Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chef Sara Polczynski's Three Refreshing Mexican Dishes for Hot Weather Dining

Chef Sara Polczynski is a global traveler who digs in deep, volunteering with her young daughter and mother, most recently in Guatemala with the organization Globe Aware to help lay concrete floors in the home of a resident of the small village of El Remate. (She's also volunteered with Globe Aware in Cusco, Peru and Surin, Thailand doing various humanitarian and animal efforts.) And, of course, throughout her travels, she's picking up recipes and invaluable cooking techniques that she's taken back to San Diego, where she's the consultant executive chef at downtown's The Blind Burro restaurant and associate professor in the San Diego Community College system where she teaches baking and culinary arts classes.

I've known Sara for years. The two of us annually bake pecan pies together with other friends at Just Call Us Volunteers for Mama's Kitchen. In fact, I've really thought of her primarily as an expert baker, but as she showed me last week in her home kitchen, she's remarkably versatile--and a terrific teacher.

The three recipes she demonstrated for me below are perfect examples of coastal Mexico's influence on her--which is, of course, perfect for neighboring San Diego. The day was just as hot and steamy as today--yet she didn't break a sweat and the results were truly refreshing for lunch.

She also gave me several great tips. Most are incorporated in the recipes, but one stands out. That is to "deflame" onions that are to be eaten raw. White onions, which are typically the variety used in Mexican cooking, can be harsh in their raw state. Deflaming simply means running the diced onion under cold water for 30 seconds to eliminate the bite. You'll see this instruction in her guacamole recipe, which is actually a base for other recipes--although you can, of course, eat it plain.

So, what did she make? As I mentioned, there's guacamole, but instead of your run of the mill smashed avocado dip this is a bright and flavor-packed Mango and Shrimp Guacamole. She starts with a basic guacamole, then makes a refreshing mango salsa that, again, you can serve on its own as a sauce over proteins or to top tacos. To this combo she adds chopped shrimp that she quickly poached, cooled, then marinated with olive oil, lime juice, and sea salt.

Then there was her Moon Scallop Aguachiles Tostada. Yes, you can use any other type of scallop but moon scallops, which you can find locally at Catalina Offshore Products, are so sweet and have such a nice firm texture that they stand out in each bite. Aguachile is a puree of serrano chiles, lime juice, and salt. That's your spicy, acidic marinade for the scallops, which are then chopped and combined with cucumbers, sea salt, and cilanto, then bedded onto a crispy flat corn tortilla (you can find them at Mexican markets) smothered in smashed avocado and topped with pickled onions and cilantro.

Finally, there was her unique and cooling Shaved Baby Squash and Blossom Salad. This colorful dish is so easy to make and really takes advantage of the bounty of summer squash we're enjoying now. All you need is a mandoline or hand slicer to get long thin strips of the squash that you'll add to the delicate yellow squash blossoms, diced red pepper, and greens like arugula. Add a terrific vinaigrette and you're set--although you could also add beans, shrimp, roasted corns, beets, nuts, seeds, cheese, or berries. The squash ribbons will soften slightly as they absorb the dressing, but still have an enjoyable crunch. Yes, it's quite versatile, not to mention brilliantly colorful.

In fact, Sara says that color is one of her greatest influences in her cooking. "Why wouldn't it be?," she laughs. "It makes you happy when you eat!"

Mango and Shrimp Guacamole
from Sara Polcyznski
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 cups 

Both the salsa and the guacamole can be served separately but combine them and add shrimp and you've got a uniquely flavored dish. For the salsa, Sara says the key is a small dice to make it pretty.

Mango Salsa
1/3 red bell pepper, small dice
1 mango, small dice (Tip, to slice the mango meat from the large seed, cut off the base, peel off the skin, the set on the counter and slice down.)
1/2 green onion, minced
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1/2 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
Salt to taste

Mix together all of the ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste.

Plain Guacamole Base
2 pounds avocado
3/4 ounce cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 ounces diced white onion, deflamed (run under cold water for 30 seconds after dicing)

Lightly mash the avocado with a potato masher and blend with the remaining ingredients (keeping the mixture slightly chunky for better texture).

