Tuesday, November 26, 2013

San Felipe Salts

Last October I took a trip to Guadalupe Valley with a group of friends to celebrate several birthdays. On the first evening, Javier Plascencia hosted a massive birthday party at his new restaurant called Finca Altozano. Since the group of friends were a mix of chefs, artisan vendors, food writers, and restaurant and market owners, it wasn't surprising that the dinner was also a way to introduce those of us from north of the border to some interesting new Baja food purveyors.

And that's how I met Francisco Sosa Mendez of San Felipe Salt Co. He was there with dozens of gorgeous turquoise blue grinder bottles of salts from the Sea of Cortez. I snagged a garlic-flavored bottle that behind the glass displayed big chunks of sea salt intermingled with equally big chunks of roasted garlic. It's become my go-to grind for roasted vegetables, chicken, and meats.

Of course, that's not San Felipe Salt Co.'s only variety. They've developed several while also selling natural sea salts that come in the forms of rock salt, coarse, and small grind for rimming cocktail glasses.

I managed to acquire five salts, including the garlic--each unique. The Chipotle, a powerful dark blend of sea salt, chipotles, and cacao beans has that smoky sweet heat you crave from chipotles.

The Copal is a smoked sea salt. Plascencia tells me that he uses this salt--a blend of sea salt and wood smoke from copal wood--for their wood-roasted quail and for the suckling pig. "We like it because it gives the dishes a more smokey wood flavor."

The Mexicana is a killer hot salt. Use with caution, but be sure to use it because it's got a punch of flavor from habanero, chipotle, pico de pajaro, and chiltepin chiles.

Then there's the very simple, but lovely Natural. The naked sea salt. Plascencia uses it as a finishing salt on meats and other dishes, including vegetable dishes like his garden tomatoes mixed with olive oil and fresh oregano on toasted bread.

Plascencia says he also uses San Felipe's margarita salt with chapulines for their mescal margaritas and other mescal drinks. "The salt is a bit wet, not like Maldon, but its flavor is great; it has a very natural pure taste."

And that's what I've come to appreciate in these salts. It sits well on the tongue. It's smooth. It plays well with other flavors, and, truly enhances them.

Sosa is actually a co-owner of the business with Michele and Bob MacDonald, who retired to San Felipe a few years ago with the idea of traveling and playing in the desert. But, they got bored. They had noticed trucks coming out of the salina, or salt flats, in San Felipe and decided to investigate. After tasting the salt, they decided to send it out to labs in both Mexico and the U.S. for testing and all of the testing, according to Michele MacDonald, came back with the same results. "The salt was low in sodium chloride, very high in trace elements, and had no pollutants. We knew we had a winner."

They got the shape of the distinctive bottle from Bob whittling a large candle. And, they say, they had a business. They had met Sosa, an attorney, at Rotary in San Felipe and asked him for help forming the Mexican corporation. They all got along so well, sharing a passion for gourmet food and Baja wines, that he then became a partner.

The flavors have naturally evolved, says Michele, some directly influenced by work with major Mexican chefs, including Aquiles Chaves, Benito Molina and his wife Solang, and, of course, Plascencia.

You can purchase the salts online--and the bottles are refillable if you email Michele at michele@sanfelipesalt.com. San Diegans can also buy San Felipe salts in Old Town at Fiesta Cocina on Calhoun St.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Crunchy Giardiniera

A few weeks ago, the San Diego Press Club held its 40th annual JAwards event and those of us in attendance got to dine at the hands of some two dozen fabulous chefs. Among them was Jenn Felmley, who was serving up an extraordinary head cheese accompanied by a tangy, crunchy giardiniera. I loved the head cheese, but it was the simple giardiniera that really made me take notice. It's something I love but haven't made since it's so easy to buy. And, it's something my dad loves. I asked Jenn for the recipe and sure enough she delivered it to my inbox last week. So, last Sunday I stocked up on vinegars and made a few jars to pass around.

As you can imagine, it's a simple concept--pickle and marinate the veggies of your choice. I went traditional, opting for cauliflower, red bell peppers, carrots, and celery.

