Alfonso Ramirez’ Seared Albacore Salad Reaches for the Stars

Alfonso Ramirez learned in baby steps in his childhood home.

Eat. Walk. Cook …

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The executive chef at Pinot Provence, Costa Mesa, says that his chef-father is his culinary hero and was the one responsible for his early training.

His father was the accomplished executive chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C., where the late, fearless French chef Jean-Louis Palladin reined over the Jean-Louis restaurant. jeanLouiePalladinChefs, foodies, and restaurateurs from all over made pilgrimages to the Watergate to sample Jean-Louis Palladin’s cuisine. And Alfonso’s chef-dad must have soaked it up.  The talent. The taste.

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Due to his father’s influence, Ramirez says that he feels like he has cooked French cuisine all his life. He brings to Pinot Provence a passion for French provincial cooking, a style that he calls “rustic French.”

With a fondness for his food, I asked if he would come to my home and shoot a culinary video with me. Watch the short video we shot, and get an up-close look at how he seasons and sears the fish and prepares the salad.

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Behind the scenes: It was clear that due to time constraints, Canard Cassoulet with Duck Confit was off the table. So we settled on a very flavorful and easy-to-prepare salad that showcases seasoned-and- seared albacore atop a colorful mélange of Bibb lettuce, radishes, tart apples and avocado. The mixture is draped in a shear glaze of ginger-honey vinaigrette.

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Best Gizmo: A Sugimoto 10-inch chef’s knife that has a carbon steel interior and has a stainless steel exterior to prevent discoloration. He appreciates the thinness of the knife and says it has great balance in his hand.

Fave Veg: Sunchokes are one of his most loved vegetables. Also known as Jerusalem artichokes, these plump knobby roots have a nutty taste and are subtly sweet, something like a blend of jicama and potato. They look something like fresh ginger.

The Competition: His favorite restaurant (other than Pinot Provence) is Taco Maria in Costa Mesa at the OC Mix. He loves the smoked potatoes and chorizo with shiitake mushrooms; it’s topped with a 62-degree egg.

Pinot Provence’s Albacore Salad
Yield: 1 serving with enough dressing for 8 servings
Vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon chopped fresh peeled ginger
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup Champagne vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup yuzu juice, see cook’s notes
1/2 cup oil blend (90 percent grapeseed oil and 10 percent olive oil)
Salad:
3 ounces sushi-grade albacore tuna
Coarse salt (such as fleur de sel), to taste
About 1/8 teaspoon sesame seeds (black sesame seeds preferred)
About 1/8 teaspoon ground Espelette pepper, see cook’s notes
1 to 2 tablespoons oil blend (90 percent grapeseed oil and 10 percent olive oil)
4 or 5 leaves of Boston (Bibb) lettuce, smaller interior leaves preferred
1 French Breakfast radish (or radish of choice), trimmed, thinly sliced or cut in narrow strips
6 heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 Granny Smith apple, cut into 1/8-inch wide strips
1/2 ripe avocado, peeled, diced
Garnish: sliced fresh chives
Cook’s notes: Yuzu juice is sold in bottles at Japanese markets and online. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that is prized for its perfume-rich juice. Ground Espelette pepper (piment d’Espelette in French) is made using dried chilies grown in Espelette, a town in the Southwest region of France, close to the Spanish border. It is often sold at Surfas Culinary District in Costa Mesa, Savory Spice Shop in Corona del Mar and Costa Mesa, or online at amazon.com.
1. Prepare vinaigrette: Place all vinaigrette ingredients except oil in blender. Blend on medium-high speed until pureed. Add oil in a thin stream. (Can be prepared ahead and refrigerated; whisk to combine before using.)
2. Season fish with salt. Spread sesame seeds and Espelette on plate; roll fish in it to coat on all sides. Heat oil in a medium-sized nonstick skillet using medium-high heat. When very hot but not smoking, add albacore. Sear well on all sides, about 1 to 2 minutes per side for rare interior, using tongs to turn. Allow to cool in refrigerator for easier slicing.
3. In a bowl, combine lettuce, radish, tomatoes, apple and avocado. Add enough dressing to lightly coat; gently toss. Arrange lettuce on plate. Top with salad. Cut albacore crosswise into thin slices. Place slices on top of salad, slightly overlapping. Drizzle a little dressing on top of fish and season lightly with salt. Top with chives and serve. Leftover dressing can be refrigerated (well-sealed) up to one week.
Source: Alfonso Ramirez, executive chef, Pinot Provence, Costa Mesa

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Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s …

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Mustard greens are one of the most nutrient dense plants on the planet! I love the way adding a smidgen of hot Italian sausage to this dish tames the greens.

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It’s quick and easy to prepare.

I like to serve it atop cooked farro or brown rice.

Mustard Greens with Hot Sausage and Farro

Yield: 6 servings
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces hot Italian sausage
1/2 large yellow onion, diced
1 pound mustard greens, washed, drained, cut crosswise into 3- to 4-inch wide pieces
2 tablespoons water or dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For serving: 2 cups cooked farro or brown rice tossed with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper
1. In a large, deep nonstick skillet heat olive oil on medium heat. Break sausage in clumps (about the size of very large grape) and add to skillet in a single layer. Cook, turning once, until nicely browned and crisp. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion softens, about 2 minutes.
2. Add mustard greens. Use a spatula to push the greens down as they heat.  Add 2 tablespoons water or wine; cover. Cook 3 or 4 minutes, or until greens are wilted. Uncover and turn heat to high. Cook until moisture evaporates, about 4 minutes. Add salt and pepper; toss. Serve over cooked farro or brown rice.

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Best Farro Dish Ever: Chef Eric Samaniego, Little Sparrow

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Little Sparrow’s Warm Farro Salad with Arugula

When I query friends about Little Sparrow, the modern American cafe in downtown Santa Ana, they struggle to pinpoint their favorite dish. They are indecisive because a top choice is blurred when so many dishes reach perfection.

Executive Chef Eric Samaniego has a seductive menu that reflects both his talent and his passion for from-scratch cuisine.

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Some argue that the charcuterie plate is the pinnacle, with its made-in-house rillettes and terrines.  Others lobby for the grilled pork chops teamed with tomatillo sauce and red quinoa, or the finale of sweet-tart strawberry and rhubarb cobbler.

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The warm farro salad is my clear cut favorite. It has earthy nuttiness and alluring chewiness, and is gently toasted and then cooked in a leek-based stock.  It’s combined with sautéed mushrooms, a concoction of robust slices of king “trumpet” oyster mushrooms …  mushroomking

and more diminutive honshimeji, a clustered variety that is similar to oyster mushrooms but with dark brown caps and very slender stems.