1 pound raw shrimp, deveined and with tails removed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Fill a bowl with water and ice. Set aside. Bring water in a medium-size saucepan to a boil. Add the shrimp and cook briefly, just until the shrimp turn a light pink. Scoop out and place in the ice water bath to shock and stop the shrimp from cooking. Remove, drain, and loosely chop (Set several whole ones aside to garnish the dish). Then add olive oil, lime juice, and sea salt. Mix well.

When the salsa, guacamole, and shrimp are made, combine them and mix well. Plate and serve with chips.

Moon Scallop Aguachiles Tostadas
from Sara Polcyznski
(printable recipe)
Serves 8

1 1/4 cups fresh lime juice
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh serrano chiles, stemmed
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 pound moon scallops
1 Persian cucumber, sliced thin
3 tablespoons cilantro, minced
1 avocado, peeled, seeded, and smashed with salt and lime juice
8 flat crispy corn tostadas (available at Mexican markets)
1/4 cup pickled onions
1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves for garnish

To prepare the moon scallop marinade, combine the lime juice, chiles, and salt in a blender and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Poor over the scallops and marinate for up to an hour.

Chop the scallops, and add the cucumbers, sea salt, and minced cilantro.

Top each tostada with some smashed, seasoned avocado. The add the aguachile moon scallop mixture. Top with pickled onions and cilantro.

Shaved Baby Squash and Blossom Salad
from Sara Polczynski
(printable recipe)
Yield: 1 quart

1 pound baby squash (the smaller, the sweeter), sliced thin lengthwise to better absorb the dressing
2 cups greens, like arugula
1/4 diced shallot
1/3 (or 1/4 cup) red bell pepper, small dice
Salt and pepper to taste
8 squash blossoms, stamen removed
Vinaigrette of your choice

Toss the heavy vegetables with the dressing first. Let sit so that the squash softens slightly. Add sea salt and pepper to taste.

Add greens and carefully tear apart and add the blossoms. Add more vinaigrette to taste. Marinate five to 10 minutes and serve.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lemon Thyme Garlic Paste

I goofed up. I decided to make a batch of dill pickles last week and in my exuberance broke up more heads of garlic than I ended up needing. No big deal really, but I wanted to use up that garlic while it was still fresh.

So, I pulled out my stone mortar and pestle, a bottle of Greek extra virgin olive oil, a lemon, and some dried thyme--and made a small batch of flavored garlic paste.

Now while you could certainly blend these ingredients together in a small food processor, using a mortar and pestle really releases the oils of the garlic, with the olive oil, and transforms into a beautifully smooth and creamy spread.

You can use any combination of flavors--herbs like thyme, oregano, and rosemary or spices like cumin, smoked paprika, chipotle, or a curry powder mix. Add some salt, of course. And you can add zest from lemon, lime, or other citrus, plus some of the juice. What you create can be used to coat chicken or pork, toss with shrimp, spread on vegetables or on a baguette--all before roasting, grilling, or baking. You can add it to a pasta dish or add vinegar and create a dressing or marinade. And, you can blend it with sour cream and cream cheese to make a dip for crudites.

So, this is a very versatile little paste to have on hand. It's also extremely potent. But if you're a garlic lover, this is for you.

Lemon Thyme Garlic Paste
(printable recipe)

Yield: 1/4 cup

12 medium garlic cloves, peeled
4 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced or 1/4 teaspoon dried leaves
zest of half a lemon
juice from half a lemon
salt to taste

*several Altoids for after consuming (optional)

Add garlic cloves to a mortar bowl and use the pestle to crush them. Add one teaspoon of oil and mash with the garlic to create a paste. Gradually add two more teaspoons and continue mashing.

Add the thyme, zest, and salt to the garlic and oil. Work them into the mash, pressing against the wall of the mortar to crush the herbs and zest and bring out the oils. Add the rest of the oil and the lemon juice. Stir, taste, and adjust seasonings and oil to get the flavor and texture you want.

I used my paste to coat a chicken thigh and two halves of a Japanese eggplant from my garden. I sprinkled grated Parmesan cheese on the eggplant as well. Then I baked the chicken and eggplant at 375˚ for about an hour, until they were beautifully browned. Both were oh so tender and while the flavor of the garlic, sweet and mellowed from cooking, predominated, I loved the undertones of lemon and bright thyme.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Taking a Virtual Trip to the Islands with Monchong

Every once in a while I'll get a message from Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore Products that reads something like this:  If you have time, come by the shop this afternoon, I got a piece of fish that will knock your socks off!

