Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pangea Bakery Café: A Delicious Innovation Village

In the very center of the heart of the Convoy District is one of the few eateries on Convoy St. that isn't ensconced in a strip mall or plaza. That would be Pangea Bakery Café. Opened four years ago by Charles Wang, a Taiwanese immigrant, and now also run with his son Ping, a Stanford grad who is a high-tech entrepreneur, Pangea reflects the changing landscape of this Pan Pacific part of San Diego.

Walk into the bakery and you'll find tables filled with cellophane-wrapped pastries--sweet and savory--whose origins reflect the Wangs' Taiwanese heritage. The striped sweet potato and red bean buns and the mung bean buns topped with sesame seeds are just two of a vast menu of Taiwanese-style buns baked daily on site.

Ping explained the origin of the cafe's name. Pangea was the ancient supercontinent that existed before the continents split up. His commitment to the eatery is to evolve it from its Taiwanese roots to embrace the entire Pan Pacific and more. It's also his commitment to the area now known as the Convoy District, whose borders form a triangle from the 52 freeway south within the geography between the 163 and the 805, reaching the point around Aero Dr. and Convoy where the two freeways meet. This district is headed to becoming a BID--or Business Improvement District--and one of its founders is Ping, who is also an organizer of this Saturday's San Diego Night Market. Even Pangea reflect's Ping's bigger plans. You'd think that this space is simply a bakery and cafe. In fact, he operates a business incubator on the second floor, an experimentation space with a 3D printer where food innovators can try out ideas for 3D printed food, and a pop-up space for food entrepreneurs, as well as a large event room in the back.

"I like to call it an innovation village," he says. "It's a place for mixing and crossing cultures and ideas."

But let's get back to the bakery for the moment. If you're familiar with 85°C Bakery Cafe, a Taiwanese concept that spread across the U.S., including Orange County, the treats here at Pangea would be familiar. And it's no accident. When Charles Wang immigrated to San Diego and was trying to identify a business to launch, he was hoping to bring 85°C to San Diego, but they weren't interested. So, according to his son, he decided to fill that need with his own bakery and launched Pangea. Charles Wang traveled back to Taiwan and consulted with master bakers as well as attended baking classes. He brought back both recipes and experienced colleagues to consult as he got the business up and running.

So, you'll find traditional buns that are light and moist, mixing French technique and pastry origins with traditional Asian ingredients, like red bean paste, sweet potato, and mung beans. And the pastries are far less sweet than traditional French fare.

I fell in love with the green onion bun that reminded me of a roll I used to get at the Diamond Bakery in L.A. Divided into three distinct segments, the bun smells heavenly when heated up, with the onion scent becoming sweet and complementing the tender, chewy vaguely sweet bread.

Since Taiwan is a tropical country, one of the most popular fruits in the region is pineapple. The pineapple has a distinct motif in the pastries at Pangea. The poluo buns here have the cross-hatch and hard, crispy top reminiscent of a pineapple, although it's not used as an ingredient.

The taro poluo bun is a purple confection that, again, doesn't include pineapple as an ingredient, but undernearth the crispy exterior, you'll find a filling of sweet taro.

Where pineapple actually does come into play are the traditional square pineapple cakes. The cake itself reminds me of the cakey fig newton cookie. Instead is a delicate compote of pineapple.

I also went a bit crazy over their cookies. The almond cookie is a paper thin sweet, as delicate as a Florentine cookie, filled with almond slices, and crispy as brittle. The Earl Grey cookie is reminiscent of shortbread in texture with a delicate infusion of Earl Grey to give it a unique smokiness. These both are addictive.

Want savory? You can find ham and cheese croissants, hot dog buns, ham and cheese bread, a bun filled with pork pate, another that actually looks like a sesame bagel filled with tun, and a pork bun with barbecue pork. The cross-cultural borrowing from one Asian culture to another is reflected in many of these pastries. The Taiwanese interpretation has a ready explanation, as Ping explained. "Taiwan has shifted hands so many times over the centuries that it became a crossroads of influences, including culinary. It's a crucible of intermingling cuisines, including baking and the pastry arts."