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Caramelized with skill and patience, the fleshy mushrooms add sweetness and umami meatiness to the grain.

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The mixture tosses with baby arugula, just enough to slightly wilt the bright green leaves. Once plated, it is topped with a 5:10 egg, a soft-boiled beauty that when boiled for exactly 5 minutes and ten seconds delivers solid white and runny yolk. Once a guest’s fork pierces the egg, the yolk provides a delectable sauce that brings all the flavors together.

I was delighted when he consented to tape a video in my kitchen to show each step of the salad’s preparation. He offered many interesting tips in the process and I had a chance to ask him about some of his other favorite things:
Best Gizmo: A deba knife made by Aritsugu purchased on a recent trip to Tokyo (the company was founded in 1560, making it one of the oldest still existing knifemakers in Japan).
Look It Up: Favorite cookbook is “Culinary Artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. He says that the pages are filled with coffee stains.
Kitchen Heros: He spent 7 years spent working with Chef-Restaurateur David Myers in Los Angeles, 2 years at Sona followed by 5 years at Comme Ca. He says that Myers molded him into the chef he is today.
Off Hours: Appreciates spending time with her wife of 11 years and their two children, Brieana and Benjamin.
The Competition: His favorite restaurant (other than Little Sparrow) is Broadway By Amar Santana, Laguna Beach. He says that it is always fund and exciting.

Little Sparrow’s Warm Farro Salad with Arugula
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, finely diced
Pinch of salt
2 cups semi-pearled Italian farro, see cook’s notes
4 to 5 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound oyster mushrooms, cut at base, see cook’s notes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup baby arugula
Four 5:10 eggs, see step #3
Small drizzle of soy sauce
Small drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
Chopped fresh herbs: parsley, chives
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of fleur de sel or sea salt
Cook’s notes: Most restaurants and home cooks use semi-pearled farro, grains that are processed to retain some but not all of the exterior bran. Semi-pearled (the package often says “semi-perlato”) cooks in 20 to 25 minutes in simmering water or broth. If the package doesn’t designate it as “semi-pearled,” look at the cooking directions on the package; if it says that it cooks in less than 25 minutes, you can assume it is semi-pearled. Farro is sold in the natural food section of some supermarkets and at natural food stores or Italian markets. For the video, Samaniego used King oyster mushrooms and honshimeji mushrooms, but advises that cremini mushrooms and oyster mushrooms would work as well. It is easier to prepare 5:10 eggs in advance (it is difficult to peel them when they are hot); chill and peel, then reheat just before serving by submerging them in hot water for 30 seconds.
1. In a large deep skillet on medium heat, cook onion in olive oil until softened, about 4 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and farro; cook until lightly toasted. Add the broth and turn to high heat. Once the liquid is boiling reduce to simmer. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until tender. Drain.
2. In a separate large deep skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil on medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook until tender and caramelized, being mindful not to overcrowd the pan. Season with a pinch of salt and little freshly ground black pepper toward the end of cooking. Toss in the cooked farro. Adjust seasoning. Just before serving add in the arugula and toss just slightly wilt the leaves. Taste; add salt and/or pepper as needed.
3. Cook the 5:10 eggs: Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Place unpeeled raw eggs in water and cook for 5 minutes and 10 seconds exactly (chef used his cellphone to time them). Remove and shock in a bowl of ice water. Peel the eggs, just before serving run the eggs under some running hot water for 30 seconds (see cook’s notes).
4. Serve in individual bowls, or in a large platter. Drizzle with a little soy sauce. Top with a 5:10 eggs. Drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil on top of each egg; season each with fine sea salt, pepper, and chopped fresh herbs.
Source: Eric Samaniego, executive chef at Little Sparrow, Santa Ana

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…. Here’s a QUICK TIP from MELISSA’S PRODUCE ….

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Dukka (also spelled “dukkah”) is an Egyptian specialty that is blend of spices, roasted nuts and toasted sesame seeds. One way to serve it is to combine the blend with good olive oil and dip bread or grilled pita into it. When eating it this way, I like to include a good dollop of yogurt as well.

Dukka makes a crunchy coating for cooked chicken or fish. It is delicious sprinkled over mixed green salads or green beans tossed with a little olive oil. The recipe used here is adapted from a formula devised by Susan Carter, manager at Savory Spice Shop, Corona del Mar. Carter adds sunflower seeds and Sucanat (whole cane) sugar to her blend.

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Yield: about 1 1/2 cups
2/3 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup roasted, salted cashews
1/4 cup roasted pistachios, salted or unsalted
3 tablespoons ground coriander seeds
2 tablespoons ground cumin seeds
Optional: 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste, see cook’s notes
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cook’s notes: If using salted nuts do not add salt. Most cashews in the marketplace are roasted. If you buy raw pistachios, roast them on a rimmed baking sheet in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned. Watch carefully because nuts burn easily. Cool nuts before using in this recipe. This mixture is delicious sprinkled on the kale salad (recipe included).
1. Toast sesame seeds. Place a rimmed plate or bowl next to stove. Place half of sesame seeds in medium-sized dry saucepan on medium heat. Toast until golden (lightly browned) using a spatula to stir constantly (a heatproof silicone spatula works well). Sesame seeds burn easily. Place seeds on plate and repeat process with remaining sesame seeds. Set aside to cool.
2. Place nuts in food processor. Pulse until nuts are chopped (some pieces will be fairly large, others ground into a powder). In a bowl, stir together the nuts, cooled sesame seeds, coriander, cumin, salt (if using) and pepper. Store in an airtight container. Best used within two weeks (it usually disappears in just a few days at my house).
Nutrition information (per teaspoon): 50 calories, 95 percent of calories from fat, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 0.5 g carbohydrates, 0.5 g protein, 15 mg sodium, 0.1 g fiber

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Secrets from A Restaurant’s Chef Jon Blackford – His Irresistible Halibut

Sample one of Jon Blackford’s Imperial Wagyu strip steaks, and you may never want to explore other entree options.

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The meat is so richly flavored and the texture so velvety, it could be addictive.  Blackford, executive chef at A Restaurant in Newport Beach, sears the perfectly marbled beef directly on a French burner. He says that the device is 10 to 15 percent hotter than a more conventional plancha. The process caramelizes the exterior in a mouth-watering manner before it is finished in the broiler.

