Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Junya Watanabe Adds That Missing Something to Poke

Tokyo native Junya Watanabe is a frequent visitor to Hawaii. After all, it's the natural stop between Japan and San Diego, where he owns the popular ramen restaurant Rakiraki Ramen &Tsukemen. Even with extensive studies in the culinary arts in Japan, Watanabe has his own way of doing things. His ramen, his shabu shabu, his tsukemon all fuse tradition with his distinctive flair. I love his crispy chicken karaange, a marinated deep-fried chicken; the rich oxtail in broth with ginger; and the tsukemen, or dipping noodles. And I love that Watanabe goes to the trouble to use locally sourced quality ingredients.

So, when it came to creating poke, his approach was no different. As popular as the dish has become in San Diego--hey, we even have a huge festival to celebrate it--Watanabe found it to be, in his words, "kind of boring." He was convinced something was lacking. He mulled it over and finally it came to him.

It needed his zuke.

Think of zuke as a secret sauce. It's something Watanabe learned from a three-star Michelin chef in Japan. The ingredients aren't a huge secret--soy sauce, mirin, and sake. It's the proportions that he says are proprietary. Reluctant to share, he finally just shrugged and said, "Okay, two to one to one." I'm not claiming this is exactly how he does it at Rakiraki, but I'm going with it because it's the best I could get.

Now it's not just a matter of mixing the ingredients together. Once you do that, you put it on the stove and bring the mixture to 180˚, then take it off the heat and let it rest at room temperature for a day. After that you can use it and refrigerate it.

What you have when it's ready is a sauce whose saltiness has mellowed, whose sweetness has softened, and which has lost most of the alcohol. It adds great flavor to the fish you marinate in it and, said Watanabe, it sanitizes the fish by killing the bacteria since some alcohol remains.

With that all explained, Watanabe prepared his Kale Salad with Poke. He placed large cubes of ahi in the zuke for about 30 seconds, moving them around to make sure they all were evenly sauced. Then he placed them in a bowl of sesame oil for about the same time. Finally, they were dipped in rayu, a red pepper oil.

The ahi pieces were placed on a bed of chopped kale--but you could use any greens you want.

To that he added pieces of avocado, tomato, and Japanese cucumber, and some cilantro leaves. He dressed the salad with a sesame dressing (no recipe offered here, but you can find recipes online pretty easily).

Once we were seated he poured out little dipping bowls of spicy Kewpie mayo and red spicy miso sauce. Both were delicious--hot, but more like a nice kick than tear producing. In fact, I hope he bottles that red spicy miso sauce; it's that good.

With that we dug in, dipping the marinated ahi into the sauces before each bite, even dipping the kale and other vegetables in the sauces as well.

This dish is on the menu at Rakiraki. And, stay tuned. Watanabe is nothing if not über entrepreneurial. Currently, he has Rakiraki and Angels & Hearts Creperie within Rakiraki and he's also a partner in a stand-up sushi restaurant in Tokyo. He's now building out Pokirrito, which is attached to Rakiraki on the Convoy St. side of the building. Yeah, you guessed it, he'll be making the now ubiquitous combo of sushi or poke and burrito, using nori as the wrapper, lined in a uniformly thin layer of with rice, thanks to this very cool machine he has in his kitchen that he also uses to make sushi rolls. Both restaurants will also be in Little Italy and he's planning a noodle and yakitori shop next door to Angels & Hearts, along with a remodel of the creperie.

Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen is located in the Convoy District at 4646 Convoy St.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Teri McIllwain's Farro Stir Fry

We tend to have different expectations of hotel chain restaurants compared with stand-alone eateries. We believe the chefs are mandated to think only in terms of massive numbers of customers, especially if they're also in charge of room service and catering. That the ingredients are limited to whatever can be ordered from contracted vendors. And that there's just no such thing as seasonal, nothing unique to the region, nothing particularly inspired.

I should know better. In San Diego alone there are many exquisite exceptions to this approach--Tidal at Paradise Point, A.R. Valentien at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, JSix at Hotel Solamar, Nine-Ten at the Grande Colonial, Cafe La Rue at La Valencia. The list goes on and on.

The first time I visited Chandler's Restaurant at Cape Rey Carlsbad, a Hilton Resort, it leaned toward the former set of expectations. The menu could have been found in almost any hotel restaurant anywhere in the U.S. The flavors were fairly pedestrian.

But, I was told, hang on. The resort and the restaurant were going to undergo a big change.

