Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In a Pickle at Tender Greens

Pete Balistreri and, uh, Pete Balistreri. Cousins.
Tender Greens, a chain of casual organic restaurants, is the best sort of chain--each location has its own local style intact. And, by local, I mean truly local. The San Diego Tender Greens buys produce from local farms; in fact, one of their vendors, Pt. Loma Farm, is literally across the street. They also whip up their own unique creations. The chefs Pete Balistreri (they are cousins who share the same name) are currently in the final stages of securing U.S.D.A. approval to sell their handcrafted salamis. You can enjoy them at their Liberty Station location on the charcuterie board, but soon also at other locations via retail.

They also are terrific picklers. Recently Pete -- on the left -- taught a pickling class at the Fashion Valley Williams-Sonoma. I couldn't make it, so I was invited for a private session in the restaurant's kitchen. Two chefs, three types of pickles. An irresistible offer.

Most people who shy away from home pickling do it because they're intimidated by the canning process. Now, with these three recipes, no canning is involved--although you could do it if you wanted. These are basically meant to be eaten quickly and within a week. Here, we used conventional cucumbers, cauliflower, and onions--but you could select other vegetables to great effect. In fact, the cauliflower recipe was originally written for fennel. For the cucumber, you can substitute with Japanese or English cucumbers. For the onions, go for white, yellow, or red onions--or garlic or shallots, or a combination. This is easy stuff and wonderful to snack on to add a little acid to a meal to cut the fat in a charcuterie or cheese plate, or a fatty protein like pork, salmon, or lamb.

Asian-Style Pickle
from Pete Balistreri

Sliced cucumbers
Rice wine vinegar
Red peppercorns

How easy is this. Just mix all the ingredients together. Refrigerate for an hour. Eat. Serve with fish (how about sashimi?) and a salad. Mix the liquid with olive oil and create a vinaigrette. Or heat the liquid and pour over tougher cucumber varieties like lemon cukes, wait till they cool, then eat. (Note: I make these all the time but use red pepper flakes instead of the whole peppercorns. They're my perfect quick and refreshing snack on a hot summer day.)

Pickled Onions
from Pete Balistreri
Yield: 3 quarts

3 cups red wine vinegar
7 cups water
1 cup red wine (like a Pinot Noir)
1/2 cup sugar
1 bunch thyme
6 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
4 onions (yellow or red), julienned

Mix together all the ingredients but the onions in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Pour over the onions. Let cool. Give them 24 hours to develop their color and then serve. Try these inside a beef taco or to top a salad.

Pickled Cauliflower
from Pete Balistreri
Yield: 2 quarts

3 cups champagne vinegar
8 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
1 bunch thyme
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 head cauliflower

Mix all ingredients but the cauliflower in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Pour over the vegetables. Let cool, wait 24 hours for the color to develop, then serve. You can save the liquid and reheat for another batch.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mama's Bakery: A Quick Course on Hummus 101

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the series of cooking classes being offered through the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association. I attended one of them recently--the class offered by Mama's Bakery owner Edward Haidar. This means I got to learn how to make their light and tangy Lebanese hummus.

Mama's has been around since 1988, but Haidar took it over from the original owners in 2004. A longtime customer, Haidar actually had no cooking experience--he was a computer guy--but he put in 15-hour days, seven days a week, using cookbooks and the guidance of his five sisters to learn the recipes that have made Mama's a favorite hangout in North Park. Clearly, he's up to speed.

My favorite dish is the fried eggplant wrap, which incorporates fried eggplant, luxuriant baba ganoush, and bright Lebanese pickles in the restaurant's homemade sajj flatbread. Then I alternate squirting on their tingling hot sauce (turns out it's just Louisiana brand Cajun Sauce) with taking big dripping bites until I reach the messy end. I also enjoy their chicken wraps and the crunchy falafel, served with a traditional garlic paste. In fact, Haidar explained how he makes this simple dip--boil potatoes until soft, let them cool and then peel, put in a blender with a lot of garlic cloves, mayonaise, and salt, then puree.

