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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Lido Bottle Works’ Chef Amy Lebrun Shows Off Fish Mastery

Amy Lebrun, the talented executive chef at Lido Bottle Works at Lido Marina Village in Newport Beach, joined me in my kitchen to show off her fish cookery skills. She showcased rock cod fillets, same-day caught off the backside of Catalina Island.

She sourced the fish from the Dory Fleet and Market, the beach-side fishing cooperative located at the base of the Newport Pier. The fillets, a glimmering bridesmaid’s pink, smelled sweet – proof that the fish had been plucked from the salt water only hours earlier.

Lebrun graduated from Huntington Beach High School where she played on the soccer team. After graduating from the culinary program at Orange Coast College, she had the opportunity to work her way up in the kitchens at Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. She cooked from the banquet kitchen to the Club Grill to the Dining Room, under the treasured mentorship of Chef Dee Nguyen.

She credits Nguyen with teaching her the importance of endurance. Today, Nguyen is executive chef-owner of Break of Dawn restaurant in Laguna Niguel. He conducts inspirational pop-up dinners from time to time, and she relishes those opportunities to collaborate with him.

Secret Talent: She says that “bad dancing” brings her joy, especially if it is accompanied by someone who can’t sing very well.

Biggest Mistake: Working in catering. It wasn’t for her. She says that it is just reheat and serve; temporarily, she says that it killed her soul.

Favorite knife: She adores her one-sided Global vegetable knife. As a student in 2000, she attended the Culinary Olympics in Germany. Her cherished knife traveled in a knife bag in the overhead bin above her head. That was air travel before 9-11.

Drink of Choice: Red wine. A Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir from Walt is one of her favorites.

Espelette Powder: She loves using mild Espellete pepper, an ingredient must-have in the Basque country of France. The name comes from the village of Espelette in southwest France.

Collector: She collects Bakelite jewelry, vintage Pyrex and reverse-painted picture frames from the 20’s.

Lido Bottle Works’ Dory Catch of the Day with Kabocha Puree, Seasonal Fruit Pico, Chorizo and Rainbow Chard
Yield: 2 generous servings
1/2 kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, strings removed, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
1/3 cup diced sweet onion
1/2 unpeeled apple, such as Honeycrisp, cored, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 cup dry white wine plus 2/3 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups ground soft Spanish chorizo
Seasonal Fruit Pico, unpeeled and all cut into small pieces to each contribute about 1/4 cup: Asian pear, Fuyu persimmon, Bartlett pear, crisp apple, pomegranate arils (seeds), roasted (peeled) poblano chili, red onion – plus 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil to taste
4 tablespoons butter, divided use
2 (about 4 to 6 ounces each) rock cod fillets
1 small bunch rainbow chard (4 large stalks of chard), stems removed and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup diced red onion
Espelette powder to taste
Optional garnish: borage flowers

  1. In a large saucepan on high heat, add squash, onion and apple. Add wine and water; bring to boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until squash in fork tender. Puree in blender or using an immersion blender. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, cook ground chorizo in wide medium skillet on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until cooked through and a little crispy on part of the exterior. Set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare “pico” of seasonal fruit: In bowl combine prepared Asian pear, persimmon, pear, apple, pomegranate, chili, red onion, cilantro, juice, salt, pepper and olive oil. Set aside for 20 minutes for flavors to marry.
  4. Season fish with a little olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Heat 2 tablespoons butter until very hot in large skillet on medium-high heat. Saute fish, turning once, until cooked through (it is ok if butter gets a little color in the process).
  5. Meanwhile, cook chard: In large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons butter on medium-high heat. Add chard stems, garlic and red onion. Cook until stems are starting to get tender. Add leaves and cook until heated through and wilted.
  6. Plate: Place a puddle of squash puree in center of each place; push with spoon to smear slightly. Top with generous portion of chard, building a mound. Top each with fish fillet and sprinkle with espelette powder to taste. Top with chorizo and pico. Serve immediately.

Lido Bottle Works, Lido Marina Village, 3408 Via Oporto #103, Newport Beach


Rice Pilaf is a very versatile dish. It can be augmented with many different combinations of vegetables. One of my favorite add-ons is leeks and corn kernels.

