Pear-Nut Upside-Down Cake – So Scrumptious for Holidays or Any Day

Pear-Walnut (or Pecan) Upside-Down Cake

I served this cake as one of three options on Thanksgiving. Almost everyone asked for the recipe, because the cake is so scrumptious.

Bosc Pears, those brown-skinned elongated beauties, hold their shape in this delicious cake. I’ve made it with walnuts as well as pecans. Be sure that the pan you use is at least 2 inches deep and it is best if it is light-colored.

The recipe is from those perfectionists at America’s Test Kitchen.

A confession: I use salted butter because it is what I have on hand. So I use a little less salt than is called for in the recipe. Use the salt amounts given if using unsalted butter. Bad Cathy. (It works out fine.) And if you look at the photo, you’ll she that I cut the pears in quarters rather than eighths … always testing to see what I like best.

Serve it with sweetened whipped cream or crème fraiche.  Ho, ho, ho!

Yield: 8 to 10
Butter for greasing pan
Parchment paper cut to match bottom of pan
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 ripe but firm Bosc pears (about 8 ounces each)
1 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted, cooled (toast on baking sheet about 5 minutes at 350 degrees – watch carefully because nuts burn easily)
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
3 large eggs
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1. Topping: Adjust oven rack to middle position. Heat to 300 degrees. Grease 9-inch round cake pan and line bottom with parchment paper. Pour melted butter over bottom of pan and swirl to evenly coat. Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in small bowl; sprinkle evenly over melted butter.
2. Pears: Peel, halve and core pears. Set aside 1 pear half and reserve for another use (maybe a nice snack for the baker). Cut remaining 5 pear halves into 4 wedges each. Arrange pears in circular pattern around cake pan with tapered ends pointing inward. Arrange two smallest pear wedges in center. (I’ve noticed that sometimes the pears are so long there is no room in the center, so I just snuggle them closer together …)
3. Cake: Pulse nuts, flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in food processor until nuts are finely ground, 8 to 10 pulses. Transfer to mixing bowl.
Process eggs and sugar in now-empty processor until very pale yellow, about 2 minutes. With processor running, add melted butter and oil in steady stream until incorporated. Add walnut mixture and pulse to combine 4 to 5 pulses. Pour batter evenly over pears (some pear may show through, but cake will bake over them).
4. Bake until center of cake is set and bounces back when gently pressed and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 1/4 hours, rotating pan after 40 minutes. Let cake cool for 15 minutes (set a timer because this timing is important). Carefully run paring knife or offset spatula around sides of pan. Invert cake onto wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet; discard parchment. Let cake cool for about 2 hours and transfer to serving platter.

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Chef Blake Mellgren, Exec Chef-Owner Craft House in Dana Point, Big-time Masters Yellowtail

Blake Mellgren, executive chef-owner of Craft House in Dana Point, shows off fruits and vegetables in an irresistible fish dish. If you taste this dish, you won’t be surprised to know that Mellgren was one of three finalists at the 2018 Golden Foodie Awards in the prestigious 2018 Chef of the Year category.

Sometimes the name of a dish doesn’t do it justice. Yellowtail with Creamed Corn, Asparagus, Wild Mushrooms and Peach-Watermelon-Basil Relish sounds good, but it might be overlooked on a menu.

In the talented hands of Blake Mellgren, executive chef-owner of Craft House in Dana Point, the dish is well worth a two-hour drive in traffic. It’s that scrumptious.

The yellowtail is caught locally and cooked to perfection; fork cut, its caramelized surface reveals a lovely central streak of pink. The corn, oh the corn, is rich in thyme-scented cream and mellowed-out garlic. Mellgren points out that it’s creamed corn, not cream corn; creamed corn is luxuriously simmered in heavy whipping cream that’s augmented with the silky corn milk grated from the cobs’ exteriors. Once pureed and augmented with a few whole kernels, it’s smeared to cover the plate with a blanket of irresistibility.


A vegetable mélange of sautéed vegetables rests on the corn, a mix of herbal earthiness composed of tender-crisp vegetables and browned wild mushrooms. The fish rests on an angle atop the veg and is generously adorned with fresh fruit salsa.

Have a look at the video to see how Mellgren nuances the dish. He makes it look easy and I love his “string-through-the-handle” trick.

Working the acclaimed kitchen of Danny Meyer’s The Modern, NYC: He says that it was like a ballet at 120 degrees, a symphony of dancers all in unison. As a line cook, he kept his eyes and ears open 24-7, taking in the nuances that were part of everyday routine that most restaurants overlook.