Eight people attended the class, which was held in the tiny house adjoining the restaurant. We squeezed in and Haidar gathered us around a little space where he had laid out his "mise en place."

He had already soaked and prepped dried garbanzo beans so all he needed to do was crush the garlic and add all the ingredients together in the robot coupe to puree the mixture. It took all of about five minutes and we had plates of hummus with warm sajj bread at tables in the restaurant patio. Haidar brought out little samples of the garlic paste for us to taste and big pots of tea with mint. So, a quick class, but fun--and tasty.

Mama's Bakery's Chick Pea Puree
(Hommus bi-Tahineh)
(printable recipe)

Hommus bi-Tahineh is one of the staples of our mezze and is served with a variety of toppings that distinguish our hommus from that of other Middle Eastern countries. In order to get the required smooth ivory mixture, cook the chick peas until very tender and grind them very fine.

Serves 4

1 cup dried chick peas
1 teaspoon baking soda
Scant cup of tahini
Juice of 2 lemons, or to taste
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Salt to taste
Paprika, Cumin, and olive oil for garnish

The night before:
Put the chick peas to soak in three times their volume of water as they will double in size. Stir in one teaspoon baking soda; this should soften them and therefore help reduce the cooking time.

Rinse the chick peas under cold water. Put them in a saucepan, cover well with cold water, and place over high heat. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan and cook for 1 1/2 hours or until very tender.

Drain the chick peas, keeping some of the water in case you need it later to thin the puree. Put the chick peas in a blender or food processor, reserving a few whole peas for the garnish. Process to a smooth puree and transfer to a mixing bowl.

Stir in the tahini. The color of the mixture will become lighter. Add salt to taste and blend well together. Pour in half of the lemon juice and add the rest gradually to reach the desired flavor and level of sourness. Add the crushed garlic and mix again.

If the puree is too thick, add in some of the soaking water to thin it down. The puree should be soft and creamy, but not runny. Taste, adjust the seasonings if necessary, then pour into a shallow round or oval bowl and spread across the dish, raising the puree slightly over the sides. Arrange the reserved chick peas in a little mound in the middle. Sprinkle the raised edges with paprika and cumin and trickle a little olive oil into the dip between the spices and the mound of whole chickpeas.

*Note: since posting this I got a request from a reader for Eddie's Baba Ganoush. He has generously given me the recipe and here it is:

Mama’s Bakery’s Baba Ganoush
Serves 4

3 large eggplants
3 tablespoons tahini
Juice of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 tablespoons salt

Prick eggplants in several places with a knife or a fork to stop them from bursting during cooking and cook whole on a hot grill for 30 minutes, turning them to expose all sides.

When cooked the eggplants should have shriveled to about have their size. They should be soft to the touch. You can also microwave them about 6 minutes, or in the oven at high 350 for about 45 minutes. However, if you use microwave, or oven you will not get the smoky charred taste of the open fire cooking.

Cool eggplant under cold running water, peel and discard skin. While they are still hot, put the flesh in a colander to drain for 10 minutes.

Cut off and discard the stalks before putting eggplant in wide mixing bowl and mashing them with a masher or fork.

(If you prefer to use a food processor, be careful not to liquidize the eggplant. That's where lot of people make a mistake. No more than 3 to four turn should be enough to get the right consistency.)

Put tahini and salt in food processor and turn processor. Or add tahini and lemon juice to the eggplant you’ve hand blended. For the food processor, you can add the eggplant at this point. You want to control the blender or food processor to no more than 3 to 4 turns. You want a thick texture with the eggplant seed showing.

Pour the puree in a serving bowl.

To garnish:
Add mint leaves, parsley, or pomegranate seeds.
Add paprika and olive oil.
Serve with pita bread.
Mama's Bakery is located at 4237 Alabama St., just south of El Cajon Blvd. To learn more about the series, visit the website. To sign up, contact Beryl Forman at

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Corned Swordfish and Cabbage: A New St. Patrick's Day Classic?