The term “pilaf” is generally used when rice is cooked in a broth, and often implies that the rice has attained a golden color by first being sautéed lightly in oil (or oil and butter) before the addition of the broth. When entertaining, I make pilaf ahead of time and reheat it in the microwave before serving it. Lovely.

Corn and Leek Pilaf
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 large leek or 2 small leeks, white and light green portion
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, canola oil or grapeseed oil
1 1/2 cups long-grained rice
3 cups broth, chicken or vegetable
3/4 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Optional: chopped fresh basil or parsley, to taste

1. Quarter leek(s) lengthwise and cut into thin crosswise slices. Place in bowl of cold water and squish them around to remove any sand or grit. Drain and pat dry; set aside.

2. In a large saucepan, heat butter and oil on medium-high heat. Add rice and cook, stirring a couple of times, for 1 minute. Add leek(s) and cook, stirring occasionally, until rice turns light golden brown. Add broth and bring to boil. Cover with tight lid and reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Simmer 13 minutes. Add corn, cover and cook 4 minutes or until all broth is gone. Remove cover.

3. Add salt, pepper and, if using, chopped fresh herbs. Toss; taste and adjust as needed.

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Roasted Artichokes with Lemon Vinaigrette, Worth It!

Roasting artichokes brings out their nutty, delicious flavor. The process isn’t open roasting, to my mind it is kind of a steaming in the oven, the halved olive oil-coated “arties” arranged cut-side down and covered with foil.

I fell in love with them at TAPS Fish House and Brewery in Irvine. Executive chef Ryan Robertson does them to perfection – served with herb vinaigrette, Pecorino cheese, Romano cheese, Meyer lemon and basil pesto aioli.


So … I wanted to recreate them at home. Using my new favorite cookbook, “Vegetables Illustrated” from the folks at America’s Test Kitchen, I pulled out my sharpest knife and set to work. Here’s the truth …. prepping raw artichokes requires time and determination = trimming, halving, removing the fuzzy chokes requires dedication. But truly, they are delicious.

Roasted Artichokes with Lemon Vinaigrette

Yield: 4 servings, or 8 half-artichoke servings
3 lemons
4 artichokes (8 to 10 ounces each)
9 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped Italian parsley
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 475 degrees. Cut 1 lemon in half, squeeze halves into large container filled with 2 quarts water, then add the spent halves. Working with 1 artichoke at a time, trim steam to about 1/4 inch and cut off top quarter of artichoke. Break off bottom 3 or 4 rows of tough outer leaves by pulling them downward. Using kitchen shears, trim off top portion of outer leaves. Using paring knife. trim off outer layer of steam and base, removing any dark green parts. Cut artichoke in half from top to bottom. Remove choke and any tiny inner purple-tinged leaves using small spoon. Submerge prepped artichokes in lemon water. Prep remaining artichokes.
  2. Cover bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon oil. (I used a rimmed baking sheet so I got more caramelization on the cut side – it’s up to you.) Remove artichokes from lemon water, shaking off excess water. Toss artichoke halves with 2 tablespoons oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt and pinch of pepper. Gently rub oil between leaves. Arrange cut side down on prepared dish (pan). Trim ends of remaining 2 lemons, halve crosswise and arrange cut side down in dish (pan) next to artichokes. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and roast until cut sides of artichokes begin to brown and bases and leaves are tender when poked with the top of paring knife, 25 to 30 minutes.
  3. Transfer artichokes to serving platter. Let lemons cool slightly then squeeze into fine-meshed strainer set over bowl, extracting as much juice as possible (press firmly on solids to yield 1 1/2 tablespoons. Whisk parsley, garlic, mustard and 1/2 teaspoon salt into juice. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in 6 tablespoons oil. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon dressing over artichokes. (These beauties are delicious warm, at room temperature or cold. Source: “Vegetables Illustrated” (America’s Test Kitchen, $40 price on cover)


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Chef Craig Strong Opens Ocean at Main in Laguna Beach

Chef Chef Craig Strong opened Ocean at Main in Laguna Beach in October, fulfilling a long-time career dream to open his own restaurant. The location is 222 Ocean Avenue near Main Beach, and the 126-seat, 4,500-square-foot eatery is open daily for lunch and dinner (and now serves weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, 10 to 3).