That was about a year ago. Last week I made another trip up there to meet the new culinary director, 35-year-old Teri McIllwain. The words being thrown around about the restaurant's "reimagining" included "local, coastal, and unexpected." I was dubious, figuring overselling was in play.

And I was wrong. While Chandler's decor hadn't been changed, clearly the menu and overall direction of the restaurant had. McIllwain, who came to Cape Rey from Omni La Costa Resort and Spa, where she had been chef de cuisine and nutritional chef for their Premier Fitness Camp and Chopra Center, clearly has taken a different approach to Cape Rey's dining program. McIllwain, who attended the San Diego Culinary Institute in La Mesa, had been a personal chef in San Diego and spent time as a Bon Appetit culinary instructor at local Sur La Table stores. She comes to her current job with a perspective on health and nutrition as well as food education that is being channeled into what shows up on Chandler's menu and how she works with her cooks.

Chandler's now benefits from dishes made with ingredients from local farms that McIllwain partners with as well as produce from the Specialty Produce farmers market truck, where she and her cooks can select items grown in Southern California.

Healthy meals are deeply important to her both at the restaurant and at home. She told me she regularly cooks up batches of whole grains and ancient grains at home to heat up for breakfast so she has energy for the day. McIllwain told me about a dish she loves to make--a variation of which will be on the menu, she added--that involves sauteing pancetta in a pan, then adding shredded yams that crispen up in a pancake. To that she adds green onions, feta, and a dollop of Greek yogurt.

Her awareness of seasonal changes dictates when she changes the menu, she said. If she sees pea tendrils at a farm or in the Specialty Produce truck, she also knows that halibut will be coming back soon. Fish is just as seasonal as produce and she keeps that in mind while updating menus. The menu I saw last week featured Burrata and Vine-Ripened Tomatoes with grilled asparagus, arugula, pesto, and red apple balsamic reduction; Capeside Poke with ahi, rainbow quinoa, thai chili aioli, cucumber marinated seaweed, lime, and ponzu; Jidori Fried Chicken with yellow corn polenta, farmers succotash, and garden herbs; and Spinach Pizza wit lemon ricotta, spinach, mozzarella, parmesan, and garlic. There are vegetarian dishes, gluten-free dishes, and still plenty of comfort food.

For my visit with McIllwain, she showed me how to make her Farro Stir Fry--another dish that will be on the menu soon, she said. What I enjoyed about this dish was not just the flavors, but the fact that it's something a home cook can easily make and that it's so versatile. This is a dish whose ingredients can change to keep up with the seasons. McIllwain calls for butternut squash in the recipe but used delicata squash with me, and will be shifting in the next couple of months to summer squashes. For local greens, we used lacinato kale, but you could use spinach or Swiss chard or any other type of greens. Are you vegetarian? Switch out the chicken broth with vegetable broth and use tofu instead of shrimp as your protein. And, here's a tip for you from the long-time cooking teacher: Always add acid before you add salt because it pulls out the sodium from the ingredient, meaning you then don't need to use as much salt. And, on the flip side, if you wind up with a dish that's too salty, add acid to tame it.

Be sure to have everything prepped before you start cooking because--other than cooking the winter squash--it goes pretty quickly.

Farro Stir Fry
From Teri McIllwain of Chandler's Restaurant at Cape Rey Carlsbad
Serves 4

16 16/20 Baja prawns, peeled and deveined
1 lemon, zest and juice
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil 

In a large mixing bowl add combine shrimp, lemon juice, lemon zest and salt and pepper. Toss and set aside. Meanwhile, in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium heat add the olive oil, allow for oil to heat through and cover entire pan. Once hot add the shrimp to the pan, and evenly place shrimp to cover the pan. Cook shrimp without moving until shrimp begin to turn slightly pink and begin to tighten. Flip shrimp and continue to cook until pink and fragrant. Remove from the pan and hold to the side.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, small diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup butternut squash, small diced
2 cups beech mushrooms
3 cups cooked pearled farro
½ - 1 cup chicken broth
1 green onion chopped
2 cups local green, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons gluten-free soy sauce
1 Meyer lemon, zest and juice
Sea salt and black pepper to taste 
1 lemon, quartered, for garnish

Over medium heat using the same pan, add olive oil and heat through. Once hot, add the onion, garlic, and the squash until cooked through. Add the mushrooms, sauté until slightly cooked, 30 seconds, then add the farro. Stir-fry the farro until golden brown, then add the chicken stock until the farro is slightly covered. Simmer until most of the stock is absorbed, then fold in the greens and green onions. Remove from heat and add olive oil, soy sauce, lemon zest, and juice from half the lemon. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Plate stir fry and add shrimp, squeeze more lemon on top, season and serve with quartered lemon slices.