Photo by Rebecca Gardon
Well, who can resist that? Not I! This time Tommy wanted to introduce me to a Hawaiian treasure, Monchong--also known as Sickle Pomfret. This beautiful fish with large scales and fork-shaped fins was line caught in Hawaii, where it's a delicacy, costing up to $45 a pound. Usually ranging from 18 to 22 pounds, the Monchong live in what Tommy calls the "twilight zone" of the ocean at depths 800 to 1,200 feet. Like salmon and mackerel it has a high oil content (and high Omega-3 fatty acids), making it great for grilling, broiling, baking, or sauteing--or to use for tempura. 

The fish came in recently with a catch of big eye tuna--another fish we'll talk about soon. This particular shipment is gone, but Tommy assures me that more will be coming in. He had one last half-pound piece that he gave me, slicing off a filet to saute for me at the warehouse so I could get a taste of what I was in for. His minimalist approach gave me the full flavor of the fish--all he did was put some oil in the skillet then add salt, lemon juice, black balsamic vinegar, and the Salt Farm 73, a smoky custom salt for Catalina Offshore Products made by Salt Farm. 

Back home I sliced 3/4-inch pieces, slathered on some olive oil, and added lemon juice and seven-spice shichimi togarashi seasoning. Then I put it on my stovetop grill. It took about three minutes or so to cook. 

The flavor of the Monchong is sweet and rich. Once cooked it has a white flaky flesh that seems impossible to overcook--a forgiving fish, not unlike black cod only not as oily. And, like black cod, I envision marinating Monchong in a mixture of miso and rice vinegar to broil in my next go-round.

Since I couldn't eat it all at one meal, I've saved a couple of slices to add to a salad or perhaps cut up and use for fish tacos.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Five Summer Veggies for the Home Cook to Grow

As a gardener I'm a great grocery shopper. I come from a long line of excellent gardeners, yet whether it's my lack of absolute dedication or the ever-compacting clay soil in my little pocket yard, I have yet to attain the success of my mother or her mother in growing a sustainable harvest even just for myself.

My Nana had a victory garden of at least an acre in East Los Angeles during the Depression and going into the privation of World War II. My mom recalls her using fish bones from the fish monger to fertilize the soil and growing every vegetable you can imagine, as well as berries and tons of flowers. My mom inherited this talent. She's like a plant whisperer. They respond to her with magnificent offerings--Meyer lemon trees weighted down with golden fruit, basil plants bursting with clean wide anise-scented leaves, eggplants and tomatoes enough to make Italians weep with delight.

Me? I compost and compost and the soil still seizes up. I get white fly on my Meyer lemon trees that never quite goes away. And some little varmints are stealing my ripe harvest.

And yet. There I am year after year tending to this lovely little space, and despite my shortcomings and that of the soil, I usually get a small if regular crop.

All this is to say if I can do it, so can you.

This isn't a gardening blog, but many home cooks love to grow their own food. I'm no different. There's such joy in picking a cucumber or pepper or handful of tiny cherry tomatoes that I grew from seed or seedling. It makes cooking and eating them that much more satisfying. My year-round edible garden includes Mexican tarragon, Greek oregano, English thyme, garlic chives, Italian parsley, Meyer lemons, limes, Thai chilis, sorrel, and a basil bush that produces year round. Then there are the seasonal plantings. In late spring, I planted three types of cherry tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, zucchini, string beans, basil, more chiles, plus some strawberries. Some are in pots; some in the soil. All seem to be thriving so far.

So, given my tendency to growing failure, I thought I'd offer up some suggestions for what does work and, hopefully, give inspiration to the soil challenged.

