Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Robin Asbell: The Enlightened Hedonist

One of the best food writing jobs I've had is writing for Rancho La Puerta's blog and app. Every month, I go down to their cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta, and participate in a hands-on class taught by a renowned cooking teaching, restaurateur, or cookbook author.

They've given me permission to put these posts on San Diego Foodstuff, so in the coming months you'll periodically see them, starting with this piece on the wonderful Robin Asbell.

As Robin Asbell walked back to La Cocina Que Canta from the nearby fields where several of us had just squealed with delight picking leeks and basil, she chuckled at the notion of a well-known chef writing a piece admitting she didn’t like gardening because there were INSECTS!

“Who would say that?” she asked. “That’s just part of growing your own food. Silly.”

Asbell, who lives in Minneapolis, has her own small garden where she grows tomatoes, garlic, and herbs—including eight types of basil. It’s not really a surprise since Asbell is a self-described “occasional pescatarian”—a vegetarian who sometimes indulges in fish. Her interest in vegetarianism began when she was 16 and friends of her parents—both teachers—intrigued her with their vegetarian approach to food. Asbell had to prove her commitment, though. When she declared her intentions, her mom made her read Diet for a Small Planet and write a report on it.

Clearly, Mom had an impact as did the book. The incident launched Asbell into a career that began with her baking loaves of whole wheat bread in high school that she sold to a local co-op. Asbell studied art in college in Illinois and briefly attended graduate school before realizing she didn’t want a career as an academic and leaving to be a chef.

“I got my first full-time chef job at a jazz bar/vegetarian restaurant,” she recalled. “I was at school in Champagne, Ill., and I found the ad in a restroom. I convinced the owners to hire me and that was it.

Since then, Asbell has gone on to work as a private chef, teach, and write two books, The New Vegetarian Cookbook and The New Whole Grains Cookbook. Currently, she’s at work on The Big Book of Vegan, a collection of 400 recipes to be published by Chronicle Books in Fall 2011.

But on this sparkling September afternoon, here we are with her in la cocina looking over the various ingredients—including some grown on the farm just yards away. We’re making a smoky herb salad with tomato vinaigrette, a light Tuscan bean and salmon salad with bruschetta, goat cheese gnocchi with lemony broccoli rabe sauce, and so much more. The kitchen island is overflowing with greens and nuts and cheeses and surrounded by women not quite sure where to start. But Asbell gets the group launched and makes her way around to lend a hand, give tips, offer advice, and crack a joke or two.

We learned that when making gnocchi, it’s best to use as little flour as possible, not to handle the dough too much, and do a quick test with just one gnocchi—dropping it in boiling water to see if it holds together or if the dough needs just a tad more flour.

I got a great julienning tip. Using a carrot, Asbell showed me a way to cut on the diagonal and leave the pieces spread out like a deck of cards, then slice them thinly. Very cool. I worked through the carrots and then summer squash with relative ease.

We also learned to be sure to double check the oven temperature so that an apple streusel cake that is supposed to bake for 40 minutes at 350 doesn’t end up in the oven at over 400 degrees before being hustled out after 10 minutes. Let’s just say things happen and we learned from Asbell to roll with it and laugh. And,  actually, the cake still turned out well.

With seven dishes made and sitting on the side table buffet style, Asbell gave us a little insight into her philosophy of food and eating before we dug in. “I’m an enlightened hedonist,” she said. “I want to have fun but I don’t want to suffer.”

Composed Salad of Grains with Hazelnut Vinaigrette
From Hands-On Cooking Class, With Visiting Chef Robin Asbell

A beautiful presentation will elevate your meal to fine dining, and a marinated grain salad is as fine as anything out there. This is just a beginning from which to get creative. Whatever is fresh and in season simply needs an artful approach to look nice in a composed salad. Blanched asparagus, snow peas, avocado, or jicama sticks can liven up the plate.

