Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Gingered Pear: Seasonal Fruity Cocktails at Your Fingertips

Over the holidays I did a little holiday cocktail round up from ingredients the nice folks at the Hillcrest Whole Foods gave me to try. One company in particular made an impression on me with their tangy Apple Fennel Shrub. That would be Del Mar-based The Gingered Pear. They reached out to me later to thank me for including them in the piece and before I knew it, we'd made a date for me to come over and get a cocktail lesson, using their shrubs and syrups.

The duo who own the business, Colette Bolitho and Jennifer Woodmansee, are friends who met several years ago through their young children. They discovered they both had a passion for food and cooking. And cocktails. One thing led to another and five years later they launched their business, creating seasonal shrubs and syrups from produce as local as possible, including Stehly Farms and Specialty Produce's farm program.

The flavors are made up of some unconventional combinations, including carrot orange, tangerine lavender, and Meyer lemon bay leaf. Their inspiration is a favorite inspiration of mine, The Flavor Bible, and they find the book gives them just enough of a jumping off point to come up with just not flavors for their products but unique cocktails and mocktails.

This spring, The Gingered Pear is featuring Strawberry Rosemary shrub, Apple Fennel shrub, Meyer Lemon Bay Leaf syrup, and Tangerine Lavender syrup.

When I got to Jennifer's house (the pair actually do their mixing and bottling at a commercial kitchen but we decided to meet at Jennifer's house), the kitchen counters were overflowing with glasses and fruit, piles of herbs, a large green herb salad, a platter of cheese, crackers, and these insane prosciutto mustard puff pastry rollups. And, of course, all sorts of liquor and mixers. In other words, heaven.

Shrubs, of course, are a flavoring comprised of fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Heat up the sugar and vinegar until the sugar dissolves and pour over the fruit. Let it stand until the fruit flavor infuses the liquid. Syrups are similar, sans the vinegar--combine sugar and water and heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture becomes syrupy. Add your flavors, simmer, and stir periodically, heating until the fruit or herbs soften. Remove from the heat and let cool. Then strain the syrup through a fine sieve.

Easy, huh? Well, yes. But we don't always have time to do everything from scratch, which is why I'm drawn to these tasty mixtures from The Gingered Pear. They're fresh and hand-made, and perfect not just for cocktails but also to pour over desserts or, in the case of the shrubs, over a salad or even to lightly pickle vegetables. Colette recently poured the Strawberry Rosemary shrub over sliced red onion and radishes to pickle them.

Colette pours the Apple Fennel shrub over an herbaceous green salad.
But, let's talk cocktails and mocktails. How about the Apple Fennel shrub combined with cucumber, mint, vodka, and sparkling sake? A Meyer Lemon Bay Leaf mocktail with tonic water, shaken with a fresno chile? Tangerine Lavender syrup with champagne as a twist on a traditional mimosa? Or a Meyer Lemon Lillet Rose cocktail? Let's just say this visit was a very happy start to my day.

I've got two recipes for you from The Gingered Pear that just speak to spring:

Tangerine Tequila Cocktail
From The Gingered Pear
Makes 1 cocktail

1.5 ounces Tangerine Lavender syrup
1/2 - 1 ounce tequila
Club soda to taste
Fresh Cilantro
Tangerine slices
Hurricane glass or margarita glass

Rub a cut tangerine on rim of glass, then dip the glass in salt.

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add tangerine lavender syrup, tequila, and cilantro. Shake it well, until frosty.

Strain contents of the shaker into salt-rimmed glass. Top with club soda. Garnish with slices of tangerine.

Strawberry Shrub Cocktail
From The Gingered Pear
Makes 2 cocktails

3 ounces Strawberry Rosemary Shrub
2 ounces gin or vodka (optional)
6 ounces club soda (or to taste)
2 to 3 dashes orange bitters to taste (optional)
Sprigs of rosemary
Thin slices of orange

Fill cocktail shaker half full of ice. Add shrub, gin or vodka, and orange bitters if desired. Shake to combine the ingredients.

Strain into two 8-ounce glasses filled with ice. Top with club soda. Garnish with rosemary, orange, and a couple of blackberries.

Notice all those garnishes? The ladies explain that it's the power of the garnishes that prepare you for what you're going to taste.

