sitting out in the sun. We'd take them home to finish fermenting and then would dig into the most perfectly garlicky dill sour cukes you could imagine. It's past due time to retrieve that recipe and recreate that experience.

When our group gathered again, there was a big box of produce sitting on the counter and a huge stock pot on the stove. Burman was quietly slicing samples of Quality Social's charcuterie--soppressata, finochiona, Tuscana, pepperoni, and fresh mortadella--for us to snack on.

In front of the charcuterie were three small white bowls filled with pickled cauliflower and green garlic and bread and butter pickles. We each filled a plate and sat down together as Van Camp gave us a brief background on pickling and what we'd be doing.

We started with, what else, chopping vegetables. Those four onions above needed to be sliced to add to the brine for the Bread & Butter pickles. While the brine was brought to a boil, we focused on the the Natural Pickles. Van Camp had picked up gorgeous Romanesco cauliflower, carrots, and garlic from Suzie's Farm. Unlike the stripped heads you see at the markets, these cauliflowers still were surrounded by the leaves, which we discovered were delicious--perfect for a quick saute or for making soup. (So, the next time you see these at the Suzie's Farm stall, ask the person working there if they would sell them with the leaves.) Several of us took big bunches of them home.

We chopped the veggies and following Van Camp's lead, began stuffing them into jars interspersed with the pickling spice.

Then we poured the simmered distilled water and kosher salt over the mixture and tightened the lid.

These will sit in a dark, cool spot for about two weeks to cure. Once opened, they go into the refrigerator.

Then, it was on to the Bread and Butter pickles. The chefs had already sliced and soaked the cukes overnight in a salt solution. The brine was boiled and cooled. So all that was left was for us to fill jars with the cucumber slices, pour the cooled brine over them and twist on the lids.

By the end of class we had several jars of pickles and, in lieu of diplomas, what we had been waiting for most: our hand-crafted charcuterie, all wrapped up.

Quality Social's Natural Pickle
from Jared Van Camp and Sam Burman

1.75 ounces kosher salt
1 teaspoon pickling spice
4.25 cups distilled water
8 ounces trimmed and peeled vegetables

1. Combine the salt, pickling spice and water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Stir to dissolve the salt. Remove brine from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
2. Place the vegetables in a clean jar that will hold them comfortably. Pour enough brine over them to keep submerged. Weight the vegetables down if necessary with some plastic wrap and a little more brine.
3. Place the jar in a cool spot for ferment for at least seven but preferably 14 days (60 to 75 degrees).
4. After seven days the vegetables should have a nice sour salty taste (not sour like vinegar).
5. To store your vegetables, strain the brine from the jar, place the vegetables in a new jar, bring brine to boil on the stove top, cool to room temperature, and pour back over your vegetables.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lemongrass and Coconut Seafood Chowder

It looks like Mark Lane, owner of Poppa's Fish, has found his calling. Sure, he's been selling seafood at an ever-expanding number of farmers markets in San Diego, but little by little he's also been expanding his culinary repertoire. Starting first with ceviche, sea urchin, and freshly shucked oysters topped with homemade pico de gallo, he's since brought out the grill and is now making dishes like scallop and ginger tacos, shrimp chile rellenos, jalapeño shrimp poppers, and lemon pepper grilled mussels.

Everything is simple but beautifully cooked. And now, he's partnered with the Ryan Smith of Bitchin' Sauce, having him in his stall at the Hillcrest Farmers Market to sell their delicious almond-based sauces and using the sauces to make "Bitchin' Tacos."

It was there I tasted his tacos and the mussels and was so inspired on that chilly first day of spring that I decided to buy a yellowtail fillet and a rock crab to make a seafood chowder.

One of the benefits of getting to know your vendors is that you can ask plenty of questions. While I'd shown lobsters the end of life, for some reason I hadn't done the same with crabs. Lane stepped away from the grill to give me a brief crab anatomy lesson (crabs with a wide chest plate are females and mine was definitely female), explain how to hold it to avoid the painful pinch of claws, and how to clean it once it was cooked.

The flavors of chowder recipe were inspired by my experience the day before with Su-Mei Yu of Saffron, who taught a marvelous hands-on cooking class in the outdoor space above Saffron. I already had lemongrass, ginger, and coconut milk at home. I picked a lime from my tree and cut it the way she demonstrated to get the most juicy yield. I don't know that Su-Mei would approve of exactly what I did, but I hope she wouldn't argue with the results. The flavors are fresh and tangy and the chowder was infused with a tender heat that complemented the creamy coconut milk and sweet seafood. It was a perfect dinner for a stormy night.