Drink of choice: Bourbon. There are over 70 whiskeys at Craft House. One of his favorites is Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Restaurant favorites in South County: Driftwood Kitchen, Laguna Beach.

Pan-Roasted Yellowtail with Creamed Corn, Asparagus, Wild Mushrooms with Peach-Watermelon-Basil Relish
Yield: 4 servings
Creamed Corn:
6 husked ears of corn, white or yellow
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium-sized shallots, thinly sliced lengthwise
6 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
Salt and pepper to taste
6 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together with cotton string, leaving one long end
2 cups heavy whipping cream
Asparagus, Wild Mushroom and Summer Squash:
2 tablespoons olive oil or blended oil (canola and olive oil)
1 bag of shimeji or honshimeji mushrooms (Whole Foods, Asian Markets)
1 bunch asparagus, cut on diagonal into 3/4-inch slices, leaving tips intact
1 summer squash (zucchini, Mexican white “tatuma” or crookneck), diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/4 cup dry white wine
Fresh herb mix: minced fresh thyme, rosemary, chives, parsley
Peach, Watermelon and Basil Relish:
1 ripe peach, white or yellow (in fall substitute orange, tangerine or apple)
Heart of 1 watermelon
1 sprig fresh basil, cut into thin strips
3 tablespoons blended oil (canola and olive oil)
4 (about 5 ounces each) yellowtail fillets (or substitute halibut, cod, or other white-fleshed fish)
2 1/2 tablespoons butter

  1. Prepare creamed corn. Cut corn kernels off cobs; don’t cut too close to the cob (leave some “meat” attached to the cob); cut atop a clean kitchen towel to corral the kernels. Set kernels aside. Grate cobs on a box grater set over bowl or rimmed plate to extract corn milk; set aside. In large deep skillet cook garlic and shallots in oil on medium-high heat until shallots soften. Season with salt and pepper. Reserving about 1/2 cup of kernels, add remaining kernels to skillet; cook until just barely tender. Add thyme (tie string to pan handle) and cream; simmer about 15 minutes. Add corn milk to cream mixture and let cook for another 5 minutes. Puree corn and cream mixture with an immersion blender or blender until smooth. Return pureed corn to put and add reserved corn; simmer 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt, or pepper (or both) if needed.
  2. Prepare vegetable mixture. Heat oil in large skillet on high heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned. Add asparagus and summer squash; sauté until squash is just barely tender, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and shallot and sauté 1 minute. Add white wine, salt and pepper. Cook until wine is reduced. Season with a good pinch of fresh herb mix. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. (Just before serving, add a little more of that herb mix.)
  3. Prepare relish: Cut peach and watermelon in 1/2-inch dice; season lightly with salt and pepper. Add basil and gently toss.
  4. Prepare fish: Heat oil in large skillet until almost smoking on medium-high heat. Add fish, pressing it down gently. Reduce heat to medium. Once crust is achieved, about 3 minutes, turn it. Add butter and cook about 2 additional minutes. To plate, spread creamed corn over surface of each dinner plate. Place a generous scoop of vegetable mixture on one side. Place fish next to mixture leaning one side of fish on vegetables so that it is on a slant. Top fish with relish. Serve.

Craft House is at 34094 CA-1, Dana Point.

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.”


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Halloween Creep Cakes, Thanks Martha

Is it possible to make a treat that is scary and whimsical at the same time?

Yup, Martha Stewart can with her Halloween-themed “Creep Cakes,” cupcakes adorned with monster-style marshmallow eyes and orange-wedge candy mouths.

Granddaughter Coco, 3,  decorated these cupcakes without help. Look who photo-bombed in the background! Katie the Carin.  (Coco told me that the cupcakes represent members of her family.)

Although some of Martha’s versions at are more labor intensive, I choose the easiest renditions for small grandchildren-hands to create.

And I simplified the process by using a packaged spice cake mix for the cupcakes, plus a simple buttercream frosting, a creamy icing that I tinted lime green with food coloring.

Creep Cakes
Yield: 24
1 spice cake mix, plus ingredients called for on box (or any flavor you prefer)
Cupcake paper liners
Buttercream frosting: 1 cup (2 sticks) room temperature butter, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 4 cups powdered sugar (1 pound), 1 to 2 tablespoons milk, food coloring
Decorations: regular-size marshmallows, M&M’s, orange citrus wedge candy, candy eyes; optional – licorice lace, gummy tape and jellybeans
1. Prepare cupcakes according to package directions, lining muffin tin with paper liners. Cool.
2. Prepare frosting. Place softened butter and vanilla in bowl of a free-standing mixer; beat on medium until combined. Add powdered sugar; drape a clean kitchen towel over mixer and beat on low speed until mostly combined. Scrape down sides and bottom of bowl with silicone spatula and beat on medium-high speed until completely combined, again scraping down sides as needed. Add milk a little at a time, beating between additions, until a spreadable consistency (you may end up using less milk). Add desired food coloring (I used green and a little yellow); beat to combine, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Spread on cupcakes (an offset spatula is handy for this).
3. Make Creep Cakes: For big googly eyes, cut marshmallows in half through the middle. Press an M&M’s on the sticky side. Put one, two, three or four eyes on top of each cupcake, facing forward. Cut citrus-wedge candy to make mouths or tongues.
Source: adapted from

