Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Decaf You Can Fall in Love With

It's been decades since I've been able to drink regular coffee. In the years since I first gave it up, the quality of decaf has steadily improved. And yet I can't take for granted that when I go to a meeting or a coffee house, a restaurant or an event that I'll be able to enjoy a cup--delicious or not. In coffee houses, the compromise often is an Americano, which is okay, but not the same as a quality full-bodied decaf.

One local coffee roaster that seems to respect the desire of decaf drinkers to luxuriate in a delicious cup of coffee is Cafe Virtuoso, a 100 percent certified organic roaster that's been in business since 2008. Owners Laurie and Savanah Britton, who run their business out of a sleek warehouse space in Barrio Logan, invited me to come in to learn about their roasting process and taste their decaf varieties.

Daughter Savannah, who manages quality control, explained that they send their roasted beans to Coffee Review for an evaluation (You can see the scores they've received here.) It's a 100-point scale. Their Signature Decaf, mistakenly judged and scored as espresso instead of the intended drip, received a 90, she said. "We don't even look at coffee beans unless they're at least an 84," she added. Coffee Review is correcting the error by rating it again for drip.

She then introduced me to Cafe Virtuoso's head roaster, Nelson Teskey. Teskey, who came to work at Cafe Virtuoso nine months ago from his native British Columbia, began his coffee obsession while in high school and in 2014 became a licensed Q, or Quality, Grader from the Coffee Quality Institute, basically the coffee equivalent of a sommelier. According to Cafe Virtuoso, he's the only Q Grader in San Diego who is also roasting coffee. Teskey is also a Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Lead Instructor, who teaches others how to roast specialty coffee.

We began with a tasting. Teskey prepared both their Signature Decaf and Decaf Vernazza using a pour over technique. "We like to pour over because it releases more delicate, subtle flavors without the sediment that you get from a French press," he explained. He added that if you use a French press after you pour your cup/s, you should pour the remaining coffee in the press into another carafe or Chemex so that it doesn't overextract from exposure to the grounds at the bottom.

I tasted both coffees black, of course. Teskey, not surprisingly, was keen on explaining the various notes of each variety. My palate isn't as refined. But while I enjoyed both, I appreciated the Signature decaf more sans milk or sugar. There was no residual sourness that I sometimes experience with black coffee and the flavor was rich, almost chocolate-like.

Teskey then showed me their impressive stainless steel Loring roaster. All of the controls on this roaster are digital, enabling them to track the temperature of the beans through the various stages of roasting. If Teskey and the Brittons are happy with the results, they can then digitally save the roasting profile so that in the future they'll get consistent roasted beans for that variety. Before they could digitally control the process, consistency was based on the experience of a single person running the machine and the aromas and tastes that person experienced.

Cafe Virtuoso roasts 10 to 15, 70-pound batches a day--the yield following roasting drops to 57 to 60 pounds since the beans give up moisture in the process. When they get in new beans, Teskey said, they'll do a sample roast based on standards for the profile of that bean variety. Then they'll do a cupping, or tasting, of the results. They'll score the sample based on the cupping, but, as Savannah had said, they won't buy the beans if they rate below an 84. Tesky will consult with her about the flavor notes and their goals for the beans they do decide to keep and will then roast the beans based on that.

For decaf beans, the roasting process is different because the beans have undergone Swiss Water Processing, which removes 8 to 9 percent of the water in the beans before they're even roasted. So, said Tesky, the roasting temperatures are lower than the usual 350 to 460 degrees. It's gentler because the potential of burning the beans is more dramatic.

I bought bags of both decaf varieties with the intent of using the Decaf Vernazza for when I want to make a cappuccino or mocha and the Signature for when I want to keep things small and simple--an easy pour over of a single small cup to enjoy black. It's been a great way to start my mornings.

Cafe Virtuoso is located at 1616 National Ave. You can buy coffee beans there--as well as specialty drinks and snacks at their coffee bar. You can also find their coffee here.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Jeremy Oursland's Salmon with Vegetables, Gnocchi, and Tomato Fonduta

It's hard to believe, but in August Bottega Americano will have been open for two years. I remember walking around the cavernous restaurant's shell while it was under construction as executive chef Dave Warner explained how there would be different stations lining the walls--one for pasta making, one for making pizza, another for charcuterie, still another for pastry. Once it opened, it was  impressive to see the vision realized--both in the design and the high caliber of the food being served.