Chandler's at Cape Rey Carlsbad is located at 1 Ponto Road in Carlsbad.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

That Smart & Final Extra

Like many neighborhoods around San Diego, my community, Tierrasanta, has been living for months with the discomfort brought on by the Haggen debacle. We started out with an Albertsons, which, by my reading of posts on the community website NextDoor, was generally beloved. Then it became Haggen--and was fairly quickly despised. And then, of course, Haggen went bankrupt. In the auction that followed Tierrasanta became slated for a Smart & Final Extra, which was also highly debated on NextDoor. While we waited for that store to open, we were left with a tiny Vons with its equally tiny parking lot and an even smaller local market called Primo Foods.

Now I've never been a huge supermarket fan, so the absence of Albertsons/Haggen didn't affect me too much. I tend to roam between Sprouts, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and farmers markets. But I carefully watched the very emotional discourse on NextDoor, as neighbors argued alternately that the presence of Smart & Final Extra would sink local property values, that with its bulk foods wasn't an appropriate store for a residential community, and that it was amazing, fabulous, wonderful as experienced by others who had shopped at them in other cities or read about their plans.

Smart & Final Extra opened in Tierrasanta on March 9 and I stopped by. I had no expectations. I'd been to the regular Smart & Final in Clairemont only a few times over the years. It would never have occurred to me to shop there for regular grocery items. I had read a promising piece about the Coronado Extra that opened recently, so perhaps it would be a good thing and Tierrasanta wasn't being dissed because we didn't get a Gelson's, something neighbors were a bit upset about.

Smart & Final describes the chain as a "warehouse-like supermarket chain for produce, meats & packaged foods, plus discounts on bulk items." What I found was your basic commodity-stocked  market.

Yes, there's a produce department and a small organic department within that.

The signs clearly read that they buy from local growers. I took that to heart when I picked up some cluster tomatoes. After all, they were sitting on a bin that shouted local. But when I looked at the labels, it showed that the tomatoes were from Mexico. Yeah, you could argue that Mexico is local, but c'mon.

On the other hand, one of the shockers in the produce department given its limited real estate, was that fresh garbanzo beans, usually found at Mexican markets, were for sale. Yeah, they're from Mexico, too.

My pendulum kept swinging back and forth like this as I went through Smart & Final Extra. No deli counter, butcher, or fresh bakery. I suddenly had an urge for Thomas' English Muffins so I cruised by the bread aisle (also hoping against hope that perhaps they would also carry Bread & Cie products like many local markets). The bread aisle was fully commoditized and had that distinctive bread-in-plastic-bags aroma. Yes, they had the muffins, but only the original variety, not the sourdough I wanted. But if you want Original Thomas' English Muffins, they have stacks and stacks of them--enough for the whole neighborhood!

I was happy and relieved to see they carry the organic milk I like and that they have organic, cage-free eggs.

And Bob's Red Mill products.

But how much shredded or cubed cheddar does a family need all at once?

Hurray! They sell Meyer's products!

And also 50-pound containers with a variety of lards and shortenings. I guess Tierrasantans can't have too much donut fry shortening.

Or too much red food coloring. Or iodized salt packets.

I did end up picking up some things--milk, eggs, the garbanzo beans, onions, some sad old garlic heads, the English muffins. When I went to check out I saw that each register aisle was named for a Tierrasanta street. Strange but I suppose it will make community shoppers smile. Unfortunately, it felt like the most local thing about the market.

My sense is that the store and its products will evolve as it settles in and locals make their needs and desires heard. However, I find it to be a chain confused about its identity and ours. I can certainly see that large families would need some products in bulk. But this is a residential community with few local businesses that require a gallon of food coloring or 50 pounds of beef shortening. So, the "warehouse without membership" tagline is overselling things quite a lot. It's no Costco. I think the residents here would be better served with produce that really is from local farmers, a butcher and deli counter with quality products, a bakery--or at least fresh baked goods from local bakeries, and less emphasis on commodity products in general.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Seabreeze Organic Farm Soldiering On

Seabreeze Organic Farm is one of the oldest CSAs in San Diego. But with less than two acres to work on in a hilly spot in Carmel Valley with soaring views of Torrey Pines State Reserve and the Pacific Ocean beyond, farmer Stephenie Caughlin is toughing out a drought, encroaching development, and consumers who, she says, just don't get the value of what she provides.