Serves 6
1 cup barley, red rice, or kamut
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
3 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 small yellow squash
1 large roma tomato
4 cups salad spinach, washed and dried
1 large red bell pepper, roasted and slivered
1 large carrot, julienned
1 3.5 ounce package enoki mushrooms, or 1 bunch asparagus, blanched

1. Cook the grain until tender, then drain and let cool. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the hazelnuts in a small baking pan or pie plate and toast in the oven for 10 minutes. Put the warm nuts in a kitchen towel and rub them to remove the skins. Put the cleaned nuts into a food processor. Pulse on and off to coarsely chop the hazelnuts. Remove half of the coarse chunks and reserve. Grind the remaining nuts finely, then add the parsley, garlic, and salt and grind them too. Add the vinegar and tarragon and process, then drizzle in the oil with the motor running. Stir 1/2 cup of the dressing into the cooked grain.

2. Cut the tomato in half vertically and scrape out the seeds, then slice in vertical spears. Use a channel knife or paring knife to slice shallow, lengthwise grooves in the yellow squash, and then slice thinly.

3. To compose the salad on a large platter, spread the spinach on the platter to the edges, then mound the cooled grain in the center, leaving some spinach exposed. Arrange the carrot julienne in four fanned groupings on the grain, evenly spaced around the edges. Arrange the squash between the groups of carrots. Place the pepper slivers across the top of the mound of grain, and then arrange the asparagus or enokis and tomato spears atop that. To compose on individual plates, place the grain to one side, and group the vegetables around the plate.

4. Drizzle the remaining dressing over the salad or salads and sprinkle the chopped hazelnuts over the top.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Red Door's Chef Market Dinner

I've grown very fond of The Red Door. Once the home of my friend Amiko Gubbins' Parallel 33, the space on W. Washington St. in Mission Hills has been thoroughly transformed into a cool yet cozy bistro-like eatery. Executive chef Brian Johnston, whose experience includes Anthony's Star of the Sea, El Bizcocho, and the San Diego Convention Center, has been creating sublime comfort food since the restaurant's opening in the summer of 2009.

Like most restaurants today, The Red Door has been cleverly offering a variety of special dining events. The one that intrigued me was the Chef Market Dinner offered last night. It takes advantage of the fact that the restaurant is across the street from the Friday Mission Hills Farmers Market on Falcon St.

Last night, participants (including owner Trish Watlington) met at the restaurant at 5 p.m., then headed over with Johnston to the market for a tour. Johnston already had purchased his market ingredients and prepped the four-course meal, but it was still fun to walk around with a knowledgeable chef and learn how to choose and prepare various products. We stopped at a mushroom stand, chatted with Mark Lane of Poppa's fish about the halibut he sold Johnston for our dinner, tasted breads baked by Sadie Rose, bought bacon and fuerte avocados from Atkins Nursery, and learned how the Suzie's Farm delicata squash accompanying the halibut would be roasted.

As it started getting dark we headed back to the restaurant. There were 16 of us, all seated together at a long table. The four-course menu was a perfect reflection of the market products we'd just seen:
  • Suzie's Farms Organic Rainbow Chard Soup with Chive and Goat Cheese Crostini
  • Roasted Local Halibut with Roasted Delicata Squash, Suzie's Spicy Organic Salad Mix, Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
  • All Natural "1855" Iowa Pork Loin Stuffed with Porcini Mushroom, Butternut Squash, Sweet Onion, Parmesan and White Truffle Oil; Served with Celery Root Puree, Roasted Baby Chiogga Beets and Port Wine Sauce
  • Bartlett Pear Poached in Port Wine, Pistachio Ice Cream, Callebaut Chocolate Sauce and Almond Lace Cookie

Additionally, there was an option for a wine pairing.

The service was considerate, the servers knowledgeable, and the company terrific. I had come with a friend I was treating to a birthday dinner and it turned out many of the guests also were enjoying either a birthday or holiday gift.

Most important, of course, each dish was tremendous. Johnston clearly made the most of each of the ingredients and having just seen these at the farmers market made enjoying their transformation on the plate that much more enjoyable. (And a nice touch was a printed recipe for Lump Crab and Wild Mushroom Studel along with a gift card for dessert.)

The Red Door is located at 741 W. Washington St. at Falcon St.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Homegrown Winter Salad

I am so grateful to have a garden. Yes, it's small but I've managed to fit in a pomegranate tree, a couple of dwarf Meyer lemon trees, a dwarf mandarin orange, a variety of herbs, and plenty of succulents. This winter I picked up a treasure trove of hard-necked garlic varieties that grow well in moderate climates, like mine in San Diego. Each clove has put out shoots but summer is a long time coming. So I also planted some greens. Tatsoi, escarole, broccoli spigarello, Swiss chard, endive, and others are going gangbusters now, especially since the rains have ceased and the sun has been out.

