Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Farmers Market Pasta with Pea Tendrils

I usually go to the farmers market to buy odds and ends of things--whatever strikes my fancy. Last Sunday, I went to the Hillcrest farmers market to see what I could gather to make an interesting dinner. The trick was to find that one item to build the meal around.

I found it at Sage Mountain Farms' stall: sugar snap pea tendrils. On a gloomy day that hinted of rain, there were those sweet pea flowers spoke to me of spring and I had to have them, especially since their season is short. Pea shoots and tendrils can be enjoyed raw, chopped in a salad or snacked on, or sauteed. The young stems are crispy, the leaves a bit tart with a hint of pea flavor.

I picked up two bunches and turned around to continue my shopping and saw my friends Tina and Eric of Close to Home pasta. Voila! I had my meal. Pasta with pea tendrils. Nothing fancy or exotic, but the idea felt perfect.

I picked up a couple of pastas: spinach and garlic penne and firecracker garlic fettucine. I can't resist spice or garlic. After consulting with Tina, we decided that the fettucine would pair best with the pea tendrils.

Oh, and then I saw some shelled sugar snap peas at Valdivia farms. I bought a bag of those. Then some butter from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese.

I was done. At home I had some pine nuts and goat cheese--and, garlic and olive oil. Oh, and a lemon. No need to buy those that day.

I'd love to say that it's all I bought, but I was lacking in will power. I picked up a loaf of whole wheat sourdough bread from Prager Brothers and spicy Bitchen' sauce as well. Farmers markets are filled with temptation!

Last night I pulled the meal together. It was simple, but think of the ingredients I was working with!

I don't have a recipe, but here's what I did:

1. Toasted a handful of pine nuts while a pot of water was heating up
2. Removed the flowers from the pea tendrils to keep as garnish
3. Chopped the pea tendrils into bite-size pieces
4. Zested the lemon and minced a few garlic cloves
5. Sauteed the pea tendrils and peas in a combination of butter, olive oil, and garlic, then added some lemon zest and sea salt

6. Removed the peas and tendrils and made the sauce--a bit more butter and olive oil, a bit more sea salt, juice from half the lemon, and the rest of the zest.
7. Added the pasta to the boiling water and let the sauce reduce. Sliced some goat cheese.

That's it. I added the pasta to the pan filled with the sauce and tossed it to coat before adding the mixture to the peas and pea tendrils. I tossed it all together and then added the pine nuts and goat cheese before topping the dish with the flowers. Dinner was on in perhaps 15 minutes. Local, seasonal, fresh. Delicious!

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Returning to Ancient Grains with Sorghum

I'm a SoCal gal. So, when I hear the word sorghum, my head immediately pulls up an image of Gone with the Wind. Isn't it some kind of Southern molasses?

Well, yes and no. One type, sweet sorghum, is a tall cereal grain that has, in fact, served as the source of an inexpensive syrup and as feed in the form of the whole plant for animals. But in the U.S. a second, shorter variety is grown for animal feed. And ethanol. And, get this, fencing, pet food, building material, and floral arrangements. Its great quality is that it's drought tolerant (anyone growing it in California?) and very hardy. In fact, it requires a third less water to grow than corn. And that's why, in thirsty parts of the U.S., sorghum is making a comeback. According to United Sorghum Checkoff, in 2013 8.06 million acres of sorghum were planted in the U.S.--primarily in Kansas, Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Colorado on dryland areas.

Originating from northeastern Africa, where it's been growing for at least 4,000 years, sorghum spread to the rest of Africa, as well as India and China. It's thought to have been introduced to North America in cargo ships that carried African slaves.

While corn is still king in the U.S., farmers are experiencing greater demand for sorghum and not just because of water scarcity. Because it's an ancient grain and a gluten-free grain, increasingly people are showing a culinary interest in it. It's ground into flour for baking but I have been enjoying the whole grains themselves--which look like pale little ballbearings with a black dot in center.