Let's start with my annual favorite: Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. I grow these in a large pot on the sun-drenched part of my patio. In the 13 years I've lived in my house I think I've only had one year of failure. This variety is easy to grow and you may find that the only reason you have nothing to bring into your kitchen is because you've munched on all the ripe ones while hand watering. They're like eating candy. But if you do have enough ripe at one time to make a meal, halve them and serve with fresh ricotta and a drizzle of olive oil on toasted sourdough bread. Or toss with pasta and pesto. Or mix with watermelon chunks, feta, and basil leaves as a salad, drizzled with olive oil and thick balsamic vinegar.

Japanese eggplant: I've always grown this successfully in a pot but after working my garden soil decided to try planting it in the ground this summer. And, woo hoo, I've got gorgeous fruit coming in. I only have one plant so my harvest will be limited, but when the first little guy is ripe, it'll probably be sliced lengthwise, pierced in a few places, then layered first with a thick coating of minced garlic and olive oil, followed by a layer of grated parmesan before heading under the broiler for a few minutes. Of course, you can also stir fry or grill these slender eggplants, or even pickle them.

String beans: This was an experiment last year and they did so well, I got another couple of plants this year and, as you can see, they're popping out! These bush beans are pretty easy to manage and I love the sweet crunch they give when fully ready for picking. If I can keep from just snacking on them, I like to blanch them and include them in a summer salad with sliced radishes and cucumbers, tossed with a light vinaigrette.

Zucchini: This black zucchini variety--like almost any zucchini variety--has a mind of its own and its mind says "Be fruitful and multiply!" I can never decide whether to pick the gorgeous blossoms and stuff them or wait for the fruit. Currently I'm waiting for the first fruit to mature. Once I've had my fill, the blossoms will be snatched for stuffing with creamy cheeses before being dunked in a light beer batter and fried--or simply chopped and added to a quesadilla or omelet. I love having choices!

Peppers: No matter how bad things get in the garden, which includes stealing by varmints, peppers are my salvation. The local thieves don't seem interested in them. I've had one Thai chili plant for years and it keeps popping out the hot stuff every summer. Last year I planted a Hungarian pepper plant that produced beautiful round fruit. I never pulled it and once again it's heavy with green balls that will eventually turn a vibrant red. The same with my bell pepper plant in a big pot on the patio. It just keeps giving and giving so long as I water, feed, and weed it. I also have new serrano and jalapeƱo plants, both full of fruit, planted in the ground. It's so cool to make a salsa and just go out the door with a little clipper to harvest what I need.

This morning I did one of my favorite garden chores--I fed the plants with fish emulsion, a byproduct of fish waste. This stinky source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is fabulous for photosynthesis, flowering, and fruit development. And, with its potent odor, it's the rare plant food that makes you feel like something's happening from the moment it hits the soil. When I feed them fish emulsion I feel like I've really done something wonderful for all my little garden babies.

You don't need me to share the plentiful variety of gardening resources out there, whether online or at the bookstore (although I will give a shout out to my high school friend Nan Sterman, who has a terrific KPBS show called A Growing Passion). All I can emphasize is that you should buy non-GMO seeds or seedlings from reputable resources, use lots of compost to both amend your soil and protect it from the heat, and water as needed. I've gotten in the habit of keeping a pail in my shower to collect water since we're in a drought. That helps. So does composting. And to keep nasty bugs at bay, use natural pest control--whether it's planting flowers that attract insects that will eat your critters or spraying with non-toxic, natural pesticides. Soon you'll also start seeing bees and hummingbirds. That's when you know you've created a magical little ecosystem.

What else? Oh, how about have fun!

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Amy DiBiase's Ricotta Gnudi

I've known Chef Amy DiBiase for years, since we met when she was a guest on a radio show I co-hosted with Ron James and Robert Whitley at the U-T. Back then she was promoting the Point Loma restaurant Roseville. Since then she's made a number of kitchen moves, landing most recently in what was Baleen but has recently become Tidal, Paradise Point's restaurant on Mission Bay.

Amy, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, came to San Diego almost a decade ago to work as a chef at Laurel in Bankers Hill. She left five years later as executive chef to work at Baleen as chef de cuisine. Two years later  she opened Roseville. Amy then chefed at The Glass Door, Cosmopolitan, and The Shores before returning to Baleen and its transition to Tidal.

