Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Red Door's Tips and Tricks for Stuffed Squash Blossoms

This time of the summer in San Diego and elsewhere, you're bound to see boxes of elongated yellow flowers for sale at farmers markets. If you haven't figured out what they are, they're squash blossoms. Left alone on the plant, they eventually give way to zucchinis or some other form of summer squash, but they're a delight in their immature state. In Mexico, they're often chopped, sauteed, and incorporated into quesadillas. In other parts of the world, like Italy, they're stuffed, breaded or battered, and fried. Those yellow petals become the vessel for cheese or vegetables or minced meats--or even sweets.

As delicious as stuffed squash blossoms are, a lot of us find them challenging to make, so I went over to The Red Door in Mission Hills, which just celebrated its fourth anniversary, so executive chef Miguel Valdez could give me a primer. His are everything you want in a squash blossom--packed with interesting flavors in a cheese stuffing that is just a bit gooey, but encapsulated in a crunchy floral container.

The first tip Miguel gave me was the most basic--how to select the blossoms. They should look fresh and firm, not wilted or browned around the edges. But you also want them closed, not wide open. Trish Watlington, The Red Door's owner, who has a garden on her property that grows much of what the restaurant uses, also told me that when you pick them, wait until late afternoon after they've opened. By then they'll have closed and be at the perfect stage.

When you're ready to prepare them, Miguel advises, don't rinse the blossoms. They're too fragile for that and will bruise. Instead, fill a bowl with cold water, and after opening the blossom just enough to check for bugs, dunk the blossoms in the water and then lay them down gently on paper towels.

Now you want to make your stuffing. Miguel showed me a very basic approach, using ricotta, marscapone, eight ball squash, a red onion, fresh thyme and mint, eggs, bread crumbs, and oil. You'll want to do a small dice on the squash and onion so they'll fit through the hole of the pastry bag. The squash, onion, and herbs are sauteed in olive oil until they're soft. While the vegetables cool, whisk the eggs vigorously to incorporate lots of air. What you want are large bubbles and a liquid texture--no strings of egg whites. (And, don't toss what you don't use. The eggs will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days.)

Clockwise from top left: fresh squash blossoms, recipe ingredients, sauteed vegetables, slicing the stem for stuffing, the entry point for stuffing
Once the vegetables are at room temperature, you'll make the stuffing by stirring them together with the two cheeses and some salt and pepper to taste. Then fill a plate or flat container with bread crumbs. They don't have to be store purchased. If you have stale bread or crackers (or crackers you enjoy), pulverize them in the food processor.

Now, what's your stuffing technique? Here's where things can go seriously wrong--I know because I've been a perpetrator of this. Instead of trying to open the blossom and fill it from the top, keeping the petals open, scratch that. It makes a mess and tears the petals. What you want to do instead is slice off about a quarter inch of the bottom of the blossom, where the stem is. Keep it though. You'll fill the blossom from that clean opening and then insert the bottom/stem inside so that it will look whole. Brilliant.

Another tip Miguel offered also related to stuffing. If you're doing this solo, filling the pastry bag can be a tricky mess. Instead, pull out a tall container--like your utensil holder on the sink. Place the empty pastry bag inside and fold the top of the bag over the container. Then your hands are free to fill it with your stuffing. Pull the top up and twist it gently to ease the stuffing solidly down toward the tip. At that point, gently place the tip into the bottom of one of the blossoms to measure how far you need to cut (assuming you are using a plastic pastry bag or a plastic storage bag and not a pastry bag with plastic tips). Then you can cut the tip and start squeezing, filling the blossom until the top of the petals begin to bulge a little. Pull out the pastry bag and insert the stem piece, wiggling it to work it just inside so it will stay put.

Clockwise from left: filling the pastry bag using a container, stuffing the blossom, inserting the stem, battered, breaded, and ready to fry
Now you're going to put it all together. Using one hand (to keep the other clean), gently dip the stuffed blossom into the egg, shake off the excess, then dredge it lightly in the bread crumbs. When you've done all of them, put them in the refrigerator to chill for about an hour or, if need be, overnight.