I've enjoyed a lot of terrific meals there and was happy to visit one recent late morning to meet with sous chef Jeremy Oursland to learn how to make a new dish on their spring menu. They just call it Salmon, but it's a seared salmon filet with caramelized fennel, gnocchi, sugar snap peas, and Swiss chard, dressed with a tomato fonduta--Italy's version of fondue.

Oursland has been with Bottega Americano since it opened. Previously, he had worked with Warner at JRDN in Pacific Beach following a two-year hiatus during which he had moved to Santa Rosa and gone to school. Before that he'd worked at Rainwaters on Kettner while helping out his grandparents. Oursland grew up in the restaurant business. His dad had been a chef at a country club and Oursland started out there as a kid working as a dishwasher. Like many who start with doing the dishes and sticking with it, he got a chance to cook, first making brunch and breakfast, then dinner.

"I learned about catering and banquets. I learned about fine dining from my five years working there," he said.

Everything was prepped and ready to go when I got to the restaurant. First, Oursland showed me how to make the fonduta, filling a saucepan with half a lemon, wine, garlic, shallot, fresh herbs, peppercorns, and a roma tomato. Cream had been warmed in another pot. Once the mixture was reduced and strained, he added the cream, tomato paste, and butter, which yielded a rich yet slightly acidic sauce. In fact, this makes enough so that you can use some to serve with the salmon and vegetables and have more to enjoy over pasta, other fish, chicken, roasted vegetables, or (Oursland's suggestion) cheese curds. Or use it as a dipping sauce for bread.

Then Oursland cooked the salmon. In your home, use the stove. At the restaurant, Oursland takes advantage of the searing heat of the pizza oven. First he heated the cast iron skillet in the oven. Then he carefully added some canola oil and slid a salmon filet, skin side down and away from him onto the pan before pushing it into the oven. He also prepared a version on the stovetop.

Oursland suggests purchasing skin-on salmon from a specialty seafood market or Costco. He prefers wild or sustainably farmed salmon. When prepping it be sure to pat the skin dry so that it will get crispy. And only salt the fish just before you put it in the hot pan. "If you season it and let it sit, the salt will pull the moisture in the fish to the surface and the sear won't be as crisp," Oursland warns. He suggested using a fish spatula because its thin edge makes it easy to get under the fish without tearing the skin or the flesh--and it's easy to clean.

He also makes sure he blanches the vegetables before sauteing them. "This seals in the flavor, adds crunch, and brings out vibrant colors," he noted. "Make sure all the veggies have a chance to dry thoroughly before sauteing," he said, adding, "Thomas Keller has a chapter in the French Laundry cookbook about big pot blanching. It's well written and a fun read. I enjoy preparing vegetables. It can be a little time consuming but if you do so with respect for the product it will show in your dish. I find it very relaxing and rewarding.

"If you pay attention to the minor details it makes for such a better result," Oursland said.

Salmon with Caramelized Fennel, Gnocchi, Sugar Snap Peas, Swiss Chard, and Tomato Fonduta
From Jeremy Oursland of Bottega Americano
Serves 4 to 6, depending on portion size


½ pound sugar snap peas
1 bunch rainbow chard
2 fennel bulbs
3 ounces canola oil for caramelizing the fennel, and sautéing the gnocchi and the salmon
1 teaspoon butter
Kosher salt
6 ounces per person of gnocchi (You can substitute pasta like fusilli or penne. You can also buy house-made gnocchi at Bottega Americano)
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 teaspoons crushed garlic
6 ounce portion per person salmon filet, skin on 
1 cup fonduta (see below)

For Fonduta:
Yield: 3 cups

3 cups white wine-preferably one you wouldn’t mind drinking but not too expensive
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs tarragon
8 garlic cloves
1 large shallot roughly chopped
2 teaspoon peppercorns
1/2 of a lemon
1/2 medium tomato 
1 cup cream, slightly warmed
1 tablespoon tomato paste  
1/2 pound butter, cut into pieces 
Kosher salt


To make the fonduta, combine the wine, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, garlic, shallot, lemon, and tomato in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half.

Add the cream and whisk in the tomato paste. Reduce by a third, then strain the mixture through a sieve.