The Gingered Pear's products can be found at all four San Diego Whole Foods markets as well as Seaside Market, and Del Mar Wine Company.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Savory Cocoa Buckwheat Crepes from Eclipse Chocolate

Back in 2008, not quite a year into my launching San Diego Foodstuff, I wrote about Will Gustwiller and his relatively new business, Eclipse Chocolate. When I visited him at his three-month-old storefront on El Cajon Blvd., he was feverishly working in his tiny kitchen outfitted with a single induction burner, trying to get a new truffle flavor, a white chocolate jasmine tea and Cointreau ganache, to come together. As I said back then, it was a struggle. But, he persisted and it finally became a smooth Jasmine Green Tea, a truffle he debuted on that Valentine's Day.

Six years later, Gustwiller not only continues making truffles and chocolate bars and pastries, in 2012 he moved Eclipse Chocolate to a larger space in trendy South Park and created an operation that still produces confections but also serves daily sweet and savory brunch and dinner in a very hip cafe that melds mid-century modern furnishings with inviting warmth.

And, the food's good, too. Very good. On the day I went to cook with him, I started the afternoon with a plate of avocado benedict, a lush dish of two sous vide farm eggs and slices of salted avocado perched on house-made buttermilk toast and surrounded by a sweet chile-burnt caramel hollandaise. Alongside the benedict was a stuffed red pepper side, filled with quinoa and a mix of vegetables, dotted with Point Reyes blue cheese and a rich brute cocoa mole. I capped it off with a chile-burnt caramel cinnaroll--so decadent that I couldn't finish it in one sitting.

Then it was time to cook. Every month Eclipse Chocolate holds a prix fixe Supper Club, featuring sweet and savory plates infused with chocolate, vanilla, or caramel. This month, the Supper Club is being held on March 28 and 29 with three sittings, at 4, 6, and 8 p.m. They feature three courses for $35 and the theme for March is Italian Bistro dinner.

Gustwiller has a dish that he has featured at his Supper Club, a savory cocoa buckwheat crepe--and this is what we prepared together. For this particular crepe, we put together a caramelized shallot filling and topped it with a mushroom sauce.

So, there was a reason I mentioned the challenging truffle above. Not unlike your own kitchen when you're experimenting with dishes, we had a hell of a time with a variation Gustwiller was trying with the crepe. He wanted to make it vegan and gluten-free. The gluten-free part we had down. We were using buckwheat after all. But we found that soy milk and going egg free just didn't work. Not only did it not come together well, it tasted dreadful. So, out that batch went and we went back to his tried-and-true batter with dairy.

This crepe has minimal sugar so not only does it work well in savory dishes, it doesn't overwhelm a sweet dessert filling (like the strawberries I intend to try the recipe out on). Once we reverted back to the original recipe, it took less than an hour to get all three components together and ready to eat. One of the secrets to its success is filling the crepe, folding it into quarters, then putting it in the oven briefly to crispen the pancake's edges. The result is a firm crepe with a hint a cocoa. The creamy shallot filling is sweet from the caramelized shallots and Riesling but just a bit tart from the crème fraiche. Topping it off with the mushrooms adds another dimension of flavor with a little bite from the fresh green onions. It's rich, but not overwhelmingly so for a first course.

Savory Buckwheat Crepe with Shallot Filling and Mushroom Sauce
from Will Gustwiller
(printable recipe)

Serves 4

This crepes make a terrific first course for a dinner party.

For crepe:

1 cup buckwheat flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
3/4 cup skim milk
1 1/4 cup water (thin as needed)

Whisk together ingredients and strain to remove clumps. Since there's no gluten, there's no need to rest the batter but you can refrigerate before using if you want to make it ahead of time. Heat a nonstick saute or crepe pan, spray with a little vegetable oil. Ladle in about a quarter cup of the batter and swirl it around the bottom of the pan. Depending on the pan size you may need to add a little more batter. When the edges start to curl and the crepe has set, flip it over and let it finish cooking briefly, then flip onto a plate. You can separate the crepes with wax paper. (You can also freeze cooked crepes, layered with wax paper.)

For shallot filling:

1 cup shallots, diced
1/4 cup butter
1 cup Riesling wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
1 teaspoon lemon zest
salt to taste
1/2 cup crème fraiche

Caramelize shallots in butter and deglaze with the wine. Remove from the heat and finish with remaining ingredients. Set aside.

