Behind The Bar at Fable & Spirit – The Morrigan’s Dream Cocktail Rules

Yes, Cathy Thomas Drinks!

One of my favorite cocktails of 2019 is the Morrigan’s Dream at the award-winning new restaurant, Fable & Spirit in Newport Beach (Lido Marina area).

Mixologist Drew Coyle makes this irresistible concoction with fresh fruit juice, fresh celery juice, gin and Yellow Chartreuse. It’s bright and refreshing.

Pretty too, a delicious green hue served in a Nick and Nora glass. (If you don’t know what the “Nick and Nora” reference is, read the cook’s notes blurb in the recipe.)


First have a look at the video to see how beautiful the restaurant is, and take in the beauty of this amazing cocktail.

Arrive two hours before lunchtime opening and you will witness a flurry of activity behind the bar. Most everything except the spirits are prepped daily, either freshly squeezed or juiced or infused. The culinary-driven cocktails require a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, ingredients that make them delicious as well as beautiful. The bar program is led by Drew Coyle. He is the oh-so-talented son of Darren and Jean Coyle, the Irish-born restaurateurs who brought eateries Dublin 4 Gastropub, as well as Wineworks for Everyone to Orange County, before recently opening Fable & Spirit in the Lido Marina.

Born and raised in Orange County, Drew attended Capo Valley High School in Mission Viejo. He started working in the family’s restaurant business at 14, first as a dishwasher, then moved up to the sauté station at 18. At first, he aspired to become a chef. Wanting to get experience at the front of the house, he spent some time behind the bar, thinking that cooking and bartending are very similar in their creativity levels. It was a fit.

He loved engaging directly with guests and appreciated that it didn’t seem at all repetitive.

Here’s the formula!

Fable & Spirit’s Morrigan’s Dream
2 ounces Fords London Dry Gin
1 ounce celery juice
3/4 ounce pineapple juice
1/8 ounce (bar spoon) fresh lime juice
1/8 ounce (bar spoon) simple syrup infused with lime
1/8 ounce (bar spoon) Yellow Chartreuse
Garnish: celery leaf
Cook’s notes: Somewhere between a martini glass and a coupe, Nick and Nora glasses are named after the cinematic husband-and-wife detective team Nick and Nora Charles. Crate and Barrel’s Website (one source for the glasses) writes that they bring back the suave sophistication of 1930s high life.

  1. Add ice to cocktail shaker. Add gin, celery juice, pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup and chartreuse. Shake vigorously and strain into a Nick and Nora glass. Garnish with celery leaf.
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The Best Gratin Stars Butternut Squash

Gratin Crush: teams butternut squash and Yukon Golds. Beyond irresistible.

My gratin love started long ago in Paris.

My first family meal in the home of my soon-to-be grandmother-by-marriage, I tasted my first cauliflower gratin. It was a pivotal moment. French cuisine had grabbed my palate and my imagination. How could anything taste, smell and look so delicious?

There have been many gratins in my life since then, but …

Last week I discovered something that could outshine that bubbling-with-cream-and- cheese cauliflower. Searching for new recipes for an upcoming Thanksgiving story for SCNG Newspapers (Southern California News Group that includes the OC Register and Daily News), I chatted with cookbook author Rick Rodgers about his latest book “The Big Book of Sides.”

Rodgers told me that hands down his favorite recipe in the book is the Butternut Squash and Potato Gratin. So I made it and fell in love, again.

It can be baked 8 hours in advance, covered and stored at room temperature for up to eight hours. Nice.

Try it. You will love it, too.

Thanksgiving. Christmas. Or, anytime.

Butternut Squash and Potato Gratin
Yield: 8 servings
2 tablespoons butter, plus more to grease baking dish
2 large leeks or 3 small leeks, washed, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
2 cups heavy cream, plus more if needed
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 butternut squash (with thick neck), about 2 pounds
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Cook’s notes: I used a 9-by-12-inch oval gratin dish. Another time I needed a large gratin dish because I was very ambitious in the amount of butternut squash that I used; for that one I needed 1 1/2 cups of additional cream.