Return the sauce to the saucepan and whisk in the butter over medium-low heat. Season to taste with kosher salt. Strain again. Set aside.

For the vegetables:

Prepare an ice bath. Wash the rainbow chard thoroughly in cold water and dry. Remove the stems and dice the leaves into ¼-inch by ¼-inch pieces. Blanch in salted boiling water for one minute and then place in ice bath for a moment to shock them. Remove from the water and set aside.

Prep the sugar snap peas by removing the “string,” grabbing the outer edge where the pea was connected to the vine and pulling it away from the pea. Remove the tip where the pea connected to the vine, too. Blanch and then shock in the ice bath. Remove and set aside.

Cut the top and bottom of the fennel bulbs. Remove the core. (Save them to include in a simple vegetable stock). Julienne the remaining parts of the bulbs into ½-inch strips. Sauté in canola oil over medium-high heat until it has a nice caramel color and becomes soft. Finish with a touch of butter and season to taste with kosher salt. Set aside.

Blanch the gnocchi, then sauté on medium-high heat in canola oil until golden brown and crispy. Season with kosher salt. (If you’re using fusilli or penne, cook according to directions and skip the sautéing.)

Sauté all the prepared vegetables together in a pan with a little olive oil and crushed garlic. Add the gnocchi or pasta (or skip this step and add them while plating). Season to taste with kosher salt. Set aside.

To cook the salmon, first pat the skin dry to help the skin get crispy. Heat a cast iron or non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add canola oil. Season the fish with kosher salt just prior to placing in the pan (again for a crispy skin). Lightly lay it in the pan skin side down and placing it in a motion away from the hand holding the pan to avoid splashing the oil on yourself. Let it cook approximately five minutes. Using a fish spatula, flip the filets carefully, tilting the pan away from you to avoid the oil splashing, and cook another two to three minutes on the other side. Remove from heat and let it rest a couple of minutes before plating.

To plate, place the vegetables and gnocchi on each plate to form a bed for the salmon. Place the salmon on top. Sauce the plate with the fonduta and serve immediately.

Bottega Americano is located in downtown San Diego at 1195 Island Ave. 

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

May 21 Foodie Fest Encinitas Packed with Great Chefs

What are you doing this Saturday? How about heading over to The Lumberyard Encinitas for the Foodie Fest Encinitas? The event, which takes place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., features food and drink of North County San Diego, including:
  • Fifteen chefs demonstrating how to prepare farm-to table fare on three different stages
  • Six chefs competing in a TV-style competition
  • Thirty-plus restaurants serving up gourmet tastes
  • A Barefoot Bar, boasting a dozen craft beer, wine, and spirit vendors
Foodie Fest Encinitas, which benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, will also have live, local music and a multi-media Art for the Cure exhibition. There will be face painting and interactive garden booths for kids.

I got to enjoy a preview of the event last week at the Oceanside Museum of Art, where mostly Oceanside chefs had booths filled with tastes. 

Among them were Barrel Republic with bacon-wrapped pork belly on a stick:

Expect smoked salmon on house-made seaweed crackers from them on Saturday.

From Mission Ave. Bar and Grill was Hawaiian poke:

Masters Kitchen and Cocktail offered goat sope that got huge raves that evening:

Local Tap House served up irresistible deviled eggs with Asian flavors:

Willy Eick of Real Bar & Bistro in Encinitas served up crispy duck skin tacos:

And Jessica and Davin Waite of Wrench & Rodent Seabastropub and the Whet Noodle were handing out Chinese takeout boxes of gorgous veggie-laden noodles:

Bistro West was ready with a variety of desserts:

And Cheryl's Caramels had plenty of samples of her sweet wares:

Other participants include Angel's Salumi & Truffles, Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria, Chandler's Carlsbad, The Cork and Craft, Duke's La Jolla, FishBone Kitchen, Flying Pig Pub & Kitchen, Jake's Del Mar, Moto Deli, Nibble Chocolate, Q'ero Restaurant, and Swell Coffee among many others.

You can buy tickets on the Foodie Fest Encinitas website. The Lumberyard is located in downtown Encinitas on Highway 101 between F and I streets.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Sushi Class with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

So I get this email invitation last month asking if I'd like to attend a private sushi and hand roll class being taught by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa at Nobu San Diego.

