Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sage Mountain Farms Amps Up Sage Mountain Beef

Farmer Phil Noble is just a little busy these days. He's still working his Hemet farm, producing beautiful vegetables that you can find at various farmers markets around San Diego. But he's also ramped up the offerings of his beef production, which he officially launched a year ago June. Instead of customers just being able to buy a half, quarter, or eighth of a cow, we have some choices via his online store and at the Hillcrest Farmers Market.

First, you can join the Green-Fed™Beef CSA he launched. Green-Fed means that his cattle are eating what Noble refers to as a "salad-bar buffet," basically the organic watermelon and squash, alfalfa, wheatgrass, and other forages they come across in the pastures. In fact, Noble told me years ago that he'll let his cattle feed on the remnants of his farm harvests to clear the field and give the cattle a hearty meal. Now, I guess, he's started an actual program. And the beef is all the tastier for it.

The CSA has six- and 12-month subscription options and even then you can choose a price point for shares that range from five to 20 pounds.

You can also buy one-off packages from the online store, which meat lovers outside of San Diego should consider. You can get ground beef or London Broil. Or you can get a sampler of cuts totaling about 22 pounds of meat. Or, you can go with the eighth, quarter, half, or whole "pledge." That is, you're not actually ordering the full amount then and there, but pre-ordering that portion for purchase and pick up when it's available.

Of course, as a single person, I'm actually focused in on what Noble brings to the Hillcrest Farmers Market, which is the market where he sells his beef, along with his vegetables. Until recently, all you could get were one-pound packages of ground beef, which is very good. I've made very juicy burgers with it, as well as meatloaf and chile.

But now Noble also carries about 32 cuts at the market, ranging from filet mignon and Porterhouse steaks to rib-eyes, skirt, short ribs, soup bones, and breakfast sirloin. Many of the packages are in the one-pound range.

You can find Sage Mountain Beef at the Hillcrest Farmers Market on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. alongside the DMV parking lot.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mexican Modern: Mision 19

I'm always intrigued by Javier Plascenia's food. If anyone can shatter the cliche that most people--other than Mexicans--think of as Mexican food, it is the Plascenias. My friend Beatriz Ladezma of Caxao Chocolates, who grew up with Javier and with whom I had dinner with at the new Mision 19 in Tijuana, explained to me that chefs throughout Baja look to the Plascencias as the epitome of creative and striking menus and techniques. Certainly, they've been doing that at Romesco on the U.S. side in Bonita--with Mediterranean-inspired dishes using local ingredients. Erizo Cebicheria, which I visited in April, melds local seafood with forward-looking approaches--octopus carpacio, for example, or chicharon de tuna.

So, I'd been eager to travel to Tijuana again to try Mision 19, one of the newest additions to the Plascencia restaurants. But this one is truly Javier's. Here, he's cutting loose and making his own imprint without worrying about how it fits in with the rest of the family's dining spots.

The restaurant is housed in Zona Urbana Rio, the city's business district, in a new concrete building--very cool and modern, but the space is warmed by an infusion of wood--whether the long thick planks that hang along the windows or the sleek wood tables and chairs--and color--the red upholstery and the tint of green in the glass.

The food is just as cool and modern, presented on white dishes sitting on squares of lava or slate. Everything pops.

Beatriz and I decided to go with the Chef's menu, which started light--a parfait of avocado meringue, thick housemade yogurt, diced Baja scallops, Persian cucumbers, soy jelly, chiltipin--a local wild chili--and a sprig of salty sea bean surrounded by corn sand. While the layers are beautiful shades of cool green, they are meant to be stirred together and the resulting flavors are an amalgam of sweetness with a tad of heat, umami from the soy jelly and salt from the sea bean.