  1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat oven. Generously butter an 11 1/2-by-8-by 2-inch baking dish (you can use a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, adding more squash and cream. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add leeks and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned, about 8 minutes. Stir in thyme. Remove from heat.
  3. Bring cream, paprika and nutmeg to simmer in medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Remove from heat.
  4. Cut top (neck) off butternut squash where it meets the bulbous bottom (reserve the bulbous part for another use). Peel squash and cut in half lengthwise. Place flat side down and cut into 1/8-inch wide slices with a sharp, sturdy knife (or use a mandoline or V-shaped slicer). Cut potato into 1/8-wide slices, too. In large bowl, toss squash and potato slices.
  5. Spread 1/3 of squash mixture in prepared dish and top with 1/3 of leeks. Pour 1/3 of cream mixture evenly over vegetables. Repeat with another 1/3 of potato mixture, the remaining leeks and another 1/3 of cream mixture. Finish with the remaining squash mixture. Slowly pour remaining cream mixture evenly over vegetable mixture, moving vegetables with a fork to spread them into an even layer, until they are barely covered with cream mixture, adding more cream if needed. Cover baking dish with aluminum foil and place on large rimmed baking sheet. Bake 45 minutes. Remove gratin from oven. Remove foil. Sprinkle with Parmesan. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees. Continue baking without foil until gratin is golden brown and tender when pierced in center with the tip of a small, sharp knife and the cream has thickened, about 45 minutes. If top becomes too brown before vegetables are tender, tent the gratin with foil, Let stand 10 to 20 minutes before serving.

Source: “The Big Book of Sides” by Rick Rodgers (Ballantine Books, $30)

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Hatch Chile Time! Melissa’s Produce Hosts Roasting Sessions.

Hatch chilies are such a treat. These beauties are named for the original growing area in Hatch, New Mexico. Growers say that the intense sunlight and cool nights in this valley result in a uniquely flavored chili. (The valley, which stretches along the Rio Grande’s southern-most bend before crossing into Texas and Mexico, is covered with row after row of green leafy Hatch chili plants for most of the summer.)

In the Southwest, it is not uncommon to see consumers buying 30 to 40 pounds of Hatch chiles at one time due to the short growing season.  Then the chiles get roasted at home or even roasted in large chile roasters outside the store to prepare them for storage.

Can you smell the delicious aroma of chilies roasting to perfection? Yes! Melissa’s Produce provides Hatch chili roasting sessions throughout the season, a great opportunity to buy  and enjoy them (you can freeze them, for later use).

And it’s not too late; here are some of the remaining Hatch Chile Roasts:

Gelson’s Dana Point
24 Monarch Bay Plaza
Dana Point, CA 92629
(949) 488-8147
August 31st: 11:00am – 3:00pm

Gelson’s Silver Lake
2725 Hyperion Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 660-0387
August 31st: 11:00am – 3:00pm

Gelson’s Thousand Oaks
1736 E Avenida De Los Arboles
Thousand Oaks, CA 91362
(805) 493-4301
August 31st: 11:00am – 3:00pm

Bristol Farms
Store 7 Newport Beach
810 Avocado Ave
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Saturday, August 31st

Bristol Farms
Store 11 Yorba Linda
18421 Yorba Linda Blvd
Yorba Linda, CA
Saturday, August 31st

Bristol Farms
Store 12 La Jolla
8510 Genesee Ave
San Diego, CA 92122
Saturday September 7th

Lazy Acres
Store 26 Hermosa
2510 Pacific Coast Hwy
Hermosa Beach, CA 90254
Saturday, September 7th

2030 E Lincoln Ave
Anaheim, Ca 92806
(714) 507-7640
August 31st: 7:00am – 2:00pm

1305 W Whittier Blvd
La Habra, Ca 90631
(562) 691-8032
September 7th: 7:00am – 2:00pm

Pavilions #2803
1101 Pacific Coast Hwy
Seal Beach, CA 90740
(562) 370-1937
August 31st: 7:00am – 4:00pm

Long ago I took cooking classes in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I love this Green Chile Sauce that we made in those classes. It showcases diced, roasted Hatch chilies.