And, this is where the irony of the Pangea idea comes in. After all these years, 85°C is now coming to San Diego at the corner of Genesee and Balboa. So, what spurred the original business is now spurring change. Ping's innovation village will innovate and become more Pan Asian as he and his father make plans to expand the concept to reflect that crucible. They hired pastry chef Jerome Chang, known for fusion concepts, to consult and guide them into a broader, more cross-cultural approach to pastry. And Ping is looking to bring in vendors to add to the mix as part of his "in-provision" food incubator.

So, this innovation village will build on its current success to meet a new challenge and epitomize what is burgeoning in the Convoy District--a unique intermingling of Asian and other cultures in a part of town that is constantly evolving.

Pangea Bakery Cafe is located at 4689 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa. And, be sure to check out the San Diego Night Market on Saturday, Oct. 4 from 4 p.m. to midnight on Engineer Road near Convoy. There will be plenty of interesting food and entertainment. Check out the website to get more information.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sweet Tart Lemon Squares

I'm not a parent but I am an aunt to five nieces and nephews who as young adults now live on the opposite side of the country. Number four--my brother's older daughter--just launched university life. As anyone who loves the  young people in their life knows, communications can be a rare thing. So, it's utter joy when you get a text from them out of the blue to say hi and then even get a modest dialogue going. Last week ours more or less went like this:

"How are you?" 
"School is going well. Nothing I can't handle (I hope)" 
"Anything you'd like from SD?" 
"Homecooked food and sleep are all that I really need." 
"Guess it's time to start baking." 
"You're awesome"
"How do you feel about lemon squares? Or are you craving something else? You name it!"
"Anything as long as it doesn't have caramel!'

Well, the caramel thing was news to me. But the lemon squares were on. 

In my family, lemon squares are one of those treats that seemed always to be part of the family sweets repertoire, along with chocolate chip cookies, mandelbread, lemon cake, and snowball cookies. I have a well-used recipe that I got from my mother but not credited to anyone. When I asked her about it over the weekend, she said she got it from a friend in Palm Springs. Sadly, I don't think she even remembers the name of this blessed creature whose generosity has given us so much joy over so many years.

The recipe is simple and straightforward--very much like pouring lemon curd over shortbread and baking them together. The resulting cookie is sweet and tart, creamy and crunchy. I could eat them all day long. And, they freeze beautifully. I actually made two batches, sending the second to my brother and the rest of his family. Hopefully, they'll arrive intact for all of them to enjoy!

Lemon Squares
(printable recipe)
Yield: About 2 dozen

For cookie:
1 cup sweet butter (2 sticks)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powder sugar (plus more to sprinkle)
Preheat oven to 350˚. Blend ingredients in a food processor. Then spread in a buttered 9" X 13" baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes--until the edges are slightly brown.

Mix together until smooth:
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Pour the mixture over the baked cookie. Return the baking dish to the over and bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until set. 

Remove from the oven and sprinkle well with more powder sugar. Cut when cool.

Can be frozen.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Making Banchan at Saja Korean Kitchen

I first fell in love with banchan, the little side dishes served at Korean meals, traipsing through L.A.'s Koreatown with chef Debbie Lee. These are tastes designed to be shared throughout the meal. Have a bite of bibimbap and a bit of pickled cucumber. Dig into bulgogi and then pick up a bite of scallion pancake. The variety of flavors and textures can be enormous even if the portions are deliberately petite.

At the new Saja Korean Kitchen down in the Gaslamp, executive chef Jason Velasquez (mostly recently at Katsuya), has create a menu that plays on traditional Korean food but introduces some new flavors and techniques that you probably wouldn't find at your favorite haunts on Convoy.

Hired by restaurateur Alex Thao (Rama and Lucky Liu's), Seattle-native Velasquez has trained extensively with Japanese chefs and also attended classes at Le Cordon Bleu to learn French technique. Korean cuisine wasn't in his wheelhouse, so he spent months eating Korean food here and in L.A. to develop his palate so he could then develop his menu.

