Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cloak & Petal's Glazed Duck Breast

Step into the new Little Italy restaurant Cloak & Petal, which opened last December, and what's most striking are the two strikingly large faux cherry trees in breathtaking full bloom that sit in the middle of the main dining room. They immediately signify that you're in a Japanese restaurant, but not a traditional room. As new executive chef Dominic Valenzuela (he started in the restaurant as sous chef but took over the kitchen recently after the departure of executive chef Trace Jerome) described it, it's "Japanese Soul." By that he means Japanese in essence but "continuing to strive for perfection, for a balance of flavors."

The menu reflects an eclectic Japanese style that also takes into account its location in San Diego. So, seaweed salad, sashimi and nigiri sit cheek by jowl with grilled beef tongue and salmon tostada. There's elk sashimi, a variety of rolls, including a wagyu roll, and manilla clam miso. And glazed duck breast, which Valenzuela taught me how to make.

Japanese soul is an intriguing way to look at Valenzuela's own background. Born and raised in Albuquerque, he knew he wanted to be a chef as a high school freshman. He took community college cooking classes before enrolling in and attending Johnson & Wales University in Denver. He earned money and got experience working as a breakfast cook at a golf course and at a Mexican restaurant, where he learned how to work on the line.

Following his graduation, Valenzuela moved out to Southern California and worked for three years with Travis Kamiyama of Kamiyama Sushi in Torrance. "I loved it," he said of his experience with sushi. "It's instant gratification to give someone something you just made."

Since that experience, Valenzuela went on to work in a variety of sushi restaurants, but he also took some detours, including time in Hawaii where he worked for six months under Hank Adaniya at Hank's Haute Dogs, making traditional regional dogs--Chicago, Polish, chili, bratwurst, and the like, but also hot dogs made from lobster, alligator, rabbit, and even duck and foie gras. From there he returned to Albuquerque and launched Dia de los Takos, a food truck that he set up at breweries around town--something the breweries loved since he used their beers as the base of his fish taco batter.

San Diego is home now and Valenzuela returned to sushi, working first for Rob Cassidy at Sushi on the Rock and then at Cafe Japengo under Jerry Warner. He also worked at Sushi Lounge in Point Loma. He briefly returned to Albuquerque and his Dia de los Takos food truck before coming back to San Diego in 2017 to help open Cloak & Petal.

Now to the glazed duck breast. It's a new menu item. Valenzuela created a yuzu marmalade for the glaze, and sits it in a swirl of vibrant green edamame puree, accompanied by confit turnips.

The dish Valenzuela taught me substitutes edamame puree for potato puree, but the technique remains the same and it's something you can recreate with your favorite, seasonal vegetable. The glaze, too, is something you can riff on with your favorite marmalade.

The first thing you'll do is brine the two skinned and boned duck breasts in one quart of water mixed with a tablespoon each of salt and sugar. Valenzuela pointed out that this simple brine works just as well for chicken and pork. Note that the duck breast is skinned but still has a nice layer of fat on it. You'll trim the excess fat--but, Valenzuela suggested, keep the excess to render and then cook scrambled eggs or sauté vegetables. Score the fat and place the breasts in the brine. You can brine it for a couple of hours or up to overnight.

Once the duck breasts have been brined, pre-heat the oven to 500° and score the breasts to help render the fat for crispness. Heat a skillet, preferably aluminum, cast iron, or stainless steel--not non-stick, and once it's smoking hot, add a little melted butter or ghee or even vegetable oil to the pan.
Lay the duck breasts fat side down on the skillet and cook for about a minute and a half. Sprinkle some ground black pepper onto the breasts before turning them and cooking for another minute. Then flip them again and place the skillet into the oven for 7 to 8 minutes for medium rare (think of duck as meat, not poultry). Add or subtract cooking time in 2-minute increments for rare or for medium to well done. Remove the skillet from the oven and let the breasts rest for 3 to 5 minutes, tented with foil.
To make the puree, dice and boil the potatoes until tender. Remove from heat and drain. Place in a blender with 2 teaspoons of salt and about 1 1 /4 cup of heavy cream. Puree, then pour into a bowl with a sieve to remove any lumps and make impeccably smooth. It reminded me of the texture of mayonnaise. Valenzuela explained that the puree can be made in advance and reheated in a pan with a little butter.