Then you're ready to fry them. Use a vegetable oil and heat in a tall pot to 400 degrees. Add the blossoms (don't crowd them) and give them two minutes in the fryer. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Serve them on greens or over a favorite sauce.

And, here's the final tip. Be creative. Last night, The Red Door served stuffed blossoms for dessert. The stuffing was Nutella and cream cheese, breaded in panko crumbs, fried, then dipped in dark chocolate and chopped walnuts. Who knew...?

Stuffed Squash Blossoms
by Miguel Valdez

Yield: 10 appetizers

20 fresh, firm squash blossoms
1 8-ounce container of marscapone
1 15-ounce container of ricotta
1/2 small red onion, diced
1 eight-ball squash, diced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, leaves stripped from stems and chopped
1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 eggs, well beaten
1 cup bread crumbs (purchased or made from crackers or dry bread)
Grapeseed, canola, or other vegetable oil for frying

Gently wash the squash blossoms by dipping them a few times into a bowl of cold water, then lay them carefully on paper towels. Heat olive oil in a pan and add diced vegetables and herbs, sauting until soft. Spread on a sheet pan to cool so added cheese won't melt.

Trim the bottom of the squash blossom and shake out the piston. Save the end/stem to place inside after stuffing the blossom. 

In a bowl, mix the two cheeses and the cooled vegetables with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until they're quite liquid and bubbly and there are no strands of egg whites. Fill a plate or flat container with the bread crumbs.

Using a tall, empty container slip a pastry bag (or large plastic bag inside, handing the top of the bag over the side of the container. Fill the bag with the cheese and vegetable stuffing. Pull the sides up and, twisting the bag, push the mixture to the tip of the bag. Measure the cut of the tip by inserting the tip into the cut end of the blossom. Snip the tip so that it will just fit inside the squash blossom bottom hole. 

Squeeze the mixture into the blossom until the petals begin to bulge. Pull the pastry bag tip out and carefully insert the stem into the hole. When all are stuffed, dip the blossoms into the egg, then with one hand, dredge the blossoms lightly in the bread crumbs. They should be covered with the crumbs but not so thick you can't see the blossoms. Place on a plate or tray and refrigerate. You can let them sit for an hour to firm up or even overnight. If you have leftover cheese mixture or eggs, you can keep these for other uses. 

Heat the grapeseed or canola oil in a fryer or tall pot until it reaches 400 degrees. Dip the blossoms in the oil for two minutes. Remove and drain on a paper towel. You can plate them on a bed of greens or tomato sauce or salsa. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Art of Shaping Bread Dough

I had fancied myself a good home bread baker. Until I had a morning tutorial in bread shaping with Catherine Perez, owner of Con Pane, one of my very favorite artisan bread makers in San Diego. I've known Catherine for years, followed her from her Rosecrans shop to her Liberty Station shop, and always stop by for a loaf or for rolls when I'm in the neighborhood. At my last visit, she invited to come in so she could teach me a bread-shaping trick or two, and also invited our friend Robin Ross of Cupcakes Squared. Last week we took her up on her offer, and were completely humbled.

Con Pane's Catherine Perez (l) and Cupcakes Squared's Robin Ross (r)
On any given day at Con Pane, you'll find about a dozen bread varieties for sale--from Pt. Loma Sourdough (a favorite of mine), traditional and seeded French baguettes, ciabatta, French levain, artisan multigrain, and kalamata olive to Gruyere and Chive, walnut levain, challah, and, oh, pane cioccolata. Plus any number of varieties of foccacia, scones, cookies, sweet rolls and other pastries, and seven types of sandwiches.

Catherine invited us behind the counter, had us wash our hands and don aprons, then showed us around the workspace. The light and airy workroom is divided between pastry and bread. We saw the  dry storage area, the spiral mixer that holds up to 70 kilos of dough, and a chilly walk-in proofing room.

