Thursday, June 23, 2011

Agretti Frittata with Diable-Roasted Yukon Golds

Last week at the Little Italy Mercato, while picking through the citrus usually sold at the Polito Family Farm stall, I came upon a cloud of greens that I'd never seen before. Meet agretti, a Mediterranean plant originally from the Adriatic with the Latin name Salsola soda and also known as "opposite leaved salwort," "opposite leaf Russian thistle," "Barilla plant," "Barba di Frate," "roscana," and "Liscari sativa."

The only two farms I know of that grow and sell it are Polito and Windrose (who sells it through Specialty Produce), but it's a short season in the spring and that's it.

Well, as I wrote in my Local Bounty column for San Diego Magazine, the season's short and it's now, so get on it quick. It's a strange, wild looking vegetable, sometimes confused with the equally strange sea bean. But instead of being infused with saltiness like the sea bean, the flavor is grassy. It's long stemmed with little leaves reminiscent of rosemary leaves. When you buy them, look for the slenderest of stems or just use the tops and leave the thicker stems at the bottom of the plant.

At the Polito stall, I was told that agretti is traditionally sauteed in butter, olive oil, and lemon -- and maybe a little shallot -- then tossed with pasta. But, they'd also heard of chefs using it to top pizza. Of course, you can always use it fresh -- chopped into a salad. Since I'd also just bought fresh eggs from Schaner Farms, I decided to make a frittata.

Regardless of how you end up using your sauteed agretti (and I sauteed mine just in olive oil with garlic and the green onions above), keep in mind that they will cook down, rather like spinach. Just don't cook them so much that they lose their crunch.

When these were ready I simply added two eggs and one egg white that I had beaten with a little milk and let them cook until set. Earlier, I had pulled out my French diable and added coarse sea salt and about half a dozen small Yukon gold potatoes. I've written about the diable before.

It's a marvelous clay pot from France (I bought it online from L'Atelier Vert) that cooks root vegetables and chestnuts without oil. Between the steam and the heat, the salt, and the rustic red clay's inimitable properties, you end up with a crispy potato that's creamy on the inside with a smoky flavor.

And that's it. A very easy dinner that's about as seasonal as you can get.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When an Octopus Comes to (Be) Dinner

I've gotten lots of intriguing invitations over the years to witness chefs doing what some would consider bizarre activities in the kitchen. But, I hadn't been invited to an octopus break down.

That is until North Park's Sea Rocket Bistro issued an invitation. Chef/partner Chad White had picked up about 20 pounds of local La Jolla octopus from Catalina Offshore Products and had grand plans for them. Some were headed to sushi heaven as "octopussy sushi" while others would be grilled and served with smoked cod Brandade, white peach romesco, roasted local almonds, and basil salsa verde. In the past, White's also used octopus in a seafood cassoulet that also included a tremendous skate wing sausage.

I had visions of some behemoth sea monster sprawling over the counter towards the stove of the rather small kitchen. So I was surprised to see these little three-pound creatures.

Male or female? Who knew? But they were fresh from the coastal waters just up the road and White was going to show us how he breaks them down, poaches them in a unique court bouillon, and then grills them for any number of dishes.

I videoed the first steps (my apologies for some blur--my first time using the video feature on my Canon 60D):

So, basically, you fold back the forehead and gently remove excess tissue on the top, remove the beak and then the eyes, which look like little pieces of tapioca.

And, what was this? Looks like we had a girl because White found an egg sack. And, don't think he's not going to figure out a way to use it.

Before we arrived, White had put together the ingredients for his bouquet garni: raw sardines, sliced serrano chiles, lemon peel and half a lemon, a bay leaf, parsley, thyme, and garlic.

He carefully rolled the ingredients in cheesecloth and tied the package with twine.

This would go into one of three boiling pots of water. According to an old fisherman's tale, to cook an octopus you first boil three pots of water. Dip the octopus into the first one for 10 seconds or until the water stops boiling. Then dip it into the second for 10 seconds or, again, until the water stops boiling. And the same with the third. Then return the octopus to the first pot for 20 minutes -- and add wine corks. They apparently help tenderize the octopus.