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Autumn Salads – Salubrious Crunch Teamed with Irresistible Flavors

Beets. Oranges. Apples. A few toasted walnuts. Some creamy blue cheese-blessed dressing.

Quick! Hand me a knife and fork.

The flavor combinations in this salad are irresistible. You can add some grilled chicken if you like.

And there are a couple of shortcuts that make it quick to prepare.

One: Buy steamed, ready-to-eat beets. They are sold in the refrigerated deli at Gelson’s, Bristol Farms, Trader Joe’s and Mother’s Markets. (The packaging looks a little different at Trader Joe’s, but it has the same luscious beets inside.)

Two: Make the dressing ahead of time and store it up to three days in the fridge.

Here’s the recipe … it’s from my second book, “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce:”

Hearts of Romaine Salad with Beets, Apples and Creamy Blue Cheese Dressing
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons freshly-squeeze lemon juice
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
6 ounces crumbled blue cheese
1 cup walnuts
3 hearts of romaine, each quartered lengthwise
4 medium beets, roasted or steamed, peeled, sliced or diced
1 crisp apple, unpeeled, cored, cut into 1/4-inch wedges
Optional for thinning dressing: 1 to 2 tablespoons milk or buttermilk
2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1. Place lemon juice, yogurt, olive oil, salt and pepper in blender. Whirl until smooth, about 1 minute, stopping to scrape down sides if needed. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Stir in blue cheese.
2. Place walnuts on rimmed baking sheet in single layer. Toast until lightly browned in a 350-degree oven, about 5 minutes. Watch carefully because nuts burn easily. Set aside to cool.
3. On each plate, place 2 romaine quarters. Arrange beet slices and apple wedges next to romaine. Spoon dressing across plate from side to side, spilling dressing across middle of romaine and a portion of the beets and apples. If dressing is too thick, stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons milk or buttermilk. Scatter walnuts on top. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Nutritional information (per serving): Calories 320; fat calories 230, total fat 25 grams; sat fat 7 grams, cholesterol 20 milligrams; sodium 460 milligrams; total carbohydrates 14 grams; fiber 4 grams; sugars 9 grams; protein 14 grams; vitamin A IUs 30%; vitamin C 30%; calcium 25%; iron 10%.

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Scrumptious Fried Chicken Sandwich at Buttermilk with Chef-Owner Ryan Adams

Chef Ryan Adams shares fried chicken secrets from his newest eatery, Buttermilk in Old Towne Orange.

Chef Adams’ culinary creativity is mind-boggling. Delectable ideas backed up with well-honed culinary skills, flow at full tilt. The acclaimed chef recently has expanded his restaurant holdings in Orange County. In addition to his award-winning Three Seventy Common in Laguna Beach, he now owns and operates Parallel Pizza in Dana Point, as well as Buttermilk Fried Chicken in Old Towne Orange.

It was his fried-chicken expertise that he shared when visiting my home kitchen to shoot a how-to video. That irresistible bird has garnered raves at his family-style Fried Chicken Dinners held at Three Seventy Common (on one Sunday each month).

At Buttermilk, a 24-seat fast casual and take-out restaurant, the buttermilk fried chicken abounds, paying homage to his Grandmother Mary and her from-scratch recipe.

He dry-cured the thighs for 24 hours in the refrigerator before double dredging, battering and frying them. Tucked into a bun slathered with aioli, a crown of coleslaw added a just-right amount of crunch and color, plus a little tickle of spicy heat lent by pickled red jalapenos.

A fry-it-brown tip offered key advice. New oil doesn’t brown the chicken properly. Save a tablespoon or two of “used” (denatured) oil that was used for previous deep frying; add it to the new oil. You will be happier with the well-browned exterior.

First Not-From-Scratch Memory: At three or four years old, at a family barbecue, a guest brought potato salad purchased at a supermarket. He took one bite and walked away, explaining that he really didn’t like it.