But you could go with zucchini, broccoli, radishes, turnips, parsnips... And, you can go spicy or not. Add olives. Add peperoncini. Add capers. This time, I stuck with Jenn's ingredients, but divided the recipe in two and made half spicy for myself and the other sans chiles for my dad.

In this recipe Jenn directs the vegetables be cut in a small dice, which I did. But next time, I'm going to go chunky. The small dice is perfect to create a polite accompaniment to a dish--like head cheese. But us snackers want something crunchy to dig into and you get a better appreciation of it with bigger pieces.

With this recipe, instead of plain old distilled vinegar you get three bright varieties of vinegar and they play nicely with one another with a sweet-tart mashup. Just be aware that the vinegars may not be acidic enough for long-term storage. So, keep them refrigerated from the get go and eat up within about two weeks. Also, note that Jenn's recipe actually calls for 1/2 cup white wine vinegar, 1 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and 1 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar. I found I needed more to have enough to cover the vegetables--perhaps my head of cauliflower and other veggies were larger than what she uses. Also, as the vinegars simmer, the liquid evaporates. So, use this as a guideline. Your mileage may vary.

Jenn Felmley's Giardiniera
(printable recipe)

Makes 2 quarts

4 serrano chiles, cut in half, seeds removed
2 red sweet peppers, small dice
2 celery ribs, small dice
2 carrots, small dice
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into small florets
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
4 black peppercorns
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups rice wine vinegar (not the sweetened)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and pepper to taste

Finely dice 1/2 to 1 whole serrano chile (optional) and add to a large bowl with the other vegetables. Mix with your hands until well combined.

Place the remaining serrano chiles, garlic cloves, 2 teaspoons dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1/4 teaspoon celery seed, and black peppercorns into cheesecloth and tie into a bundle.

In a saucepan, combine the vinegars and the spice bundle. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium high and simmer for 10 minutes.

Pour the hot liquid and spice bundle over the vegetables and add the remaining ingredients. Stir, then cover with plastic wrap and let the mixture cool to room temperature. If the vegetables haven't softened to your desired texture, you can place the vegetables and liquid into a pot and bring to a boil, then repeat the cooling process.

Place the vegetables and liquid into clean jars with lids and refrigerate. Let the mixture mellow for a couple of days before serving.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Jenny Wenny Christmas Pudding

So, just so we all understand each other before I continue, my writing about extravagant Christmas foods is like a 14-year-old taking the wheel of Mini Cooper on a freeway at rush hour. In other words, this Jewish girl knows just enough to be dangerous.

Nevertheless, my instructor in this, Jenny Williams of Jenny Wenny Cakes, is all about Christmas desserts. And, she's especially adept at a family tradition, her great-grandmother's Christmas pudding. Jenny, who is from Birmingham, England, contacted me over the summer, asking me to come in and make a dessert with her. And the dessert she wanted to show me--and, yes, she delighted in the irony--was her family's Christmas pudding. We finally got together at the end of September, which is when she begins making these desserts. Those in the know will get that a true Christmas pudding must sit in the fridge for months to develop the flavor and texture you want to deliver on Christmas day. But, here we are in November. I'm betting that you still have time to make and store a delicious Christmas pudding if you get right on it.

In case you don't know, Christmas pudding is all about dried fruit. According to British pudding maker Matthew Walker, the first mention of plum pudding goes back to the 15th century--plum referring to any kind of dried fruit. It also included beef or mutton broth, breadcrumbs, spices and wine and was eaten after the fast of Advent. Today, basically, you combine dried fruit, suet, black treacle, brown sugar, and eggs with breadcrumbs and ground almonds and then pour the mixture into a pudding basin (you can still find these online), then steam. Refrigerate for at least a month, then you'll un-mold the pudding, heat it up, pour brandy over it, and light it. Impressive, no? Then you'll accompany it with some lovely brandy butter.

Jenny has substituted several of these traditional ingredients, but the recipe definitely goes back to her great-grandmother's handwritten recipe.

Jenny nostalgically references the well-worn heirloom, The Main Cookery Book, which is filled with great-grandma's notes and additional family recipes. Her recipe is tweaked a bit, but you can see Jenny's follows the general guidelines. She's got a combination of sultanas, raisins, currants, and glade cherries. She includes ground almonds like great-grandma. But molasses substitutes for the black treacle and coconut oil for suet. She mixes the wet and dry ingredients separately, then stirs them together to make the batter.