For mushroom sauce:

1 cup + cremini mushrooms, sliced
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup + Riesling wine
4 green onion tops, sliced
salt to taste

Saute the mushrooms in a pan with plenty of room. Deglaze with wine and season to finish. Top with green onion slices

Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees F. On a flat crepe, add a couple of tablespoons of the shallot filling and spread the filling over the entire crepe. Fold into quarters. Place on a baking sheet and put into the oven for five minutes. Remove and plate the crepes. Top with the mushroom sauce and serve immediately.

Eclipse Chocolate is located at 2145 Fern St. in South Park. To make reservations for the Supper Club, RSVP to events@eclipsechocolate.com or call 619-578-2084.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

San Diego Celebrity Chefs Holding Chefs Table to Raise Funds for Neighborhood House Association

No procrastinating--it's time to get your tickets for a very cool and unusual event being held on March 23 to raise funds for the Neighborhood House Association and help them celebrate 100 years of service.

This Sunday afternoon event at the NHA Central Kitchen, Javier Plascenaia (Mision 19), Bernard Guillas (The Marine Room), Andrew Spurgin (Andrew Spurgin Bespoke Event Styling & Menu Design), Deborah Scott (Cohn Restaurant Group), and Chad White (Plancha Baja Med) will each teach a healthy cooking class, demonstrating some stunning recipes.

Along with these chefs and their businesses, there will be a host of restaurants and caterers creating even more dishes to sample. They include:

Bub's @ The Ballpark
Crown Point Catering
Culinary Concepts
Felix's BBQ with Soul
Festivities Catering and Special Events
The Blind Burro
The Wild Thyme Company

Luis Gonzalez, NHA's director of community affairs, says that the upcoming NHA Chef Table and Demonstration is one of five different events celebrating this centennial. "The agency provides services to approximately 24,000 families each year and relies on fundraising efforts to help cover a close to $700,000 deficit for its social service programs," he explains.

In fact, NHA helps thousands of individuals and families through a network of 12 programs in more than 120 locations around San Diego County.

Funds from this event will support the agency mission and its services, but it will also highlight the organization's award-winning child nutrition and education program. What award? Well, the agency has been recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama and the Let's Move Initiative for its efforts in fighting childhood obesity and its approach to building healthy families. In fact, the event will feature menu items from the NHA Nutrition Program.

"I'm doing this event because I was completely blown away by the fact that they feed so many underprivileged children and seniors on a daily basis--4,000 to 6,000 a day Monday through Friday--staggering!," says Spurgin. "And, yet, they've been totally under the radar. We're hoping to give them a little assist."

General admission tickets are $55 and limited VIP tickets that give holders valet parking, time with the chefs, special gifts, and early access to food stations are $100. You can purchase them online on the organization's website.

Chef's Table will be held at the NHA Central Kitchen at 1029 Hancock St. in central San Diego. VIP admission begins at 1 p.m. General admission begins at 2 p.m. and the event will take place until 6 p.m.

Want a taste of what's to come? Here's what Andrew Spurgin will be creating at the event:

Photo courtesy of Andrew Spurgin

Cauliflower Soup, Sheep Milk Yogurt, and Upland Cress
Andrew Spurgin
(printable recipe)

Serves four


Parmesan Crumb
¼ stick of organic butter
½ cup panko breadcrumbs
¼ cup great quality Parmesan, medium grated
Maldon sea salt

¼ cup pine nuts, toasted until golden
2 heads organic cauliflower
White pepper
Maldon Sea Salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 6-ounce container Bellwether Farms sheep’s milk plain yogurt*
Chile flakes
1 lemon
1 bunch of upland cress
 Extra virgin olive oil


Parmesan Crumb 
• Melt butter in sauté pan
• Add panko, stir, and toast until golden
• Remove from heat and gently fold in Parmesan
• Taste; you may need a touch of sea salt

• Turn oven to broil
• In a large pot bring salted water to a boil
• You’ll need 14 each ¼” thick slices of cauliflower, approximately 1” in diameter. Lightly toss with olive oil and sea salt, pop under broiler until deep brown and slightly caramelized. Reserve.
• Remove stalk from cauliflowers. Cut the rest of the florets apart and place in boiling water. Cook until just soft but cooked thoroughly through. Remove (keep the water). Important: you want just enough water to cover the cauliflower.
• Place HOT cooked cauliflower in blender and add just enough HOT cooking water to make into a soup consistency. Blend until ultra smooth. Taste, season with sea salt, nutmeg and white pepper, blend, taste, and adjust as desired.

