Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Villa Capri's Carciofi alla Giudia

I tend to stay home on New Year's Eve to avoid the crazies on the road. But this year my parents invited me to have an early dinner with them at a fairly new neighborhood restaurant, Villa Capri. I try not to ever turn them down so off I went. One of three Villa Capri restaurants (the other locations are in Carmel Valley and Poway, along with Come On In Cafe and Mediterraneo in Alpine ), this eatery is just down the street from my temple and the neighborhood itself has a pretty large Jewish population. So I wasn't really surprised to see a few Roman Jewish menu items listed. The one that most intrigued me was an appetizer called Carciofi all Giudia, or Roman Jewish-style Baby Artichokes.

We had to order them and when the server brought out a plate of three artichokes--larger than what I think of baby artichokes, with a long stem still attached--redolent of garlic, parsley, and basil, I was smitten. The artichokes seemed bathed in olive oil with a little crispiness at the fringes of the leaves. I wanted to know how to make them.

And, I have. Managing director Salvatore Ercolano invited me to the Carmel Valley restaurant for a lesson. He explained that this recipe and others on the menu derive from the old Jewish ghetto in Rome and his intent is to actually follow the lead at the restaurant of his former employers in New York, Lattanzi's, and develop a menu insert of strictly Roman Jewish dishes.

Because of the costs involved, the restaurant doesn't use fresh artichokes to make the dish, but orders precooked artichokes marinated in olive oil from Italy that are then prepared for the dish. But, it's easy enough to do this dish from scratch with fresh artichokes when they're in season. Look for medium-sized artichokes that haven't developed enough to have a fuzzy choke. Strip the dark, tough outer leaves until you hit the soft, lighter green leaves. Keep the stem intact. As you prep the artichokes add the finished ones to a large bowl of cold water with lemon juice to keep them from discoloring. Then you'll simmer them in a mixture of olive oil, water, and garlic until they're tender. At that point, you can strain them for the dish and save the liquid for sauteing later.

The other hiccup of sorts that I encountered is that Ercolano's instructions for making the dish were the opposite of what his chef Hilario Hernandez does. Ercolano told me to saute the artichokes first, then run the pan under the broiler for a few minutes to crispen. Hernandez actually puts them in a 500-degree convection oven for a few minutes, then pulls out the pan and settles it on the stovetop to crispen. It works fine either way. When the artichokes are done, remove them from the pan, add some chopped parsley and basil to the pan with slices of garlic and saute for a minute or two. Add them and some uncooked parsley and basil to garnish. That's it.

Carciofi alla Giudia
from Villa Capri
(printable recipe)

10 servings based on 3 artichokes per serving

To prepare artichokes:

30 baby artichokes, intact
Bowl of water and juice of one lemon
Half gallon olive oil (extra virgin oil isn't necessary)
10 ounces water (optional so you don't have to use so much oil)
12 cloves garlic

To prepare each serving:
3 prepped artichokes
1 clove garlic, sliced
garlic-infused olive oil from the prep
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Strip off tough artichoke leaves until you reach the tender, light green leaves. Place cleaned artichokes in lemon water.
2. Bring olive oil, water, and garlic cloves to a boil. Add the artichokes and simmer until tender.
3. Remove artichokes strain, and keep the liquid.
4. Pre-heat the oven to broil. Heat an oven-ready skillet and add olive oil mix to the pan with sliced garlic and salt and pepper. Spread the leaves of each of three artichokes to look like a blooming flower and place on the pan.

Saute for a few minutes, then put the skillet under the broiler for four to five minutes to crispen.

5. Remove skillet from the oven and remove the artichokes to a plate. Add a small handful of herbs and briefly saute with the garlic. Then add to the artichokes on the plate. Garnish with more hers and serve.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nana's Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup

I know the snow is blowing like crazy in the Northeast, while here in San Diego it's in the 70s. We appreciate the mild weather (even though we desperately need rain!). But, hey, it's January, and a bit of chill would be kind of nice. My body is geared toward warming soups and stews this time of year.

Especially this sweet and sour cabbage soup that my Nana used to make. It's thick with cabbage and tomatoes, rich from beef short ribs, and has that terrific tang of acid from lemon juice. I've always adored this and, fortunately, got the recipe from her when I was in college. I don't know if the soup was something her mother made and if it goes back to her early childhood in Ukraine. She never talked about that part of her past. All I know is that this recipe, along with many others, went from her to my mom or directly to me.

My mom has changed up the recipe to reflect a healthier approach. Instead of browning the cabbage in butter, then adding the beef and cooking up the soup all at once to create a soup with chunks of beef flanken, she has the butcher trim all the fat off and cooks the beef separately, then shreds it and adds the cooked beef to the rest of the ingredients to simmer into soup. And, she doesn't brown the cabbage.

Mom also adds carrots, potatoes, and onions. As she says, it's one of those recipes that you can change without doing any harm.

I love these additions. She made the soup earlier this month when my brother was visiting from North Carolina. We came into the house and found this pot burbling on the stove. The scent was home.

I'm taking the middle ground. I'm all for getting rid of the unhealthy fat from the beef, but I think sauting the cabbage, onion, and carrots--in olive oil--adds more flavor. Like Mom, I then add the rest of the ingredients. Nana? She didn't add the salt, sugar, and lemon juice until the soup had cooked for a couple of hours. We've tried it both ways and don't think it makes a difference. So, for convenience, we toss it in all together at once and let it cook.