Lemongrass and Coconut Seafood Chowder
Serves 4

There are a lot of ingredients here, but they all serve to build flavor. Instead of using plain water when cooking the vegetables, use the water the crabs are boiled in to create a flavorful base for the chowder.

4 cups cold water
12 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into bite-size chunks
1 medium onion, diced
2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into chunks
2 jalapeño peppers, diced (for more heat, add 1 or 2 Thai peppers)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1, 4-inch stalk of lemongrass (the soft part), thinly sliced
½ inch of a knob of ginger to equal 1 tablespoon, peeled and minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Zest of 1 lime (reserve the lime for juice)
1, 14-ounce can coconut milk (I use “light.”)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
Juice from 1 lime
2 live rock crabs
1/2 pound skinless firm-flesh raw fish (such as cod, sea bass, halibut, yellowtail), cut into bite-size pieces
1 pound raw mussels, shrimp or calamari – or combination of them, cleaned
1 cup Asian greens, chopped (optional)
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped

Pour water into a medium-size soup pot and bring to a boil, then carefully add the crab. Cover and cook the crab for 10 to 15 minutes. Pull the crab out and let cool, saving the water for cooking the rest of the ingredients. When the crab is cool enough to handle, pull out the meat from the body and claws, also saving the legs.

Add all the rest of the ingredients (except the seafood, greens, lime juice and cilantro) to the pot with the hot crab water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the potatoes are just tender (about 15 minutes).

Transfer 2/3 of the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree.

Return the puree to the pot with the rest of the mixture. Add the seafood (including the crabmeat and legs) and greens to the saucepan. Cover and simmer until the seafood is cooked (the fish should be opaque, the mussels open, the shrimp pink).

Squeeze in lime juice from the reserved lime and stir in cilantro, saving some for garnish.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cochinita Pibil -- a la El Vitral's Norma Martinez

My two favorite places on earth are at the markets and in the kitchen--with a great chef. So, it was a kick to hang out last week with Chef Norma Martinez of El Vitral while she made me her version of Cochinita Pibil, a rich pork dish redolent of achiote sauce, wrapped in banana leaves, and topped with pickled red onions.

The dish is really three recipes in one because this marinade is so versatile. Martinez uses it for shrimp, ribs, and skinned chicken thighs, and adds tamarind to the marinade to break down tough meats. And the pickled onions can be used in all sorts of ways. But together, this is a sensational dish for a family meal or a party.

The 30-year-old Martinez has been with El Vitral since it's opening almost two years ago. A Tijuana native, she comes honestly by her cooking skills -- her mother and grandmother are known in Tijuana as great cooks and she brings the warmth of the home cooking she grew up with to her restaurant kitchen in San Diego's East Village. She's also formally trained, having attended the Instituto Culinario de México in Puebla and the Spermalie School in Bruges.

And, as Martinez jokes, "You're not a Baja chef if you haven't gone through the Plascencia training." That would be Chef Javier Plascencia and his family, who have owned a number of restaurants for decades. She worked for the family in Tijuana and even put in a stint at Plascencia's Romesco in Bonita, training the chefs there on a consulting basis (for lack of a green card at the time, she was unable to be one of the chefs). Ultimately, she landed at The Westgate Hotel under Chef Fabrice Hardel, where she stayed until 2008, when she opened El Vitral. She credits her time at the hotel with teaching her invaluable time management skills that she puts to use at the restaurant.

Martinez and I both have in common a love for the family-owned Northgate Gonzalez markets. Like me, she and her husband are crazy for their ceviches. And while Martinez makes her restaurant moles from scratch (she's promised to invite me back to show me how), she is a fan of the moles made at the market -- with some doctoring -- for home. She adds ketchup, cocoa powder, peanut butter, and chicken stock to the mole poblano. For the mole negro, she does almost the same but leaves out the ketchup and adds cloves and star anise.

A new favorite ingredient of hers is coriander seeds. "It's lemon, vinegar, and salt in a seed," she says. Be sure to toast the seeds lightly before using them to bring out the flavors.