Now, these aren't planted in the ground. They're in a large pot on my patio where I get more sun this time of year. It's also a little insurance that my cat won't dig them up. So, in fact, this is something apartment or condo dwellers with a sunny balcony can easily do. I picked up these as seedlings from Whole Earth Acre Nursery's stand at the Hillcrest Farmers Market. They're a favorite vendor of mine because they sell healthy and hard-to-find plants. I've bought epazote and mojito mint from them, as well as French tarragon and a variety of unusual basils. 

Today was warm enough that I was in the mood for a salad and that all I had to do was just step outside my kitchen with a pair of scissors and cut some greens for lunch. I kept it simple, just adding a few sliced heirloom cherry tomatoes, pepperoncini, and feta.

The dressing? An easy vinaigrette using olio nuovo I buy every fall from  California Olive Ranch and sherry vinegar. Olio nuovo is the first press of the season. The olives are young and so you get a very spicy, fruity, and enjoyably bitter flavor compared to more mellow flavors from olives harvested later in the season.

Truly, there's no reason to buy bottled dressing when it take so little effort to make something delicious yourself. For a traditional vinaigrette all you need to remember is the ratio of oil (3) to vinegar (1). Add a minced clove of garlic, a bit of mustard to help emulsify the components, and a little salt and pepper to taste, and you're good to go. In fact, most of the time, I put all the ingredients in a small glass jar, screw on the lid and shake it until it comes together. You don't need any fancy kitchen tools, although I also make it using a mortar and pestle to completely grind the garlic and salt into a paste before adding the other ingredients. The result is a very smooth garlicky sauce.

Of course, there are many variations on vinaigrettes that can help change up the flavors to match your mood or meal. I've added minced preserved lemon, various herbs--basil, dill, tarragon, and oregano come to mind--chopped and powdered peppers to add punch and flavor, and fruit juices to add sweetness.

Another favorite dressing is from a recipe my dad gave me. It's odd but delicious, using anchovies and both Parmesan and feta for a creamy, salty experience. If a salad dressing or dip can be hearty, this would be it.

Hearts of Romaine Salad

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard or to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 8 anchovy fillets, minced
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Fresh lemon or lime to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a metal blade or in a blender. Process until the mixture comes together. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Use as a salad dressing or dip for Romaine leaves.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

An Aphrodisiac Dinner for Your Valentine: Feb. 5

There's nothing that symbolizes romantic love quite like chocolate and wine. So, if you're searching for some seductive dishes that will let your honey know how you feel on Valentine's Day, come to the upcoming class presented by the San Diego chapter of Les Dames D'Escoffier International and Chefs Bernard Guillas and Ron Oliver of the Marine Room.

The class, "An Aphrodisiac Dinner for Your Valentine," will be held on Saturday, Feb. 5 from 1 to 3:30 p.m. at the Macy's Mission Valley Home Store School of Cooking. It will include a tempting three-course menu tasting and each course is paired with wine.

The menu comes from the chefs's recent cookbook, Flying Pans: Two Chefs, One World, and includes:
  • Cocoa Nib Spiced Spanish Tuna Crudo with Artichoke Asparagus Salad, Orange Gastrique, and Pecorino 
  • Achiote Rubbed Fillet Mignon, Ancho Cacao Sauce, Arroz Verde, and Pepitas 
  • Kona Kahlua Tart and Crystallized Ginger Creme Fresca (recipe below)
The doors open at noon so come early to participate in an opportunity drawing, gift certificate boards, and a food/wine/hospitality/arts-related silent auction.

A portion of the event's proceeds will benefit a variety of social and scholarship projects, including The Tomorrow Project, Rachel's Women's Center, the Culinary Arts Program at St. Vincent De Paul Village, the Organic Garden at St. Madeleine Sophie's Center, Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center, and the Culinary Arts Program at the Art Institute of California-San Diego.