Do you even have to guess what my response was?

Now I've taken sushi-making classes before. I enjoy them even if self-awareness dictates that all I'm doing is combining seafood with sushi rice and perhaps nori, with a dash of wasabi. Hey, I've watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi. What I create is in no way sushi--not as an experienced sushi chef would claim. Certainly not Nobu.

But here I was at Nobu San Diego with eight other local food writers and Nobu himself, who turns out to be a nice, funny man, very patient, and an excellent teacher. The set up was sweet. Each of us had a sushi-making station with a little plate lined with slices of tuna, halibut, yellowtail, salmon, and shrimp. There was a second little plate to the left with imitation crab, a slice of cucumber, and a slice of avocado for making a California hand roll. And a third little plate to the right with two slices each of tuna and yellowtail for two more hand rolls. We had a black lacquer container filled with sushi rice, a mound of wasabi, sliced scallions, a bowl of water, sesame seeds (which we didn't use), a rack for the hand rolls, and a damp towel for wiping off the rice that stuck to our hands (which it did--a lot). Three of us each shared a container holding nori. Off to the sides of the tables were several deep containers of water to use to rinse and wring out the towel.

Oh, and there was champagne. Just because.

Nobu started off the session by explaining that he follows a six-step process for making nigiri. Essentially, with moistened hands you pick up a slice of fish and lay it on the four fingers of your left hand. Then pick up a hefty tablespoon or so of rice with your right hand and manipulate it into an oblong shape to put on the fish slice. Then add a smear of wasabi. I never did get the order of that quite right since it felt like I needed a third hand. In any case, using your first two fingers on your right hand, you gently press down on the rice, shape it, turn it around, shape it, turn it over, shape it again. All in six steps.

My first go at it was pretty messy. My hands weren't wet enough.

Nobu conveys the technique better in this video I took:

By the time we finished making our fifth piece, we were, well, adequate. Nobu himself laughed at the idea that we were making sushi. "I make sushi," he said, smiling. He didn't say what we had made.

But we moved on to making hand rolls.

First up was a California roll. We each took a piece of nori and placed it on our left hand, shiny side down. Then came the rice--twice as much as for a piece of nigiri. Then a smear of wasabi. Then the imitation crab--or surimi--slice, along with avocado and cucumber. Then you pull the bottom right corner over and up to the left and start rolling it from the bottom until you have a cone.

We repeated this to make a spicy tuna hand roll and finally a yellowtail scallion hand roll.

Making sushi well obviously takes far more practice than the hour we had with Nobu, but it was great fun and who wouldn't want to learn skills by one of the great masters?

Once we had made our "sushi" we ate our creations, drank more champagne, and got to ask Nobu some questions. I learned a few things to share here.

First, when you make your nigiri, work fast. You don't want the fish to get warm in your hand. Nobu says it takes him about seven seconds to make one. "It's important to do it with your heart," he says.

Don't press the fish too hard into the rice. Even in the few seconds it takes for the nigiri to make its way from the sushi chef to you, gravity will help sink the fish into the rice. Be gentle.

When eating sushi, don't use too much soy sauce or wasabi. You'll mask the flavor of the fish. If you do dip nigiri into soy sauce, turn the piece over so that you dip the fish not the rice into the liquid.

Nobu was surprisingly forbearing when it came to the "right" way to eat sushi. He lives in L.A. (with a sushi bar in his home) and recognizes that Americans just do it differently than traditional Japanese. So he doesn't have the same hang ups other Japanese chefs I've met have about our barbarian traditions--although I don't think he's keen on our habit of mixing wasabi into a bowl with soy sauce. He probably wouldn't like my parents' practice of dipping nigiri into a bowl of ponzu either. But he believes that as long as you don't mask the flavors of the fish with too much sauce or wasabi, do what you want. Live and let live.

As for what to drink with sushi, in Japan he likes to drink sake. Because it's made of rice and has umami, it's a good pairing. But in California, he likes a good chardonnay, tequila, and, yes, champagne.