Sorghum is not difficult to find in San Diego. I found Bob's Red Mill packages of it at Whole Foods. Like any whole grain it's endlessly versatile. Boil it like rice and enjoy it as a side dish. Create risotto with it. Make a hot cereal with it. Or, you can even pop it like popcorn.

I kept it simple just to try it out. The water to grain ratio with sorghum is 3 to 1 and it takes close to an hour to cook. The grains plump up, but they still are small and have a chewy consistency.

I first ate the cooked sorghum with a tomato-based chicken stew. Then I turned the leftovers into a sorghum and cherry tomato salad, basically rummaging through my refrigerator to use ingredients like sliced kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, diced red onion, garbanzo beans, parsley from my garden, currants, and toasted pine nuts. I tossed all of it together in a light vinaigrette I made. Day one it was a solid B. The textures were good--some crunch, some chew. The flavors were, too--sweet, herbaceous, briny, salty, garlicky (from the vinaigrette). But day two it all came together. So, make this a day in advance so the flavors can really meld.

I also heard that sorghum can be popped and thought that sounded like a hoot. So, I pulled out a tall pot and gave it a try. I'd read instructions that you can put the grains in a pot and cover it, shaking the pot over high heat until all the kernels are transformed. But these little guys are so tiny I wasn't convinced I'd hear what was happening inside. They just didn't seem robust enough. And, based on that I also didn't think they jump too high. So, I just used an open pot that was very tall.

My first go round wasn't successful. I added too much olive oil in and they drowned. Just turned brown. So, I emptied the pot, used just the slightest amount of oil to a quarter cup of sorghum and tried again with higher heat. By now the pot was quite hot and the action started immediately. And stirring with a wooden spoon seemed more useful than shaking the pot. The grains won't all pop but even the orphans can be enjoyed without worry of cracking your teeth.

What to do with them? Other than snacking, of course. They make a great garnish. The popped kernels are petite and delicate looking. Use them to top a creamy soup or a platter of roasted vegetables. Add them to a salad. Make little sweet balls (a la popcorn balls) to garnish a dessert. They're just fun!

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

El Borrego's Green Pork Pozole

Under the category of "who knew" falls green pork pozole. I've enjoyed red pozole. I've enjoyed it with chicken. But green? And with pork? That was a humbling and happy discovery I made late last fall while visiting the little City Heights eatery, El Borrego. The broth is rich and herbaceous, thickened with the mandatory hominy. The chunks of pork shoulder are tender and meld beautifully with the broth and the various condiments you can add to the soup--from chicharones and cilantro to sliced cabbage and radishes. It's a meal meant to warm your insides in cold weather--but we're in San Diego so don't wait for a chill to set in. Turn on the AC and enjoy!

I asked owner Rodnia Navarro if she'd teach me how to make the dish and she, in turn, introduced me to her mother, Rosario Sotelo, who is El Borrego's chef. Rosario agreed and we decided to wait until after the new year to get together for a cooking session. By January I felt like that woman in the old Mervyn's commercial, feverishly tapping on the window repeating, "open, open, open."

Well, the day finally arrived and as always, there were the unanticipated discoveries that I'm so excited to share. The  first is that pozole is actually quite easy to make. The greater challenge is finding the ingredients. And that leads to the other discoveries.

Green pozole gets its name from all the marvelous green ingredients it incorporates. The most prominent is pulverized pumpkin seeds. Look for them in Hispanic markets, but don't worry if you can't find them. You can buy the seeds whole and grind them in a good blender. You'll also need epazote, a weed-like herb that is usually associated with cooking black beans. It's pretty easy to find in Hispanic markets. And, you'll want Mexican Pepperleaf, or hoja santa. It's unusual tasting--to me it had a slightly bitter minty flavor. And, you'll want--get this--radish leaves. Yes, finally I've learned of a use for those beautiful leaves we tend to toss when we buy a bunch of radishes. And, Rosario, says, you can clip, wash, drain, and freeze these various leaves.

