Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Just in Time for Beer Week: Brandon Hernandez's Comprehensive Ode to San Diego Suds

A couple of weekends ago a friend of mine, LA chef Debbie Lee, drove down to San Diego with her boyfriend and a pack of his friends for a day of craft beer tasting. The guys had a few places in mind, but as we were lingering over charcuterie and pizzas at Blind Lady Alehouse, they asked me for recommendations. I'm not much of a drinker so my first impulse was to text my pal Brandon Hernández for help. Everyone who reads about local brews and food reads Brandon's stories for the San Diego Reader and many other publications. He's San Diego's go-to guy for all things suds--and, lucky him, he now even has his dream job working for Stone Brewing Company.

I wish his new ebook, The San Diego Beer News Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries, just published by The Reader, had been downloadable that Saturday. The guys could easily have identified several of San Diego County's nearly 80 brewhouses that appealed to them based on rankings in key areas: beer quality, service, setting, and extras that go above and beyond typical options. They'd have identified the styles of beers each brewery creates, which were more restaurant oriented versus office park tasting rooms, which have top service, which offer tours or special tasting flights. In short, they'd get a micro evaluation that gets straight to the point to send them on their way. Well, I didn't have it at hand then, but just in time for San Diego Beer Week 2013, here it is.

It's no longer surprising to learn that San Diego is one of the nation's leaders in the microbrew biz. But it is astounding how quickly these facilities are springing up. Many of the venues listed here have only recently opened in the last year. Check the book's index and you'll see some 40 more are set to open soon. Somehow Brandon has managed to digest and evaluate with an eye for tiny details the key qualities that beer fanatics and newbies alike will care about across this ever-broadening spectrum of offerings.

The book is divided into seven geographical regions with a streamlined listing for each brewhouse that offers the pertinent info (address, phone, website, type of venue, hours of operation, seating, food, beer styles, best beer bets, and any specialty releases) followed by a quick but detailed paragraph describing the place, and concluding with a bar chart listing rankings. In some cases, where the place is so new, there may be no or limited rankings.

I particularly enjoyed Brandon's descriptions of each place. Here you get the benefit of his years of expertise and supple writing. About Central San Diego's White Labs he writes, "Base beers are brewed, then split into separate fermentation vessels, and dosed with different strains of yeast to show that ingredient's immense impact on the flavor of the finished beer. It's an eye-opening educational experience for beer aficionados and newcomers alike. The only knock is that the base beers could use some improvement." Throughout, he clearly is trying to be honest, instructive, and even-handed. Those places that get nicked get the treatment gently and hopefully see it as an incentive to improvement. And, he is quick to point out, he left ratings for Stone's venues to his panel of industry experts.

The index is helpful in sussing out a variety of categories. Just interested in breweries/distilleries? You'll find a quick list for those. Want to play it safe and create a tour by highest overall score? There's a list of those, along with lists of beer quality, service, setting, and location. Pick what matters most to you and follow the suds.

Overall, The San Diego Beer News Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries is a hugely useful guide that's also enjoyable to browse. Even the lack of photos is a plus since what you're getting is unadulterated information that's quick to download and surf. If you have a smart phone, you now have an indispensable pocket guide for your pub crawls. You can find it on Amazon and The Reader for $6.99

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Suzie's Farm Hosting Inaugural Dia de los Muertos Celebration at The Grove

My neighborhood in Tierrasanta is transforming itself into a Vincent Price playground of ghosts and pumpkins, skeletons, and rattling chains. Faux and real spider webs drape from trees, and it won't be long until little goblins and superheroes and princesses will begin ringing doorbells for a sugar fix.

But this time of year isn't limited to Halloween. If you want a true celebration of the dead, you've got to give yourself over to Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It's a special time in Mexico to remember loved ones who have passed and Americans are now embracing it, too.