Given Saja's lower 4th Ave. location near the San Diego Convention Center and consequently the need to appeal to a broader audience, Velasquez felt that his menu should be Korean inspired, but not literally locked into tradition. He's toned down some of the strong flavors. For example, he doesn't use as much fish sauce in dishes that call for it and uses a milder Japanese variety. He's also keen on cutting down on sugar in his dishes--and, in general, keeping them lighter.

But his banchan reminds me of some of my favorite places here and in L.A. Typically, he services flash boiled and marinated bean sprouts, edamame, pickled cucumbers, kimchi, cabbage with daikon in chili paste and dashi, and marinated broccoli--although he does switch out all but the cucumbers, edamame, kimchi, and bean sprouts. After visiting Saja for dinner last month, I asked Velasquez to teach me how to make a couple of his banchan dishes: his kimchee and pickled cucumbers. He agreed.

"Banchan to me is very simple--it's a way to get the palate started," he says. "It's not so much that it will fill you up but enough to start up your appetite. It's something you can enjoy eating communally."

Both of these recipes are home-cook accessible, though you'll need to make a trip to an Asian market for ingredients like fish sauce, sweet rice flour, sesame oil, konbu (dried edible kelp), and Korean red pepper powder. And you'll need to plan ahead, since these dishes thrive on time to soak in the flavors.

So, let's start with the kimchee. Done right, the salad will be crunchy where the cabbage is thickest but very pliable with the thin part of the leaves. It definitely has a nice kick to it, but the spice is full of flavor, along with the mild tangy fishiness of the shrimp fish sauce. The flavors are complex and irresistible.

Saja Cabbage Kimchee
From Jason Velasquez of Saja Korean Kitchen
(printable recipe)

Yield: 3 cups

1 head Napa cabbage
Sea salt
2 tablespoons salted brined shrimp
2 tablespoons grated garlic
1/2 grated yellow onion
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
1/3 Korean red pepper powder
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of sea salt
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup shredded green onions

Slice the cabbage head in half lengthwise and partially cut through each half, keeping the quarters intact. Place the cabbage in a large bowl and generously sprinkle the leaves throughout the head with sea salt. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or at least 12 hours. The cabbage will wilt and liquid will release to the bottom of the bowl. This allows the cabbage to act like a sponge to absorb the flavors you'll add.

You can make the sauce while the cabbage leaves are salting or the next day. In a food processor, puree the shrimp, garlic, onion, and fish sauce. It can be a little chunky.

In a bowl, combine the rice flour, red pepper powder, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Place it in a saucepan with enough water to make a slurry. Whisk the mixture over medium heat on a burner. As it heats up it will form a light paste. Take it off the heat and let it cool. Once cooled, add to the shrimp mixture.

Rinse the salt from the cabbage. Then wring out the water. Place the cabbage in a bowl and add the carrots and green onions. Pour the sauce over the vegetables and work it into the cabbage, including between the leaves. Fold each of the four quarters of saturated cabbage in half lengthwise and place into a container. Cover and let sit for 24 hours on the counter, unrefrigerated. Then refrigerate. It will taste fine in a day or two, but if you can, wait a week for the flavors to truly come together. Serve as chunks in a small bowl for banchan.

Now on to the pickled cucumber. I'm particularly partial to these flavors because I've been doing an extremely simple version of this for years that I enjoy during heat waves. With this recipe I can ratchet up the flavor with a sweet, slightly spicy, tangy profile, thanks to Valasquez's dynamite vinegar solution and the addition of very smooth, aromatic sesame oil.

Saja Pickled Cucumber
From Jason Velasquez of Saja Korean Kitchen

1 English cucumber (or other seedless cucumbers)
Sea salt

For vinegar solution:
2 quarts Japanese wheat rice vinegar (called suhiro)
1 cup brown sugar
pinch of sea salt
piece of konbu

2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup sesame oil
2 cups of the vinegar solution
1 tablespoon Korean red pepper powder
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Slice cucumbers in 1/4-inch thick slices so they retain their crunch. Toss with sea salt. Let sit 15 to 20 minutes.