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I understand any resistance to wander off the steak path. But if you don’t try Blackford’s Alaskan halibut, you are missing out.

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The short video shows the step-by-step preparation. Watch it, you’ll be impressed with all the practical tips he shares.

The fish is a center-cut fillet. It has a lovely crust, browned just enough to create texture contrast with the moist interior. It sits atop a piping hot potato concoction that has just-right acidity, a quality that brings out the sweetness in the halibut. The rustic potato mix teams tender, spoon-broken Yukon Gold potatoes with two vibrant mustards, as well as crème fraiche.

A creamy mélange of asparagus and oyster mushrooms accompany the dish. The mixture has a scattering of black garlic, caramelized garlic cloves that lend alluring sweet-sour taste and depth of flavor.

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Blackford consented to come to my home and show me exactly how to prepare the dish while taping a short video. I was impressed with the number of tips he offered along the way, from pre-reducing cream for pan sauces to make the cooking time shorter, to cutting green onions to get the best flavor and texture.

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A Restaurant’s Alaskan Halibut
Yield: 4 servings
8 medium-size unpeeled Yukon gold potatoes, washed, dried
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 (6 ounces each) halibut fillets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons cooking oil, either grape seed oil or blended (90 percent canola, 10 percent extra-virgin olive oil)
1/2 cup crème fraiche
2 tablespoons sliced green onions, middle light green portion only
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, strong French–style preferred
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauce:
1 tablespoon cooking oil, either grape seed oil or blended (90 percent canola, 10 percent extra-virgin olive oil)
6 asparagus stalks, thin preferred, cut on diagonal into 2-inch lengths
2 to 3 large clusters oyster mushrooms, torn into small clusters, shallowly trimmed at base
1 large shallot, peeled, julienned
1/3 cup Riesling (slightly sweet)
1/3 cup reduced cream, see cook’s notes
Finishing fish:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 pinch chopped fresh thyme
8 cloves black garlic, peeled, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: A sauce-making restaurant tip is to reduce cream by half in advance, cool and refrigerate it. This saves time when making the sauce. Black garlic is made by heating whole bulbs of garlic over the course of several weeks. It is sold at Surfas Culinary District in Costa Mesa and online at melissas.com.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a roasting pan, toss potatoes with garlic, thyme and 2 tablespoons olive oil.  Cover with plastic wrap and then foil; bake in preheated oven for about 1 1/2 hours.  Make sure the potatoes are soft when they come out of the oven.

2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Just before cooking, season fish generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil on high heat in ovenproof skillet (large enough to hold fish in single layer, or use two skillets). When golden brown around the bottom edge, place it in the oven. After 4 or 5 minutes turn fish and cook just until barely cooked through, about 1 minute (time varies depending on thickness). Tiny bubbles will start to appear on the side of the fish when it is done.

3. Remove and discard any woody thyme stems from potatoes. Crush the cooked potatoes with the back of a good-sized spoon; add crème fraiche, green onions, mustards, salt and pepper. Mix to combine. If they are still hot from the oven there will be no need to reheat; but if not, mix everything in a sauté pan and heat on the stove.

4. For sauce: Heat a sauté pan on medium high heat; add oil.  Add asparagus and shallots; cook for 1-2 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté about 1 minute. Add Riesling and scrape up any browned bits in pan. Cook until liquid is reduced by half in volume. Add cream and simmer on medium heat until thickened.

5. Finish fish: When fish comes out of the oven, add thyme, butter, and black garlic cloves to the hot pan.  Using a spoon, baste the melted butter over the fish to flavor it.  Place a serving of potatoes on each of four plates and place a fish fillet on top of each, leaving the remaining butter in the pan, but topping with the black garlic. Spoon asparagus mixture with the sauce on either side of the potatoes and serve.

Source: Jon Blackford, executive chef A Restaurant, Newport Beach

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…Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s…

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Creamy kale soup is quick and easy to prepare. To make it vegetarian, use vegetable broth.

Cream of Kale Soup

Yield: 4 servings
1 large baking potato, such as Russet, peeled, coarsely chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
4 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth, divided use
1 large bunch washed kale, curly or Tuscan variety, central stalks removed (scroll down through the video to see how to do this), coarsely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried, or dried Italian herb mix
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Garnish: Greek-style yogurt or cream
1. Place potato, garlic and broth in a Dutch oven or large saucepan. Bring to a boil on high heat; lower heat to medium low and simmer 10 to 12 minutes, or until potatoes are fork tender.

2. Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, combine remaining broth, kale, bay leaf and oregano. Bring to boil on high heat; reduce heat to medium and cook until tender, about 10 minutes.

3. Puree potato mixture with immersion blender or in a food processor. Remove and discard bay leaf from kale mixture. Stir potato mixture into kale mixture. Puree about 1/3 of the mixture either with an immersion blender or in the food processor. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir; taste. If needed, adjust seasoning, stirring in lemon juice if desired, and additional salt and/or pepper if needed. Divide into 4 bowls. Top each with a hearty dollop of yogurt or a spoonful of heavy cream.

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Temptation: Indian Street Foods, There and Here

India totally enchants some visitors.

Count me among them.

indiaDelhiDoorman450My recent journey left me with joyful impressions of captivating sites and bold colors, vistas set against an exuberant backdrop of rhythms and scents. Imagine the syncopated toots of rickshaw horns mixed with buzzing motorbikes, the aroma of chai, curry and incense perfuming the air. indiaDelhiStreet450

My visit was short, spending less than a week, with the time divided between Delhi, Agra and Mumbai. At the heart of the charm was the lure of the food.

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The dishes I ate in hotels and restaurants were scrumptious.

These warm Indian-style breads were served with a luscious assortment of chutneys at the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi.

The street foods on the other hand, frustrated me; due to the use of questionable water, I was warned not to eat it. IT LOOKED SO DELICIOUS!

Snacking is a part of everyday life in India, and to my eyes the on-the-street noshing seemed nonstop. Carts and makeshift tables provided the framework for the street vendors to show off their treasures. Fruits and vegetable stole the show, with ingredients arranged like squares on a vibrant quilt.

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Some were simple, such as sliced pineapple or cucumbers, or ornately cut jicama pieces, all set atop glimmering ice. Each was seasoned to a customer’s liking with salt and chaat masala (a dried ground mixture of mango powder, cumin, black salt, coriander, ginger and chili).