Suzie's Farm will be hosting a family-friendly Dia de los Muertos party on Nov. 2 from 6 to 10 p.m. at their new two-acre outdoor event space, The Grove. Proceeds will benefit non-profit organizations Kitchen Commandos (which teaches families healthy cooking skills) and The Front Burner Fund (which provides funds to supplement health costs and emergency medical needs for "back of the house" restaurant staff).

So, what will you find at Suzie's Farm that evening? Chef Flor Franco of Indulge Contemporary Catering has lined up chefs including Javier Plascencia (Mision 19), Isabel Cruz (Barrio Star), Andrew Spurgin, Maylin Chavez, and others who will provide tastings inspired by traditional Mexican dishes like mole, sopes, and chile rellenos. There will also be craft cocktails and beverages from Alchemy Cultural Fare and live music from Jazz 88.3's Latin Grooves. And, scads of people like you in costume! Yes, they'd love everyone to dress up!

Tickets are $75 for adults (including two drink tickets), $55 for adults (no drinks), and $25 for children 12 and under. You can purchase tickets on their website.

Suzie's Farm is located at 2570 Sunset Ave. in San Diego, just 13 miles south of downtown San Diego.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sabina Bandera's La Guerrerense

I knew my recent overnight trip through Ensenada to Guadalupe Valley with carloads of friends would be charmed after reading this sweet bit of graffiti posted on a tired building as we entered the city: Besos con sabor a no te vayas (Flavored kisses, don't leave) credited to the Ensenada Poetry Society. With our first stop, our caravan enjoyed the sweetest kisses a port town can provide--its seafood--at what at first seemed like a nondescript street cart on the corner of Alvarado and Lopez Mateos called Mariscos La Guerrerense. Don't be fooled and certainly don't be put off by the fact that it's a street cart. The food served here would be equally at home in a white tablecloth establishment--but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun to eat.

Sabina Bandera and Flor Franco enjoying slices of octopus.
My friend chef Flor Franco led us to this surprisingly well-known little eatery now operated by Eduardo Obiedo and his wife, Sabina Bandera, a petite woman with what has to be the most captivating smile in Baja.

Started in 1960 by Eduardo's parents, Alberto Oviedo and Celia Carranza, La Guerrerense is now run by this second generation, despite the fact that as a young woman, Bandera, from a farm in solidly terra firma Guerrero, was a seafood novice. But over the years Bandera, also affectionately known as La Guerita, has become a seafood genius, embracing everything from sea snails and mussels to sea urchins and octopus. She's given name to a business that has chefs and food lovers from around the world clamoring for her simple, yet powerfully flavored fresh seafood dishes. Anthony Bourdain raves about her. There's a promotional photo of the beaming Bandera with Brian Malarkey in front of the cart. And there's always a swarm of customers waiting to be handed a plate of fresh fish on a fried corn tortilla, over which they'll drizzle one of Bandera's many salsas (which you can purchase jars of for about $5 apiece; stay tuned--she's trying to get them into Whole Foods).

There are some 14 types of ceviche available on the black banner menu draped above the back of the cart--made of fish, shrimp, octopus, clams, mussels, sea snails, sea cucumbers, fish pate...

This list goes on and on but no matter what you order, what you get is a perfect balance of sweet seafood, acid, and heat. You can also order more seafood to be sliced on top.

Sliced clam and scallops topped with rich avocado are about to get drenched by one of La Guerrerense's 16 sauces. 
I'm a pretty adventurous eater but I admit to having had some reservations about trying sea snail, above. But being a good sport paid off. These slices of sea snail have the texture and umami of a rich shitake mushroom. Definitely a must try.
Or, you can order anything in a shell, like this black clam ceviche below a dollop of fresh avocado.

Surrounding the cart are boxes of avocados and glowing orange habanero chiles. I can't imagine how much they go through in the course of a day. At the front of the cart is a stack of salsa jars sporting beautifully styled labels and irresistible organic sauces.

