Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Imperfect Produce Comes to San Diego

How long do you spend in front of a display of apples or tomatoes or berries searching for the items that are just the right size, are unblemished, and with the coloring you consider the right stage of ripeness? In other words, seeking perfection...

Yeah, we all do it. But what you may not know is that all that produce already has to conform to grocery store sizes and qualities. The produce that doesn't make the cosmetic grade tends to get tossed. Yeah, we're talking about quirky shaped carrots and oblong yellow onions or really small avocados. According to UNESCO and the Environmental Working Group, 1 in 5 of these fruits and vegetables don't meet cosmetic standards and go to waste. All of them food we could eat and enjoy.

Now you might find ugly produce at your local farmers market--and you should buy them since there's nothing wrong with the quality. But here's another option for your "no-waste" tool belt: Buying from a San Francisco-based food subscription company called Imperfect Produce.

Imperfect Produce was founded in 2015 by Ben Simon and Ben Chesler. Simon had originally founded the Food Recovery Network as a student at the University of Maryland after noticing food going to waste in the cafeteria. The FRN has since expanded to more than 180 colleges and universities across the country. Simon and Chesler decided to scale the concept nationally and to source "ugly" produce directly from farms. They would then deliver it directly to consumers' homes at a discount. They claim their pricing is about 30 percent less than grocery store prices.

The produce arrives in a recyclable cardboard box--and nothing else--to limit waste. Like a CSA, you can choose from a small, medium, large, or extra-large shipment, organic, all fruit, all veggies, or mixed, with costs ranging from $11 to $13 weekly or bi-weekly for a small (7- to 9-pound) box of conventional produce to $39 to $43 for an extra-large (23- to 25-pound) box of organic produce. And you can customize your order. A few days before your delivery is scheduled to arrive you'll be notified that you can log in and select from 30 to 40 items what you want--you know, so you won't waste either. So if you hate beets or want all fruit, you can skip the beets and order citrus or whatever else is available. The site has tips for how to get the most from customizing--for instance, stocking up on items with a long shelf-life and multiple uses, like onions, potatoes, and hard squash that can be used in soups.

Imperfect Produce has already launched in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, Portland, OR, Seattle/Tacoma, Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and San Antonio. And in keeping with its mission, any produce that doesn't go to customers goes to a food bank or other nonprofit. According to the company, it has recovered 30 million pounds since its launch.

The company also collaborates with local restaurants. So far, Puesto is lined up with Chef Katy Smith using "ugly" carrots in the restaurant's escabeche and other produce in an upcoming "Taco of the Month." Modern Times will brew a collaboration beer utilizing Imperfect Produce. They expect other restaurants to come on board soon.

While Imperfect Produce tries to source locally, the options vary by the day and week, depending on the seasons and weather. Their company philosophy is "follow the waste" and, they note, since more than 80 percent of the U.S.'s produce is grown in California, this is where they source most of their fruits and vegetables. But, they also source from out of state and Mexico when it's necessary and seasonally appropriate.

"Our primary focus is reducing waste. Food waste has no borders," their website notes. "Waste is a problem worldwide, and we do what we can to reduce waste wherever and however we can. In the winter, this means sourcing from Mexico and beyond."

I got a sample box that contained four Roma tomatoes, a very small head of green cauliflower, a grapefruit, several apples, a couple of small oblong yellow onions, three small avocados, a bunch of carrots, and several small red potatoes. All look very appetizing. I've been enjoying the carrots (as has my dog Ketzel, who scarfed one from the counter), the potatoes, and the tomatoes so far.

For those who say, "Keep it local," I'm with you. First choice is to buy local and from our farmers. But I consider Imperfect Produce to be a great tool for those who can't get to a farmers market. In San Diego, admittedly it's not as critical. But for the time pressed, it's a great convenience. And consider some of the markets they're in that don't have a year-round growing season. I hope some of our farmers can get in on this so that eaters in Milwaukee or Indianapolis or Chicago can enjoy what we enjoy in January--and save food from landfills!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Break the Fast Blintzes

I've been eating or making blintzes since I was a small child. I don't remember my mom making them, but my grandmother did and taught me. I made them in college for my roommates. I made them for myself when I lived in New York and was homesick for my family. I made them for brunch for friends in L.A. And it goes on and on. In fact, a few years ago I wrote about my Nana's blintz casserole, which is so decadently rich I can only make it for company--and usually as a Yom Kippur break the fast dish for potlucks. As I wrote then, "It's a little reminiscent of a soufflé. You make the blintzes--here with ricotta cheese--and then pack them into a single layer in a casserole dish. Over the blintzes you pour a rich sauce made with eggs, sour cream, a little sugar and vanilla, and orange juice. Thanks to the eggs, the sauce puffs up and browns around the blintzes, which have also cooked and form layers of crepe and cheese."