Next came a petite salad of cured nopal strips mixed with Meyer lemon and grapefruit juice, topped by locally farmed abalone chips, micro arugula, and a chili de arbol salsa--creating a hot, crunchy dish with the slightest undertone of grapefruit. The dish, Plascencia said, was inspired by a dish he had at a local Chinese restaurant.  In fact, there is a distinct Chinese influence in several dishes, due, explained Beatriz, to the large Chinese community in Tijuana. Like the Jewish community I grew up in north of the border, Tijuanans have a tradition of enjoying Sunday dinners at their favorite Chinese restaurants. The Plascencias clearly among them.

Our third dish was deceptively simple--a salad with a thin slice of beef, heirloom tomatoes, and olives. But the beef had been sous vide for more than 48 hours--or, as the menu says, "cooked to high empty for 48 hours and sealed at the moment."

Intriguingly, the waiter, also named Javier, placed spoons in front of us and instructed us to use it to pick up the olives. Okay. The greyish brown olive, reminiscent of a kalamata, was, in fact, not an olive at all. Hello, molecular gastronomy. This was the essence of olive, but a tiny balloon of olive juice with all the salty brine you get when you bite into the real thing.

Fortunately there were several in the salad--and I felt like a kid playing with her food. What fun!

We then segued from light to more substantial. Risotto. But, here too tradition was upended. Think of this as a Mexican version of risotto made, yes, with arborio rice, but also heirloom goat eye beans and pearl barley. No cheese in sight and totally not necessary. The richness of the risotto came from wild mushrooms, zucchini blossoms, black truffle and black truffle oil, and a healthy helping of huitlacoche--also known as black gold, fungus on corn that is a true delicacy. Topping the risotto was epazote foam and what looked like tiny geranium petals.

Easing into fall, this spins traditional rice and beans into an elegant yet earthy and filling dish. I loved the distinctiveness of the textures of the arborio, the barley, and the beans--all chewy but different in their own ways.

How to beat this? Well, our last course was perhaps the one Beatriz and I enjoyed most. Pork belly. Was it a taco? Well, kind of. But again, Javier turned tradition on its head and merged two, actually three, cultures.

The slate tile held what looked like a taco with three sauces. But instead of a corn tortilla was a masa and maiz crepe with a hint of cilantro peeking out. The three sauces? From the left a soy mixture, chili de arbol, and then tomatillo and habanero. Then we each removed our toothpicks.

Inside was revealed more cilantro and slices of scallions topping strips of creamy pork belly. I gingerly added the spicy sauces and finished it with a drizzle of the soy, picked it up and took a bite. Then laughed. Clearly Javier had recently had Peking Duck. The pork belly was a combination of juicy flesh and crispy skin. The soy sauce and the richness of the pork was so "Peking Duck" but then there was the cilantro, the scallion, and those spicy salsas. Taco. Encased in a crepe. This isn't the Mexican food that people go to TJ for--but it should be because it clearly expresses the ingredients and cultural influences that are so key to the region. And so bypasses the cliche of what outsiders think encompasses Mexican food which is, well, just street food.

We finished with a colorful dessert plate centered around panacotta. A long tube of panacotta. Tossed in and around the creamy sweet was pineapple sugar ice, a brilliant blue colored jiricaya--like flan with cream, eggs, and sugar but not ordinarily blue--pistachio brittle, strawberry leather, cacao sand, a whisp of cotton candy, white chocolate raspberries, and a slice of roasted, then poached peach. Altogether it was a circus of a plate. I'm not sure how it fit in with the train of courses we'd been on, but it was a colorful and fun end to a surprising and delicious meal. Next up? Caesar's Restaurante Bar, the birthplace of the Caesar salad, but now, with the Plascencias' ownership, the epitome of Baja's new gastronomic culture.

Mision 19 is located at Mision de San Javier, 10643 in Zona Urbana Rio, about a five-minute drive from the border crossing off the 805.

Chocolatier Beatriz Ladezma and her childhood friend Javier Plascencia

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Heart of the Harvest: A Weekend Fundraiser for Olivewood Gardens

photo courtesy of Cass Green Photography
When I was growing up there weren't many kids you could call fat. Most of us were fed well by (primarily) our mothers and were always shooed outdoors to play unless we were to do homework. TV was a treat. There were no computers, iPads, play stations, or other distractions--except books.