Secret Talent: His wife says he can find a solution to every problem. One day trying to get a rug under an enormous couch, he devised rollers to go underneath to make it portable.

Favorite Restaurant: The Ranch Restaurant in Anaheim is admired for the consistency of Chef Michael Rossi’s cuisine. Not only is the food delicious, but the overall service is really on point.

Drink of Choice: Whiskey. His go-to is Larceny Bourbon Whiskey; Weller rocks is for special occasions.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken, 238 W. Chapman Avenue, Orange. Open for lunch, dinner and late-night appetites.

Buttermilk’s Fried Chicken Sandwiches
Yield: about 3 to 4 sandwiches
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Salt and pepper to taste
Seasoning of choice, such as Lawry’s Seasoned Salt or dry rub that contains paprika
Dredge mixture:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
Batter: 2 cups buttermilk, 4 lightly beaten eggs
Aioli: 1/2 cup garlic chili paste (sambal oelek), 2 tablespoons pickling liquid (liquid from pickles), 2 cups mayonnaise
About 4 cups thinly sliced cabbage (half green cabbage and half red cabbage)
Sliced pickled jalapenos, about 8 crosswise slices
Cider Vinaigrette:
1/4 cup whole grain mustard
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup oil (combination of olive oil and canola oil)
For deep frying: canola oil
Plating: favorite soft buns or rolls, spicy sliced pickles (for store-bought, he recommends Dave’s Spicy Pickles)
1. Season chicken with salt and pepper (plus any other dry herbs or spices of choice or seasoned salt – his dry rub formula is proprietorial) and refrigerate 24 hours in sealed zipper-style bag.
2. For dredging: Combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder and pepper in large bowl. For batter: In separate bowl, mix buttermilk with eggs (if made ahead, refrigerate). Set aside.
3. For Aioli: In medium bowl, whisk chili paste, pickling liquid and mayonnaise (refrigerate if made ahead).
4. For Coleslaw: Prepare vinaigrette. In large bowl, whisk all ingredients except oil until blended and salt dissolves. Add oil in thin stream, whisking constantly until emulsified. Toss cabbage with enough vinaigrette to coat. Add jalapeno slices and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Best made 20 to 25 minutes before serving for the most desirable crunch but can be held longer if needed.
5. Fry chicken: Remove chicken from refrigerator. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil (enough to deep fry) to 350 degrees in deep pan. Dredge each piece in flour mixture and dip in batter. Dip in flour mixture again and cautiously ease one by one into heated oil. Deep-fry for approximately 4 to 5 minutes or until nicely browned. Place on rimmed baking sheet and place in preheated oven for a few minutes until cooked through with an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
6. Spread aioli on bottom halves of buns. Top with 2 crisscrossed pickle slices. Top with chicken and a generous amount of coleslaw. Add top halves of buns and serve.

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Chef Ross Pangilinan to Open at TERRACE at South Coast Plaza


TERRACE opening soon!

Chef Ross Pangilinan is gifted with vision, talent and guts. In late 2016, after seven years as executive chef at Leatherby’s in Costa Mesa, he opened Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in Downtown Santa Ana. The globally-inspired eatery has garnered many prestigious accolades.

Chef Ross Pangilinan, owner of Mix Mix in Santa Ana, will bring Terrace by Mix Mix to South Coast Plaza in Fall 2018. (Photo by John Pangilinan)

A second restaurant is in the works and projected to open in early September. TERRACE by Mix Mix is on level 3 of the Crate and Barrel/Macy’s Home Store Wing in the location previously occupied by zpizza.

In 2011, when chef was still at Leatherby’s we shot a video about his fabulous Appetizer Meatballs with Tzatziki. They are perhaps the best meatballs you’ll ever eat. Have a look.

You can read more about Chef Ross and TERRACE in the story I wrote for Orange Coast Magazine at