The octopus is then removed to drain and cool. Notice, the change in color from grey to red and the new curl to the tentacles.

White already had prepared a mixture of olive oil, parsley, and garlic. Once out of the pot, he sliced the tentacles off the octopus and tossed them in the herb mixture.

Now, it was time to hit the grill. These take no time at all to cook. You can add some smoked salt to the tentacles once they hit the grill to enhance the flavor.

Off the grill and into a bowl, where they're first tossed with some greens and then plated here for us into a gorgeous salad.

Spontaneous salad with grilled octopus, endive, arugula, mustard mayo, White's spicy tomato jam, and a squeeze of orange juice
I've seen a similar approach taken with squid--for they both need braising or poaching before grilling or else you get one tough sea creature--but the octopus show was particularly fascinating. Like biology class but with a delicious meal at the end instead of a pop quiz. The octopus has a slightly chewy texture with a sweet smoky flavor that's very appealing.

Sea Rocket Bistro will have octopus on the menu this week and when it's available. It is highly sustainable and you can't get more local than La Jolla.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pickles for Opopie

My dad loves to reminiscence about his cherished Brooklyn childhood and, in particular, about The Park Manor. This was the kosher catering hall his grandfather, Henry Denmark, owned on Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway and ran with seven of his sons and daughters in the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s. My dad describes it as the premier kosher catering establishment of its day and it was certainly the center of my family's world. Back then, most Jewish couples in Brooklyn were married there, posing for photos on the grand marble staircase, just as my grandparents, Sam and Anna, did here. Don't you love that veil? Sadly, somehow it got lost over the years.

Young boys celebrated their bar mitzvahs at The Park Manor, including my dad--but his was held on a weekday, not Shabbat. My great-grandfather wasn't about to lose a night's business to family, even his oldest grandchild.

The Park Manor clearly was my dad's home away from home from the time he was a young boy, and his favorite thing to do was hang out in the basement kitchen taking snatches of the kishka, knishes, and kreplachs being made for the huge affairs. He learned how to carve a beautiful fruit bowl and make a variety of appetizers, thanks to a cook there named Rosie. His favorite was made with a rectangular piece of crustless white bread on which was spread a mixture of skinless and boneless sardines mashed with lemon and mayo, topped with slices of hardboiled egg whites and garnished with pimento and green olive. My dad still loves skinless and boneless sardines prepared like this. Um, this explains a lot about our eating habits.

But what my brother, sister, and I heard about endlessly as children were the temptations of the pickle barrels stored along with containers of huge Spanish olives in the kitchen's walk-in refrigerator. From the age of 10 or so, he'd steal into the refrigerator and grab a couple large kosher dills at a time, only sometimes shooed away by his favorite person there, Izzy, who worried that the kid would get sick from them. Never. My dad loves sour kosher dills, specifically new ones.

He had to say goodbye to all that when my grandfather moved the family to Los Angeles when Dad was 16. But LA is where he met my mom and it turned out that one of the side benefits of marrying her was continuing the pickle obsession via her mother Tillie's homemade dills. Tillie has been gone for almost 20 years and Mom doesn't make them anymore so about that time my dad switched his affections to bread and butter pickles.

Well, of course, when I learned how to make bread and butter pickles from Quality Social's Jared Van Camp and Sam Burman, my first batches went to Dad -- long called "Opopie" by my nieces and nephews -- as a birthday gift. He asked for more. This Sunday is Father's Day and what better gift for him than more pickles. This time, however, I combined Jared's recipe with the traditional Ball recipe from The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which has what I believe are the best instructions on how to do the much-dreaded water bath. Follow them religiously and you'll find it's actually a breeze.

Thank you to Specialty Produce for these gorgeous pickling cukes!

I found that the Ball recipe called for too many onions and not enough liquid, so for the second batch, I made adjustments, reflected below. Then, since I had leftover pickling cukes, I made a small batch of Jared and Sam's recipe, which has more liquid in proportion to the vegetables, fewer onions, and doesn't actually cook the cukes over heat. Instead you heat the pickling liquid  and pour it over the raw vegetables, which then sit for a week in the fridge. So Dad gets two versions. Wonder which he'll prefer... Happy Father's Day, Opopie!