Green Chili Sauce
Yield: about 2 1/2 cups
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 to 3 teaspoons minced garlic
2/3 cup roasted, peeled, diced Anaheim green chilies
2/3 cup roasted, peeled diced Hatch chilies, defrosted if frozen; see cook’s notes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
3/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano; see cook’s notes
Optional to use as needed: beurre manie made with 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour mixed with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt if needed
Cook’s notes:  Hatch chilies are available in mild, medium (Big Jim variety) and hot (Sandia variety). Dried Mexican oregano is sold at most supermarkets in the Latin American specialty section. Most often it is sold in clear cellophane bags.
1. Heat oil in Dutch oven or large saucepan on medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook about 1 minute. Add chilies, pepper and chicken broth. Rub oregano between your hands and let it drop into mixture. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 15 minutes. 2. If sauce is too thin, stir in about a teaspoon of beurre manie. Cook 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently. Taste and add salt as needed.
Nutritional information (per 1/4 cup): calories 30 (less than 3 percent from fat), protein 0.2 g, carbohydrates 3 g, fat 1.5 g (saturated 0.5 g), cholesterol 0 mg, sodium 230 mg, fiber 0.1 g

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Hungry for Brunch? Chef Nick Oberlin’s Irresistible Eggs Benedict Hit The Spot!

Eggs Benedict with crisp prosciutto? You bet.

Pour Company in downtown Fullerton offers an inviting seasonal menu of American classics as interpreted by Nick Oberlin. As executive chef-partner, Oberlin puts his signature twists on everything from Mexican Shrimp Salad – napped with a Caesar dressing spiked with poblano chilies and Cotija cheese – to Smoked Pork Belly Sliders judiciously slathered with hoisin mayo.


When he visited my home kitchen to tape a video, he prepared Eggs Benedict, one of his favorite brunch dishes. His spin on traditional Benedict subs in oven-crisped prosciutto for the traditional ham or bacon. Prosciutto is amazing au naturel but roasting-until-crackly puts it over the top both in taste and texture. It’s the ultimate riff.

Ah, luscious potatoes, too.

(Just-right saltiness is derived from a judicious amount of soy sauce.)

The Hollandaise sauce that tops the poached eggs is amped with Dijon mustard, an addition that builds a just-right spark of spice and mild acidity. He accompanies the plated dish with fried potatoes that are sautéed along with cherry tomatoes and red onions. The salty element, soy sauce, is added towards the end of cooking and further seasoning with a blend of ground cumin and coriander rounds out the tender spuds.

Pour Company is at 136 West Wilshire Avenue, Fullerton; open for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, and weekend brunch on Saturday and Sunday. See menu at

Salad Day with Keller: When he worked the line at Chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in the Napa Valley, he had a lesson that always sticks with him. He made a salad and Keller tasted it. Then Keller made the same salad and had him taste it. The difference was eye-opening, the finesse in the use of the ingredients struck him to his culinary core.

A Wife’s Tale: His wife is the pastry chef at the restaurant. He boasts that she makes the perfect cookie, oatmeal-chocolate chip-Heath Bar-marshmallow wonders. They’re used for sandwiching salted caramel ice cream. Yum.

Pour Company’s Eggs Benedict with Mustard-Spiked Hollandaise and Crisp Prosciutto
Yield: 4 two-egg servings
8 thin slices prosciutto
4 English muffins
8 medium eggs, for poaching
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted, warm but not simmering
6 medium-sized egg yolks
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Hot sauce to taste
Garnish: chopped parsley
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place prosciutto flat on rimmed baking sheet(s). Bake in oven until crisp. Split English muffins in half and toast.
2. Poach eggs: Break eggs into bowl. Bring saucepan of water to a gentle simmer; stir in vinegar. Swirl water with a large spoon. Scoop up one egg at the time in a cup and at water level pour into center of swirling water. You will need to do this in 2 or 3 batches. Cook eggs about 2 minutes to set the whites but yolk will remain soft. Remove with slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain (eggs can be poached in advanced, refrigerated and reheated briefly in simmering water).
3. Prepare Hollandaise: Melt butter; keep warm but not simmering. Place yolks in blender; add mustard and a judicious amount of hot sauce. Whirl to blend. On medium speed, slowly add butter, increasing speed slightly when half of the butter is added. If sauce is too thick, add a little cold water with machine running. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
4. Plating: Place 2 toasted halves of English muffins on each plate. Top each with crisp prosciutto and poached egg. Top with Hollandaise Sauce. Serve fried potatoes on the side (recipe follows). Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Fried Potatoes with Cherry Tomatoes
Yield: 4 servings
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup sliced red onion
8 whole cherry tomatoes
2 medium-sized skin-on Russet (baking) potatoes, cut into 3/8-inch dice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon ground cumin and ground coriander mixture, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: To prepare spice mixture, place equal parts cumin seeds and coriander seeds in spice mill. Whirl until finely ground.
1. Melt butter in skillet on medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until softened, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until tomatoes start to pop, about 2 minutes. Add potatoes and cook until almost fork tender.
2. Add soy sauce and spice mixture; toss. Cook until potatoes are tender and soy sauce is absorbed (if pan becomes dry before potatoes are cooked, add a little water).

Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s …

Informal gatherings should highlight food that is delicious but easy to prepare.

Here’s a make-ahead “jumble” of roasted red bell peppers and feta cheese that can be prepared up to one day in advance and refrigerated. It’s an easy-to-fix appetizer or first course, a filling that can top baguette slices or Belgian endive.

Roast Pepper and Feta Jumble
Yield: 20 to 30 servings
4 roasted medium-sized red bell peppers, cored, seeded, chopped (or 7-ounce jar, drained)
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup minced green onion
4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
For serving: Belgian endive leaves or baguette slices
1. To roast bell peppers, line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Add peppers in single layer. Place 6- to 8-inches below broiler element; broil until lightly charred, about 5 minutes. Rotate peppers with tongs and char on all sides. Remove from oven and cover with foil; let rest 5 minutes and remove top sheet of foil. When cool enough to handle, peel, seed and chop.
2. Add peppers to bowl. Add remaining ingredients: garlic, oil, juice, green onion and feta. Toss to combine. Place a spoonful of mixture on each endive leaf or place on baguette slices.

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Cherries, Baby! Clafouti Time

I dream of summertime French breakfasts,

when fruit laden clafouti is often the star.

The fruit – most often pitted fresh cherries or halved apricots – is baked adrift in a thick, flan-like batter. It’s pancake-y delicious.

According to Paris-based cookbook author David Lebovitz, clafouti batter is based on a crêpe batter, so unlike a traditional custard, it contains some flour; the texture is somewhat dense, the thick batter ensures that any juices that escape from the cherries or apricots is well-contained.

For years I used my mother’s one-at-a-time cherry pitter, but a couple of years ago I splurged and bought a fancy gizmo at Sur La Table that pits six cherries at once. It makes short work of the job. Although I haven’t given it a test drive, they sell one now for $19.95 that pits seven cherries.


Clafouti can be served warm, room temperature or cold for breakfast or as a rustic dessert topped with whipped cream.

David Lebovitz’ Cherry Clafouti
Yield: about 6 servings
Soft butter for greasing dish
1 1/4 pounds fresh sweet cherries, about 4 cups measured with stems and pits
3 large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/3 cup whole or low-fat milk
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Smear a 2-quart shallow baking dish liberally with butter, such as a gratin dish.
2. Stem and pit cherries; place in a single layer in the baking dish.
3. In a standard blender, or using an immersion blender and a bowl, mix eggs, flour, vanilla and almond extracts, 1/2 cup sugar, and milk together until smooth. Pour batter over cherries and sprinkle fruit and batter with 2 tablespoons of sugar.
4. Bake the clafoutis until the custard is just set; a knife poked in the center should emerge relatively clean. It will take about 45 minutes. The clafouti can be served warm, at room temperature, or cold. It’s traditionally not served with any accompaniment, but if serving as a dessert a small dollop of whipped cream can be used atop each serving.

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Chef Brittany Valles’ Irresistible Sugar Snap Peas

Brittany Valles, executive chef at Oak Grill at the Fashion Island Hotel, adores the bright flavor and crisp texture of sugar snap peas. Her fondness for these plump crescent-shaped beauties earned her the nickname of “sugar pea” in a previous job.

Both the pods and the rows of peas inside are edible, their vegetal taste edged in welcome sweetness. She appreciates their versatility and bright green color, whether eaten raw or briefly cooked just enough to make them just barely tender.

It’s the super-crunchy uncooked approach that she shows off in her delectable salad, a dish augmented with lemon yogurt and almond granola. The sugar snaps are tossed with a scrumptious agrumato-style olive oil, extra-virgin olive oil that is pressed with whole lemons. Seasoned with a little course salt, they sit atop a bed of Greek yogurt spiked with lemon.

A crown of nutty-sweet granola scatters on top, maple syrup balancing a judicious amount of onion powder and garlic powder mixed into the oats. The granola could also serve as a bread-less topping for other vegetables or creamy gratins.