Her final tip? This recipe calls for vinegar and she thinks it's silly to use "the fancy stuff" when cooking this type of Mexican dish. Regular white vinegar is just fine.

This Cochinita Pibil is a simple dish to make and you can find all the ingredients at markets like Northgate Gonzalez.

Cochinita Pibil
from Chef Norma Martinez of El Vitral
(printable recipe)
Serves 12

9 lb. clean pork butt, diced into 1-inch cubes
1.5 qt. Achiote Sauce (see below)
1 pack banana leafs
2 sliced oranges
1 cup pickled onions (see below)
1 tsp. Kosher salt

Clean the pork discarding the excess fat and dice into 1” cubes. Season the meat with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl mix the pork with the achiote sauce, cover it and let it marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking dish with the banana leaves leaving a good edge to cover the pan. Pour in the pork and achiote sauce mix, cover with the banana leaf, and then cover with foil. Bake for about 3 hours or until meat is tender enough to shred with a fork.

While still warm shred the pork with a fork and serve in a clean piece of banana leaf and top with the pickled onions. This dish is excellent served family style and paired with rice, beans, and fresh tortillas. A good fresh salsa verde or habanero salsa is excellent with Cochinita Pibil.

Achiote Sauce

21 oz. achiote paste
1 cup white vinegar
1 oz. sugar
4 cups fresh orange juice
1 cup water
2 pieces bay leaf
2 tbs. Mexican oregano
3 cloves garlic

Toss all the ingredients in the blender and process until it’s nice and smooth. If the mixture is too thick, add some water and season with salt and pepper.

Pickled Red Onions
2 thinly sliced red onions
1 small beet, peeled
¼ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup white vinegar
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. Mexican oregano
2 qt. water

In a sauce pan bring the water to a boil and season with salt. Add the onions. As soon as the water returns to a boil strain the onions and discard the water.

Mix together the vinegar, orange juice, spices, and beet and add the hot onions. Make sure the liquid covers the onions completely.

The onions will be ready in about an hour and will keep for about five days. Make sure to check the seasoning. For a spicy version add a diced habanero pepper.

El Vitral is located at 815 J. St. in San Diego.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Cooks Confab is Back with "School Lunch"

Way back in the day when I was a kid buying lunch at school was a rare treat. My parents mostly packed our lunches in brown paper bags. But I yearned to have 30 cents to buy any of the revolving choices of spaghetti, fish sticks, hot dogs, hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese. I wasn't in love with the greyish canned green beans often served with them. But I desperately wanted the brownies, cookies, and cupcakes.

Sound familiar? It wasn't good then and from the 60s onward, it's only gotten worse in the school cafeteria. But things are changing, thanks to any number of child nutrition advocates, including Michelle Obama.

Locally, child nutrition advocates include our own Cooks Confab chefs and on April 3 they're hosting a fun, delicious, and enlightening event to bring attention to the issue. Cooks Confab "School Lunch" involves all of the Cooks Confab chefs -- many of whom are concerned parents -- in partnership with local farms, ranchers, fishers, and artisans to serve "Haute Cafeteria Style Cuisine" at Fibonacci's Campus Point Bistro by Waters. The point is to demonstrate that communities can be masters of their own school lunch menus -- if they are willing to push for it.

The food. Dishes will include:
  • Kitchen 1540's Paul McCabe's play on healthy Fish & Chips: Wild Striped Bass, Baked Vegetable Chips, and Tartar Sauce
  • NINE-TEN's Jason Knibb's riff on Beef and Broccoli with Brown Rice
  • Water's Fine Catering's Andrew Spurgin's and Martini Media's Melissa Mayer's Salad Bar, featuring produce picked that morning by kids from Fibonacci's on-site organic garden.
  • A.R. Valentien's Jeff Jackson and TK Kolanko's Chicken & Local Vegetable "Pot Pie"
  • Georges California Modern's Trey Foshee's Cream of Tomato Soup with Parmesan Cream & Bread Crumbs and Lentil-Barley Soup with Mint Yogurt
  • Cafe Chloe's Katie Grebow's and chef/consultant Amy DiBiase's Suzie's Farm Vegetable "Lasagna" with Jidori Chicken Roulade, Handmade Focaccia and Strawberries n' Cream
  • Farm House Cafe's Olivier Bioteau's Wheat "Macaroni 'n Cheese" with Carrot Turmuric Puree, Diced Vegetables and Gruyere Cheese
  • Singaree's Antonio Frescia's Nathan's Natural Alpine Chicken Satay, Thai Almond Sauce, and Cucumber Relish
  • Jack Fisher Confections's Cashew Nut Ice Cream Cups with Honeyed Quinoa
Plus, Snake Oil Cocktail Co.'s Ian Ward's Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice and Strawberry "Milkshake" and a selection of Housemade Beet "Vermouth," Hibiscus Extract, Raisin Reduction, Pressed Apple Foam, and Micro Radish from Saul Paniagua of Waters Bar Service.
    Cooks Confab School Lunch will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Tickets are  $35 for adults and $15 for children under age 14. Proceeds will benefit Slow Food Urban San Diego's Farm-to-School project and other similar projects. You can purchase tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets. Fibonacci's is in the Golden Triangle at 10300 Campus Pointe Dr.