Con Pane's oven is so large it has a nifty conveyor belt. Here, individual epis were being removed to cool.

Catherine had Robin and I watch her staff weigh, then shape various doughs before clearing a space for us to get to work.

There are two steps to the shaping because the bread proofs twice. The first is a bulk proof in dough tubs for one-and-a-half to three hours, depending on the type of bread. Then the bread dough is divided and rests, then shaped and placed on trays in racks in the proofing room overnight. Baking happens twice a day--in the morning and the afternoon.

Robin and I started out with sourdough boules--little round loaves. Robin did the cutting and weighing, using a scale, then handing off the pieces to me to roughly shape (it's rare to get the amount right on the first cut; you chop off a segment, weigh it, add a little more, take some off, until it balances). Catherine showed me how to slightly punch the dough; pull the sides up, over, and in; flip it over; then turn and smooth. It's harder than it would seem--as you can see from the creases on the boules I shaped. (By the way, if you look at the door behind me, you can see sheets of paper posted on it. They have photos of all the breads, along with weights and measurements for employees to use as reference.)

From there we moved on to sandwich loaves. That simply eluded me. My brain and my hands just couldn't coordinate the technique, which involved positioning the dough lengthwise in front of me, then pulling in the two sides at the top, folding down the top third and sealing, repeating, and then using your thumb on one hand and several fingers on the other, shaping and sealing all around until you had something like a doughy football. On the positive side, we (by then Robin was also trying this left-handed) amused Catherine no end.

I'm sure with practice, I'd be wrangling those sandwich loaves like a pro, but the experience gave me an even greater appreciation of the skills and efforts required to successfully bake a simple loaf of bread. These are talented artisans who give us breads like these.

And sandwiches, like this stunning Turkey Cobb on Rosemary Olive Oil bread:

Game to make some dough and craft a couple of loaves of bread? Catherine gave me her Pain Sur recipe, which begins with a Poolish--not exactly a sourdough starter since it doesn't require the time and ongoing commitment to keep it going, but an initial dough that provides the taste, texture, and crust of a good loaf. This is adapted from the wonderful book, The Village Baker, by Joe Ortiz, an inspiration to Catherine when she first contemplated starting a bakery.

Pain Sur
by Catherine Perez, adapted from The Village Baker
Yield: 2 loaves
(printable recipe)

The Poolish
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (I prefer SAF Red Yeast, sold at Whole Foods)
1 cup filtered water
1 cup unbleached white (all purpose) flour

Add the flour to a bowl, stir in the yeast for even distribution, then pour in the water. Stir with your hands to make sure there are no balls of flour left in the poolish. Cover the bowl with a lid, towel, or plastic film, and let rise on the counter. The poolish will be ready when the top is covered in bubbles and has begun to crack--approximately three to five hours.

The Dough
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup water
2 cups unbleached (all purpose) white flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

In the bowl of a mixer with the spiral attachment, add the flour, salt, and yeast. Stir to combine. All all of the poolish and the water. Mix on low speed for about four minutes to incorporate all of the ingredients. Switch to medium speed and mix for another five minutes. The dough should come together in a ball and be moist but not sticky.

Remove the dough from the mixer and place in a bowl rubbed lightly with olive oil, and cover with a towel. The olive oil will keep the dough from sticking to the bowl after it has risen. Allow the dough to rise for two hours. Divide it into two pieces, then shape into rounds. Cover the loaves with a towel and let rise another one to one-and-a-half hours. The loaves will be ready to bake when the dough sluggishly springs back when pressed with a finger.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a baking stone set on the bottom deck of the oven. If you don't have a baking stone, the loaves can be backed on a cookie tray. Place the risen loaves on a cornmeal-dusted peel or on a cookie tray. Make two slashes in the top of each loaf using a double-edged razor blade or a serrated knife. Prior to transferring the dough to the stone or placing the loaves in the oven, you need to create steam to allow for a fuller loaf and shinier crust. Using a spray bottle filled with filtered water, open the oven door and spray inside the top and sides of the oven, then put in the loaves. Give the top and sides of the oven one more spray, then close the door. Bake the loaves for 30 to 45 minutes--less for a lighter cruse, more for a darker, crunchier crust. Allow the loaves to cool before cutting.