Sugar Snap Pea Salad with Lemon Yogurt and Savory Almond Granola
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
Juice and minced zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound fresh sugar snap peas
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup maple syrup
3/4 cup oats
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped raw almonds, see cook’s notes
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Cook’s notes: Frequently sugar snap peas have strings on top and bottom. To remove strings, with thumb and forefinger grab the stem end and pull along one side to remove string; grab opposite end and pull along the other side to remove that string. You can use a paring knife if you prefer

To remove skin from almonds – Bring a small pot of water to a boil and add almonds. Drain immediately in colander and rinse with cold water to cool them.  Blot with paper towel and gently squeeze almonds to remove skin.

  1. First make yogurt mixture so it has time to marinate. Combine yogurt, lemon juice, zest and salt in a bowl (this can also be done the night before and stored).
  2. Clean sugar snap peas by removing the stem and the pod strings (see cook’s notes).
  3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a mixing bowl, combine syrup, oats, salt, olive oil, almonds, onion and garlic powder, and mix together. Spread out on a parchment-paper lined rimmed baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, stirring and rotating pan halfway through. Allow to cool
  4. To plate: Toss sugar snap peas with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Spread lemon yogurt on the bottom of the plate and place the seasoned sugar snap peas on top. Finish by topping with savory granola.
    Source: Brittany Valles, Executive Chef, Oak Grill at Fashion Island Hotel, Newport Beach -Oak Grill is located at 690 Newport Center Dr, Newport BeachHere’s a quick tip from Melissa’s Produce! Acorn squash is delicious roasted, especially if it’s topped with an olive oil-brown sugar-smoked paprika topping. Have a look and bon appetit!  (See how at the end of Chef Valles’ video.)

  5. Roasted Acorn Squash   Yield: 4 servings
    4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
    1 tablespoon brown sugar
    3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
    2 acorn squash, washed, dried, halved top to bottom, cut crosswise into 1-inch slices
    Coarse salt
    2 tablespoons roasted pepitas
    2 tablespoons coarsely chopped Marcona almonds
    Optional garnish: chopped fresh parsley
    1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, combine oil, sugar and paprika. Add squash slices and toss to coat. Place in singular layer on rimmed baking sheet; if any oil mixture remains in the bowl, spoon it over squash. Season with a little salt.
    2. Roast in middle of preheated oven for 15 minutes. Turn and roast an additional 10 minutes. Transfer to plate and season with a little salt. Top with pepitas and Marcona almonds. Garnish with parsley if desired.
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Best Tomato Salad – The Ranch, Anaheim

The Ranch Restaurant in Anaheim uses their own farm to grow 600 heirloom tomato vines that include over 90 varieties.

The bounty is used in a variety of irresistible ways on the menu, including Heirloom Tomato Salad, Tomato Water, Clear-Bodied Bloody Marys.

Award-winning executive chef, Michael Rossi, shared the recipe for his tomato salad, a version that I think is the best around. Just the thought of it makes me hungry!

The Ranch Heirloom Tomato Salad
Yield: 4 servings

Apple Cider Vinaigrette:
1 shallot, small diced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 cup apple cider vinegar
3 cups vegetable oil

5 to 6 heirloom tomatoes, different sizes and colors, plus a few tiny cherry tomatoes
4 slices applewood smoked bacon, small diced, cooked, drained
1 each yellow sweet onion, small diced, cooked slowly with no color, cooled
3 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
1 cup Point Reyes blue cheese, crumbled into medium chunks
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Prepare vinaigrette: In a medium bowl, combine shallot, mustard and cider vinegar; add oil in thin stream, whisking constantly.
2. Cut 1 or 2 large heirloom tomatoes into thick slices and layer them on a platter. Cut remaining tomatoes into eights (leave any tiny tomatoes whole); toss with enough vinaigrette to coat. Spoon tomatoes over the sliced tomatoes; top with bacon, sweet onion, chives, basil and cheese. Drizzle with a little more vinaigrette. Season with Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.


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Food Can Help Or Hinder a Good Night’s Sleep

It’s a no-brainer; caffeine can interfere with a good night’s sleep. But what about food, does it play a role?

According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, there are foods that can keep us from snoozing. The worst offenders were fat and sugar. Darn.EAT KIWIS: According to one study reported in the WSJ, kiwis are rich in the mood-moderating hormone serotonin; they can make you fall asleep and stay asleep longer. The same goes for tart cherry juice which is high in the hormone melatonin.

Beneath their deceptive fuzzy-brown skin, a delicate, sweet-tart treasure awaits. Kiwi’s interior is filled with alluring colors; either bright lime green or brilliant gold flesh is speckled with a ring of tiny edible seeds.