 

 

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Others were more complex. Clear containers of panni pooris (puri) set next to some carts. These hollow crisp puffs were about golf ball size.

indiaPaniPuri450They were filled on the spot with a mixture of mashed potatoes and garbanzo beans, and then topped with chutneys, yogurt and chaat masala. I watched as they were consumed with gusto, the whole shebang becoming a one-big-bite delicacy.

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At other locations, the pooris were filled with spicy water. Called gol gappa pooris, these spheres fill a mouth with a burst of piquant, ice-cold liquid.

(What a thrill to find these luscious treats at ADYA restaurant at the Anaheim Packing House. You pour in the beautifully-spiced water into the shell and do a one-bite chomp.  (The chef-owner is Shachi Mehra, former executive chef of Tamarind in Newport Coast – 440 S. Anaheim Blvd.).

Now … back to India.

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One cart was topped with geometrically arranged bunches of cilantro, red-ripe Roma tomatoes, fried garbanzo beans (topped with chili powder and salt), fried peanuts, and a mixture of chopped red onions and green chilies. Chopped and tossed together for last-minute service,

the concoction was served with crunchy wedges of poppadums.

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When flame-toasted, poppadums become blistered and cracker-crisp. Also referred to as papads, at first glance the plain ones look something like fried-and-wavy flour tortillas. They are made of lentils and can be used like brittle tortilla chips for dipping or spreading.

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I loved the look of the fresh mint infused ice water.

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The Indian spicy, salty street beverages fascinate me. I wanted to make the salty-spicy-sweet limeade that seemed to be sold on every corner.  But weather factors as well as an infection of trees in some areas of Mexico have driven up our local lime prices.

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So instead I turned to “The Great Pepper Cookbook” from Melissa’s Produce (Oxmoor House, $19.95) for a recipe for chili-spiked lemonade. I rimmed glasses margarita-style with a little kosher salt to get an Americanized version of the Indian elixer. I’ll prepare it with limes when prices come down.

For further help with my project, I called my Mumbai-born friend Raghavan Iyer, the award-winning author of many cookbooks, tomes that are designed to take the mystery out of Indian cooking. His latest, “Indian Cooking Unfolded” (Workman, $$19.95), is a master class in the art of simple Indian cooking, with 100 easy recipes that each use ten ingredients or less.

I wanted to master the art of flame-toasted poppadums and stuffed pooris, plus learn to make two irresistible chutneys (that would team with either). Most ingredients were available at my local supermarket, but a few weren’t. Armed with Iyer’s recipes, I headed to Indian Sweets and Spices Market in Tustin. There I purchased packages of uncooked poppadums and ready-to-use poori shells, along with tamarind paste and chaat masala.

Red-Hot Iced Lemonade
Yield: 8 servings
2 quarts (8 cups) cold water
Juice of 4 lemons (about 3/4 cup)
1 fresh red Fresno chili, stem and seeds removed, finely sliced, see cook’s notes
1 cup sugar
Cook’s notes: Fresh Red Fresno chilies are about 2- to 4-inches long. They are similar in size and shape to jalapenos but have wider shoulders, thinner flesh and mild to medium heat. I like to rim the glasses with a little kosher salt; dip rims in lemon juice and then in a small amount of kosher salt.
1. In a large pitcher, stir together all ingredients until sugar dissolves completely, about 3 to 5 minutes. Fill glasses with ice and pour in lemonade.
Source: Melissa’s “The Great Pepper Cookbook” (Melissa’s Produce, Oxmoor House, $19.95)

indiapanipuripackage450Crispy Poori Shells with Potatoes, Garbanzo Beans and Two Chutneys
Yield: 6 servings
For the filling:
1 medium-size russet or Yukon Gold potato, peeled, boiled until tender, drained (reserve water), coarsely mashed
1 cup cooked chickpeas (can use canned, drained)
1 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
For the crispy shells and topping:
30 round poori shells (sometimes labeled pani puri or panni pooris)
Tamarind Date Chutney, recipe included
Tangy Mint Chutney, recipe included
Chaat masala for sprinkling
Finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems for sprinkling
1. Combine the potato, chickpeas, and salt in a medium-size bowl, and blend well, mashing the chickpeas (I used a potato masher). If mixture is dry, stir in enough reserved cooking water to make a mashed potato consistency.
2. Working with one poori at a time, cup a shell in the palm of one hand, and with the forefinger of the other hand, gently tap the thin surface to form a finger-width hole, letting the crumbs and small pieces fall in. Repeat with the remaining shells, and place them in a single layer on a serving platter.
3. Carefully spoon a scant teaspoon of the potato-chickpea filling into a shell. Drop about 1/4 teaspoon Tamarind Date Chutney on top, and then top that with Tangy Mint Chutney.  Lightly dust with chaat masala, sprinkle with cilantro, and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining shells. (Or, if you’re prepared to move speedily, set this up assembly-line style so you can fill and serve a number of the shells at once).
Source: adapted from “660 Curries” and “Indian Cooking Unfolded by Raghavan Iyer (Workman Publishing, $19.95, $22.95)

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Poori (Puri) shells stuffed with mashed potatoes-garbanzo bean mixture, topped with chutneys and cilantro.

Tangy Mint Chutney
Yield: about 1 cup
Juice from 1 large lime
1 small daikon radish, see cook’s notes
1 medium-size tomato
1/2 cup firmly packed fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup firmly packed fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 large clove garlic
1 to 2 fresh green serrano chilies, stems discarded (I’s a sissy and only use 1/2 of a serrano chili) 1 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
Cook’s notes: I use only a 3-inch piece of daikon – all of the daikons are enormous at my market.
1. Pour lime juice into blender. Peel daikon and lop off about 1/2 inch from both ends (see cook’s notes). Wash and thinly slice crosswise. Add slices to juice in blender.
2. Core tomato, coarsely dice it (there’s no need to peel it or remove the seeds). Add tomato to blender along with mint, cilantro, garlic, chili(es), and salt. Puree (if needed, stop motor and scrape down sides to insure a smooth puree).
3. Serve the chutney either at room temperature or chilled as a dipping sauce. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week or freeze for up to 2 months.
Source: adapted from “Indian Cooking Unfolded” by Raghavan Iyer (Workman Publishing, $19.95)

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Tamarind Date Chutney
Yield: about 1 1/2 cups
1 teaspoon tamarind paste or concentrate
1 1/2 cups chopped seedless dates
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
1. Whisk the tamarind paste and 1 1/2 cups of warm water together. Stir in dates, cayenne, and salt. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat. Once it starts to boil, lower the heat to medium and let it continue to simmer vigorously, still uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the dates soften, 6 to 8 minutes.
2. Pour mixture into a blender, and, holding the lid in place with a towel or potholder, pulse the liquid until pureed. Transfer the sweet and sour chutney to a glass jar (nonreactive is what you’re looking for because of the acidity of the tamarind). You can store the chutney in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Serve the chutney chilled as a dip for any of your favorite appetizers.
Source: “Indian Cooking Unfolded” by Raghavan Iyer, Workman Publishing, $19.95

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Phil and I pose with our dear pals, Ron and Marcia Kay Radelet at the Taj Mahal.