Valenzuela then sautéed mizuna, a Japanese green (you can substitute with other favorite greens), in butter, adding a splash of sake and lemon juice for flavor. He also placed his yuzu marmalade in a pan and added ponzu and unsalted butter to create the glaze, swirling it around to warm it until it reach a boil, at which point he took it off the heat.

Now comes time to plate. First place a mound of puree on the plate and using the back of a large spoon, push it into a swirl. Place the greens in the center. Then slice each duck breast and (tip) place on a paper towel first to drain the released liquid before placing on the puree, crispy side up on each plate, fanned out. Finally, spoon the glaze over the duck. Valenzuela then garnished the dish with cilantro oil and edible flowers.

Glazed Duck Breast
from Dominic Valenzuela of Clock & Petal
Serves 2
(printable recipe)

For duck
1 quart water
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 duck breasts, skinned and boned
1 tablespoon melted butter, ghee, or vegetable oil

For potato puree
2 russet potatoes, peeled
Ground pepper to taste
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 heavy cream

For greens
1 tablespoon butter or oil
2 cups mizuna or other greens
Lemon juice

For glaze
1/4 cup marmalade
1 ounce ponzu
2 tablespoons butter


Mix together water, salt, and sugar. Score the fat on the duck breasts and add them to the brine, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one to two hours or as long as overnight.

Do a large dice of the potatoes and add to a pot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are tender. Drain and add potatoes to a blender bowl. Add 2 teaspoons salt and 1 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Puree.

Place a sieve over a bowl and pour the potato puree onto the sieve. Press through into the bowl. Set aside the puree.

Pre-heat oven to 500°. Remove the duck breasts from the brine. Heat a skillet until it's smoking. Add melted butter and lay each breast fat side down and away from you onto the pan. Sprinkle some ground pepper on each breast and let cook for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn over and leave for another minute. Flip again and place in the oven for 7 to 8 minutes for medium rare. Add or subtract cooking time in 2-minute increments for rare or for medium to well done. Remove the skillet from the oven and let the breasts rest for 3 to 5 minutes, tented with foil.

While the breasts rest, sauté the greens in a tablespoon of butter or oil. Add a splash of sake and lemon juice. Once the greens have cooked, remove from heat.

Make the glaze by adding 1/4 cup of marmalade, an ounce of ponzu, and 2 tablespoons butter to a warm pan. Swirl around to keep the butter from breaking. Once it reaches a boil, remove from heat.

To plate, place a mound of puree on a plate and, using the back of a large spoon, swirl it around. Place the cooked greens in the center. Slice the duck and place on a paper towel to drain the liquid, then fan the slices of each breast onto each plate. Spoon the glaze over the duck.

Cloak & Petal is located at 1953 India St. in Little Italy.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Isabel Cruz's Latin Table

Photo Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
I've been enjoying Isabel Cruz's food for years, whether at Isabel's Cantina in Pacific Beach, Coffee Cup in La Jolla, or Barrio Star in Bankers Hill--back when she still owned it. Now she has a book just published that features the healthy Latin food she grew up with and that her restaurants make.

The Latin Table (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.99) fulfills its statement of being filling with easy, flavorful recipes from Mexico, Puerto Rico (where Cruz's family comes from), and beyond. Cruz explained to me that the food in this cookbook--and on the menus of her restaurants--all derive from how she approached the menu of her very first restaurant, The Mission, which she had opened in the early 90s. "I put things on the menu I wanted to eat and would be healthful. But I didn't want to feel I was depriving myself."

Cruz grew up eating black beans and rice. Dinner was often black beans and rice with roasted chicken, plantains, and a salad. She built on that for her restaurants. "It was healthy and simplified. To be honest, with little kids at home I didn't want to be stuck at the restaurant training people to make complicated dishes."

All this translates into the recipes in The Latin Table. As Cruz has evolved, think Latin fusion, reflecting SoCal health consciousness, a focus on local and seasonal and sustainable ingredients, some Asian influences, and the wide array of flavors that span across diverse Latin cultures.