Clockwise from top left: Hominy, pork shoulder, hoja santa, ground pumpkin seeds

One thing I've heard a few people say about making pozole is that they bought the wrong hominy (which, by the way, is what pozole means). So, above is a photo of what you're looking for--oversized corn kernels, not grits.

The pozole is atypical of the dishes you'll find at El Borrego--because the family is known for their lamb dishes. In fact, it's how they got started. Originally from Acapulco in the Mexican state of Guerrero, Rosario worked as a flight dispatcher for major airlines. Rodnia, with a degree in international studies, worked at Frontera newspaper in Tijuana, where Rosario moved 25 years ago and opened a candy store. A natural cook, she also catered for a maquiladora. Rosario's sister had a convenience store in San Diego and a customer was looking for someone to make barbacoa, a method of slow cooking meat. In central Mexico, that typically means lamb. Rosario took the gig, and discovered that lamb barbacoa was not easy to find in San Diego. In other words, she saw a business opportunity.

Rosario and Rodnia launched a little weekend business in the driveway alongside the convenience store, making use of the sister's licensed kitchen. "Our first weekend we sold two tacos de barbacoa," Rodnia recalls. "Six months later we were selling 600 pounds a week in the driveway."

Customers referred to the irregular eatery as El Borrego, the lamb. "We said, 'huh?' But they told us, 'You are the borrego. You are the lamb,'" Rodnia laughs.

Rosario Sotelo and Rodnia Navarro

For family reasons, the taco stand disbanded, but customers insisted that the duo open their own restaurant. And 10 years ago they did. The first four years went well and they were making plans to expand into other neighborhoods--until the recession hit. So they stayed put and expanded their menu to include what customers off the street were asking for--burritos and quesadillas and other more typical Mexican fare--at least typical to SoCal tastes. It allowed them to survive and now business has been improving as the economy and the neighborhood have improved. But, they're still known for their lamb dishes, including the lamb barbacoa tacos; sopes; and a fabulous quesadilla with squash blossoms, huitlacoche, and lamb. You can also buy lamb barbacoa by weight for parties, with all sorts of condiments included.

The pozole, however, is a family favorite. Throughout Guerrero, including Acapulco, says Rosario, it's traditionally served on Thursdays, or what Rosario notes "Jueves Pozolero." She and her mother naturally started serving it on Thursdays, but have expanded it to include Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays--and rainy days.

El Borrego has held cooking classes in the past and Rodnia is considering launching them again. But in the meantime, she says, "My mom cooks from the heart. We're proud to share our traditions."

And that includes their recipe for green pork pozole.

Green Pork Pozole (Pozole Verde Guerrerense)
from Rosario Sotelo of El Borrego
(printable recipe)
Serves 4 to 6 people


1 pound pork shoulder (can also include bone)
1 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 quarts water
1 pound can of hominy, rinsed and drained

Mixture 1
2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 cloves garlic
1 small red onion, peeled and cut into chunks
3 cups chicken broth

Mixture 2
6 ounces pulverized pumpkin seeds
5 tomatillos, skin on and grilled
5 garlic cloves
3 teaspoons oregano
1 small red onion, peeled and cut into chunks
2 jalapeƱo chiles, seeded
1 Mexican pepperleaf (hoja santa), about the size of a corn tortilla
3 ounces epazote
2 iceberg lettuce leaves
12 radish leaves
2 cups chicken broth

1 tablespoon vegetable oil


1. Cut the pork into two-inch cubes. Add to a pot with water and salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes.
2. Add the ingredients for Mixture 1 to a blender. Blend thoroughly.

3. At the 30-minute cooking point for the pork, strain just the liquid from Mixture 1 into the pork pot and discard the solids. Twenty minutes later add the hominy. Check the meat. It should be almost cooked. Throughout the cooking process, periodically skim the scum from the top of the soup.