So, I write this piece on corned beef at Iowa Meat Farms and get a note from a friend who works with Sea Rocket Bistro. "You know, Chef Tommy Fraioli is making corned swordfish for St. Patrick's Day. Want to try it?"

Hmmm, it sounded both intriguing and a little off putting at the same time. Until I realized that I had grown up with and loved pickled herring. So, really, what's the big deal?

Today, I drove over to the restaurant and watched Fraioli, Sea Rocket Bistro's new executive chef, prepare the dish in its different stages.

First, he pulled out a glistening 10-pound piece of swordfish filet from Catalina Offshore Products. He trimmed it into smaller pieces that will sit for four days in a brine of water, pink salt, sea salt, brown sugar, and pickling spices. (Tough beef brisket, on the other hand, needs to be broken down--think six weeks bathing in brine.)

Fraioli mixes up the brine, brings it to a boil, then lets it simmer. It cools and is poured over the fish.

The fish bathe in it in the fridge for the four days. Then, Fraioli explained, it's rinsed off, placed in a pot filled with water that's brought to a boil, then reduced to a simmer. The fish cooks for an hour or two--until it's fork tender. Then it's removed from the pot and Fraioli adds sliced carrots, cabbage, and hunks of potato to cook.

The dish is plated and served with a whole grain and Dijon mustard mix that Fraioli is still messing around with. He's going to add some kind of beer to it, probably Rey Knight/Butcher's Brewing's Mucho Aloha Pale Ale, which has cloves and allspice in it to complement the pickling spices.

When Sea Rocket Bistro serves the dish ($16) on St. Patrick's Day, it'll be accompanied by Fraioli's freshly baked Irish soda bread, made with whiskey-soaked raisins, and whiskey butter. He's thinking of making soda bread pudding for dessert.

As for the flavors? Surprisingly delicious. The swordfish is moist and tender, with a hint of cloves and a slightly pickled flavor. I ate it with whole grain mustard and the strong rustic, almost spicy, tones of the mustard married beautifully with the mild fish. And, the vegetables, which also cooked briefly in the pickling liquid, had a terrific sweet salty spice-laden flavor. Altogether, it's a great meal and a nice alternative to heavy and more caloric corned beef. It's really a dish all its own.

In addition to the corned swordfish, Sea Rocket Bistro will be serving a variety of Irish-themed small plates.

Sea Rocket Bistro is located at 3382 30th St. in North Park.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wine & Dine San Diego Radio: A Feast for Your Ears

Several years ago, I got my start on radio on The Gourmet Club, later named San Diego Gourmet. Ron James was the host with wine expert Robert Whitley. I came on as a guest several times. Then Ron would call me at the last minute to fill in if they had an open slot. Finally, he just got me a security badge at the U-T, where the show was produced and told me I was the new co-host. It was about the most fun I'd ever had professionally.

Then it ended because the U-T closed down the studio. But, hey, folks, starting March 10 we're back and this time on terrestrial radio, KFSD Radio 1450 AM. Called Wine & Dine San Diego Radio, the show will air every Saturday afternoon from 1 to 2. Ron, of course, is the host. Whitley and I, also joined by David Nelson and Frank Mangio, will be co-hosts. And, there will be a slew of reporters from Ron's Wine and Dine San Diego website calling in to report on items such as new restaurant openings, chef moves, and upcoming events.

Host and executive producer Ron James
For our debut show, we're featuring Jeff Rossman of Terra and his new Mission Valley burger joint Bunz, Hanis Cavin of Carnitas Snack Shack, and Dick Gilmore of Iowa Meat Farms and Siesel's Meats to talk about barrel aging corned beef--just in time for St. Patrick's Day.

If you can't listen to the show live on the radio, we'll be streaming it live on and have a podcast available. Later on, we're also hoping to have a studio with a kitchen so we can do video. Grand plans, but Ron is a determined guy and I'm a believer.

Join us for the fun, send us show topic suggestions, and even call in. I'm planning on having some segments with chefs that deal with specific cooking issues so we can solve your pressing kitchen dilemmas.

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