Make the vinegar solution. Heat one quart of the Japanese wheat rice vinegar until it reduces by half. Combine with a second quart of vinegar, 1 cup brown sugar, a pinch of sea salt, and a piece of konbu. Heat the mixture until it's combined. Note: keep the konbu in the mixture. (Velasquez also uses this mixture in his sushi rice.)

Rinse the salted cucumber slices, then place in a kitchen towel and squeeze to remove the liquid.

Empty the cucumber slices into a bowl. In another bowl whisk together the brown sugar, sesame oil, 2 cups of the vinegar solution, the Korean red pepper powder, and the sesame seeds. Pour over the cucumber and let marinate at least six hours but preferably overnight. Serve in small bowls for banchan. 

The marinade can also be used as a base for vinaigrette. Add grapeseed oil, Chinese plum sauce, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Test Driving AmazonFresh

I guess you could say that I've been a professional grocery shopper for almost eight years now--since launching San Diego Foodstuff. I love shopping and markets--whether it's chatting up vendors at our farmers markets, discovering new ingredients at ethnic markets, or ooohing and ahhhing over the annual reappearance of seasonal produce at Whole Foods or Sprouts. Don't even get me started on Trader Joe's.

So, when I received Amazon's notice of the San Diego launch of AmazonFresh--their fresh produce and grocery delivery service--I was curious. How would it work? They brag that they offer products from local vendors, but who would they be and why wouldn't I just head over to their shops? How easy would it be to order what I want? How long would it take to get to me? Sure, we've been through other online grocery delivery businesses, like FreshDirect and WebVan. But this is Amazon. I have certain expectations.

Well, before I go any further with this let's bring up the shock factor--the annual $299 fee for what is called AmazonFresh Prime. So, if, like me, you already are an Amazon Prime member for $79 a year (yes, that fee is increasing, too, and I've lately noticed that the two-day free delivery is edging closer to three or four or more days), you now have to spend another $220 a year to be able to order and get grocery delivery, along with all your other Prime membership benefits. This applies to you whether you're in San Diego, L.A., or San Francisco. (Interestingly, in Seattle Amazon Fresh is open to anyone, so long as you pay an $8 to $10 delivery fee or place a big enough single order or are part of the Big Radish, their frequent buyer program.)


I'd love to hear from you about whether or not you think a grocery delivery service is worth $299 a year--remembering that you only get "free" delivery if you spend more than $35 on an order. Clearly the rationale on Amazon's part is that you'll feel compelled to spend an awful lot on Amazon groceries and other goods to justify paying that annual fee. Good for them. But is it good for you?

The company also promotes the promise that if you order by 10 a.m. you'll have delivery by dinner. If you order by 10 p.m., you'll have your order delivered by breakfast.

Not so fast. Literally. On Tuesday morning I ordered a combination of groceries that were part of their basic AmazonFresh list and some local (meaning Southern California) groceries. But once my selections went into my cart, it turned out that some would be available Wednesday and others not until Thursday. Consequently, I set my delivery date for Thursday late morning.

But, let's start with how it works once you get on the site. You'll enter your address to see if you qualify for delivery service. If so, then you sign up for a free, 30-day trial, entering all your crucial info, including payment details--all the usual stuff for this type of commerce. Once you get on the shopping site you have the option of shopping bestsellers, recipes, shopping with coupons, shopping neighborhood shops and restaurants, shopping grocery or Amazon.com items, or household, baby, health & beauty.

My initial interest was in seeing who was represented locally. And, remember that in this case local means Southern California. So, yes, there are shops and vendors you know like Eclipse Chocolate, Dallmann Fine Chocolates, Waters Fine Food & Catering, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, San Diego Honey, Sadie Rose Baking Co., Cafe Moto, Venissimo, The Cravory, and Seaport Oil & Vinegar.