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Best Appetizer Pancakes Ever from Lark Creek Newport Beach

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John Ledbetter’s pancakes could make you forget the traditional limp breakfast disks that whisper a bland one-dimensional tune.

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No drizzle of butter or syrup is necessary for these vibrant appetizer cakes.

This short video shows how Ledbetter, executive chef at Lark Creek Newport Beach, amps his savory pancakes with a battalion of complementary ingredients. His pancakes are thick and irresistible, especially when topped with a tangle of barbecued chicken, guacamole and slivers of crisp tortilla chips.

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At the heart of his pancakes is a rich sweet-corn taste provided by prepared masa, the type sold in many local Mexican markets that is blended specifically for making tamales. (I buy it at El Gallo Giro, Santa Ana)

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The masa dough is mixed with fresh minced chilies, bell peppers and green onions, and then made into a batter by adding milk, baking soda and baking powder.
I watched the preparation. He cooks them slowly. Once a portion of batter is added to a hot nonstick skillet, he uses the back of a spoon to spread the mixture a little; then he gently cooks on medium-low heat to prevent scorching.
Tamale Pancakes
Yield: about 10 to 12 (5-inch) pancakes
About 1 cup whole milk (plus more if needed)
2 1/2 pounds prepare masa (masa for tamales), see cook’s notes
1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper
1 tablespoon minced seeded jalapeno chili, or 2 teaspoons minced jalapeno plus 2 teaspoons minced Red Fresno chili, see cook’s notes
1 tablespoon minced green onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Butter as needed
Favorite barbecue sauce, enough to lightly coat chicken
Roast chicken, boned, skinned, pulled into slivers with two forks (store-bought is OK)
Garnish: guacamole, thin strips of corn tortillas (fried crisp) or crushed tortilla chips
Optional garnish: cilantro crème fraiche
Cook’s notes: Many Mexican markets, such as El Gallo Giro in Santa Ana, sell prepared masa. Be sure to designate that you want masa for tamales, not for tortillas. Use caution when working with fresh chilies; wash hands and work surface thoroughly and do NOT touch eyes or face. To make cilantro crème fraiche, blanch a good handful of cilantro in boiling water; refresh with ice water. Drain and place in high-speed blender with some cream fresh; whirl until pureed. Ledbetter says that when sweet corn if plentiful this summer, he will add kernels along with the other ingredients to the batter.
Procedure:
1. In a saucepan, heat milk until just below a simmer; set aside. In a stand mixer add masa, bell pepper, chilies, green onion and cilantro. Using the paddle attachment, mix on low speed to combine. Continue to mix on low speed and add milk in thin stream, using just enough milk to achieve a pancake-batter consistency (it will thicken up a little with refrigeration). Add baking powder and baking soda; mix to combine. Cover and refrigerate 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Melt about 1 1/2 teaspoons butter in a large, nonstick skillet on medium heat. Add enough batter to make a pancake the desired size (he makes them about 5-inches in diameter). Use the back of a spoon in a circular motion to spread out the batter a little. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until bubbles appear on surface and golden brown (about 40 to 50 percent cooked). Turn and complete cooking.
3. Toss chicken with enough barbecue sauce to lightly cover. Top each pancake with chicken mixture, a scoop of guacamole and some thin strips of fried corn tortilla. If desired drizzle cilantro crème fraiche around edge of plate. Serve immediately.
Source: John Ledbetter, executive chef at Lark Creek Newport Beach

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… Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s …

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Cherry-Blackberry Compote served with honey-spiked yogurt makes a delectable dessert.

Blackberries and fresh sweet cherries have such complimentary flavor profiles. Bing (bright red to mahogany red) is most common variety in the marketplace, but others such as Rainiers (yellow with a red blush) can be substituted.

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The easiest and least messy way to remove the seeds is to use a cherry pitter. The gadget works something like a scissor-style paper punch with a shaft that pushes the pit out.

Cherries Poached in Red Wine with Blackberries and Mint
Yield: 8 servings
2 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 cup sugar or agave syrup
2 (2-inches wide) strips of orange zest or tangerine zest, colored portion of peel
1 1/2 pounds fresh sweet cherries, pitted, halved
1/2 pound whole blackberries
Optional: 2 teaspoons minced fresh mint
3/4 cup plain fat free Greek-style yogurt
1 tablespoon honey
Optional garnish: 8 sprigs of fresh mint
1. In a large saucepan (not aluminum) combine wine, sugar and strips of zest. Bring to simmer on medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add cherries and reduce heat to maintain a simmer until cherries are just barely tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. When lukewarm, add blackberries and mint, if using. Gently toss.
2. In small bowl, stir yogurt and honey until combined.
3. Divide cherry-berry mixture into 8 small bowls. Top with dollop of yogurt mixture. If desired, garnish each serving with a small sprig of mint.
Nutritional information (per serving): calories 250; fat calories 5, total fat 0 grams; sat fat 0 grams, cholesterol 0 milligrams; sodium 10 milligrams; total carbohydrates 47 grams; fiber 3 grams; sugars 41 grams; protein 3 grams; vitamin A IUs 2%; vitamin C 20%; calcium 4%; iron 4%.

Source: “50 Best Plants on the Planet” by Cathy Thomas (Chronicle, $29.95)

Thanks to Curt Norris for the beautiful photos, as well as skilled videotaping.

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Treasured Time with Maya Angelou: Her Words, Her Cooking

Ten years ago I had the opportunity to interview Maya Angelou about cooking, life and love.  The time spent wasn’t rushed. She was generous of thought and deed.  Here is a portion of the story I wrote about it:

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My words sounded like a jittery chicken pecking corn through a picket fence. Maya Angelou’s voice sang in rhythmical patterns with sentences ending in slow-to-dissolve words that sounded like long, sustained tones on a priceless violin.

She was calm, wise and quick to laugh. Soon my nervousness would fade. Our topic was food when we met for a recent interview in Santa Monica. Angelou — accomplished poet, playwright, author, historian, entertainer, director and teacher — has written a cookbook, “Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes” (Random House, $29.95).