Bread and Butter Pickles
(printable recipe)

Adapted from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

3 pounds sliced, trimmed pickling cucumbers
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup kosher salt
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon allspice berries
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 stick cinnamon
3 cloves garlic, peeled

1. In a glass or stainless steel bowl, combine cucumbers, onions, and salt. Mix and cover with cold water. Let stand at room temperature for 2 hours. Then transfer to a colander, rinse with cool running water and drain.

2. Prep the jars and lids while the cucumbers are marinating.
      3. In a stainless steel pot, combine the vinegars, sugars, mustard seeds, celery seeds, allspice berries, turmeric, cinnamon stick, and garlic. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugars. Then add the vegetables, stir and return to a boil.

      4. By now the jars should be sterilized and hot. Remove one, drain the water, and pack the vegetables to within 1/2 inch of the top, then ladle hot pickling liquid into the jar to cover the vegetables but still leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove the air bubbles and make adjustments to the headspace if needed by adding more pickling liquid. Wipe the rim, center the lid on the jar, and screw the band down until it's just tight. Put the jar back in the canner and fill the remaining jars one at a time.
      5. Add more water to the canner and make sure that the jars are completely covered with water. Put the lid on the canner and bring to a boil. Process for 10 minutes. Remove the canner lid and turn off the heat. Let the jars sit in the hot water for 5 minutes, then remove the jars, let them cool, and store.

      Should make at least 6 pint-size jars of pickles.

      And here is the Quality Social Bread and Butter Pickle. You choose which to try.

      Quality Social Bread & Butter Pickles
      (printable recipe)

      5 pounds pickling cucumbers
      1/2 cup salt
      1.5 cups water

      1 onion, sliced
      2.5 cups cider vinegar
      2.5 cups white vinegar
      2.5 cups white sugar
      2.5 cups light brown sugar
      1 teaspoon celery seed
      1 teaspoon allspice berries
      1/2 each cinnamon stick
      1.5 teaspoon yellow mustard seed
      1 teaspoon turmeric
      2 cloves garlic

      1. Slice cucumbers in 1/4-inch disks and set aside in a large bowl.
      2. In a medium sauce pot, mix half the water and salt together and heat to dissolve the salt.
      3. Remove mixture from heat and place in a measuring cup. Fill the cup with ice to reach 1.5 cups.
      4. Place the cooled mixture over the sliced cucumbers and allow to sit overnight in the refrigerator.
      5. The next day remove the cucumbers from the brine and rinse well.
      6. Mix all the other ingredients in a medium sauce pot and bring to a boil.
      7. Remove mixture from heat and pour over cucumbers. Place back in the refrigerator and allow to sit for one week.

      What this doesn't say is that you'll put the cucumbers in clean glass jars, then pour the mixture over the cucumbers in the jars. Put the clean lids and bands on the jars and store them in the fridge. Jared was unsure how many pint-sized jars this would make, but I'm guessing about 10. And, you'll notice, no water bath.

      Happy Father's Day!

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      Thursday, June 9, 2011

      Artichokes with Summer Garlic and Tarragon Dipping Sauce

      Those who know me know I'm in weight shedding mode. More on that some other time, but it's been, well, an adventure for someone who adores good food, is around it all the time, and writes about it.

      And I mean that in a good way for the most part. There's so much delicious food out there--not all made up of lots of carbs and fat--that it's not terribly difficult to find combinations that are both a treat to eat and even, dare I say it, healthy.

      It gets even easier as we head into the warm weather months, when gorgeous produce is plentiful. I'm not a vegetarian, but on a sultry evening I appreciate a light, meat-free meal that doesn't require much or any laboring over a stove. And steaming an artichoke only requires work from the stove, not me, so that's just fine. The challenge has been what to dip the leaves in. Melted butter with garlic salt--what I grew up on--is out. Plain yogurt doesn't do it for me. Ah, but yogurt mixed with other flavorful ingredients can be transformed into a rich, velvety dip that doesn't feel at all virtuous.