Tickets are $40 each in advance (before Jan. 28) and $45 at the door. To purchase tickets, send a check to:

LDEI, SD c/o Carol Blomstrom
1762 Garnet Ave.
San Diego, CA 92109

Or go to the Macy's Mission Valley Home Store events page to view the flyer for more information about reservations.

And, here's a preview of one of the dishes you'll be sampling:

Photo courtesy of Gregory Bertolini

Chocolate Kahlúa Tart
Candied Ginger Crema Fresca
from Flying Pans
Serves 8

Walnut Crust
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, soften
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 cup all purpose flour, sifted
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup walnut oil
1 lemon, zested, juiced
1 large egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Butter 9-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Combine walnuts and sesame seeds on cookie sheet. Bake 5 minutes until toasted. Cool. Transfer to food processor. Combine with flour, sugar and salt. Process until walnuts are finely ground. Transfer to large mixing bowl. Make well in center of mixture. Pour in oil, lemon juice and zest. Stir with wooden spoon until dough forms a ball. Transfer to floured work surface. Roll to 11-inch circle, 1/8-inch thick. Gently ease dough into tart pan. Press dough into the edges and sides of pan. Prick dough with a fork. Refrigerate 30 minutes. Line dough with parchment paper. Fill with pie weights or beans. Bake 10 minutes. Remove weight and parchment. Brush shell with egg. Bake additional 5 minutes or until golden. Cool on wire rack.

Chocolate Espresso Filling
5 ounces chopped dark chocolate, 72% cocoa
1/2 cup unsalted butter, diced
4 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup Kahlúa liqueur
1 cup espresso coffee, cold
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 envelope powdered gelatin

Lower oven to 350˚F. Add chocolate and butter to large mixing bowl set over pot of barely simmering water, ensuring bottom of bowl does not touch water. Stir until melted. Whisk eggs, egg yolks and sugar in mixing bowl until pale yellow and ribbony. Stir in Kahlúa and 1/3 cup espresso. Whisk into chocolate. Remove from heat. Strain through fine sieve into prepared tart shell. Bake 18 minutes or until set. Transfer to wire rack to cool. Combine brown sugar and remaining espresso in small sauce pan. Sprinkle gelatin over surface of liquid to bloom. Place over medium heat. Stir constantly until gelatin dissolves. Do not boil. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature. Evenly ladle over tart. Refrigerate overnight. Unmold.

Candied Ginger Crema

1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 teaspoon lime juice
pinch sea salt
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup diced crystallized ginger 

Whisk heavy cream, crème fraîche, lime juice, salt and honey in mixing bowl, just to combine. Cover. Refrigerate 3 hours. Fold in ginger.

2 slices candied ginger
8 sprigs fresh mint

Cut tart into 8 slices. Place 1 slice in center of large serving plate. Place a dollop of ginger crema on top. Slice ginger into fine strips. Lean atop cream. Garnish with mint sprig.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Ode to the Crosne

Last week, after hearing too many references to celeriac and not ever having tried it, let alone seen it, I asked my friends at Specialty Produce if they carried the root. Sure enough they did and invited me to come by and pick some up to try. Which I did -- and will write about in another week or so. But, while I was there and reviewing recipes with their Kelly Orange, I noticed a reference to crosnes. Yet another mystery to me. Kelly sent me home with a bag of them as well. And I wrote about them in last week's Local Bounty blog, which I write for San Diego Magazine.

Take a look at these tubers. They're quite small -- perhaps up to three inches long at most. And, they aren't very appetizing looking -- really like little grubs. But don't let their looks put you off. They're crispy and have a lovely, delicate sweet and nutty flavor reminiscent of sunchokes.

Crosnes were introduced in the West in the 1880s by a French farmer and writer, who received them from an important collector of Chinese plants, a Dr. Bretschneider. A Frenchman named Palillieux loved the plant and started producing them. He gave the little tubers (officially Stachys affinis) the name of Crosne—his village. He did such a great job growing and marketing them that they became a hit across Europe. In England, they became known as Chinese artichoke—probably referencing Jerusalem artichokes, although they have nothing to do with Jerusalem or artichokes. It's the flavor they were likely capturing.

Locally, they're grown at in California at Weiser Family Farms, which is where Specialty Produce gets theirs.