Standard green or gold kiwis are about 2- to 3-inches long, while the baby varieties are only about 1-inch long. Those babies are fuzz-less and can be eaten whole like grapes; they can be eaten slightly firmer than the larger kiwis.

They are an excellent source of vitamins C and K – and a significant source of folate and potassium. And yes, they are delicious.



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Chef Sergio Ortega’s Mushroom Tacos, A Star Among Many at Descanso

Sergio Ortega, executive chef at Descanso in Costa Mesa joined me to show how to prepare irresistible mushroom-filled tacos adorned with crispy cheese.

He combines boundless culinary passion with well-grounded skills, showcasing his mastery of classic Central Mexican cuisine in a tantalizing variety of street-inspired dishes.

Menu items at this modern taqueria range from chicharrons with salsa to grilled white corn with aioli and Cotija cheese, sweet corn pozole verde to mescal-glazed shrimp.

It’s the tacos that haunt my treat-seeking dreams. I was overjoyed when he consented to show me how to prepare his Costra de Hongos, irresistible mushroom filled tacos with crispy cheese. Don’t think there is anything ho-hum about these beauties. A wide variety of wild and domestic mushrooms make their way into the mix: oyster, yellow foot, abalone, lobster and cordyceps cozy up with more commonplace cremini or button mushrooms.

Long strands of red-orange cordyceps were new to me and I was delighted to see them in the mix.

The made in-house tortillas are two-tone, one half made with blue corn masa, the other yellow corn masa; they are a tribute to the tortilla-making tradition in Ortega’s home state of Michoacán, Mexico.

Watch the video to see the process of making the tacos – one side of the tortilla is encrusted with a mixture of three cheeses: Manchego, Cotija and Jack. The cheese is browned on one side giving it alluring richness and texture. The cheese wrapping is dubbed “costra” in Spanish. It translates as “scab” or “crust” in English, not a very alluring appellation that is in fact very inviting.

Once spooned onto the cheesy side of the tortilla, a topping of salsa frita is added. The tasty cooked sauce incorporates a combination of tomatoes and tomatillos along with chilies, onion and garlic; it’s an inspired marriage of flavors.

A native of Morelia in Michoacán, Mexico, he studied culinary arts at the Art Institute of California in Santa Ana and has worked at AnQi in Costa Mesa and The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. He lives in Costa Mesa with his wife Paulina and two children. He credits his wife as a source of culinary inspiration.

Secret Talent: He has a very good memory for faces, people and details about past experiences. His friends tell him that he is the only one who can remember everything.

Drink of Choice: He likes beer, but also enjoys trying good gin (Four Pillars is a favorite).

Few Know: He loves to learn about history. Whenever possible, he reads and researches different historical subjects and watches history-based documentaries.

Favorite Food Truck: Orgullo Oaxaqueno on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles is a favorite. They serve Oaxacan specialties, such as tlayuda, a Mexican pizza constructed on a big toasted corn tortilla.

Descanso – A Modern Taqueria, 1555 Adams Ave #103, Costa Mesa


Descanso’s Costra de Hongos (Mushroom Tacos with Crispy Cheese)
Yield: 3 tacos
Mushroom mix: 3 cups assorted wild or cultivated mushrooms, cleaned, cut coarsely or sliced (such as oyster, yellow foot, abalone, cordyceps, or lobster)
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup finely diced white onion
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 or 2 arbol chilies, see cook’s notes
Mushroom mix: 3 cups assorted wild and cultivated mushrooms, cleaned and cut roughly or sliced (such as oyster, yellow foot, abalone, cordyceps, or lobster)
1 splash of white wine
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Salsa Frita:
2 Roma tomatoes
4 tomatillos, husks removed, washed
4 Morita chilies, toasted, see cook’s notes
3 garlic cloves
1/2 small white onion
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon canola oil
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Cheese blend: 1 cup shredded Jack cheese, 1/2 cup grated Manchego cheese, 1/4 cup ground Cotija cheese
For serving: vegetable oil, 3 corn tortillas, Cotija cheese (crumbled), microgreens and/or cilantro, mint or epazote

Cook’s notes: Arbol chilies are small and potent Mexican chilies that are narrow and about 2-inches long. They start out green and turn bright red color as they mature. Morita chilies are smoked, red-ripe jalapeno peppers, much like chipotles. The main difference is that Moritas are smoked for less time, which leaves them softer and retains their slightly fruity flavor. To toast chilies, place whole on griddle or sauté pan over medium heat; turn until chilies are fragrant with brown spots. Do not over-toast.