How do all these influences come together once you dig in? Well, I wrote a story on Cruz early this year for the San Diego Union-Tribune's food section that featured ways in which Latin food could be made healthy. She prepared a couple of dishes, Pepita-Crusted Sea Bass with Coconut Chili Oil and Turkey Albondigas. Both dishes proved her point. As Cruz creates her food, you get the Latin experience without feeling like you're depriving yourself, thanks to the complex flavors and textures in each dish. And, happily, you won't get that loggy or gross feeling from having over-indulged.

The Latin Table is divided into sections cookbook owners will be familiar with: starters; soup, salads, and sides, mains, sauces and salsas, drinks, desserts, and breakfasts. Cruz begins with a list of Latin kitchen basics--all the things Cruz shared that she had to insist her mom keep in her kitchen. The list includes a variety of salts, best quality extra virgin olive oil along with good quality olive oil for simple frying, a variety of spices, panko bread crumbs, short grain brown rice, black beans, and good-quality shrimp in the freezer--among other things, plus kitchen ware items. At the end of the book is  also a section on sources so you can purchase any special ingredients your local market may not carry.

My suggestion? Pay special attention to the sauces and salsas section. When Cruz made her sea bass dish, I fell in love with her Coconut Chili Oil. Her Orange Chili Oil is essential for all sorts of dishes, including the Coconut Chili Oil and Orange Chili Oil Dressing. Make it and keep it around as a go-to for elevating other dishes you make. Then try her salsas. Below are recipes for her bright Mango Mint Salsa and one of Cruz's favorites, her Chipotle Corn Salsa.

Mango Mint Salsa
(printable recipe)
Makes 2 cups

1 mango, medium dice
1 jalapeños, seeds discarded, and minced
1/4 cup red onion, diced
1/4 cup of mint leaves, chopped

Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and toss gently to combine. This salsa keeps refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Photo courtesy of Isabel Cruz

Chipotle Corn Salsa
(printable recipe)

When using fresh summer corn, I just slice it off the cob, no cooking or blanching. If you have good, fresh corn, it will already be sweet and crunchy. If you can’t get your hands on fresh corn, use a good-quality frozen corn (it works much better then canned). If you do use frozen corn, make sure to thaw it first in a separate container by putting the corn in a small strainer over a bowl, for example, to let it thaw. You don’t want the water from the frozen corn to dilute the chipotle/juice mixture that makes this salsa so good.

Makes 2 cups

2 chipotle chilies in adobo, minced
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 cups roasted corn kernels (about 3 ears of fresh corn)
½ red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, small diced
½  cup cilantro leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped

Whisk first three ingredients in a bowl, set aside. Toss remaining ingredients together in another bowl, combine with chipotle/lime/brown sugar mixture. Season with salt to taste. This salsa keeps refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Cruz also changes up basic ingredients in novel ways that can break your home cooking boredom. Make sweet potatoes often? Make them for Thanksgiving? If you're yawning at the thought of another everyday roasted sweet potato, be sure to try her Oven-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Cinnamon and Chili. I made it over the weekend in, as she suggested, one of my cast-iron pans, and loved what a little chili powder and cumin could do to spark a new interest in a go-to evening side dish. It takes little effort and even that little effort is worth it.

Be sure to give her desserts and breakfasts a try. If you're keen to indulge yourself, make her churros  and pair them with her Raspberry Puree. Finish up a light meal with her Mexican Chocolate Tamales or Croissant Bread Pudding with Mexican Chocolate and Almonds. Or lighten it up this summer with Tropical Fruit with Rum Honey Drizzle.

If you've ever been to Coffee Cup you know that Cruz is a breakfast maven. So, how about her Breakfast Nachos or Green Chili Eggs and Ham Breakfast Muffins? Want a healthier alternative? There's her Quinoa Breakfast Cereal and her Coconut and Raspberry Chia Breakfast Pudding.