What this L.A. native also appreciated was the appearance of some old neighborhood favorites of mine from living in West Hollywood--Western Bagel, Canter's, and--be still my heart--the Diamond Bakery on Fairfax.

So, off I went to order. I bought a couple of heads of garlic, a jar of Medaglia D'Oro Instant Espresso Coffee, a 6-ounce container of blueberries, a bunch of organic dinosaur kale, turbinado sugar, and organic air-chilled chicken--items that already were on my shopping list. Then I picked up two loaves of corn rye bread from Diamond Bakery and a couple of potato knishes from Canter's--treats I can only buy when visiting L.A. Lastly, I scanned our local folks and picked up a pound of decaf coffee beans from Cafe Moto and both burrata and bucherondin chevre from Venissimo.

That's it. The total came to almost $68--meaning my delivery would be free. But, as I was checking out the form gave me the option of adding a delivery tip. The recommended amount was $4, but I could modify that or not include it. Their delivery people don't take cash. As for delivery, you get a choice of days and times, as well as a choice of selecting front door delivery (they just drop it off) or in-person delivery (you must be there and sign off on delivery).

Clearly, my list was not the usual weekly grocery list. For someone who isn't into marketing, doesn't have the time, or is unable to get around easily, grocery delivery is a tremendous service. The question is whether that $299 fee is justified.

It's a potential boon for local vendors. According to Venissimo owner Gina Frieze, who was approached by Amazon to participate as they were expanding into San Diego, it is a way to get visibility to potential customers in the county, as well as give them a presence in Los Angeles.

"That means millions of people who might never get to try our cheese would have a chance to try them," she says. "Even some of our regulars are thrilled to have this convenient option available to them. Same great cheese, cut fresh off the wheel, delivered next day to your doorstep. Not a bad deal."

So far their product selection on the site is smaller than in the shops. Currently they include a combination of customer favorites along with some that staff love and that they always have in stock--from cheeses and charcuterie to crackers, sweets, savories, and gift collections. Frieze says that her understanding is that as they get up to speed with real-time inventory, they'll be able to offer an even greater selection. And, AmazonFresh customers also get the full description of the cheeses that Venissimo's store customers have come to expect.

I'm hoping that product expansion applies to the other vendors. I wanted to order a package of chocolate nibs from Eclipse Chocolate, but they weren't to be found. I love Bird Rock coffee but their decaf beans were only available in a pricy and impractical five-pound order.

Similarly, even some basic grocery orders are limited. The only DeLallo whole wheat pasta I could find was spaghetti--a 16 pack.

For me, that's part of the limitation of online shopping--another issue for you to weigh, along with whatever preferences you have in the area of brands, whether you want produce that's already ripe or a few days from ripeness (think avocados), or what size produce you want (I like small russets not ginormous ones). In short, how picky are you about your groceries? Do you like to sniff and press?

It will also be interesting to see who else in San Diego will eventually participate. For example, Santa Monica Seafood is part of AmazonFresh, but Catalina Offshore Products says it hasn't been approached. Cupcakes Squared has been approached but hasn't decided. Another vendor I know felt that it wasn't worth it, while another is considering it. Will there be a way for farmers or other growers to get in on this directly?

Now, let's talk about the actual delivery.

I had scheduled my delivery for Thursday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., knowing I'd be returning home from a doctor's appointment by 11. As I swung around the front of my house at 10:50 I saw green bags on my front porch. So an A for timely delivery--even if it wasn't same or next day. As you can see, each large green bag is slapped with a scanning sticker to assure accuracy.

Here is everything I ordered. Clearly, it all fit on my cutting board. Yet it required four large bags, two of which had two styrofoam coolers with the requisite ice packs for delivery. The coolers are in six connecting pieces like a jigsaw puzzle so you don't have to pull a big cooler out of the bag. And I guess you can reuse them if you put them back together in the bag. These will get recycled. The bags are your basic recyclable grocery bags only much taller and with velcro closures at the top and snaps on the handles. I guess you can take these to the market or find other uses for them, but they're kind of an ungainly size. And if you order from AmazonFresh regularly you're going to accumulate a lot of them, not to mention the ice packs. (Note: I've just learned that you're supposed to bundle the bags and cooler pieces together and leave them for pick up when your next delivery is made.)