  1. For mushrooms: Add butter to large deep skillet on medium heat. When melted, add garlic, onion and arbol chilies. Cook until chilies are toasted and fragrant and the onion is softened. Add mushrooms to the pan and continue to cook until mushrooms soften. Add thyme and wine. Cook until skillet is almost dry. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; keep warm.
  2. For salsa frita: Warm canola oil in large saucepan on medium heat until shimmering. Carefully add tomatoes and tomatillos in a single layer; brown evenly. Cover pan and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Once tomatillos and tomatoes are cooked, add onion, garlic and morita chilies. Continue to cook for 4 more minutes, until the garlic softens and onion is translucent. In a blender, whirl until smooth and season with salt and pepper. Reserve.
  3. For cheese blend: In a bowl toss cheeses together until well combined. Set aside.
  4. For assembly: Heat a lightly-oiled griddle or cast-iron skillet or nonstick skillet on medium heat (medium is important here). Add tortillas and heat on both sides until a little crisp. Remove tortillas. Add one pile of cheese blend; when cheese starts to melt top it with one tortilla. Press down lightly. Cook until bottom of cheese is nicely browned and sticks to tortilla. Turn and cook tortilla for additional 10 seconds. Place cheese-side-up on plate. Remove thyme sprig from mushrooms. Top tortilla with a couple of spoonfuls of mushrooms. Top with salsa, Cotija cheese and herbs. Repeat with remaining two tortillas.      Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s Produce!The delectable grassy edge of shishito peppers is delightful. Many think they need to be deep-fried to be delicious, but sauteing them in a little vegetable oil is all that is needed – just some oil, some coarse salt and those delicious chilies. Oh, you can drizzle on a little roasted Asian-style sesame oil if you like; it’s optional.

Watch the video to see how easy it is!

(it follows Chef Ortega)





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Restaurant of the Year: Chef Zach Geerson’s “Branzino Joy”

Zach Geerson, executive chef at Journeyman’s Food and Drink in Fullerton, uses his talent to create dishes that are innovative and irresistible. With a firm footing in classic techniques mastered at The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, he showcases alluring twists that bump up flavor and provide stunning presentations.

Orange Coast Magazine named his restaurant “2019 Restaurant of the Year.”

He describes Journeyman’s cuisine as “progressive American,” with progressive defined as what is coming up next, not in terms of flighty trends, but what is right for the restaurant.

In my home kitchen, he prepared pan-roasted branzino fillets accompanied with sides and sauce reflecting a classic French point of view.

The vegetables, blanched-until-tender-crisp asparagus and green beans were tossed with a lemony vinaigrette.

A thyme-infused beurre blanc complimented that crisp-coated fish giving it a luxurious oomph; he strategized that the white butter sauce could be partially made in advance.


Asked how he might change the dish for restaurant service rather than a home-style approach, he said that one option would be to skin the branzino fillets and season the belly side of the fish with salt, lemon zest, thyme and fennel pollen; the fillets would be sandwiched in different directions head to tail and enclosed in plastic wrap. Poached quickly, they would be almost like a branzino torchon. The skin would be baked between two silicone mats to be crispy like a fish-skin tuille. Asparagus would be used to create three textures; an asparagus flan, a beautiful asparagus bisque, plus a salad of shaved raw asparagus (jumbo size are used for shaved curls). Instead of beurre blanc straight-up, they would do a milk infusion flavored with unusable ends of the asparagus. With a foaming agent he would create a little foam, so the plating would be reminiscent of seaside foam.

An artist’s vision plays a part on the plate, balanced with steadfast culinary skills. His passion for cooking shines. Read the tattooed truth on his fingers; one direction it’s “food love,” the other reads “love food.” Indeed.

Kitchen Music: He says that music played in the kitchen is very freeing. He has the staff play music whether it’s their own or something he picks.



He likes to listen to tenor Andrea Bocelli, or compositions from Mozart or Bach. The blues styling of guitarist Joe Bonamassa make him feel every note. The staff feeds off chef’s joyful vibe.

Drink of Choice: A classic Martinez Cocktail – Old Tom gin, sweet Vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, orange bitters. Stirred and served neat.