And, instead of filling a pudding basins or even ramekins, Jenny opts for glass jars.

The jars go into a water bath to cook for about an hour and a half.

Once they're removed from the oven and cool, into the fridge they go for a month or two to develop their flavors. What does it taste like? Well, Jenny gave me a couple of jars to take home and I just opened one of them. I pulled it out of the jar onto a plate, which I heated in my microwave for just a minute. Unfortunately, I had no whipped cream or brandy butter, but the pudding is lovely--chewy from the dried fruit with a dark sweetness. The brandy butter would give it a woozy deep lusciousness.

I may just make this for Christmas myself!

Christmas Pudding
From Jenny Williams
(printable recipe)

Serves 12

4 ounces breadcrumbs
12 ounces sultanas
8 ounces raisins
8 ounces currants
2 ounces glace cherries
2 ounces ground almonds
8 ounces dark brown sugar
8 ounces black treacle/molasses
4 ounces coconut oil (instead of suet)
4 eggs, beaten

Mix all the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center and add the beaten eggs, one at a time, stirring hard.

Leave overnight in the refrigerator and stir again.

Fill two traditional pudding bowls or 12 little ramekins with mixture.

If cooking traditionally, steam six to seven hours with parchment paper over the top. Or you can place the ramekins in a water bath (fill a high-sided pan or pot with a half-inch of water) and cook for 1 1/2 hours at 300 degrees (275 degrees for convection). The interior temperature should read 180 degrees when done.

Remove and let cool. Cover and place in the refrigerator for one to two months so the pudding can fully develop its flavor.

To serve, remove from the pudding bowl or ramekins, heat in the microwave around two minutes per pudding, let stand one minute, and serve with whipped cream or brandy butter.

Brandy Butter
Adapted by Jenny Williams from The Guardian Newspaper

Serves 10 to 12

6.5 ounces butter, diced
6.5 ounces brown sugar
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons brandy
pinch of ground nutmeg or cinnamon (optional)

Beat the butter and brown sugar until soft. Stir in orange and lemon zest, then slowly add the brandy and spices. Cover and keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. May be frozen.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Holiday Bread Baking with Cardamom's Joanne Squires-Sherif

I first met Joanne Squires-Sherif about five years ago, just after she opened her North Park bakery cafe, Cardamom. She did then what she always does, embrace and feed you with house-made flaky croissants or sweet brioche, maybe an omelet or sandwich. The neighborhood cafe is cozy and colorful, its walls shades of yellow, green, and purple, sporting vibrant paintings by local artists. It's clearly Joanne's alternate home. And she's utterly sincere when she says she loves all her customers. Many have grown to be dear friends.

Last week, I didn't hang out at Cardamom for a meal; I came to learn how Joanne makes a couple of her annual holiday treats--specifically  her Pumpkin Walnut Cranberry Quick Bread and her Apple Spice Bread Pudding with Rum Raisins.

It wasn't a banner morning when I got there. Joanne's large refrigerator had just gone on the fritz. Unfazed, she had already moved ingredients elsewhere. Her cook figured out a fix, but in any case Joanne was already plotting her next improvement--installing a walk-in. The place was humming. One of her five kids, 20-year-old daughter Galen was busy serving customers, as she's done since she was 14. The long butcher block island in the kitchen was already filled with prepped ingredients for both breads and once I got there, Joanne set to work, starting with the quick bread. This is a bread she's been making for about 10 years. It's adapted from different sources and Joanne is quick to point out that even those breads she's been making for years she's still fiddling with.

Using a stand mixer, she combined a metal bowl filled with sugar and orange zest with melted butter into the stand mixer bowl. With the mixer running on low, she added water, pureed pumpkin, the dry ingredients, and finally walnuts and cranberries. Once the ingredients were loosely combined, she poured the batter into a variety of paper loaf pans and muffin cups.