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In the book, Angelou, 76, wraps treasured stories of her life around luscious, straightforward recipes. Through her heartfelt vignettes, readers will meet her cherished family — her grandmother, mother, brother and son — as well as a fascinating collection of friends, many of whom she met on her world travels.

Readers will discover that at 17, she was a chef at a San Francisco Creole restaurant, then later, marvel as she creates a home-cooked cassoulet for culinary icon M.F.K. Fisher. It’s easy to identify with her initial embarrassment at a colleague’s liberal use of Tabasco sauce at a prim Parisian restaurant, or feel her pride as she turns out an impeccable banana pudding after an ill-fated love affair folds. Angelou said that she wants readers to recognize how food brings people together.

“Food is greater than the sum of its parts,” she said. “Its parts may be salt, sugar, pepper, flour, oil, maybe butter, milk and eggs. Those are the parts that may make a cake. But its more than a cake, it’s that, and, something else. That and hospitality. That and care. That and appreciation. “So, when someone invites you to dinner it’s not just to eat. It’s that, and. That and a hug, or caress. That and approval.”
And, she pointed out, cooking can be powerful. It can snare a lover or gain a job.
“My cooking got me a couple of jobs. One was in Los Angeles from a Southerner who was longing, l-o-n-g-i-n-g for the South. This man gave me a job because I cooked spoon bread for him.”
Spoon bread, a classic Southern pudding-like mixture of cornmeal, flour, milk, eggs and butter, sent her soon-to-be boss into a dreamlike state.
“He chewed his way back to his Alabama childhood,” she said. Angelou said that cooking can be therapeutic, too. It can cure writer’s block, loneliness, even sadness.
“If I’m really lonely, or if I am very sad, I will cook and probably cook something that the person I’m mourning for would love,” she said. “And I cook it as carefully as possible. And maybe eat some of it. And he or she is almost there.”
When I commented on how cookbooks hold a special place in our lives, Angelou was quick to describe the prominent place they hold in her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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“I have about 300 cookbooks,” she said, laughing in an affectionate yet devilish tone. “I have a counter in my kitchen that separates the kitchen from the breakfast area; all of that wall from the counter to the floor, maybe 12 feet, that is where I keep the cookbooks that I use. “And there’s one set that really was the cheapest of all, that I like the best. It’s called ‘Woman’s Day Encyclopedia (of Cookery).’ They came out in the late ’60s or early ’70s. You could buy them at the supermarket in New York for 89 cents apiece. The cruel things, they stopped selling them somewhere in the R’s, maybe rutabagas. I searched all over town for them, but couldn’t find the rest.”
Later her soon-to-be husband told her he wanted to buy her a truly wonderful gift. She requested that he find the missing S though Z books from her cooking encyclopedia. He did.

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Spoon Bread
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Butter for greasing casserole
2 cups white cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter, melted
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups milk
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 2-quart casserole with butter.
2. In large bowl, stir together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in cold water. Add boiling water and stir vigorously. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Pour into prepared casserole dish. Bake 1 hour or until firm and browned. Serve at once.
Nutritional information (per serving): Calories 173 (26 percent from fat); fat 5 g (sat 1.2 g); protein 3.4 g; carbohydrates 27.2 g; cholesterol 56 mg; sodium 400 mg.

Source “Hallelujah! The Welcome Table”

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Master Baker Dean Kim, OC Baking Company, Bakes Home-Style Fancy Mini Baguettes Epis

occhefDeanEpiRack450Dean Kim, executive baker-owner of OC Baking Company, is the go-to baker for many of the finest restaurants in Orange County.

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The splurge-worthy burgers at Noah Blom’s ARC in Costa Mesa are encased in OC Baking Company’s potato-buttermilk buns, cornmeal crusted wonders made to the chef’s specifications. At The Ranch in Anaheim, Kim’s wagon wheels showcase seven different rolls, each one uniquely flavored and bound together in a ring around a central bun. The pull-apart marvel showcases everything from squaw bread to brioche, sourdough to cranberry-walnut.

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 Kim works in collaboration with chefs to come up with customized breads that guests will relish. But with an ever-growing list of clients, keeping up with the demand hasn’t been easy. Fifty-two employees use a total of about 10,500 pounds of flour per week and baking takes place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

THE VIDEO: It was evident that Kim is a master at teaching the intricacies of bread making. While showing me how to make mini baguettes in my home kitchen while taping a video, nothing was left to chance. HAVE A LOOK.

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He detailed every step, making the process seem easy, even though these weren’t plain-old loaves. He used scissors held at a specific angle to cut them into baguettes épis (pain d’épis), baguettes that look like a fancy sheaves of wheat.

Some were adorned with poppy seeds, others covered in sesame seeds or cornmeal. Oh my, he used my clean-but-homey scissors from Costco. Worked fine.