The recipes throughout The Latin Table reflect the tropical region and culture where Cruz's family--and culinary--heritage was born. Lots of great produce and seafood. Bold, bright flavors. It's simple food, but joyful. Most important for busy home cooks, they're accessible. As Cruz said, "At the core of what I make is food made from basic, simple ingredients like what a family eats, made from scratch and very healthy."

If you'd like to meet Cruz and buy her book, she'll be at Warwick's Bookstore in La Jolla to do a book signing on May 4 at 7:30 p.m. The address is 7812 Girard Ave.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Fish Pit's Flaming Poke Bowl

Zach Stofferahn looks like he could be one of the students at San Diego State who frequent his little restaurant Fish Pit that sits on College Ave. near El Cajon Blvd. In fact, he's an accomplished chef with a long-time love of Japanese food that is the essence of Fish Pit--sushi done his way. Fish Pit, which has been around since October 2016, is all about seafood--poke bowls, fish tacos, ceviche, salads, rolls, and more.

The first time I visited, my friend Trish Watlington and I shared his Green Papaya Salad, which was a refreshing mixture of julienned green papaya, mango, and cucumber with sprouts and roasted peanuts tossed in Thai Lime Vinaigrette and his sweet chili sauce. I then dug into a Jumbo Shrimp Taco, made with fired garlic spiced shrimp, mixed cabbage, fresh salsa, and cilantro.

Stofferahn started cooking at the age of 14, when he got a job at Wendy's Sukiyaki in Utah, where he was raised. He came to San Diego for his formal culinary education at the Art Institute. He spent time at Cafe Japengo training under chefs Jerry Warner and James Montejano. When he was all of 20 he relocated to Park City, Utah to cook for Sundance Festival attendees. At one point, Stofferahn ran his own catering business in Park City. But then came the financial crash and by 2010, he was back in San Diego where he opened and then ran Sabuku Sushi on Adams Ave. for four years as executive chef. And then he decided that once again it was time for him to go out on his own. He took random gigs, worked at Petco Park, making sushi for local big shots, including the Spanos family, and started catering again. In fact, he still has a mobile sushi bar he takes out to do catering gigs. Then he opened Fish Pit.

When you arrive at Fish Pit, you'll see its cool "shack" look. Think Moondoggie's beach shack in Gidget. In fact, Stofferahn built all of it using pallets, stacks of which he still has in his backyard. Seating is limited to about 10--all outdoors along a counter that wraps around three sides.

Cool backstory, but it's the food that counts, right? Read the menu on the blackboards and you'll see Stofferahn's dishes are whimsical takes on sushi but the ingredients are local and sustainable--seafood from Catalina Offshore Products, produce from Specialty Produce's farmers market section. He's also  conscious of how he deals with food waste. A guy in the neighborhood who grows coffee beans and produce in his backyard for his wife, who is ill and needs impeccably "clean" food, picks up produce and fish waste to fertilize his garden.

When it came time to make a dish for San Diego Foodstuff, we decided to focus on his Flaming Poke Bowl. I loved the fresh Big Eye tuna that's featured but it also featured grilled salmon skill. C'mon, who wouldn't want to just snack on grilled salmon skin.

Watching Stofferahn prepare a seemingly simple dish revealed his skill. Because it's not at all simple once you get past dicing vegetables. The daikon sticks, for example, require a thorough competency in katsuramuki, a Japanese technique for peeling away a thin, wide, even layer of the daikon around its circumference before slicing it into matchstick-size pieces.
There's the skinning of the salmon and then seasoning and grilling it. Stofferahn advises leaving some meat on the skin for flavor and when you grill it, starting with flesh side down, leave it for longer than you think you should--until it starts to lift off the grill, then turn it over to the skin side.

Finally, there's the defining Triple X Sauce that is the "flaming" part of the poke bowl. This is a sauce you can use in other dishes. But here's the thing, combine the ingredients a few days out from when you plan to use it because you want the chili slices to marinate in the vinegar. Then you have pickles, some of which will be turned into sauce, some left to top the poke bowl.

There are lots of steps to this bowl, but it's not at all complicated. And it's so worth the effort.