Coming Full Circle…After nearly 25 years of working at luxury hotels and resorts around the globe (including Studio at Montage Laguna), Strong has come full circle to his native Southern California roots.

Inside dining and on the patio.  Mr. Wonderful and I like to sit next to the fountain on the patio. He starts with a snazzy Manhattan and I have the St. Clair (vodka+St Germain+Cucumber+Mint). Note that the restaurant is in a historic building,  an early 1940’s building designed by Aubrey St. Clair that once housed the Laguna Federal Savings and Loan.

The Chef Says…“I want to cook for our guests the way I cook for my family and friends at home. At Ocean at Main, I will celebrate the diversity, freshness and healthy lifestyle of Southern California. We will procure our ingredients from the local farmers and meat, seafood and specialty vendors whom I have been working and collaborating with for years. Coaxing the true flavors from exceptional products is always my goal.”

It’s really difficult to select my favorite dishes, because I haven’t had anything that I haven’t loved.  Here’s a small taste:

Charred Spinach Octopus with Cauliflower Ratatouille (Chef once worked in Barcelona, Spain at the prestigious Arts)


Dungeness Crab Cavatelli (pasta made fresh in house)

Oxtail Kale Risotto – Register critic Brad Johnson named this his “best dish of  the week.”

Best Spinach Salad around in my opinion – delicious Bloomsdale spinach – crunch comes from fried calamari – perky from vinaigrette – YUM

Ocean at Main, 222 Ocean Avenue, Laguna Beach

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Cranberry Cake – tart berries balanced with sweet-rich goodness

The tartness of fresh cranberries pairs well with sweet, buttery baked goods.

This sweet-tart cake is delicious for breakfast or served as a holiday dessert accompanied with whipped cream or ice cream.

It also makes a great hostess gift!

It can be prepared three days in advance, wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature.

Finely chop fresh crannies in food processor (don’t puree).

Finely grate citrus – easiest and quickest way is using a Microplane.


Cranberry Spice Cake

Yield: 8 servings

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups (8 ounces) fresh (or frozen, thawed) cranberries
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup apple cider or apple juice
Lemon glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
For servings: sweetened whipped cream or ice cream


  1. For cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat bottom and sides of 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick spray. Line bottom with parchment paper; coat paper with spray. Whisk flour and next 5 ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside. Pulse cranberries in a food processor until finely chopped but not puréed; set aside.
  2. Stir sugar, brown sugar, and oil in another medium bowl to blend. Add eggs one at a time, stirring to blend between additions. Whisk in sour cream, orange zest, lemon zest, and vanilla.
  3. Whisk in dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with apple cider (or juice) in 2 additions and whisking to blend. Fold in chopped cranberries. Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top.
  4. Bake, rotating pan halfway through, until a tester inserted into center of cake comes out almost clean, 60 to 70 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack; let cake cool in pan for 15 minutes. Run a thin knife around inside of pan to release cake; turn out cake onto rack. Peel off parchment paper, then flip cake and let cool for 20 minutes.
  5. For lemon glaze: Whisk powdered sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt in a small bowl. Spread glaze over warm cake, allowing it to drip down sides. Let stand until glaze becomes crackly, about 1 hour. Serve at room temperature, with compote spooned next to it.

DO AHEAD: Cake can be made 3 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

Source: Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine


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Luscious Korean-Style Ribs and Cucumber Salad from Chef Brian Huskey

Brian Huskey, acclaimed OC chef-owner of two Tackle Box restaurants, shares the secrets of his luscious Korean ribs in my home kitchen.

Korean ribs offer irresistible succulence. The well-marbled beef cut crosswise into thin meaty slabs caramelizes to perfection on the grill.  Dubbed “flaken ribs,” each chew yields a balance of sweet-soy-ginger soaked flavors.


For decades I added 7-Up soda to the marinade, but in the hands of Brian Huskey, executive chef-owner of Tackle Box in Corona del Mar and Costa Mesa (SOCO), a tastier marinade version is spiked with Asian pear. The pear does double duty; it adds subtle sweetness while tenderizing the meat.