I love blintzes as a breakfast for dinner treat, weekend brunch, or Yom Kippur break the fast, which is coming up next week. But I hadn't made them for awhile. Then, in August I got a text from Maeve Rochford of Sugar and Scribe, who was craving blintzes with blueberry compote and wanted to know if she could come over to make them with me. Well, yes. Of course. And she not only showed up with her husband Andrew and mom, Mary Margaret, but also a different way to make the filling--and the ingredients for it.

Now I have to admit I was a bit surprised. You know, blintzes are my thing. Scones and Beef and Guinness Pie are hers. But who am I to turn down a "chefier" version of a family tradition--and damn if it wasn't over the moon better than Nana's. Instead of eggs and ricotta and cinnamon sugar, Maeve uses goat cheese and ricotta with melted butter and sugar. So the filling remains creamy and full bodied, with a slight tang. This will now be my blintz recipe to pass down to my nieces and nephews. I think Nana would have liked it more, too.

Blintzes themselves are easy to make. The crepe batter is forgiving. Eggs, water, sugar, flour, and vegetable oil come together in a mostly smooth, just slightly thickened texture. Whisk it together well to get as many lumps as possible out--but don't worry if some remain. Heat a non-stick pan and add just a bit of oil. Using a ladle drop a couple of ounces into the center, swirling the batter around until you get a nice large circle. Let it sit until the edges curl up. You won't be flipping it. Instead slide it onto a plate and then start the next one.

At this point, if you aren't ready to actually make the blintzes, you can just refrigerate the crepes for a few hours or overnight. You can also prep the blintzes, which involves dropping a dollop of the filling onto a blintz crepe and folding it up like a burrito. Wrap them well and you can freeze them until you're ready to defrost them and then pan fry them in butter. So, yes, they're very versatile.

And we haven't even discussed the compote, which is divine. Maeve and I collaborated on this. Here's our blueprint, but feel free to riff on it with flavors you enjoy. We used citrus liqueur, honey, lemon zest, and lemon juice with the fresh blueberries. Simmer and stir it over heat until the blueberries begin to burst. You could just as easily, with just as marvelous a result, use sugar and cinnamon, and no liqueur.

Or, if you are über traditional, you can skip the compote and top the blintz with sour cream and/or applesauce. (But, really, make the blueberry compote.)

Cheese Blintzes with Blueberry Compote
Yield: 12 blintzes
(printable recipe)

5 eggs, beaten slightly
2 cups water
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Maeve’s version
2 cups ricotta cheese
12 ounces goat cheese
¼ cup butter, melted
¼ cup sugar


Nana Tillie’s version
2 eggs
1 pound ricotta cheese
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar or to taste

Blueberry Compote:
¼ cup water
¼ cup citrus liqueur, like Cointreau (or substitute with more water)
½ cup honey
Lemon zest from half a lemon
10 ounces (2 cups) fresh blueberries
1 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Make the crepes by beating the 5 eggs slightly. Add the water and sugar and beat together. Slowly beat in the flour until smooth. A few lumps are okay.

Set out a plate covered with wax paper. Heat a skillet and brush it lightly with vegetable oil. Using a 2-ounce ladle, scoop in some batter and pour it onto the skillet. Tilt the pan all around so the batter forms a circle around 9 inches in diameter. Don't worry about perfection. This is a homey dish.

Return the skillet to the heat and let the crepe cook until the edges curl up slightly and the surface is cooked entirely--you won't be flipping them to cook on the other side. Use a spatula to help you turn out the crepe onto the wax paper on the plate. Then brush the pan again and repeat until you use up all the batter. You should have a dozen crepes. You can make these a day ahead. Just cover the crepes and store in the refrigerator.

To make the blueberry compote, bring to the boil compote ingredients. Simmer, stirring periodically, 3 to 5 minutes until the blueberries begin to burst. Remove from heat. Set aside.

To make the filling, blend together the ingredients from either of the choices above.

Make the blintzes by placing 2 to 3 tablespoons of the filling in the center of the crepe. Fold the bottom half over the filling. Then fold the sides in. Then fold the top down over the center. Refrigerate until ready to fry.

Heat a sauté pan and add butter. Once the butter has melted add three to four (or five, depending on the size of the pan) and fry at medium heat until the first side browns, then flip the blintzes and brown on the other side. Serve with the blueberry compote.

The blintzes can be frozen before or after frying. The compote can also be frozen.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

2018 Fall San Diego Farm to Fork Week About to Begin

San Diego Farm to Fork Week has now become a tradition. This month marks the third such event, held by Farm to Fork San Diego, a membership organization conceived by Trish Watlington, former owner of The Red Door, that brings farming, fishing, and food awareness to consumers by verifying and promoting local businesses and non-profits that support local farmers and fishermen. San Diego Farm to Fork Week is the signature event of the organization, and runs from September 9th to 15th.