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occhefDeanBallDough450Home-Style Mini Baguettes Épis
Yield: about 6
12 ounces lukewarm water (by weight) or 1 1/2 cups, 80 to 100 degrees, plus more water if needed
2 1/2 teaspoons dry active yeast
1 pound (about 3 1/2 cups) bread flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt or table salt
Semolina (pasta flour) or fine cornmeal for dusting baking sheet
Garnish: poppy seeds, fine cornmeal, sesame seeds
Water in a spray bottle
1. Combine water and yeast in small bowl; allow to rest until yeast starts to activate and bubble. In large bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine flour and salt. With the motor running on medium-low speed, slowly add yeast mixture. Mix for 1 minute. With a rubber spatula, scrape sides and bottom of the bowl. If mixture is stiff and dry, add a little more water with mixer on low speed. As dough comes together it should be very slightly sticky. Continue to mix on medium speed for about 6 more minutes, scraping sides and bottom every 2 minutes.
2. Scrape dough onto lightly floured, dry work surface. Lightly flour dough and hands. Working around the dough, about 7 times, fold the edges into the middle, pressing the edge down firmly into the center of the dough with your fingers after each fold (ending up with smooth ball). Pick up dough using a bowl scraper to loosen it if necessary) and put it seam-side down in medium bowl. Cover bowl with a flat-weave towel (not terrycloth); rest in draft-free spot until roughly doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours. Line a large (13-by-17-inch) rimmed baking sheet with a flat-weave towel and generously flour entire surface of towel.
3. Using a bowl scraper, scrape dough out of bowl onto lightly floured work surface, smooth top facing down. Fold one side of dough into the middle and press down firmly along length of seam, forming a rectangle. Turn dough over so smooth side is up. With the bowl scraper, cut dough into 5 or 6 equal pieces.
4. Very lightly flour dry work surface. Working with 1 piece at a time, put smooth side down and press into rectangle about 1/3-inch thick. Fold a long edge into the center, pressing firmly with floured fingertips along the seam all the way down to the surface, folding with one hand and pressing with the other, working from one end to the other. Continue to fold and press alternate edges until it is a mini-sized baguette, using 5 to 6 folds. Make a line of flour on work surface. Dredge the smooth side in the flour. Set on floured towel – smooth, floured side up. Make a little fold in the towel to separate it from the next baguette. Repeat with the remaining dough, setting each on the towel with a fold separating them. Cover with a flat-weave towel and let sit until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
5. Arrange oven rack in center of oven. Preheat oven to 500 degrees (if you have a convection oven, use it). If desired, cut mini baguettes into decorative epis. Holding over a bowl, spritz one lightly on top with water from a spray bottle. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, or poppy seeds or cornmeal (or leave it plain). Place on heavy rimmed baking sheet that has been sprinkled with semolina or cornmeal. Proof at room temperature for 30 minutes covered with a flat-weave towel. Remove towel and using clean scissors, cut at a 35- to 45-degree angle at 1 1/2-inch intervals (holding the scissors almost parallel to the top) – cutting almost but not through the dough. Swing the cut sections out and away from the loaf in alternating directions.
6. Open oven and quickly use spray bottle of water to spritz the oven 5 to 6 times, plus 1 spritz on the bread. (If using convection, reduce oven temperature to 450.) Bake until bread is a nice golden brown, 7 to 10 minutes. Bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to cooling rack.
Source: Dean Kim, OC Baking Company

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….Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s ….

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Candied Nuts – oh how they lend pizzazz to salads and cheese plates.

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They are delicious with mixed greens augmented with fruit – grapes or plums or pears are favorites. And a little bit of crumbled cheese with attitude – blue cheese or goat cheese.

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Yes, they can be baked in the oven, but it is much quicker to caramelize them on the stove – quicker with crunchier results.

Stove-Top Candied Pecans or Walnuts
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon coarse-ground black pepper
1 ½ cups pecan halves

1. In a small bowl, combine sugar, salt and black pepper. Set a baking sheet or jelly-roll pan next to stove.
2. Heat a wok or Peking pan or large deep skillet on high heat. Add pecans and toss 30 seconds or until pecans start to get warm. Add half of sugar mixture and toss until sugar liquefies.
3. Add remaining sugar mixture and toss until it liquefies. Immediately turn out onto baking sheet and allow to cool. When cool enough to handle, snap them apart.
Yield: Makes 1 ½ cups.

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Dinner: Cooking From Cathy’s Garden

***THURSDAY, MAY 29 – BAYSIDE RESTAURANT, NEWPORT BEACH***

Executive Chef PAUL GSTREIN will prepare a four-course dinner to celebrate my third book, “50 Best Plants on the Planet.”  Many of the dishes will be prepared from my favorite recipes in the book.

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I will be on hand to chitchat, jaw about cooking and sign books.

Mr. Wonderful will have books to sell, bless him.

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Sounds like great fun with delicious food, right?

No set time. Just make a reservation sometime between 6 and 9.  

For reservations call 949.721.1222. $45 per person

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Menu:

STARTER

COMPOSED SALAD

Tuscan Kale and Radicchio Treviso, Smoked Prosciutto Speck, Medjol Date, Gorgonzola Dolce, Marcona Almond, Lemon Maple Vinaigrette, Cranberry Brush

SOUP

PUREE OF CARROT, GINGER, PEANUTS, AND COCONUT

Nantucket Bay Scallops and Tiger Prawns, Roasted Sesame Oil and Chrysanthemum

MAIN COURSE

PISTACHIO CRUSTED FREE RANGE CHICKEN BREAST

Farro “Risotto”, Brussel Sprouts “Two Ways”, Bing Cherry  “Agro Dolce”

DESSERT

BLACKBERRY “FINANCIER”

accompanied with Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream, Macerated Fresh Blackberries

 

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*******

BAYSIDE RESTAURANT
900 Bayside Drive
Newport Beach

Call for reservation and specify the “Cathy Thomas Reception”
Telephone: 949.721.1222

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 Think you don’t like Brussels Sprouts? Try these …

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Blackberries to the Rescue: Delicious and Nutrient Dense

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Blackberries are such jolly fruit, their tiny juice sacs begging for pearly whites to burst them into juice. The inky nectar is a seductive blend of deep sweet-tart flavors, the flesh that encases it a counterpoint of gentle crunch.

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Both the color and taste are prized in beverages, desserts and jams. The vibrant flavors lend excitement to yogurt, mixed green salads or cooked grains, as well as game, pork and grilled tofu. They are a welcome addition to cheese platters and smoothies, fruit salads and cocktails.

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The alluring taste and texture is beguiling, but keep in mind that these berries, bless their little hearts, have very impressive nutritional value. They are the most nutrient-dense fruit on the planet according to the Nutrient Balance Indicator, a trademarked analysis that illustrates nutrient density in fruits and vegetables.   blackberryonefinancierKoon

 

Blackberries are concentrated sources of the phytochemical ellagic acid, which acts as a powerful antioxidant. Quercetin, one of the main antioxidant compounds in berries and especially prevalent in blackberries, protects against cancers. It also works best in combination with vitamin C, and blackberries coincidentally are higher in vitamin C than many other fruits.

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And my oh-so-mature noggin appreciates that the compounds in blackberries and other berries have demonstrated a capability to reverse defects in memory, cognition and motor function, especially as connected with aging.

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When buying: Look for berries that are fragrant without any mold or mushiness. Dark black color is best because purple or dark red may be a sign that they were not ripe when harvested (they don’t ripen once plucked from the vine). If packaged in a container, look at the pad underneath the berries; if it looks saturated with dark juice, choose another container. Or if berries stick together when container is tilted, it could be a sign that there is mold and deterioration. Store unwashed berries in single layer in shallow container; cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

They are perishable, so if not using within a 3 or 4 days, freeze them. To freeze, place in a single layer on rimmed baking sheet and freeze; once frozen, transfer to zipper-style plastic freezer bag – push out air, seal and return to freezer. Use frozen or defrosted berries in cooked dishes because there is a texture change when frozen and thawed.