So, what do you do with these little plants? The easiest preparation, which will also introduce you to their crunchy, slightly nutty flavor, is to saute them in garlic and either butter or a nutty oil, touched with just a little salt and pepper. However, they're irresistible pickled -- as a snack or for cocktails -- or marinated. I marinated mine yesterday and made a light salad, adapting a recipe I found in the wonderful reference book Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider

Marinated Crosne, Carrot and Cherry Tomato Salad with Dill
Serves 4

3/4 pound of crosnes and baby carrots, ideally a mix of half and half
2 small scallions
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
3 tablespoons mirin (syrupy Japanese rice wine)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 pint cherry tomatoes
Optional: fine-snipped fresh dill

1. Rinse crosnes, trim loose rootlets. Slice carrots in half.
2. Drop crosnes and carrots in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Return to boil and blanch for 1 minute. Drain and refresh in cold water to stop the cooking process. Drain and spread on a towel to dry and cool.
3. Cut apart light and dark parts of scallions. Mince the light part and add to a small bowl with rice vinegar, dried dill, and mirin. Blend, then drizzle in oil and whisk to emulsify.
4. Transfer the crosnes and carrots to the bowl and mix with the dressing. Chill for about three hours.
5. To serve, halve the tomatoes and thinly slice the green part of the scallions. You can place the crosnes and carrot mixture on a bed of lettuce or just on the plate. Add the tomatoes and sprinkle with the scallion greens and fresh dill.

Note that you don't need to peel the skin off the crosnes, although Schneider suggests rinsing them, putting them on a towel, sprinkling with coarse salt and rubbing the tubers with the salted towel to get the skin off. Me? I just rinsed them and left the skins on and they were fine.

Currently, the only place I know in San Diego that sells crosnes is Specialty Produce. If you've found them elsewhere, let me know.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

My Bread Baking Adventures, Part 3: Crusty Cheese Bread

So, this bread from Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day combines two of my favorite things -- crusty sourdough bread and cheese. It actually reminds me of a very different roll I used to buy at the Diamond Bakery on Fairfax in L.A. when I lived there. That roll was also filled with cheddar cheese but I believe it was made with eggy challah dough. I could never quite put my finger on what made it so special, though, until I made this sourdough bread: onions. Because they sort of melt into the dough when baking you don't get a clear, definitive oniony flavor, but it clearly has an impact. So, not only did I enjoy making and eating this bread, I got a handle on how to make a cherished favorite bread I haven't had in about 20 years.

Like Reinhart's other crusty sourdough breads, you begin with your mother starter and make a baking starter that is best refrigerated overnight. Then, on baking day, enters a wealth of ingredients not otherwise included in the levains and rustic breads I've been making from the book. Here we have milk, instant yeast, honey, diced onions, and cheese. I opted for cheddar but any hard cheese should work. I admit, I also added several cloves of minced garlic. The dough below includes everything but the cheese, which gets added later.

The dough, which was kneaded for a whole two minutes, could be refrigerated overnight or up to four days, but can also be baked on the same day and that's what I opted for. That meant it needed to rest for about 90 minutes, during which time it does an impressive rise. Then it's time to add the cheese and shape. This recipe is enough for two loaves. So, I divided the poofy dough in two, then stretched each piece into a rectangle. Unlike many of Reinhart's other doughs, this is actually very easy to work with since it isn't as wet.

Now, you can either shred, grate, or cube the cheese and add it at this point. I opted for cubing. I could also have simply kneaded the dough into the bread before shaping to avoid air pockets caused by the melting cheese, but I wanted to try Reinhart's roll-up method first.

Once you roll up the cheese into the dough, you'll shape it into a loaf and let it rise for about two hours, during which time it should swell nicely.

You can see the cheese just poking out a bit, as well as bits of onion, but don't worry about it; you're baking the loaves on a parchment paper-lined pan. Pre-heat the oven, slash the loaves, and then it's time to bake.

Yes, some of the cheese oozed out, but that's why you're using parchment paper, right? The breads were nice and crispy on the outside but very moist and with a good crumb inside. Just let the loaves cool for about an hour before slicing. It was hard to wait but worth it.

This was my New Year's Eve treat, along with a mini lasagna I'm still enjoying -- but that's another story for another day!

I hope you all had a wonderful New Year's celebration and wish you the very best in 2011!

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