Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Market Bliss: Tijuana's Mercado Hidalgo

A good public market both embraces and reveals the essence of its community. Tijuana's Mercado Hidalgo is a wild kaleidoscope of colors everywhere you turn, from the vibrant produce to the crazy cartoon piƱatas. It's charged with spicy, sweet, and earthy scents--of dried ancho, morita, and chipotle chiles mingling with chicharones and what used to be called penny candy. It's a vision of rich textures of luscious moles, sticky candied fruits, and silky smooth beans. In short, Mercado Hidalgo is utterly Tijuana. Not the violent Tijuana we've been hearing about in the news for the past several years, but a city with an appreciation of traditional foods that appeal to the eye as well as the taste buds.

I hadn't been to the Mercado in many years, but the memories of the place came back in a rush last week as we--Dan Nattrass of Catalina Offshore Products, Chef Trey Foshee of Georges at the Cove, and I--pulled into the parking lot of the U-shaped market, anchored by a chapel honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Produce stalls abundant with fresh peppers, spiny chayote squash, and vibrant orange papaya sit alongside stalls overflowing with multi-colored beans and lentils, spices, dried chiles, and barrels of tamarind pods and piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar pressed in the shape of a cone). There are vendors selling rustic pottery, granite molcajetes, and cheap but appealing kitchenware. And, cheese shops with some of the saltiest cotija, enchilado, and queso fresco around.

Trucks pull in and huge, bloody sides of beef and pork are lugged off by smiling butcher shop workers. There's a tortilleria filled with men at conveyor belts pulling off and stacking small corn tortillas while others are mixing up the masa. Another stall is crammed with spices and intriguing culinary chemicals lined up in large glass canisters on high shelves and dozens of different varieties of wood chips in bins--we're still trying to figure out what they're for.

At a produce stand in the middle of the parking lot, primed for tourists taking photos, a hefty guy wielding a machete is rapidly taking apart a coconut. In fact, unlike most markets, where managers scurry over to make me put away my camera, people were calling to me to take their picture.

And, I did. Here's just a sampling of the stunning wares I saw and the people working the stalls. For this market junkie, it was pure bliss. I intend to return soon to buy bags of dried chiles and spices, some mole, maybe even a coconut.

Mercado Hidalgo is located in downtown Tijuana at Blvd. Taboada and Av Independencia.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tijuana's Erizo Cebicheria

I spent the day today in Tijuana, where I haven't been in years. Like many people, the troubles (read violence) in recent years have kept me away. But when my friend Dan Nattrass of Catalina Offshore Products called me with an invitation to go down with Chef Trey Foshee of George's at the Cove to visit fish markets and the Central Mercado I couldn't resist. Then Trey sent us a note suggesting we try Erizo Cebicheria for lunch. It was the makings of a perfect day.

And it was. More on the markets in the future. Lunch alone was worth the drive. The restaurant is owned by the Plascencia family. I'm a fan of son Javier's Bonita  restaurant Romesco, but the family has several highly regarded ones in Tijuana. Erizo Cebicheria is located in the upscale Chapultepec neighborhood. It's bright and modern and a great spot for a casual lunch if you love seafood.

Javier sent me a list of his recommendations of what to order off the menu. We followed it and weren't disappointed. We had our favorites but all were unique and delicious--and made us wonder how it is that no one in San Diego is doing anything remotely similar.

So, take a look at these and then make a trip there yourself. The restaurant is located at Ave Sonora No 3808-11 just off Blvd Agua Caliente.

Octopus Carpaccio with nopales and avocado
Sea Urchin Chupe--like sea urchin nectar  

Tuna and Machaca Tostada (so elegant a "fusion" dish, flavored with ponzu)

Pulpo (octopus) Mesquite (one of our favorites)
Chicharon de Tuna (this was another huge favorite)
The Chicharon (little pieces of tuna somehow made dry inside with a sweet fried exterior reminiscent of orange chicken) served taco style with guacamole and salsa
Swordfish Pibel topped with grilled pineapple, then eaten taco style with guacamole, salsa verde, and pickled red onions
Blueberry Tamal in Banana Leaf (Stunning, smooth and all blueberry)

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tweak the Seder Meal with an Apple-Matzoh Kugel

Holiday meals are sacred stuff and it's the rare family that likes to change tradition. Passover is certainly one of those meals. In our family, it means chicken soup with matzoh balls (floaters, not sinkers), doctored gefilte fish (Mom adds cooked carrots and onions to the jelly), brisket, matzoh meal popovers, and usually asparagus as our vegetable side. And, of course, all the delights of the Seder table.

Where we tend to fail each year is with kugel. The problem is they tend to be dry and chewy, especially potato kugel.

My mom and I attended our temple's Women's Seder a couple of weeks ago and both did double takes when we took bites of the matzoh kugel served. We could taste apples. It was moist and not too heavy. We kind of liked it. So when my mom found the recipe of the temple's website, she decided to make it for our little Seder and I decided to make it for the Seder with friends I was invited to the night before Passover began.

But Mom did, of course, change it up. She rarely sticks to an actual recipe but instead adds her unique stamp to it. To this she added a couple more matzohs, plus lemon zest and juice, dried cranberries, and chopped pecans to top it. She chose tart Granny Smiths to keep it from becoming overly sweet.

And then she made a mistake, which actually improved the kugel. She'd put it all together and poured about half of the melted butter on top just before sprinkling the cinnamon sugar and nuts--and then realized she'd forgotten to add the dried cranberries. So she folded them in and the melted butter went with them, adding another layer of flavor. She finished it off with the rest of the butter and the topping and in it went into the oven, where it puffed up like a souffle and came out moist and just a little sweet.