Flaming Poke Bowl
From Zach Stofferahn of Fish Pit
(printable recipe)
Yield: 1 bowl

1 tablespoon each olive oil and canola oil
¼ red onion, sliced
1 piece of raw salmon skin about 3” by 6” with just a little meat on it
Salt and pepper
4 to 5 ounces raw Big Eye tuna, diced into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup hothouse cucumber, seeded and diced
1 ½ ounces seaweed salad (available at Asian markets)
¼ avocado, diced
1 ounce daikon, peeled, thinly sliced into matchsticks (keep in cold water to stay crisp)
1 quarter fresh lime
1 cup white or brown rice, cooked
Handful of mixed greens
1 tablespoon Triple X Sauce (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
2 ounces Ponzu sauce
Peppers from Triple X Sauce
Sesame seeds

1. Heat oils in a skillet and add onion. Sauté until caramelized, then remove from heat and set aside.
2. While the onion is cooking, season the flesh side of the salmon skin and place flesh side down on a hot grill or griddle. Season the skin side and let cook until the flesh side of the grill almost lifts off the grill. Flip it over to grill the skin. Remove and let cool, the slice thinly.

3. In a bowl, mix together the tuna, cucumber, seaweed salad, avocado, and daikon.
4. While putting together the dish, grill the lime quarter on both sides. Set aside.
5. In the bottom of your serving bowl, place the rice on one side and the greens on the other. Spoon in the tuna mixture. Add the three sauces. Arrange caramelized onions on the tuna mixture, then spoon the pickled pepper slices over the top. Add the salmon skin slices and sprinkle the dish with sesame seeds. Finish with the grilled lime quarter.

Triple X Sauce
Yield: 24 ounces

Mix together the ingredients for this spicy sauce at least three days before you expect to use it so the chili slices can absorb the garlic, vinegar, and sugar. Then reserve some of the pickled slices and blend the rest.

6 garlic cloves, skinned
20% habanero chilies
12.5% serrano chilies
12.5% fresno chilies
35% jalapeños
20% Thai chilies
Rice wine vinegar—enough to cover chilies
Handful of sugar

Slice chilies crosswise. Mix together with garlic cloves. Cover with rice wine vinegar and add sugar. Mix well and refrigerate for at least three days. Remove a couple of tablespoons of the pickled chilies and set aside. Blend the rest until smooth.

Fish Pit is located at 4632 College Ave. Visit the website to find out when it's open.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

SoCal Made Opens in Mission Valley

The latest retail shop featuring handmade products created by local artisans has opened in Mission Valley at Westfield Mission Valley near the AMC Mission Valley movie theaters and across from Ruby's Diner. SoCal Made is the baby of Denise Robles, who told me at the store's Saturday afternoon grand opening that she handpicked 48 vendors basically via Etsy, looking at their sales and reviews, and referrals from other vendors.

What you'll find is a collection of jewelry, candles, sunglasses, bags, textiles, and some very cool coasters.

But there are also edibles. When I was there, I found four vendors of sweets. The first, at the entrance, actually, was Crumbles' sugar cookies, which I wrote about last week (and how I learned about the shop).

Then I stumbled onto a cute collection of caramels from Sugar Mamma. The company has sea salt,  vegan, coconut, and coffee flavors, along with marshmallows and white chocolate bark.

In the far corner of the SoCal Made shop is a whimsical display of Swoonful Cotton Candy. You won't just find pink cotton candy, but also horchata. The company also displayed unicorn and bunny bark.

Finally, there was Allegro Vegan Chocolate Truffles. Owner Gloria Garcia was there handing out samples. I'll be meeting with her soon for an interview to learn how she achieves such a rich, chocolate truffle flavor and texture sans butter and heavy cream.

Robles has divided the space in half. The front is the retail area, but there's a large space in the back where workshops and classes will be taught by Robles and the vendors to allow customers to try their hand at making these objects--and perhaps food. Class subjects so far include sewing, jewelry making, candle making, heat press for vinyl, succulents design, and many other types of craft-related classes. Robles also welcomes others in the community to teach workshops or classes. Send a note to info@socalmade.com. Once classes are scheduled you can sign up on the website or in the shop.

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