Note: Half of the flour can be replaced with whole wheat flour for heartier bread. YOu can also add other ingredients, such as dried fruits, nuts, grains, and herbs. Add approximately 1/2 cup after the dough if fully mixed.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cauliflower and Salsify Bisque from Table 926

I've probably said it before, but one of my favorite pastimes is spending time with chefs in their kitchens. So, I consider it a huge streak of good fortune that I've been invited to a number of kitchens this summer--which means that this space will be covering a lot of culinary territory in the weeks to come from the likes of Matt Richman of Table 926, Catherine Perez of Con Pane, Miguel Valdez of The Red Door, and several others.

Last week I spent an afternoon with Matt Richman, his sous chef Molly Johnson, and pastry chef Katie Jenkins. The three have an easy rapport and Richman, the restaurant's chef/owner, purposely keeps the atmosphere light and relaxed. Richman describes the intimate north Pacific Beach restaurant as serving California cuisine, and his local and seasonal dinner menu points to numerous influences, from Latin and Asian, to Italian and French.

"Simpler is my style," he says. "I just want to find good ingredients and then let them shine."

The 36-year-old Richman is a San Diego native, attending La Jolla Country Day before heading off to college in New Mexico--only to realize that he really wanted to be a chef. So, he attended culinary school in San Francisco, and then did a series of stints at restaurants in San Francisco and Miami before returning to San Diego, where he worked at Sbicca, Wine Vault & Bistro, Pacifica Del Mar, Ilume Bistro, and The Cosmopolitan, where he worked under chef Amy DiBiase. He opened Table 926 a year and a half ago.

I got to the restaurant about 11:30 and Richman was focused on prepping three dishes for the evening's menu: a rich Calabrese and smoked tomato sauce to be served with his lamb sausage penne, tossed with artichoke hearts, olives, arugula, and pecorino; a minty nepitella chimichurri sauce; and cauliflower and salsify bisque. Each of these has a key commonality: Richman is taking what might otherwise be a lovely but often-made dish--including some his mom taught him to make--and changing it up with a unique ingredient or technique. Or both.

The tomato sauce is a version of his mom's, but he's made it his own with the sausage and smoked tomatoes. The Calebrese sausage is wonderfully fatty and spicy (if you can't find it, just substitute sopressata) and smoking half of the tomatoes adds a smoky complexity to the flavor, which is intensified by simmering for four hours.

Chimichurri is a delightfully herbaceous sauce that's designed to be served with meat. Adding nepitella, a popular Tuscan herb in the mint family (grown at Suzie's Farm), to traditional flat leaf parsley marries the flavors of Argentina with Italy--a mean accompaniment to lamb sirloin. He has a second chimichurri that melds oregano with the parsley, which he serves with chorizo empanadas. In both sauces, he includes apple cider vinegar for mellowness.

And then there's the salsify. This otherwise homely brown root, once peeled and added to the soup, lends a sweet silkiness to the cauliflower. You'll notice that Richman doesn't use a stock in this soup. By design, he likes to keep his soups vegetarian, so he lets the vegetables develop into stock. The result is a creamy cloud of sweetness. He says his customers can't get enough of this soup. It's easy to see why.