Here's how I did. Don't judge too harshly.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Cinco de Mayo Churros from Olivier Bioteau

Those of us who had been big Farmhouse Cafe fans were broken hearted in 2014 when chef/owner Olivier Bioteau and his wife Rochelle decided it was time to close it. We thought perhaps that in the aftermath he was working up a new plan for another restaurant, but, in fact, Bioteau felt that he was done--for now, at least--with the stresses and grueling hours of running his own place. He traveled and thought about his next steps and then discovered that his old buddy Jeff Jackson of The Lodge at Torrey Pines and A.R. Valentien was looking for a chef tournant--sous chef, if you will--and he applied for the job. And got it.

It appears to have been a brilliant move on the part of both chefs. Jackson got a seasoned chef he could rely on. Bioteau found a culinary home that keeps him busy and stimulated. What he doesn't have is the weight of the world on him that chef/owners bear.

"My priority is a balanced life," he said. "I want time with my wife and my dog. I want time to travel."

Then came a surprise announcement. Bioteau was promoted to Executive Pastry Chef. Okay, well then.

Bioteau laughs at the idea that it would be a strange transition. After all, he said, in culinary school you're trained in the basics, including desserts and pastry. And everywhere he's worked since then he's done desserts. In fact, many years ago when he was a private chef, he went to U.C. Davis to take an ice cream course. Laster he took an online chocolate-making course from Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver (remember his beautiful signature chocolates at Farmhouse Cafe?).

It actually wasn't something he was going after. But once he'd been at The Lodge for a year and had his annual review he said he'd be interested in doing pastry. But The Lodge has a long-time pastry chef so he didn't think much about it. And then she left. The job was offered to Bioteau and he's been on that job since Valentine's Day. So far, he's kept pretty much to the existing menu for banquets and the restaurant. But at A.R. Valentien's Thursday Artisan Table dinners, Bioteau's had fun experimenting, with dishes like a green strawberry tart topped with brown butter whipped cream.

"I try to keep it as simple as possible with the best ingredients we can get, and made the best we can," he said.

One of the dishes he'd been playing with was churros. He was almost embarrassed at the notion of a French chef (he's from the Loire Valley) making churros. But he was serious. Not only did he scour recipes, but he turned to his kitchen staff--many of whom are from Mexico--to judge his results. In fact, it took him awhile to get the texture right, but he relaxed when he realized that the churro is essentially a pâte à choux, fried and rolled in cinnamon sugar.

So, in anticipation of Cinco de Mayo, Bioteau made me his churros (inviting me to fry some up as well), along with a sauce duo of chocolate and dulce de leche.

Oliver Bioteau's Churros with Two Sauces
(printable recipe)

1 cup water
1/2 cup or 1 stick unsalted butter
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs
1/2 gallon vegetable oil for frying
1 cup gradulated sugar for rolling the churros
1/4 cup cinnamon for rolling the churros
1 can condensed milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

To make the Churros:

1. In a medium sauce pan, combine water, butter, sugar, salt cinnamon and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the flour at once, stirring for 2 minutes until you obtain a bowl of dough.

2. Transfer the dough into a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. At low speed mix the dough and add the eggs one at a time. Mix until well incorporated.
3. In a large deep sauce pan, warm up your vegetable oil until it reaches 350 degrees.
4. In a shallow pan, mix the sugar and the cinnamon to dip the churros into once they are fried and golden brown.

5. Transfer the churro dough into a piping bag with a star tip. When the oil reaches 350 degrees, squeeze the churros out of the bag, about 4 inches long, using your index finger to cut them off, and let them drop into the oil. Flip them, once until golden brown all over.

6. When done, remove the churro from the oil, transfer onto a paper towel, and roll the churro in the cinnamon sugar mixture. Eat immediately.

To make the Dulce de Leche Sauce:

1. In a large sauce pan, place the actual can of condensed milk (do not open can yet leave contents intact), cover with water, and boil for 2 hours.  Make sure the can is always covered with boiling water.  
2. After two hours, remove the can from the water and let it stand for 15 minutes. Open with a can opener. Pour the golden brown condensed milk, known as “Dulce de Leche,” into a ramekin as a dipping sauce for your churros.

To make the Chocolate Sauce:

1. In a small sauce pan, bring 1 cup of heavy cream to a boil. Remove from heat. 
2. Add the chocolate chips. Let stand for 5 minutes. Mix well. Pour into ramekin as a  dipping for your churros.

The Lodge at Torrey Pines and A.R. Valentien are located at 11480 N Torrey Pines Rd. in La Jolla.

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