Now she's making Tidal very much a reflection of her culinary aesthetic: achieving bold flavors through local, seasonal ingredients. Much of her menu feels like contemporary comfort food but nothing that leaves you feeling loggy: Half Chicken Confit, Salmon Wellington, Olive Oil Poached Halibut, and a Chicken Liver Mousse so luscious you want to bathe in it (stay tuned; sous chef Kyle Bergman will be teaching me how to make this later in the summer). It's food that creates a wistful memory even weeks later. And, I, for one, couldn't shake the memory of her ricotta gnudi. So naturally I asked her to show me how to make them.

The last time I was in the kitchen with Amy was earlier this year when the restaurant was still Baleen and I was writing a story for the U-T on root vegetables. Amy shared with me her recipe for Rutabaga and Ginger Soup with Brown Butter Froth. This time we played in the open kitchen overlooking the Bay. Amy came out from the back kitchen, setting down a half sheet holding eggplant, diced zucchini, halved heirloom cherry tomatoes, a bunch of fragrant basil leaves, a container of braised lamb, and a another container of dark pureed Moroccan black olives. Then she retrieved three containers from the walk-in filled with the three cheeses we'd be using for the gnudi--ricotta, of course, but also marscapone and parmesan. A large pot on the stove was filled with simmering water.

To my carb-limited delight, this gnudi feels like pasta but really is cheese coated in flour. The recipe is astonishingly simple--beat together the cheeses with a sparkle of fresh lime zest and salt and pepper, pipe it into a bed of ground durum and cover it up with more of the durum.

Let it rest, refrigerated, for 36 hours so it forms a shell that encases the cheeses. Rub off the excess durum and pop into boiling water for about four minutes. Then serve with your sauce. The bite of gnudi bursting from the durum skin yields a warm, creamy texture with a mild flavor from the trio of cheeses. You could easily add fresh herbs like chives, thyme, or a touch of rosemary to create your own flavor profile.

And, also like pasta, your sauce can be whatever you like. On this day, Amy showed me her current menu sauce--roasted eggplant puree with zucchini, tomato, braised lamb, and black olives. While we made the dish, she warmed the puree in a shallow bowl in the oven. 
In a skillet, she sauteed the zucchini. Then she added the shredded braised lamb shank and a hank of butter. Once the liquid had reduced and the gnudi were cooked she dropped them into the pan briefly with the halved tomatoes. Out came the bowl with the eggplant puree and over that went the gnudi with the sauce. Then she added fresh basil before garnishing the dish with the Moroccan black olive puree.

That's what's at Tidal now. But the dish will change with the seasons and at home you could use pesto or fresh chopped tomatoes and herbs for the summer. It's the perfect dinner party dish. Make it ahead of time up to the point where you boil the gnudi. Then serve family style on a platter with a salad and perhaps big bowl of steamed clams or mussels, and a fresh loaf of sourdough bread.

Ricotta Gnudi
From Amy DiBiase
(printable recipe)

Serves six

1 pound ricotta
8 ounces marscapone
4 ounces grated parmesan
zest of one lime
salt and pepper to taste
1 bag fine ground durum wheat flour (you can substitute all purpose flour)

*Note, the proportions of the cheeses are 1 part ricotta to 1/2 part marscapone to 1/4 part parmesan cheese. Amy says the easiest way to measure is to buy a 1 pound container of ricotta. Empty that into a bowl, then use the container to measure the marscapone and parmesan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine all the ingredients but the durum wheat flour until they just come together.

Spread a one-inch deep layer of flour into a casserole dish. Using a piping bag, pipe the gnudi straight onto the flour in the shape of a large Hershey's kiss (don't swirl like a Dairy Queen ice cream cone). You'll probably need to use a clean finger to push the dough off the tip of the bag with each gnudi. Keep them about an inch apart.

When you've filled the dish with the gnudi, cover them completely with more durum flour. Then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 36 hours.

When you're ready to serve them, put a pot of water on to boil. Add salt to the water. Uncover the gnudi and remove them from the durum flour. Gently brush off excess flour. When the water comes to the boil, add the gnudi. They should boil no longer than 4 minutes (cook too long and they'll fall apart). The key is that they'll begin to rise to the top of the pot.

Drain the gnudi and add to your sauce. Garnish and serve.

Tidal is located at 1404 Vacation Road in the Paradise Point resort.

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