In warmed soup plates pour cauliflower soup, add a good squeeze of lemon juice and stir in. Top with a layer of the sheep’s milk yogurt to cover (you MAY need to thin slightly with milk for correct consistency). Sprinkle with Parmesan crumb. Arrange three toasted cauliflower slices in center of the plate, garnish with some of the pine nuts, just a few chile flakes and a sprig of watercress, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and serve. Great with a slice of grilled bread!

This soup can also be chilled and assembled for a summer’s nosh.

*Available at Whole Foods

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sun-Kissed Cuisine Niçoise

I knew when I saw the cover and title of this new, beautifully photographed cookbook, Cuisine Niçoise ($40, Gibbs Smith), I would fall in love. One of my favorite places in the world is Nice and the Côte d'Azur. It's been ages since I was last there and this book took me back, with its recipes for socca--a savory chickpea pancake--and Chilled Mussels with Tarragon-Shallot Mayonnaise and Vegetable Pistou Soup.

Author Hillary Davis has lived in the area for more than a decade, perfecting recipes she's learned from her village neighbors. She is also a superb storyteller and her tales brought back to me my own side trips to Menton, by the Italian border, where the lemon is celebrated annually in one of the weirdest, most wonderful festivals you'd want to see (picture Disney characters the size of parade floats all constructed from lemons). To the Matisse Museum, where you step past ancient Roman ruins to get into the museum and nearby men are gathered to play boules. Or driving the Grande Corniche, passing over Monaco, just like Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief--and, sadly, where her car crashed decades later when she was Princess Grace.

The food of the south of France is magical and so friendly to San Diego, where we enjoy a Mediterranean-like climate. So, the many recipes you'll find here will feel just familiar enough--but with an ineffable charm and magic that sets it apart from SoCal.

The markets in Nice are some of the most colorful I've ever seen. Peppers compete with squash blossoms and citrus, olives and cheese--and hordes of flowers. Some ingredients are unusual and Davis, too, had to educate herself. She helps readers out with a chapter on ingredients--some are obvious and favorites, like artichokes and fennel, but others we need a bit of a primer on, too, even if they seem familiar. Anchovies aren't the nasty bits in tins we find on the supermarket shelves; they're salt-cured or marinated in olive oil. Chickpea flour is essential for socca and for the Pistachio Parmesan Chickpea Fries I've already gathered ingredients to make. Canned tuna? We scoff in the States, but canned tuna in olive oil is a Mediterranean staple and the best quality, from Sicily, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, are sublime.

So far, I've tried a couple of the recipes and was very happy with both.

You may smirk that I started with Eggplant Caviar. You've probably made it a zillion times. I know I have. But I haven't made one before that calls for making slits in the eggplant and inserting slivers of garlic before roasting. The garlic melts into the eggplant, adding an entirely new dimension to the flavor. Add more fresh minced garlic, basil, marjoram leaves, sea salt, and black pepper and you have a new twist on an old favorite.

And, for an easy meal for Oscar night, I turned to her One-Pan Chicken Dinner. Made with lemon, rosemary, and a variety of root vegetables--most notably whole heads of garlic--it's a great party dish and perfect comfort food for a chilly evening.

One-Pan Chicken Dinner
From Cuisine Niçoise by Hillary Davis
(printable recipe)

Serves 4

1 (5-pound chicken)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more
4 potatoes, quartered
4 onions, quartered
8 medium carrots, whole
2 lemons, sliced then halved
4 sprigs rosemary, leaves only, chopped
4 whole bulbs of garlic

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bruch olive oil over the bottom of a large roasting pan.

Place the chicken in the middle of the pan, breast side up. Generously salt and pepper the cavity, oil the skin, and then sprinkle it with salt. Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven and add the potatoes, onions, carrots, lemons, and rosemary.

Slice the tops off the garlic bulbs, rub with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and add to the roasting pan.

Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and return the baking dish to the oven for another 30 minutes. Test the chicken with an instant-read thermometer. If it hasn't reached 165 degrees F., continue cooking until it does, testing again after 15 minutes. The total cooking time should be between 1 and 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the roasting pan, leave the vegetables intact, and allow everything to rest for 10 minutes.

I like to bring the roasting pan to the table or a side table and let people serve themselves. Toss the vegetables in the pan so they are coated with the lemony rosemary oil at the bottom. Give each person a whole bulb of roasted garlic.

Note: Roast two or three chickens at once and you'll have an easy dinner party for a crowd.

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