Today, of course, children run a greater risk of becoming obese. Life is more sedentary, both parents often work outside the home, and the ease of fast and packaged foods has made home-cooked meals from fresh fruits and vegetables much rarer. The result is today's kids aren't learning how to eat well, aren't learning where their food comes from, how to grow it, or how to prepare it. And, they run the risk of getting obesity-related diseases like diabetes.

There are a number of programs in San Diego that are working to address this crisis. My favorite is Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center, a seven-acre oasis in National City that teaches children and their families (primarily low-income) how to raise organic produce and then how to prepare the fruits of their labor in the kitchen, creating delicious and nutritious fresh meals. The side benefits are that the kids are educated about nutrition, and the programs support math and reading skills and their science studies, and help them become more self-sufficient. The students are introduced to foods that may be unfamiliar to them and activities they've never tried.

Planting a three-sisters garden (corn, squash, and beans)
My days volunteering as an instructor in the kitchen are the most fun I have and the most rewarding. Julie Darling--who recruits the kitchen instructors--has gotten many of San Diego's best chefs to participate. They include Amy DiBiase, Chad White, Andrew Spurgin, Hanis Cavin, Sara Polczynski, Marguarite Grifka, and more.

Chef Chad White and his students
Molding the perfect Olivewood Garden Burger patty
It's a moving experience to help elementary school kids who have never dug a trowel into the earth to plant a seed or crack open and beat an egg learn these skills--and then also enjoy the dishes they create, trying fresh vegetables and other ingredients that may be totally foreign to them -- and then falling in love with their flavors.

All this is to say that we want to be able to continue to do this work -- and even expand it to bring in more children. So, we're repeating last year's successful fundraiser this fall on Oct. 1 and 2. Our theme is Heart of the Harvest and it's going to be even better than last year's events!

The first event: A Moonlit Soiree, will be an intimate, multi-course gourmet dinner Saturday, October 1 at 6 p.m., with each course prepared by a different prominent San Diego chef (please see below for list of participating chefs) and served under the stars at Olivewood Gardens on tables individually decorated by many of San Diego’s top designers (please see list below). Chef Andrew Spurgin of Campine will be our Master of Ceremonies. Chef Amy DiBiase of The Shores is organizing the chefs. We will also have our first garden-themed art show and opportunity drawing. The 10 participating artists are listed below.

photo courtesy of Cass Greene Photography
The second event: A Day of Play. Art of the Harvest, held Sunday, Oct. 2, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., will be a lively outdoor family day with garden tours, games, swimming, crafts and children’s garden projects, food demonstrations with both local growers and chefs, “Olivewood Garden Burgers” by SoNo Trading Co., and custom Olivewood Garden paletas (Mexican-style fresh fruit popsicles) from Viva Pops. And, we'll be featuring student art work, which will be for sale.
Moonlit Soiree Chefs (list anticipated to grow)
Chad White: Sea Rocket Bistro
Katherine Humphus: Bo Beau
Daniel Manrique:  The Red Door
Hanis Cavin:  Carnitas’ Snack Shack
Ricardo Heredia:  Alchemy
Joe Magnanelli:  Cucina Urbana
Craig Jimenez:  Craft and Commerce
Sam Burman and Aldo Negrete:  Quality Social
Anthony Sinsay:  Harney Sushi
Chris Powell:  Bali Hai
Rachel Caygill and Scott Caygill: Banker's Hill

A Day of Play
Zach Negin and James Magnetta : Sono Trading Co (OWG Burgers)
Lisa Altmann: Viva Pops

Table Designers List
Thomas Bui Lifestyle
LaVonne of Adorations
Wedding Elegance by Nahid
Amy Vargas of First Comes Love
Frankie of Hartworks Floral
Wyn Austin Events
Helena Parker
Swan Soiree
Bradley of Fun with Jack
Ana of Floral Works and Events
Dawn of Embellishment
Arturo of ArtQuest Floral and Fine Gifts