Artistic Dance Man: Before he was a chef, he was a breakdance and hip-hop instructor for adults and children in Fort Myers, Florida. At 8 or 9, he learned by watching videos on TV. In those early years, he also shined at drawing and watercolor painting, plus found time to sing in the church choir.

OC Restaurant Faves: Bruno’s in Brea and Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach

Journeyman’s Food and Drink is located at 1221 E Burton St, Fullerton. See the menu at

Here is how he scored the branzino – shallow and diagonal.

Geerson’s Pan-Roasted Branzino with Vegetables and Beurre Blanc

Yield: 2 servings

Beurre Blanc:
1 1/2 large shallots, minced plus leaves from 1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups dry white wine with good acidity such as Sauvignon Blanc or Albarino
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, (we used extra lemon juice, so chef omitted this ingredient)
12 ounces unsalted chilled butter, diced into small cubes
To Taste: salt, freshly ground white pepper, lemon juice
Vegetables: Handful green beans and several spears of asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces on diagonal, 2 quarts boiling salted water

Basic Vinaigrette for dressing vegetables: 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice or wine vinegar, salt and white pepper to taste, 3/4 cup good quality olive oil

For cooking Branzino:
Wondra Flour for dusting
Salt, optional fennel pollen, optional Espelette pepper
Unsalted butter
2 skin-on branzino fillets, pin bones removed (you can ask your local fish supplier to cut your fish into fillets with the scales and pin bones removed. or try yourself at home), scored on skin side at 1 3/4-intervals

  1. Start by preparing beurre blanc sauce reduction. That part of the sauce can be prepared in advance, then finished with the addition of butter right before serving (see Step # 4). In medium-large saucepan, add shallots, thyme, pepper, white wine and vinegar. Bring to simmer; simmer until “au sec” – almost dry, maybe 1 tablespoon of liquid left. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. Cook vegetables in rapidly boiling salted water until tender crisp. Meanwhile prepare vinaigrette, mixing vinegar or lemon juice with salt and pepper. Whisk in oil in thin steam.
  3. Prepare branzino: Dust fish lightly with Wondra flour. Season with salt, fennel pollen (if using) and Espellete pepper (if using). Heat skillet on medium heat. Add generous amount of butter; heat butter until foaming subsides and butter turns a light golden brown (this caramelizes the milk sugars in the butter and lends a nice toasted nut flavor note). Place fish skin side down in skillet away from you as if you are laying a blanket on the bed from the foot of the bed to the headboard. Gently press the fish down flat with the flat side of a fish spatula or small offset spatula for roughly 10-15 seconds. Allow the fish to cook in the pan for about 2-3 minutes or until you notice the edge of the fillets turning a delicious golden brown. Check the fillet’s skin side for even color, and if it is nicely golden brown all over, flip fillets and turn off the heat from the pan. (at this point chef likes to add a few knobs of chilled butter to the pan with some fresh thyme – this will help the pan cool down faster and imparts more delicious flavor.) Place fillets on small warm tray lined with paper towels.
  4. Finish sauce: Warm the reduction from Step #1 on medium heat. When hot, whisk in butter bit by bit, adding another bit when previous additional is incorporated. Continue whisking in butter, remembering to keep it hot enough to incorporate butter but it shouldn’t boil (boiling will break the emulsion). This may require you to remove the pan from heat from time to time. When all butter has been incorporated, taste sauce and adjust by adding salt, pepper or lemon juice if needed. Strain sauce, or leave as is for a little texture
  5. Plating: Toss vegetables with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Divide vegetables between two dinner plates, placing them in a mound. Top with fish. Spoon beurre blanc to one side and serve.

Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”

Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s Produce:

Green Goddess Dressing makes a lovely dip for raw vegetables. The food processor does the work! Learn more about Melissa’s at

Green Goddess Dip with Veggies
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 cup sour cream
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry
1 1/2 cups chopped Italian parsley
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
4 green onions, trimmed, chopped, dark green stalks reserved
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon
Assorted vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, carrots, sugar snap peas, celery

  1. In a food processor, puree sour cream, mayonnaise, anchovies, parsley, basil, and green onions (white and light green portion). Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl and cover; refrigerate up to 24 hours.
  2. Finely chop reserved dark-green portion of green onions. Add to dip along with tarragon. Serve with vegetables to use as “dippers.”

Source: adapted from “Martha Stewart’s Appetizers” by Martha Stewart (Clarkson Potter)



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