Cauliflower and Salsify Bisque
from Matt Richman of Table 926
Serves 4 to 6
(printable recipe)

1/2 cup celery
1/2 cup onion
1/4 cup combination of shallots and garlic
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium to large heads of cauliflower
4 salsify roots (can substitute 4 medium sunchokes)
1/4 cup dry white wine
enough water to cover ingredients
salt and pepper to taste
1 2/ cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon sherry or champagne vinegar

1. Peel salsify and soak in a bowl of water to keep it from oxidizing.

2. Chop the celery, onion, shallots, and garlic. Add olive oil to a large pot, heat, and add the chopped vegetables and flavor with salt. You can be a little aggressive with the salt here, since the cream added later will mellow the flavors. Let sweat.
3. Add the white wine.
4. Separate the cauliflower heads into small florets. Slice the salsify. Add to the pot. Then add enough water to cover.
5. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer. Let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.

6. In the last 15 minutes, add the cream and season with salt and pepper. The soup is done done cooking when both the cauliflower and salsify are soft.

7. In small batches, add the soup to a blender and puree. Then press through a chinois to strain.

8. Plate the soup with a swirl of avocado oil and a sprinkling of micro greens.

Table 926 is located at 926 Turquoise St. in north Pacific Beach.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

From Farm to Bay: Andrew Spurgin & Company Make Waves at the Living Coast Discovery Center

Almost daily I'm sent emails by friends and PR folks asking me to promote their food events. As they proliferate I've had to learn to be more selective. Well, Chef Andrew Spurgin has a similar problem. He's deluged with requests to volunteer his culinary and food event planning expertise (I know this because I'm often an an asker). So, when Andrew and I had a conversation about this subject and he told me how he's trying to learn to say no, but had to say yes to the Living Coast Discovery Center because after visiting there he fell in love--and then asked me if I could help with a piece on their summer fundraiser, From Farm to Bay, I had to see what melted his heart.

Fortunately, the Living Coast Discovery Center was eager to invite me for a visit and it coincided with the arrival of my sister-in-law and 14-year-old niece from North Carolina, who, like many teenage girls, loves animals. We were given the option of a sea turtle feeding, a shark and ray feeding, or an owl encounter. Shea chose the sea turtles.

So, before I tell you about the event, I want to try and make your heart melt, too. If you live in San Diego or visit the area, you know all about Sea World. Well, the Living Coast Discovery Center is much more intimate. It sits on the 316-acre Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge just six miles south of downtown San Diego. You may know it as the Chula Vista Nature Center, but just last year it changed its name to reflect its independent status, which developed in 2008 with the budget problems suffered by the City of Chula Vista. Now, it's a 501(c)(3).

That's not what's going to make you fall in love, though. It's what it is and what it does. This bayside treasure has a magnificent collection of local plants and animals that visitors can spend time with in a setting that lets them get up close and personal. In fact, its relative smallness is its strength. It's a joyful place that enables kids to run around without parents worrying about losing them in a crowd, and that lets them interact with the animals and see many of them in their natural environment.

So, what did we see?

We started behind the scenes with guest experience coordinator Sherry Lankston, who took us into a room with a small aquarium filled with starfish, snails, sea cucumbers, and other marine invertebrates, which we got to pick up and touch. We even got to touch tiny jellyfish, which as you can imagine is a strange sensation--like touching a tiny and thin plastic bag filled with water and in motion. As we were leaving we noted the pile of cut-up squid that one of the staff was working on for feeding the small sharks and other fish.

The sea turtle environment is sort of the welcome mat for the Center. It's the first thing you see as you walk up (by the way, you park in a lot off the 5 freeway and take a free shuttle to the Center, which drops you off at the front and returns you to your car when you're ready). Once we entered the lagoon enclosure, we were on display, along with the turtles. Sherry and her intern brought lettuce in with us so we could feed them and like puppies they were eager for a snack.

Sherry surprised us by grabbing a large net and pulling one of the 60-pound turtles up and out of the water for us to touch.

At age four, these turtles are youngsters. They can live up to 100 years. They swim in pods around San Diego that number from 60 to 80, living in and around eelgrass beds. While they have no teeth, their jaws are masterful. Right now, the Center has four sea turtles from Sea World (the organizations collaborate on a number of projects), and two will be going back.