Nana's Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup
(printable recipe)

Serves 8

2 pounds short ribs, trimmed of fat, with bones
2 tablespoons olive oil (optional)
1 large green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 onion, sliced
2 large cans crushed or diced tomatoes (juice included)
2 red potatoes, diced
1 or 2 carrots, grated
Salt to taste
Juice of two lemons
4 to 5 cups water
Brown or white sugar to taste (Nana's directions start with 1/4 cup)

In a large pot, add meat and cover with water. Add a little salt to season the meat. Bring to the boil and skim. Reduce the temperature and simmer for a couple of hours or until the meat is tender. Remove the meat from the pot and let cool. When you can handle it, shred the meat and discard the bones.

Wash the pot, heat the oil, and add the cabbage, onions, and carrots. Saute until browned. Then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer. Cook for two hours or until the cabbage is transparent and soft. Taste to adjust the lemon juice for sweet and sour balance.

My mom also likes to top it off with a bit of fresh dill and a little (non-fat) sour cream. I also like a crusty sourdough bread for sopping up the liquid.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Hagfish at the Wrench & Rodent

I'm torn about telling you too much about hagfish. These slimy sea creatures are truly disturbing and may have you clicking away to read about kale salads or spicy tuna handrolls. But, when prepared right, they are truly delicious, with a terrific crunch.

Gagging yet? Don't go anywhere--or, actually, head over to the crazyass Oceanside sushi restaurant, Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub, where chef Davin Waite will prepare you a gorgeous dish of grilled hagfish.

The hagfish starts out as a long (perhaps around a foot or so) slim brown eel. They're known as "slime eels" thanks to the defensive goo they shoot out that when mixed with the saltwater becomes a sticky, slippery slime. Think Ghostbusters. They're the vultures of the deep, feeding on dead and dying fish, devouring them from the inside out.

Still with me? Good. Hang around. Trust me, it'll be worth it.

So, Waite gets hagfish periodically from local fishermen and what he does with them is magical. First he skins them, then guts them to remove--get this--five hearts. Yes, the hagfish is a culinary freakshow.

Waite marinates the hagfish in a smooth mix of ponzu, sesame oil, garlic, and salt and pepper, then grills them on mesquite.

The result is a sublime, smoky flavor with that crunch I mentioned before.

Sweet, huh?

Not so much interested in hagfish? How about a foursome of ceviches, served with chicharon instead of tortilla chips?

 Or, a delicate serving of hamachi sashimi with pickled onions? Or other, more traditional sushi and sashimi?

I love this place and now get why my friend Tommy Gomes drives up there sometimes several times a week. It's a funky little place (as you already figured out from the bizarre name) that doesn't even have it's own entrance (walk in through Bull Taco), seating perhaps 50 if the patio is open. But the seafood is mostly local and sustainable and Waite grows much of his own produce in a nearby garden. I almost hate to tell you about it for fear that word of mouth will make it impossible for me to enjoy it in the future. But I'll take the risk. Now, it's your turn to take the risk and order the hagfish.

Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub is located at 1815 South Coast Highway in Oceanside, inside Bull Taco.

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Elli Quark Comes to San Diego

I know. It's January and every food publication and every food writer is pushing healthy eating and weight loss New Year's resolutions. Blah, blah, blah.

And here I am, with timing oh so perfect, touting a new yogurt I've been enjoying over the holidays. Forgive me, but the truth is that the product is only now just showing up in San Diego--at area Whole Foods. Besides, would you have listened to me over the holidays when what you were craving was eggnog and buche de noel and all the cookies from the holiday exchanges you participate in? Nope.

So, here we are in January and, well, I don't need to give a lecture. Suffice it to say that if yogurt is now on your  menu for breakfast or for making green smoothies you might want to give this new kid--in fact, a local kid--a try. It's called Elli Quark.

Now this yogurt is modeled after German quark, a simple product made by warming soured milk and then straining it. It's traditionally used in sandwiches and salads, to make cheesecake and blintzes, dumplings, and blended with sour cream to make dips.

I would just call this yogurt. And it's quite good. Founder Preya Patel Bhakta developed it in Irvine with the idea of creating a healthy and nutritious alternative to Greek yogurt. There are five flavors--plain, strawberry, lemon, pineapple, and red velvet.

Here's what works for me, particularly as someone with T2 diabetes: it's low in calories, has twice the amount of protein compared to traditional yogurt, no added sodium, no fat, and--this is huge for me--no added sugar. The sweetening comes from stevia. That means I can actually enjoy a flavored yogurt without worrying about the carb count.

So, the hefty six-ounce container of strawberry Elli I mixed with a few tablespoons of Grape Nuts this morning had only 80 calories and 10 grams of carbs (plus the cereal).

I've been adding the yogurt to vegetable smoothies, putting the plain version on small baked potatoes, and enjoying it as dessert. It's not as thick as traditional quark or Greek yogurt, but smart folks know that thickening yogurt is as simple as straining it through cheesecloth for several hours to get rid of excess liquid.

Elli Quark is already at Whole Foods markets in Northern California and in Rocky Mountain states, but it's just arrived in San Diego and there are plans to expand to other stores.

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