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    Thursday, March 3, 2011

    Easy Clay Pot Chicken with Provençal Flavors

    I don't really have a name for this dish. Nor do I have a precise recipe. It's one of those meals I first tossed together years ago when I had my usual whole leg of chicken but felt that I should do something other than roast it (the kind of push  against the path-of-least-resistance decision often made when cooking for one). It's since become a go-to meal in cold weather since it's so "stewy" and comforting and the flavors are so rich.

    The ingredients tend to vary depending on my mood and the contents of my pantry but they skew toward "Provençal." Usually I'll throw in halved Kalamata olives, capers, sliced onions, diced shallots, quartered artichoke hearts, whole peeled garlic cloves, and a good amount of Marsala wine. Last night I left out the onion but added the remnants of a bag of pre-cooked and frozen Peruvian giant cuzco corn I'd bought awhile ago at Latin America Travel and Services (now at 3644 30th St., I believe). Sometimes I add canned garbanzo beans. In other words, I simply collect ingredients I already have that harmonize with each other and the chicken.

    The technique is simple--a cross between baking and braising. And you don't have to use a clay pot but I enjoy it because I think it mellows the flavors compared with cooking in metal. But if you are using a metal pot, like Le Creuset, pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. If you're using clay, keep the oven cold so that the pot isn't shocked by the heat and won't crack -- and be sure you use stoneware, not earthenware.

    First cut the chicken into individual pieces. Then dip them briefly in milk before rolling in bread crumbs. Brown the breaded chicken in a pan heated with olive oil. If you're using a metal pot, you can brown the chicken in that and save yourself a pot to clean. While the chicken is browning, prep the rest of the ingredients.

    Spread a little oil around the bottom of the clay pot. Place a small amount of onions, shallots, and garlic on the bottom and then top with the chicken. Add the oil, fat, and scrapings from the pan you browned the chicken in. Then start bringing in the rest of the vegetables in layers, periodically adding salt, ground pepper, and any herbs or spices that appeal to you (I usually include oregano and thyme but last night I pulled out Hatch chile powder for a little heat). Finally, you'll want several generous splashes of the Marsala (alternately, you could use your favorite white wine).

    Cover the pot and put it in the oven. If you're using a clay pot, now is the time to turn on the heat to 375 degrees. The chicken should be done in about an hour, depending on how much you're cooking. While I usually make a leg and thigh for myself, which gives me enough for two dinners, I've made large quantities for six people and it takes just a little longer.

    While the chicken is cooking, prepare your favorite rice or grain to serve it on. After all, those aromatic juices need to be absorbed by something. This week, I made basmati rice in one of my favorite clay pots -- an inexpensive sand pot I bought a few years ago at the Vietnamese market Lucky Seafood in Mira Mesa. You have to be a little gentle when doing this with a sand pot. You can't just crank up the heat immediately to bring the rice to a boil. You have to ease it up. So it takes a little longer but not much. Bring the rice to a boil, stir, cover, reduce the heat, and finish cooking according to the directions.

    Scoop a helping of rice into a large bowl, then add the chicken, vegetables, and juices. The chicken should be so tender it practically falls off the bone and thoroughly shot through with the flavors it was braised in. The vegetables and Marsala flavors should meld, but give you nice bites of different textures and flavors -- saltiness, thanks to the capers and olives, sweetness from the onions, artichokes, and garlic, comforting heat from the chile powder, and chewiness from the corn. It's a cozy dish perfect for a chilly night.

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