Wash briefly with cold water just before using. Drain, then place on paper towels or clean kitchen cloth to absorb water.

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Mixed Green Salad with Blackberries, Candied Walnuts and Feta
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon coarse salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
10 ounces mixed baby greens
2 to 3 cups fresh blackberries
5 ounces crumbled feta, see cook’s notes
1 cup candied walnuts or pecans, such as Emerald Glazed Walnuts
Freshly ground black pepper
Optional garnish: halved orange slices
Cook’s notes: If you prefer substitute crumbled blue cheese for the feta. Or use grated smoked Gouda cheese.
1. Prepare vinaigrette: Whisk vinegar, orange juice, and salt in small bowl or glass measuring cup with a handle. Add oil in a slow, whisking constantly. Stir in basil. Set aside.
2. Put mixed baby greens, blackberries, feta, and nuts in salad bowl. Stir vinaigrette and drizzle on salad. Gently toss. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide between salad plates and if desired, garnish with halved orange slices.

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Blackberry Financiers
A financier is a petite French cake that is light, moist and not too sweet. The lovely flavor is derived from the addition of brown butter and almond flour. To make the flour, sliced almonds are ground with all-purpose flour in a food processor. Adding fresh blackberries makes them even more tempting.
Yield: 24 to 28

1/2 cup plus 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup (packed) sliced almonds
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons powdered sugar; additional for dusting
5 large egg whites
2 tablespoons honey
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
About 2 cups fresh blackberries, halved
Optional for serving: sweetened whipped cream or French vanilla ice cream
1. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until browned bits begin to form. Continue to simmer, frequently scraping up browned bits at bottom of pan, until fragrant and dark brown but not burnt, 6 to 7 minutes. Scrape butter and all browned bits into a medium bowl. Let cool for 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, process almonds and flour in a food processor until nuts are finely ground. Transfer to a medium bowl; add 1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons powdered sugar and stir with whisk to combine. Add egg whites; mix until smooth with whisk. Stir in honey.
3. Fold browned butter into batter. (For make-ahead preparation, this batter can be made 3 days ahead and refrigerated well-sealed.)
4. Arrange a rack in middle of oven; preheat to 375 degrees. Coat mini muffin cups with nonstick spray. Pour 1 generous tablespoon batter into each prepared muffin cup. (To make this easier I use a 1-tablespoon ice-cream scoop that I fill to almost overflowing.) Top with 2 to 4 blackberry halves, bumpy side up. Bake until cakes are golden brown and just cooked through, 15 to 16 minutes. Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. Dust cooled cakes with powdered sugar just before serving.
Source: adapted from Bon Appetit magazine

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(I love this little dish. My mother gave it to my when I was ten. She purchased it when she and my father took a Canadian vacation. Yellow flowers were always her favorite.)

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Call it Pasta e Fagioli or Pasta Fazool: Here’s The Best from Brunos

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Pasta e fagioli, the classic Italian hodgepodge of pasta and beans, takes on irresistible flavor and texture at Brunos Trattoria in Brea.

Often pronounced “pasta fazool” in the U.S., Brunos’ version is rich with vegetables and has a just-right luxurious thickness.

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Christian De La Vara, Bruno’s executive chef, enriches the broth with sautéed diced pancetta, the tasty Italian-style bacon that is spiked with black pepper. The meat gives the dish an underlying richness without overpowering the beans and pasta, the fresh herbs, carrots and celery.

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This short video shows his pasta e fagioli secrets.

The chef uses dried borlotti beans or cranberry beans in the soup, medium to large tan beans that are streaked with red, magenta, or black. They have appealing starchiness and lend silkiness to the mix once one-third of the cooked mixture is pureed.

(Find the beans at Surfas Culinary District in Costa Mesa and Mother’s Markets, as well as some supermarkets and from online sources.)

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Once ladled into shallow bowls, Chef De La Vara tops each serving with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, a drizzle of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil and a good pinch of chopped Italian parsley.

Deliziosa.

Brunos’ Pasta e Fagioli
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
2 pounds dried borlotti beans or cranberry beans, see cook’s notes
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely diced, see cook’s notes
4 garlic cloves, peeled, thinly sliced
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
2 large carrots, peeled, diced
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh sage
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 cup dry white wine
3 quarts chicken broth
3 cups ditalini pasta (tiny tube-shaped pasta)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Garnish: freshly grated Parmesan cheese, extra-virgin olive oil, chopped Italian parlsey
Cook’s notes: I know it isn’t authentic Italian, but sometimes I substitute pinto beans for cranberry beans. De La Vara prefers Framani smoked uncured pancetta. It is seasoned with a blend of spices and smoked over hickory wood.
1. Place beans in large pot. Cover with cold water, adding enough to cover beans by 2 inches. Soak 6 to 8 hours.
2. Heat large, deep pot over medium-high heat; add oil and pancetta. Lightly brown pancetta, tossing occasionally. Add garlic, onion, celery and carrots. Make a bouquet garni; enclose bay leaves, sage and rosemary in cheesecloth and secure with cotton string. Cook until lightly browned and onions are softened, stirring occasionally.
3. Add wine and broth;scrap up any browned bits on the pot. Increase heat to high and bring to boil; reduce liquid by half in volume. Drain beans and add to pot. Bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer beans until softened, 1 to 1 1/2 hours (test beans from time to time to see if they are done and are soft throughout). Remove and discard bouquet garni. Remove 1/3 of soup and puree until smooth either in blender or food processor. Return puree to pot. Or, use an immersion blender to puree about 1/3 of the soup.
4. Add pasta; simmer on medium heat, stirring occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes or until pasta is cooked al dente. Season with salt and pepper to taste (not too much salt because cheese is salty). Ladle into bowls. Top each serving with 1 1/2 teaspoons grated cheese, 1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon chopped parsley.
Source: Christian De La Vara, executive chef at Brunos Trattoria, Brea

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….Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s ….

A quick-to-prepare Honeyed Strawberry Sauce can turn a simple slice of angel food cake into a scrumptious fruit-spiked dessert.

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A little fruity red wine, a little honey, a little creme de cassis … and voila, the berries take on divine irresistibly.

1/2 cup fruity red wine, such as Beaujolais
3 tablespoons honey
1 to 2 tablespoons creme de cassis (black currant liqueur)
2 cups stemmed, sliced ripe strawberries

Whisk together wine, honey and creme de cassis in medium bowl. Add berries and gently toss. Chill, covered, at least 25 minutes. Serve over angel food cake, pudding, ice cream or custard.

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