I loved the sound of it so much, I made it for my "pre-Passover" Seder. It's as silky as a noodle kugel--one of my favorite dishes. I think this is going to be a new insert into our family tradition.

Passover Apple-Matzoh Kugel
From Congregation Beth Israel, Adapted by Evie Golden
Serves 10

8 Matzoh
12 eggs, 2 separated
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
3 large Granny Smith apples, peeled
½ cup dried cranberries (or other dried fruit)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
zest of one lemon
½ cup melted butter
Cinnamon-sugar mixture
½ cup lightly toasted, chopped pecans
  • Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Break up matzoh and pour boiling water over the pieces in a bowl. Let sit for about 5 minutes, then drain and squeeze out excess moisture if necessary.
  • Grate apples and add lemon juice and zest.
  • Beat 10 eggs, plus 2 yolks, and the vanilla. Set the whites aside.
  • Combine the sugar, salt, and cinnamon and add to the eggs. Stir in the matzoh and apple mixture. Blend well.
  • Beat the egg whites in a separate bowl until thick. Fold into the egg/matzoh mixture. Add the cranberries and half of the melted butter.
  • Pour into a 9 X 13 greased casserole dish. Pour the rest of the melted butter over the top. Sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar mix and pecan pieces.
  • Bake at 350 for 45 minutes to an hour.
You can make this ahead of time and bake half way, then freeze. When reheating make sure it’s thawed completely and then bake for at least 30 minutes.

And, here's a wish for a happy, healthy Pesach to my Jewish friends! Gut Yontiff!

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Passover Cupcakes? Perfect for Your Seder

I don't know about you, but finding a terrific Passover dessert is pretty daunting and usually disappointing. Between the no regular flour and no leavening you can find some dreadful offerings to choke down at the end of a Seder.

So I got a big kick out of the announcement from Sprinkles that they are doing a flourless chocolate cupcake, complete with a blue Star of David on top, for Passover. No, it's not kosher, but for those of us who don't keep kosher but like the tradition of eliminating chametz for the week, this sounds terrific.

The Passover cupcakes will be available from April 18th to the 26th. In San Diego, Sprinkles is located in La Jolla in the same shopping center as Whole Foods.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Taste--In Honor of George

The San Diego food community lost a dear friend a week ago. George Palmer, owner with his wife Mary of TasteCheese, passed away after a tough illness. Those of us who were his friends are still in shock. Mary has been amazingly strong throughout, doing everything in her power to will him back to good health and then letting him go when the unthinkable time finally came--all while working hard at her farmers market booths with a good cheer that masked what she's been enduring.

Yesterday, Mary's weekly newsletter talked about the cheeses George loved the most--stinky French Epoisses, freshly cut Parmigiano Reggiano, Acapella, Tomme Dolce and Minuet. These choices don't surprise me. George was a true epicure, a master of cheeses, as well as wines and beers. Want to have a passionate discussion on olive oils or balsamic vinegars? George was your guy. In the days when they owned their shop on University in Hillcrest, I'd go in to chat and nibble so George could teach me about the latest new cheese they got in or their latest salt or other condiment they had discovered at a trade show. George and Mary introduced me to saba, truffle salt, Knight Salumi, and fennel pollen--not to mention a host of artisan cheeses I adore.

George was a smart, sweet, funny, witty man with a booming deep voice to match his astounding height. He was truly a man of taste--but thoroughly unpretentious about it. He just wanted others to enjoy what he was so utterly tickled by. I'm glad I got to know him and that he became my friend. I will miss him terribly.

Now it's time to celebrate his life and support Mary as she continues on with her life and her business. Stop by the TasteCheese booth at the Little Italy Mercato, Adams Ave., North Park, and Hillcrest farmers markets. Ask Mary if you can try George's favorite cheeses and then buy some and enjoy it with a great glass of wine or beer to have your own celebration of what George loved so much.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

School Lunch. What You Enjoyed--Or Missed

Last Sunday's "School Lunch" event put on by Cooks Confab and Slow Food Urban San Diego was that perfect combination of convivial, educational, and simply delicious. The crowd--and it was a crowd--learned about the issues around creating healthy lunch programs at our local schools from Vanessa Zajfen, San Diego Unified's Farm to School Specialist. In the background you could hear the chefs prepping the cafeteria line and before long lines of guests were forming to try the salad bar and nutritious and tasty variations on traditional (nasty) cafeteria items. Take a look...

Jack Fisher and Katie Grebow prepping their dishes

Even the chefs' kids got involved. Isn't Jason Knibb's son adorable!
Lori Huffman made strawberry yogurt with chocolate dipping sticks.
Paul McCabe and Donald Coffman made "fish and chips" -- wild striped bass and baked veggie chips
Just a part of the best salad bar ever from Waters Fine Catering and Melissa Mayer
Gorgeous noodle salad at the salad bar
The Altmanns with Lisa's amazing Viva Pops fresh popsicles.
Lots of culinary student volunteers from The Art Institute helped out.
Snake Oil's Ian Ward made "strawberry milkshakes."
Lining up at the salad bar...
Michelle Cox and daughter Cerise filled their trays.
Very casual lunch

Family-style lunch
Dining Detail's Julie Frans enjoying a meal without the kids.
Time for dessert!
Want to learn more about efforts at improving school lunch programs locally and beyond--and how you can effect change? Here are some resources:

San Diego Unified Farm to School program
EcoSchool Design
Edible Schoolyard
Chefs Move to Schools
Olivewood Gardens
School Nutrition Association
Slow Food in Schools

If you have some examples of school districts making positive changes or ideas for how to improve school nutrition, let's hear it!

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