Here's why you want to participate: You'll get dining discounts and special dishes from the participating restaurants. And, it's a chance to try new, locally sourced restaurants, bakeries, and breweries at affordable prices.

"We hope diners will not only experience the fresh flavors and creativity that come from working with local food that’s in season," Watlington said, "but that they will appreciate and become part of the important food supply chain that starts all the way back with seed farmers and extends all the way to chefs, brewers, vintners and ultimately they’ll be proud to support a local, sustainable, accessible and healthy food community."

Among those participating in Farm to Fork Week is Garden Kitchen's chef/owner Coral Fodor Strong. She explained that she's involved to bring additional awareness to what her restaurant is offering in the context of totally supporting local farmers by executing a daily changing menu with what San Diego farmers are growing exactly within a 50-mile radius.

"Farm to Fork SD showcases so many amazing restaurants, chefs and diners that embrace the local food scene, so the upcoming week can bring more attention to those that are truly engaging and supporting our farmers, our fishermen and our community as a whole," she added.

For Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub's chef/owner Davin Waite, it's an opportunity to acknowledge both that San Diego's local farms are a treasure--and that, unfortunately, a lot of them struggle. "We like to be a part of events that recognize and showcase local growers. It's always a pleasure to play with food that comes from local farms, and we always love seeing our names mentioned next to restaurants we love and respect," he said.

Part of the fun of the event is sampling special dishes chefs will be making for it. Robin Ross of Pt. Loma's Cupcakes Squared is featuring a Lemon Fig cupcake giveaway, free with any purchase that week. The figs are sourced from Watlington's Two Forks Farm.

Courtesy of Robin Ross
"I fell in love with the concept of Farm to Fork Week at it's inception," Ross said. "It's a reliable source of information dedicated to showcasing the efforts of businesses, small and large, supporting local farms and food producers. Promoting seasonal eating allows our food to be at peak flavor. I am in hope that Farm to Fork Week will awaken the senses of diners as they partake in events and special
menus provided.   It should be a way of eating, daily, and Farm To Fork San Diego is a wonderful resource."

Like Ross, other chefs will be determining their own discounts, menu items, or prix fixe menus. For example, you can enjoy three exclusively local courses at Garden Kitchen, an omakase tasting menu at Wrench and Rodent, or an heirloom tomato salad with charred strawberries at Juniper & Ivy. And special Farm to Fork Week brews from Bivouac Ciderworks and Benchmark Brewing, made with produce from local farms, will be available all week.

Specifics are posted on each restaurant’s website.

Here's a complete list of who's participating:

Benchmark Brewing
Biga San Diego
Bivouac Cider Works
Blind Lady Alehouse
Ceviche House
Cupcakes Squared
FaVe Tacos
Garden Kitchen
Juniper and Ivy
Kettner Exchange
Land and Water Company
Loaf and Fish Sandwiches
Masters Kitchen and Cocktail
Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub

Along with the restaurant offerings during the week of the 9th will also be a host of other very cool events that begin on September 5 and go through the 17th.

The kick-off event is "Shop with Chefs at Little Italy Wednesday Market": Shop with local chefs including Mike Reidy of Ironside Fish and Oyster, Stevan Novoa of Duckfoot Brewing, Heath Toms of the Glass Door, Chef Juan Carlos Recamier of Ceviche House and D J Tangalin of Bivouac Ciderworks while they show you how to choose the tastiest, freshest ingredients from local farmers ranchers and food makers. Chat with Brijette Romstedt, owner of San Diego Seed company, about her seed-to-table project and how you can grow some of your own food with seeds specifically acclimated for San Diego's climate. There will be free seed samples too!

There will also be a similar event the following Saturday at Tuna Harbor, a Shop Talk Industry Mixer at Bivouac Cider, Garden Kitchen-Benchmark Pairing, Royale-In Good Company Guest Bartenders, a Sea to Fire Dinner at BIGA San Diego, Sunday Asado at Nopalito Farms, and, concludes with the Good Food Showcase on the 17th. You can learn more about each event here.

The big, in-your-face takeaway from Farm to Fork Week, though, isn't just participating in events. It's what we all do once the event is over. 

As Watlington said, "Celebrate every day and every week by supporting your local farmers and fishermen. Support farmers by buying direct at farmers markets or from locally sourced groceries like Stehly Farms Organics. Support fishermen and the environment by buying at Tuna Harbor Dockside market every Saturday. Become a regular at any or all of the restaurant, winery and brewery members and by supporting our business members and local non-profits. Supporting them also supports local farmers and fishermen and a healthy local food system. We’re here, not just to promote certain businesses but to create a community centered around food and food producers. That community depends on the support of all San Diegans." 

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