While she'd been working on that, a large metal bowl on the island sat off to one side filled with torn brioche and croissant pieces soaking in a sweet cream and egg mixture to make a rich, fragrant bread pudding. This recipe, too, was as easy as the quick bread. Galen had already caramelized chopped and sliced apples in butter. Joanne's blend of dark and golden raisins had been soaking in rum since the night before. Everything but the sliced apples, brown sugar, and cubed butter was added and stirred. Joanne then poured the batter into paper loaf pans, topped them with the sliced apples and brown sugar, and dabbed the tops with butter before sending them into the oven.

While we waited for the breads to bake, Joanne headed over to her large espresso machine and made us frothy cups of tea latte, with Darjeeling tea, cardamom pods, and honey topped by steamed milk. It was both acrid and sweet, redolent of the cardamom and so soothing on that chilly morning.

We talked about the origins of the bakery's name. Joanne's grandmother was Norwegian; her ex husband is from Ethiopia but is part Arab. Cardamom plays a role in both cultures so it was something the couple had in common. Long ago she used to make their family cardamom rolls, which he loved. When the time came to name the shop, it was named for those rolls.

By now the breads were out of the oven. Joanne set them in front of me and we dug in.

The bread pudding was beautifully browned; its interior creamy and buttery and just slightly boozy from the rum. The bits of apple were sweet and played nicely with the rummed up raisins. I could have gone for a dollop of whipped cream or the caramel Joanne usually drizzles over it, but the already rich naked bread pudding was just fine for me.

By the time I finished that slice, I had no room for the quick bread, but I took it and the leftover bread pudding to my parents house and we dove in. I loved the lightness of the bread and how the faint flavor of the orange zest melded with the rich pumpkin and pop of tartness that erupted from biting into the  cranberries.

Pumpkin Walnut Cranberry Quick Bread
from Joanne Squires-Sherif
(Printable recipe)

Yield: 1 dozen regular-size muffins or one regular quick bread loaf


3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs (We use Eben-Haezer Poulty Ranch in Ramona. The size and quality are consistent and they are family owned and operated.)
15-ounce can of pumpkin puree
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
zest of one orange

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup fresh cranberries
3/4 cup walnuts, roughly chopped

1. Pre heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine butter and eggs.
3. Mix in pumpkin, sugar, zest, and water.
4. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix until just combined.
5. Divide batter into muffin cups or loaf pans.
6. Bake loaves at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Bake muffins at 350 degrees 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

Spiced Apple Bread Pudding with Rum Raisins
from Joanne Squires-Sherif
(Printable recipe)

Yield: 4 ramekins or 1 9-inch square pan


3/4 cup dark raisins
3/4 cup golden raisins
Captain Morgan Spiced Rum

8 cups days-old but not stale bread or rolls, cubed 1-inch. If you use wheat, the pudding will have a nuttier flavor.

4 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 cups half and half or manufacturers cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Five Granny Smith apples
2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup cold, cubed butter
1/4/ cup brown sugar

1. Place raisins in a dish and cover with the rum. Allow raisins to soak at least two hours. (I love to have rum raisins around the house during the holidays. You can add them to muffins, pancakes, or coffee cake.)
2. In a large bowl, whisk together all wet ingredients. Add the cubed bread and let soak from two hours to overnight in the refrigerator.
3. Peel, core, and chop four apples. Peel, core, and slice one apple. Saute the apples in butter for five minutes until caramelized. Keep the cubed and sliced apples separate. Set aside.
4. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
5. Gently mix in the cubed apples and drained rum raisins to the bread mixture. Portion the bread mixture evenly into butter ramekins or a 9-inch pan.
6. Lay sliced apples decoratively on top of the batter, sprinkle with brown sugar, and dot with butter.
7. Bake at 350 degrees. The ramekins will need 30 minutes, the pan will need 40 minutes. Use a toothpick inserted into the bread pudding to test. It should come out just slightly wet. Don't over bake.

Both breads are easy to make and wonderful for a holiday table or to take to a party as a hostess gift. No time to bake? No worries. Joanne has a host of breads customers can buy, including Cardamom Holiday Stollen, Pan d'Oro, Hungarian Sweet Cheese bread, Brioche Têtes, Brioche Pumpkin, and Brie Baked in Brioche. You can find Cardamom in North Park at 2977 Upas St. at 30th St.

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