He accompanies the ribs with a perky cucumber “salad,” a quick pickle laced with a pinch of Gochugaru Korean chili flakes. The bright red bits of pepper add gentle heat and a welcome hint of sweetness, while the bright rice vinegar-based brine complements the ribs’ richness.


Huskey competed on BRAVO’s Top Chef season 11 (reaching the final five), and his flagship eatery was acknowledged as one of OC’s “2017 Best Restaurants of the Year” by Orange Coast magazine.

Favorite knife: The first knife he bought (using his second culinary pay check) was his well-used Global chef’s knife with a blade made of high-tech molybdenum/vanadium stainless steel.

OC restaurant pick: He lives close to Water Grill in Costa Mesa and enjoys walking there from his home. He orders a drink from the bar along with a seafood tower.

Biggest culinary mistake: He cooked chicken breast without the skin, revealing that he was eliminated from Top Chef for this reason after reaching the top five.

Tackle Box “Home-Edition” Korean BBQ Short Ribs and Spicy Cucumbers

Yield: about 5 to 6 servings, 3 ribs per person
Short Ribs:
4 large yellow onions, peeled, cut into chunks
6 peeled garlic cloves, dark root ends removed
1 1/2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled, sliced
1/2 Asian pear, peeled, cut into chunks, can substitute Bartlett pear if desired
1/2 cup dark soy sauce or Korean soy sauce
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons rice wine or sake
4 tablespoons Asian (roasted) sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoons ground black pepper
15 to 18 flanken-cut short ribs
Vegetable or canola oil for oiling grill grate
8 Persian cucumbers
Enough kosher salt to sparingly cover
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Gochugaru Korean chili flakes (available online or in Asian markets)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
2 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Asian (roasted) sesame oil
Kosher salt to taste
Garnish: toasted sesame seeds

  1. Marinate ribs: Place onions, garlic, ginger, Asian pear in food processor. Process until part of mixture is pureed while a small portion is a little chunky. Place in large nonreactive bowl. Stir in soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, sesame oil and pepper. Add ribs and toss a little to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours – 8 hours is better, but no more than 24 hours. If you look at the video, you will see how chef layers the meat and marinade in a stainless-steel roasting pan.
  2. Meanwhile, cut cucumbers into 1/4-inch wide crosswise slices. Place in colander in sink and toss lightly with salt. Allow to sit for 30 minutes, shaking occasionally to remove water that is released. Lightly rinse with cold water and drain well; pat dry. In a bowl mix all remaining cucumber ingredients except sesame seeds. Add cucumbers and toss. Can be prepared several hours in advance and refrigerated. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
  3. Heat grill to medium-high heat. Wipe clean grate with oil (I use a folded piece of paper towel held with tongs and paper towel dipped into vegetable or canola oil). Grill ribs until cooked through and nicely caramelized. Serve on platter accompanied with quick-pickled cucumbers.

Tackle Box locations: 3029 E Shore Avenue, Corona Del Mar, as well as 3321 Hyland Avenue, Suite E (SOCO), Costa Mesa

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

Cherry tomatoes are often the tastiest tomato in the marketplace. Here’s a speedy way to show them off in pasta.

Weeknight Pasta Pomodoro

Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 pound dry penne or fusilli or farfalle pasta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use, plus more for drizzling
3 large garlic cloves, minced
Pinch dry red chili flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 cups ripe cherry tomatoes, halved if large, left whole if on the small side
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups whole fresh basil leaves
4 green onions, thinly sliced, including half of dark green stalks
Flaky sea salt such as Maldon, to taste
Garnish: grated Pecorino cheese
Minced Italian parsley

  1. Bring large pot of salted water to boil on high heat. Add pasta and cook until just barely al dente, about a minute less than indicated on package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water. Drain pasta and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, heat large, deep skillet on medium-high heat; add 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, red chili flakes, salt and pepper; cook about 1 1/2 minutes, or until garlic is softened but not browned. Add tomatoes; cook about 5 to 8 minutes, until lightly browned around edges and slightly shriveled.
  3. Add pasta and toss. Add enough of reserved pasta cooking water to make mixture a little sauce-y. Cook about 1 minute. Add butter, basil and green onion slices; toss to coat. Divide between shallow bowls or rimmed plates. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with flaky salt, Pecorino cheese and parsley. Pass pepper mill at the table.
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