Indeed, selecting salsas can be the most time consuming part of the experience. On the day I was there, the sauce of choice by far seemed to be the Chilitos de mi Jardin, peanut halves bathed in a lively chile-infused oil. Not only does the salsa have a spicy crunch that complements the seafood, it looks dreamy on whatever you put it on. I bought a jar, along with the creamy orange Chilito Diablito, which is as fiery as it sounds--but will be perfect used sparingly on tacos or other dishes and added to other sauces to pump up the heat with habanero flavor.

This seafood mix above has everything you want from a seafood cart just blocks away from a sprawling port. Everything is fresh and clean tasting with beautiful textures and a nice bite from the salsas.

One of the staff is preparing a plate of sliced octopus for our group to taste. First, it gets a dousing of lime juice, then a drizzle of hot sauce.
As if this weren't enough, you also get serenaded during your meal by this charming guitarist.

Bandera could charge a lot more than the $5 or so per tostada, but don't come here because it's a bargain. Come if you worship creatively prepared fresh seafood. La Guerrerense is open daily from 10 or 10:30 a.m. until she runs out of food at around 4 or 5 p.m. Look for the large flag pole by the port at Av. Alvarado and then turn left and go down two blocks.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Clay Pot Winter Squash

Clearly, it was fate. After a week of uncomfortable dog day October weather, Santa Anas and all, it's a chilly blustery day and I have a kitchen filled with winter squash from Specialty Produce that I picked up last week. And so tonight's dinner will be one of my go-to, one-dish meals, Clay Pot Winter Squash.

But which squash will it be? The sugar pie?

Nah, that I'll save for a real pumpkin pie. They're so sweet that they meant for baked goods like pies, muffins, and breads.

I could use one of the two minis--orange and white.

I could, but, they're so delightful baked whole. You can simply remove the top, scoop out the seeds, add milk and grated cheese (try gruyere), then bake at 350 until tender. Scrape down the inside flesh of the pumpkin, gently stir, season, and enjoy a little cup of soup.

The variegated sweet dumpling squash is another option--and not a bad one. I love their striped ribs and they're a colorful option for slicing and roasting.

No, tonight's clay pot stew will glow with the amber color of of the Red Kuri squash. The color is so seductive, the nutty flavor is like eating a roasted chestnut. So, it'll go well with the andouille chicken sausage I'll chop into it, as well as raisins and Cuzco corn. Serve it on a bed of brown rice or quinoa,  and you're set for a warming meal on a cold rainy night.

Clay Pot Winter Squash
(Printable Recipe)
Serves 6

2 pounds winter squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1/2 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups giant Cuzco corn (you can find frozen in Hispanic markets)
1 cup golden raisins or other dried fruit
2 large fresh sausages, sliced
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons brown sugar, plus more to sprinkle on toward end of baking
1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
ground pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients and mix well. Add to 3-quart stoneware pot and cover. Place the pot in the middle rack of the oven. Turn on oven to 375˚ (it's important not to preheat the oven; you want to gently warm the clay pot or else it will crack when exposed to high heat). Bake for about an hour and a half. Open the lid and use a fork to determine if the squash is cooked through. If so, sprinkle the mixture with brown sugar and let cook another 15 minutes uncovered. Remove from oven and serve.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Celebrate the Craft with Pickled Watermelon Gherkins

This Sunday afternoon I know where I'll be: at my very favorite annual food event, Celebrate the Craft at The Lodge at Torrey Pines. This intimate food festival extolls the collaboration between San Diego's best chefs and our growers, vintners, and culinary artisans. Led by A.R. Valentien exec chef Jeff Jackson, the chef round up includes Paul Arias (The Fishery), Pete Balistreri (Tender Greens), Antonio Friscia (Gaijin), Katie Grebow (Cafe Chloe), Matt Gordon (Sea & Smoke), Javier Plascencia (Misión 19), Monica Szepesy (Q'ero), Jason Knibb (Nine-Ten), and so many more. And the setting, on a pristine lawn overlooking the golf course and the sparkling Pacific Ocean, couldn't be more stunning.