Another thing I noticed is that there are holders on the side of the bags for product advertising. Those Bounty and Crest notices are just ads, not coupons. There are also ads on the site. So, Amazon is getting passive income from manufacturers.

As for the products themselves, everything arrived as it should, fresh, cold--if required--and intact. As it should, given all that packaging. Okay, one caveat, Gina Frieze, your Venissimo cheese package was moist so the labeling with the info you want your customers to enjoy is kind of smeared.

You'll have to determine for yourself whether all these factors will turn you into an AmazonFresh member. For me, the best thing about it was being able to order from Canter's and the Diamond Bakery. The rest, meh. But I'm a shopper so I don't feel a need for home delivery. What I wish is that there were no $299 fee. If this were simply part of my current Prime membership, I would feel compelled to take advantage of it periodically if I didn't have time to shop or at least head over to places to get specialty items--or order products from favorite spots in Los Angeles. But I just don't see spending $300 for a service I don't have much use for. And I simply think that number is prohibitively high. I hope the powers that be, Mr. Bezos, rethink that.

For those of you who do join, you can do your ordering online on the website, but there's also an AmazonFresh app for iOS and Android at their respective shops.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Noodle Kugel

Come September and it's soon time for the high holidays. Yes, there may (inevitably) be a heat wave in Southern California, but Rosh Hashanah and breaking the fast of Yom Kippur call for traditional Jewish comfort food--and in my family that always includes a sweet noodle kugel--or lokshen kugel if you want to go all the way with the Yiddish.

Noodle kugel (there's also potato kugel for Passover)--basically a noodle pudding--is dish usually made with wide egg noodles, sour cream, cream cheese, eggs, sugar, and butter. Made well, it's a sweet, fluffy, cheesy dish. When I was growing up, my grandparents would often show up at our house for Friday night dinner, almost always bearing three things--her Hawaiian chicken, a Pyrex dish bubbling with a warm kugel, and mandelbread. Because kugel is such a cholesterol nightmare it's no longer something I eat much of, but if I get half the chance I'm all over it. Plus, it holds up well as a leftover or frozen and reheated.

I've had many versions of noodle kugel over the years and tend to avoid it at most Jewish delis because at least our local ones don't do a great job with it. A lousy kugel is kind of flat and dense and unpleasantly chewy. Whether it includes raisins or other dried fruit, pineapple chunks, or peaches (as one friend prepared it), it should be a bite of rich creaminess under a crisp top. In looking at other recipes over the years I've found a key difference between my nana's and these others. Nana always separated the egg yolks from the whites and beat the whites until stiff. You can't miss with that technique--even if you use cottage cheese (yet another ingredient option).

This recipe below is about as traditional as you can get. But you can change it up with extra ingredients you enjoy, like reconstituted dried or fresh or canned fruit, and different toppings. I added a little brown sugar to my most recent kugel and enjoyed the deeper flavor it created.

Nana's Noodle Kugel

(printable recipe)
Yield: 12 servings, depending on how you slice it

1 pound dried wide egg noodles, cooked and well drained
1 cup raisins or other dried fruit (optional), soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, then drained
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted
1/2 pound cream cheese, softened and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pint sour cream
6 eggs, separated

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Beat egg yolks with sugar and add to cooked noodles.

Beat egg whites until stiff.

Add butter, cream cheese, and sour cream to noodles. Gently fold in egg whites.Yes, it will be loose. Don't worry. It will come together while cooking.

Pour mixture into buttered 13-inch by 9-inch baking pan. If you want you can make a topping with brown sugar, cinnamon, and granulated sugar (and/or breadcrumbs, crumbled graham crackers, streusel, or crushed cornflakes).

Bake for about an hour until the center is set and the noodles are light brown on top.

Let the kugel rest for 15 to 20 minutes before slicing.

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