4. Add the ingredients to Mixture 2 to a blender. Blend thoroughly. Heat a skillet and add the vegetable oil. Add the blended Mixture 2 to the pan and saute over low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly.

5. About 10 minutes before the meat is tender, gradually add the sauteed paste to the pork pot and cook for 10 more minutes. Taste the mixture and adjust seasonings.

6. Serve the pozole with a variety of condiments, including sliced radishes, chicharones, sliced cabbage, cilantro, chopped onions, slices of avocado, lime slices, dried red pepper flakes, dried oregano, crispy tostadas, and mini roll taquitos.

El Borrego is located at 4280 El Cajon Blvd.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Why Aren't You Using Chili Threads?

I always learn a lot when I attend Collaboration Kitchen at Catalina Offshore Products, but it's the small unusual stuff that I'm exposed to that tickles me the most. Last month's Collaboration Kitchen featured Cafe Chloe's new chef Devon Junkin and he created a variety of wonderful, very accessible seafood dishes for the crowd. There's not one that I can't see myself making in my kitchen, from the delightful Hamachi Crudo with its crunchy apple and radish slaw to the divine Nicoise Salad and Bouillabaisse. But the folks I was surrounded by did double and triple takes when we were brought the Seabass with Vegetable Nage. Yes, the dish was warming and packed with lovely flavors--but what we were all spellbound by were the skinny long red threads perched atop the seabass filet. Chili threads.

All of us had to have them. Had to know where we could get them. Very simply, they were the coolest garnish ever.

I did a bit of research on them and found that they're Korean in origin so I got in touch with my friend Debbie Lee, an L.A.-based Korean-American chef and the author of Seoultown Kitchen. Debbie said, "Oh, you mean Silgochu! Yes, they are basically shredded from the pepper and dried. They can be very spicy as well. I use them to enhance soups, stews, and often use inside my Jeon items to add color and a kick of heat. My grandmother put them in her celebratory mung bean pancakes as well." (Jeon-style refers to dishes that are dredged in flour, then dipped in egg batter and fried.)

The threads can be found at Specialty Produce, but also at Korean markets and online spice shops. I bought a bag of them at Zion Market  for less than three dollars. They aren't crispy--more like elongated saffron threads. I tried toasting them, but they burn quickly. Toasting brought out some pepper aroma and a bit of heat, but I don't think you need to toast them and Debbie said she doesn't.

I added the chili threads to a luxurious cauliflower soup my friend Candy Wallace gave me. They added color and a little bite at the back of the throat to the creamy texture. They make even scrambled eggs look ravishing. I even found a delightful sounding recipe for warm rosemary olives with chili threads on the blog Feasting at Home. You can get even more ideas on Pinterest.

But, how about enjoying Devon Junkin's lovely Seabass with Vegetable Nage? It's a perfect cold-weather meal, thanks to the sauteed savoy cabbage and that dreamy light broth that makes the nage.

Seabass with Vegetable Nage
from Devon Junkin of Cafe Chloe
(printable recipe)

Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 pounds seabass filets, skin on
1 savoy cabbage, sliced
3 yellow onions, 2 of them sliced
2 turnips, sliced
2 celery roots, sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1/2 pound butter
1 cup white wine
Chili threads

For the nage:
Sweat down two onions, the turnips, celery root, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns in two tablespoons butter. Add wine and reduced by half. Add one gallon of water, bring the nage to a simmer, and cook for one hour. Season and strain through a chinois. Slowly whisk in all but two tablespoons of the remaining butter.

Pre-heat oven to 350° F.

For the cabbage:
Cut out the cor and cut the cabbage into long strips. Julienne the remaining onion and sweat down in two tablespoons butter. Add the cabbage and sweat down. Add one cup of the nage, season, and cook until the cabbage is tender.

Sear the seabass, skin side down, until crispy. Flip and finish in the oven.

In a shallow bowl, add the cabbage and nage. Top with sea bass and garnish with chili threads.

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