One of the great traditions of Celebrate the Craft is having jars upon jars of house-made pickles and preserves from A.R. Valentien for guests to take home. In recent years, chef de cuisine Kelli Crosson has taken on the task of creating them--all 320 jars, divided this year between bread-and-butter pickles, pickled watermelon gherkins, and stone-fruit mostarda. She invited me to their sprawling kitchen to help her make a batch of the pickled watermelon gherkins. It turns out they're quite easy to make and even the canning wary should give these a try.

These unusual heirloom gherkins are known by numerous names, including Mouse Melons, Mexican sour gherkins, Cucamelons, and Cuka-Nuts. They're tiny, about the size of a grape, and look just like ultra-mini watermelons. They're terrific for pickling, but you can enjoy them raw, add them to a salsa, or even to a cocktail. When they're in season, I've found them at Suzie's Farm farmers market stalls and Specialty Produce.

Crosson, who has been with A.R. Valentien for four years, is originally from a small town called Exeter in Central California, having grown up on a citrus farm. As a child, an aunt's gift of cooking tools got her hooked on cooking--to her it was a way of creating community around a table, whether it was her family or friends, or, later, restaurant customers. Like many, Crosson got sidetracked and, in her case, she went into advertising in San Diego before she chucked it and left for the East Coast to attend the French Culinary Institute (now The International Culinary Center) in New York. "It was one of the best experiences of my life," she says. From there she headed to Washington, D.C., where she worked in catering at the Ronald Reagan Building and even catered for the Supreme Court. But, she realized she was more suited for the discipline of working the line and creating food à la minute so she returned to San Diego and started work at A.R. Valentien as a line cook, before being promoted to sous chef and, six months ago, chef de cuisine.

It was at this juncture that we met. And now, all these months later, we spent the morning making  pickles.

We started, of course, with sterilized half-pint glass jars and lids. Crosson set out a bunch of them, and I started adding the herbs and spices.

Since I was wearing contact lenses, Crosson sliced and distributed the serrano chiles.

Then came the little gherkins, followed by a classic pickle brine of water, distilled white vinegar, sugar, and kosher salt that Crosson had already brought to a boil. I absolutely want this stainless steel confectionary funnel we used to inject the water/vinegar mixture into the jars. It gives so much control with hot liquids!

We screwed on the lids and placed the jars into steel containers that would then go into the kitchen's large steamer for about 10 minutes. For us home cooks, we'd be placing them into a water bath.

Since then they've been sitting in a pantry and will be ready to eat by this Sunday.

I broke open a jar early and found that even now, they're itty bitty flavor balls--crispy with a little saltiness, a hint of clove, and a pleasing hit of heat on the palate. I'll be making these for myself. You can, too. Here's Kelli's recipe:

Pickled Watermelon Gherkins
from Kelli Crosson of A.R. Valentien
(printable recipe)

Makes 2 pints

1/2 pound watermelon gherkins, washed with stems removed
1 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 serrano chile, halved
4 garlic cloves
2 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1. Wash and sterilize two pint jars and lids, per manufacturer instructions.
2. In a non-reactive saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar to a boil.
3. Meanwhile, divide the serrano, garlic, clove, bay leaf, mustard seed, and peppercorns between the jars, and pack with the watermelon gherkins.
4. Pour hot brine over the gherkins, leaving a 1/4-inch headspace.
5. Close the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
6. Store in a cool, dry, dark place for at least two weeks before eating the pickles. After opening, store in the refrigerator.

Celebrate the Craft takes place on Sunday, Oct. 6 from 11:30 to 3 p.m. at The Lodge at Torrey Pines (11480 N. Torrey Pines Road) in La Jolla. Tickets are $85 a person and can be purchased online here.

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