Caughlin, originally from southern Texas, grew up tending her grandmother's farm animals but left for an academic life that included teaching high school for San Diego Unified School District. She gave that up to become a gold broker and then a futures trader, operating her own company that included an office in Manhattan's World Trade Center.

But when she turned 40, Caughlin decided she wanted to do something more meaningful. For her that meant farming. She found the Carmel Valley property in 1978 and, she says, "I picked up a shovel and I started ordering seeds from catalogues."

At the time there were few houses and mostly chaparral and groves of old eucalyptus trees. Ten years later she started Seabreeze. While she follows organic practices, she is adamantly not certified. "The federal government can't regulate integrity," she insists.

The farm is in a pastoral setting dotted with little buildings she's put up over the years. There's the home she and her husband live in at the top of a steep driveway that's the farm's entrance. And there's the usual packing shed and storeroom full of CSA bags, produce, and eggs that her 40 chickens produce--well, that some produce. If they've outlasted egg production, they hang out in retirement.

There's also what Caughlin calls her "growing studio," a clear, greenhouse tarp-covered space filled with furniture and even a swamp cooler. The studio is used by artist Stan Goudey, who teaches watercolor classes. There's a little building with a room virtually wallpapered with Caughlin's beautiful watercolors that's often used as a changing room for brides. Yes, she holds events, including weddings, at the farm. The office is filled with even more watercolors.

And then there's the straw bale house, which she rents out to people looking for a bit of an escape. Yes, the house is made of straw bales, and includes the requisite "truth window" that proves the walls are made of straw.

It's a light and airy space that looks out onto the various stretches of producing fields.

When I was there, red leaf mustard was growing high, topped by vibrant clusters of yellow blossoms that tasted like horseradish without the dastardly kick.

Fences were lined with sweet peas about to explode in color. The hothouse was bursting with Batavian Crisp Head lettuce, a delightful variety in reds and greens that's part butter lettuce and part romaine. The lettuces were bordered by pots of thick green bok choy.

Down the path was her plot of vertical growing boxes. These were filled with mesclun, chives, baby celery, strawberries--basically fast-growing plants. The benefits to growing with this method, Caughlin explains, is that it requires less water, there are fewer weeds, and animals don't rampage the plants and produce. The downside, however, is that it's labor intensive and so more expensive.

Interspersed with the vegetable plots are flower beds and fruit trees--avocados, peaches, plums, figs, guava, oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and blood oranges are among her crops. The flowers are her passion, including edible flowers.

Actually, everything around the place is her passion, including her two goats, Elsa and Beatrice, her flock of ducks, and Samantha, the black corgi who followed us from one stop to the next.

Caughlin used to lease more acreage but development and lack of water put an end to that. At the bottom of the hill by the vertical growing boxes mulberry trees line a path that neighbors use to walk their dogs. On the other side of the path are homes. She's tried to interest her neighbors in using her CSA but, she sighs and shrugs, she's had no takers.

Currently, Caughlin has 93 subscribers to her weekly CSA and she's grateful for their support so she can keep the farm going. These are the people who she feels understand both the quality of the food she provides and the great labor and expense the undertaking involves, including delivery. Unlike other CSAs with drop- off spots, Seabreeze delivers CSA bags directly to homes and businesses.

Years ago, Caughlin sold at farmers markets but chucked that. Instead, she hosts events and cooking classes, concerts, and weddings to bring in needed income as well as introduce people to the farm and her crops. She's looking for other outlets for her products--perhaps a local market to sell her flower bouquets. She partners with other organic growers to provide produce she doesn't grow, like bananas. Her website includes information about the CSA and also has an online shop where visitors can purchase produce, eggs, herbs, books, beeswax candles, and soaps. She has a link for people to contribute to Save the Children and she's involved with San Diego Military Outreach Ministries, which provides services--including food--to enlisted families. That makes for a lot of balls to keep in the air, but really, she's just happy farming.

"I love what I do," she says. "I love feeding people. I think it strengthens them."

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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Willy Eick's Seared Scottish Salmon

Hey, you! You know who you are. You're the self-proclaimed foodie who is intent on dining at only the most happening spots in the region. You probably just had dinner last night at Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub in Oceanside or Bracero in Little Italy or BIGA in downtown. Gastropubs are your thing. So are artisanal donuts.

But have you been to Real Bar & Bistro in Solana Beach?

Yeah, I didn't think so. It's not in a hipster locale and the chef, Jeffrey "Willy" Eick isn't rubbing shoulders with the cool kids. Not yet, at any rate. But I'm thinking he will be soon.