Pablo Aztlan Acevedo
John Baldessari, signed exhibition poster
Lynn Cyi
Helen Shafer Garcia
Jim Gibson
Cassandra C. Greene
Tom Hatton
Suda House
Wendy Kwasny
Patricia Patterson
(Note: a preview of the artwork may be seen at www.olivewoodgardens.org)

Activities for Sunday's A Day of Play include:
Paint pots and plant succulents
Make seedballs
Pinecone art
Self-guided garden scavenger hunt
Garden Art - Harvest Themes (sketching, drawing, painting, oil pastels, and sun prints)
Singalong with Pablo & Friends
Eat This, Not THAT!
Lavender Wands
Rock Painting
Swimming in the Pool

A Moonlit Soiree is for adults, with tickets priced at $200 per person. Tickets for A Day of Play. Art of the Harvest cost $15. Free admission for children age 12 and under. We really want to encourage families to come down on Sunday and have a great day playing in the gardens and just having fun outside! Tickets may be purchased online at olivewoodgardens.org/heartoftheharvest.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Organic or Not? How to Prioritize When on a Budget

I'm often asked if the produce we buy always has to be organic. Let's face it, organic usually costs more than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and we don't all have a budget that can manage strictly organic.

A few years ago I interviewed Urvashi Rangan, project director of Consumer Reports' Greenerchoices.org. The environmental health scientist believes that it's a matter of prioritizing. The site provides a number of interesting articles on food products related to health, safety, and other food-related news.

Rangan pointed out that berries, for instance, tend to have very high levels of pesticides. "So organic can get you a lot of value," she said. "On the other hand if you're weighing the difference between buying conventional or organic avocados, the thick skin and the fact that avocados may not require as many pesticides to produce means there's not as great a health value in buying organic."

She also noted that parents with young children should be aware that organic food in their children's diet can make a significant different in lowering the amount of pesticide residue they consume. "They're neurotoxins and when they build up in the body, even at low levels, for a child's developing brain and neurosystem, reducing the amount of these agents is a much healthier way to go."

All this, of course, gets back to the main issue. What fruits and vegetables pose the most challenges where pesticides are concerned and which ones are less problematic?

There are two websites consumers should pay attention to. The first is a list put out by the Environmental Working Group. This list ranks 53 fruits and vegetables based on pesticide residue data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The lower the number, the more pesticides. So, you have apples, celery, strawberry, peaches, and spinach in the top five. Asparagus, avocado, pineapples, sweet corn, and onions are at the bottom--meaning they have the fewest amount of pesticides. Less than one percent of sampled onions, for instance, were found to have any pesticide residue.

The EWG's executive summary is the most direct, with a list of what to buy organic and what is lowest in pesticides. For a quick reference, this is quite useful. The group is also developing an iPhone app.

Another group doing some fascinating work in this arena is the Pesticide Action Network. Here you'll learn that 888 million pounds of pesticides are applied annually in the U.S., averaging three pounds per person. So, what's on your food? Go to the site and select a product and click. A page will open listing how many pesticide residues are found on that product, what they are and the toxicity risks to humans and the environment. So, click on green beans, for instance, and you'll find it has 44 pesticide residues--chemical names that are pretty unpronounceable. Some, like carbendazim, are suspected hormone disrupters. Others like diazinon, hit that along with bee toxins, developmental or reproductive toxins, and neurotoxins.

"We have found that folks are grateful to see which pesticides are linked to particular health threats--so the brain, DNA, child, and bee icons have been helpful points of orientation/interpretation," explained Heather Pilatic, PAN's spokeswoman. "In sum, pesticides are enormously variable in their toxicity. That's why we cross-referenced the residue data with toxicological info from www.pesticideinfo.org."

PAN also has an iPhone app. And, like EWG, they have a quick and easy top 10 list--with research caveats.

Altogether, these are a good start for consumers who are trying to eat purer food and want to better identify how what they buy will impact their bodies.

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