While our experience was special, it's something many can participate in. Sherry explained that the Center also holds programs like Biologist for a Day for teens that gives them realistic experiences in caring for these animals--both aquatic and avian--with lots of cleaning up and feeding.

Once Sherry returned our new buddy to the water, she led us into the Discovery Center Gallery and set us loose to wander around the rest of the grounds. Kids--mostly campers on field trips--were racing around the exhibits, taking in the current Deadly Waters displays, with piranhas, sharks, barracudas, and more just beyond reach. They were doing the same at the Shark and Ray Experience, an exhibit that lets you see both above and inside the waters where these sea creatures reside together.

One of the most alluring parts of the Center is the Shorebird Aviary. It's so well done you barely notice the netting. Walk past the sweet little burrowing owl, which nests in underground burrows.

Turn the corner and there you'll see the reason why the Center is so well sited.

Keep walking and you'll find Raptor Row, an area with enclosures for falcons, owls, hawks, and osprey.

There's a native plant garden that can inspire gardening ideas, a mile-and-a-half trail that leads to the San Diego Bay, and an area set up for programs.

Get to the Center at the right time, and you can watch various animals being fed, which is remarkable to see so close up.

All in all, it's a jewel of a place for kids and adults to really take in the diversity and bounty of our local coastal wildlife--and something worthy of support.

And that brings me to From Farm to Bay: Food & Wine Classic, which will take place Saturday, Aug. 3 from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Center. Andrew has recruited dozens of restaurants, breweries, vineyards, and mixologists to serve truly the best of San Diego. Here's a complete list, but some highlights include Chad White of Plancha Baja Med, mixologist Jeff Josenhaus of Grant Grill, Jeff Rossman of Terra American Bistro, Stone Brewery, Blind Tiger Cocktail Company, Blind Lady Alehouse and Tiger! Tiger!, Wiens Family Cellars, Elizabeth Harris of Elizabethan Desserts, Norma Martinez of Chaplos, and Caffe Calabria.

Tickets are $50 ($45 for members) and can be purchased online.

Take a trip over to visit and you'll no doubt want to buy tickets to support this bay treasure.

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Spicy Kale, Corn, and Mango Salad

The windows are open, the fans are whirling, the ice in my glass of iced tea is melting fast, and I'm a schvitzy mess. Welcome to our first heat wave of the season.

When the temps climb past 90, there's no cooking in my kitchen. At most I can chop up veggies, which is why I was poking around my kitchen trying to come up with a salad that would interest me enough to make the effort to engage with a knife.

There was a fresh bunch of kale I'd just bought, an ear of corn, a white onion, a bowl of tomatoes, a jalapeño, and a not-quite-ripe mango. Hey, a jar of salted capers. And then I remembered the package of Country French Vinaigrette I'd bought at Penzeys in Hillcrest and had raved about for Local Bounty.

This might work. Minimal effort in a hot kitchen. All I had to do was make the dressing--just add red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil--shuck the corn and slice off the kernels, rinse and soak the capers, and chop the rest of the veggies. Then mix it all together. In fact, the not-quite-ripe mango was perfect. It wouldn't collapse in the salad, which would have to marinate to tenderize the fresh kale.

The result was a colorful, zesty salad that was sweet and salty, crunchy and tender. It was great alone, but would be great with the addition of cooked faro or resting on top of pasta. And how about feta or goat cheese added to it in the future after letting it marinate. Riff on it with what you have, but this was a pretty cool(ing) combination.

Spicy Kale, Corn, and Mango Salad
(printable recipe)
Serves 4

1 ear of corn, shucked with kernels sliced off
1/2 slightly ripe mango, peeled and diced
1 large tomato, diced
1 jalapeño, dices
1/2 medium onion, red or white, diced
4 large kale leaves, spine removed, chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and soaked

1/2 cup of Country French Vinaigrette made from Penzeys' mix -- or your own vinaigrette

Combine vegetables, add dressing. Marinate for about an hour. Serve.

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