Eick, who moved to San Diego's North County from San Jose at the age of 15, is running a surprisingly creative, farm-to-table kitchen at Colin and Mark Urquhart's Real Bar & Bistro and once you learn his background it all begins to make sense.

"I was always into cooking and tried to go to culinary school after high school, but it was too expensive," he says. Instead he studied automotive technology at MiraCosta College. He also took a job at Tomiko Japanese restaurant in Encinitas as a line cook--just working with the owner--where he learned how to prepare sauces, dashi, and, he says, the real fundamentals. After a year he was hired at Bistro West in Carlsbad--first as a line cook, then as sous chef. Yeah, that restaurant that has its own farm up the road--and when he wasn't on the job there he also worked at the Holiday Inn at the Oceanside Marina, where, he says, because it was a slow kitchen there was a lot of room for creativity. "So, I would play around a lot with ingredients."

That experience contrasted nicely with Bistro West, which he said at the time was a very fast, high-volume kitchen--500 covers a night. "So I really learned how to operate a restaurant."

With staff turnovers at Bistro West, Eick went to work at California Modern with Trey Foshee, who taught him the whole fine dining world. "I learned about plating and how to truly bring out flavors and balance flavors," he says.

When Chef Jason Connolly, for whom he'd worked at Bistro West, went to Real Bar, he hired Eick. And when Connolly--now sous chef at Pamplemousse Grille--left Real Bar last May, Eick officially took over the kitchen as executive chef.

In that time, Eick has built a close relationship with Cyclops Farm in Oceanside and its founder Luke Girling (who had been the farm manager at the Bistro West/West Steakhouse farm), getting most of his produce from them. Eick also likes to forage.

In fact, at his March 2 five-course pairing dinner with Pt. Loma's Modern Times Beer (yeah, tomorrow--still time to get tickets) many of the ingredients on the menu will have been foraged, including sorrel, mint, sunflower petals, purslane, nasturtiums, pine needs, and natal plums. The rest will come from Cyclops Farm.

I've been to one of these pairing dinners and they're great fun; in January I was at the one with Stone Brewing, at which CEO and co-founder Greg Koch spoke between courses. There was a stunning Poached Prawn with sunflower "sand", beach herbs, and citrus. A lick-your-plate clean Bay Scallops with apple, whey butter, and radish. He comes up with concepts like sprouted lentils, pine nut milk, barley congee, and smoked chocolate mousse--yes, he makes all the desserts, too.

So, this upcoming dinner should be very special. Here's the menu:

In the meantime, Eick showed me how to make his richly flavored Seared Scottish Salmon with White Beans, Bacon, Chard, Mushrooms, and Pesto Aioli. Salmon is one of those fish customers insist on, so he uses a high-quality farmed Scottish salmon. Unlike many of his more complex dishes, this is perfect for a home cook to prepare, even after a day at work.

Seared Scottish Salmon with White Beans, Bacon, Chard, Mushrooms, and Pesto Aioli
From Willy Eick of Real Bar and Bistro
Serves 2

2, 6-ounce fillets of Scottish salmon
1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup bacon, diced
¾ cup crimini or white button mushrooms, sliced
1 loose cup of greens, chopped
1 cup cannellini or kidney beans
1 teaspoon minced garlic
¼ cup sweet white wine like a Chablis or sherry
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons pesto aioli (1 tablespoon pesto mixed with ½ cup mayonnaise)


Lightly sprinkle salt on the salmon. In a sauté pan, add and heat olive oil. If the skin is on the fish, lay it down skin side first. Cook 1 to 2 minutes for medium rare, then turn the fish, reduce the heat and cook another 4 minutes.

While the salmon is cooking on the second side, add the bacon. While the bacon is still a little soft, add mushrooms. By then the salmon will be fully cooked. Remove and spread the mushrooms out to a single layer as much as possible. Turn the heat to high and let the mushrooms caramelize. When they are nicely browned on one side, turn them to brown on the other (but don’t stir).

Add the greens, the beans, and the garlic. Then add the wine. Stir and let the wine cook down. Add a pinch of salt (unless the bacon is very salty). Cook enough to heat the beans. Stir in the butter and turn off the heat. Mix until the butter emulsifies with the wine and you have a nice glaze.

To plate, divide the bean mixture onto two plates. Place the salmon fillets on each mound of the mixture and then top the salmon with the pesto aioli. Serve.

Real Bar & Bistro is located in the Solana Beach Town Center Shopping Center at 124 Solana Hills Dr. off Lomas Santa Fe and the 5 freeway. To make reservations for the March 2 pairing dinner, call  858-793-7325.


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