      I've been playing with different ingredients--and different yogurts--and came up with something I keep returning to that has the texture I crave with a garlicky anise-like flavor that feels decadent: Fage 2% Greek Yogurt (very light and almost fluffy; you can go with the nonfat version but for one serving the difference in fat isn't great and the difference in texture and flavor is), light mayonnaise, Majestic Garlic (a local company's paste of organic garlic, safflower oil, organic flax seed oil, omega 3, lemon juice, and sea salt), Meyer lemon juice, chopped tarragon, and a little salt and pepper. If you can't find Majestic Garlic, raw minced garlic and a little olive oil will do fine.

      To prepare the artichoke, just slice off the first half inch or so of the top and trim both the tips of the leaves and the stem (be sure to peel and cook the stem; it's as tender and sweet as the heart). Place the artichoke in a large pot and fill with cold water to cover. Cover and bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, depending on the size of the artichoke. It's fully cooked when you can easily slide a fork into the bottom of the choke. Drain and serve with the dip and some crusty sourdough bread.

      Summer Garlic and Tarragon Dipping Sauce
      2 servings (if you're generous)

      2 tablespoons light mayonnaise
      1/3 cup low-fat yogurt
      1 teaspoon Majestic Garlic (found at San Diego farmers markets)
      1 teaspoon Meyer lemon juice
      2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon
      Salt and pepper to taste

      Mix together ingredients and chill for an hour before serving.

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      Thursday, June 2, 2011

      Gardening at the Grant

      Farm and fork are growing closer in proximity. Chefs searching for even more inspiration for their dishes are taking on a new role as gardener. It's no longer good enough to buy from the farmers market when you can actually select seeds, then grow and harvest your own produce.

      San Diego is seeing a proliferation of restaurant gardens and even farms. I just visited Bistro West and West Steak & Seafood's one-acre farm in Carlsbad--at the same time that my friend Trish Watlington, owner of The Red Door and The Wellington was breaking ground on her property in Mt. Helix on a large garden for the restaurants, designed by Karen Contreras of Urban Plantations.

      It's not just a suburban phenomenon. Last week I visited the U.S. Grant Hotel in the heart of downtown San Diego to see the rooftop garden that a company called Brickman installed last summer. Now the garden has become the passion and responsibility of Grant Grill Chef de Cuisine Chris Kurth and Mixologist Jeff Josenhans. The two are literally watering, pruning, feeding, and harvesting their little culinary oasis.

      What are they growing? They're heading into a new season, but when I was there tomatoes and peppers were ripening. There was cabbage, broccoli, fennel, and the remnants of Brussels sprouts. Dwarf kumquat, tangerine, and Meyer lemon trees were dripping with fruit. And, there were lots of herbs: basil, cilantro, thyme, chives, tarragon, and anise--all grown from seed.

      It was impressive to taste the bounty, too. I sampled a lovely light Persian cucumber soup (see recipe below) and a petite tomato tart, both made by Kurth.

      Josenhans was handing out Cinnamon Basil "French" Julips, made with Pierre Ferrand cognac, Moet Chandon, muddled cinnamon basil, and orange blossom sugar. And, there was the Rooftop Garden Tour, a cocktail combining Angelica-infused Tangueray Sterling vodka, muddled Russian tarragon and Florence fennel, and white peach puree.

      Grant Grill's Cucumber Soup
      (printable recipe)

      Serves 4

      16 peeled and seeded Persian cucumbers, roughly chopped
      2 yellow bell peppers, seeded and chopped
      1 jalapeƱo pepper, seeded and chopped
      2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
      1 1/2 tablespoons chopped mint
      1 1/2 tablespoons chopped dill
      2 cloves garlic, crushed
      2 teaspoons kosher salt (add more or less, depending on taste)
      1 1/2 cup yogurt
      1 cup sour cream
      3 teaspoons tarragon vinegar (add more or less, depending on taste)
      Extra virgin olive oil to taste (about 2 tablespoons)

      Add all of the ingredients except the oil and vinegar into a high-speed blender and blend until smooth. Pour the soup into a mixing bowl and adjust the seasonings. Next add the olive oil and vinegar to taste. Chill one hour before serving so the flavors can meld.

      If you'd like to get a taste of the garden, mark your calendar for the week of July 15, when the Grant Grill, located at 326 Broadway, will be holding harvest/mixology dinners.

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