Leatherby’s Appetizer Lamb Meatballs with Cucumber Tzaziki
Yield: 6 to 8 portions
1/4 to 1/2 hothouse cucumber, peeled
1 pound ground lamb
1 pound ground beef
2 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon harissa paste (or other chili paste), see cook’s notes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or parsley
6 eggs
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons grated and strained cucumber
1 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Garnish: sliced fresh chives, coarse salt such as fleur de sel, freshly ground black pepper, extra-virgin olive oil and pita chips
Cook’s notes: Harissa is a North African chili paste that is sold in Middle Eastern markets, some natural food stores, and some supermarkets with large imported specialty food sections. It is often packaged in squeeze-able tubes the size of toothpaste.
1. Grate cucumber using the large holes on a box grater. Place in colander; sprinkle with a little salt and set aside to drain.
2. Place all meatball ingredients in large bowl of electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment, thoroughly mix (starting on lowest speed). Cover and chill for 1 hour. If available use a 1-ounce ice-cream scoop to portion the mixture. Form into 1 1/2-inch spheres using lightly-oiled hands.
3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat a lightly-oiled grill pan on medium-high heat. Place 3 to 4 meatballs on each bamboo skewer. Place in single layer on grill pan in batches. Grill mark the exterior on all sides and place on rimmed baking sheet; place in preheated oven for 4 to 8 minutes, or until thoroughly cooked.
4. Meanwhile, prepare tzatziki. In medium bowl, place 2 tablespoons (packed) grated and strained cucumber. Add remaining tzatziki ingredients and stir to combine.
5. Smear tzatziki on individual serving plates or platter. Top with meatballs. Sprinkle on chives, coarse salt, pepper and a small drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Add pita chips, placing them vertically between the meatballs.
Source: Ross Pangilinan

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Picnic Pleasure – This Easy Bacon Tart is Irresistible

A savory tart cries out for a summer picnic.

This Caramelized Shallot and Bacon Tart is a favorite, whether served at a summer outing or as a first course for a showy company dinner. The sweetness of browned onions and shallots team beautifully with crisp bacon and creamy ricotta.

Caramelized Shallot and Bacon Tart
Yield: 8 servings
1 round prepared pie dough, such as refrigerated Pillsbury Pie Crust
4 slices thick bacon
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 shallots, cut crosswise into thin slices
1 1/2 large yellow onions, cut in half top to bottom, thinly sliced crosswise
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Egg wash: 1 egg yolk beaten with 1/2 teaspoon water
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350 degrees. Ease chilled dough into a 9 1/2-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Use top of bent finger to press dough into fluted sides of pan. To create a double layer of dough on sides of crust, trim dough 1/4-inch above top of pan; fold overhanging dough over so top of fold is even with top of pan to reinforce sides; press with top of bent finger to seal sides. Roll rolling pin over top of tart pan to make top of dough even all the way around. Poke dough at 1-inch intervals with tines of fork (bottom and sides). Line dough with sheet of aluminum foil. Add about 1 cup dry beans, raw rice or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven; remove foil and beans, rice or weights. Set aside.
2. In large, deep skillet cook bacon until crisp; remove bacon from pan and drain on paper towels, reserving 1 tablespoon bacon grease in pan. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil and heat oil on medium-high heat. Add shallots and onions; cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and starting to brown, about 9 minutes. Reduce heat to medium or medium-low. Add sugar, thyme, salt and pepper; stir to combine. Cook until onions are golden, stirring occasionally, about 20 additional minutes.
3. In small bowl combine ricotta, egg yolk, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Gently spread ricotta mixture on bottom of tart shell. Top with shallot mixture, spreading out into an even layer. Crumble or chop bacon and sprinkle on top of shallot mixture. Brush top edge of crust lightly with egg wash. Place on baking sheet and bake in preheated oven until golden brown and heated through, 35 to 45 minutes. Allow to cool 15 minutes before cutting into wedges and serving.
Source: “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce” by Cathy Thomas (Wiley, $29.95)


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Tequila, Tacos and Delicious Innovation

Puesto’s fresh take on Mexican cuisine has been the O.C. buzz since the first Orange County location in Irvine’s Los Olivos Marketplace opened (near Irvine Spectrum). Now with a second location at Park Place in Irvine, the fan base is mushrooming.

Looks like delicious fun! Right? Can you say tequila?

Puesto’s Cado-rita is made with Lunazul Reposado, fresh lime, agave, and avocado.

Or how about some ice cold Gelato – nopales and lime – with a shot of tequila poured on top?

And maybe some chilled cerveza, if you’re in the mood?

Tacos are at the heart of Puesto’s Mexican street food menu. Pictured below are the Filet Mignon Tacos (filet, crispy cheese, avocado, spicy pistachio serrano) and the Verduras Tacos (crispy melted cheese, rajas, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, nopales, avocado and zucchini blossoms). Keep reading to find out about that crispy cheese!

Many tacos showcase fillings wrapped in crisp cheese, a blanket of fried and melted queso Oaxaca and a Mexican melting cheese that is somewhat like mozzarella. The cheese wrapping is dubbed “costra” in Spanish. It translates as “scab” in English, not a very alluring appellation that is in fact appealing.

Katy Smith, executive creative chef at Puesto, is best known for her hip tacos, handmade blue-corn tortillas and craft cocktails, but those delicacies only scratch the surface of her talent. She offers dishes with irresistible twists.

Among her traditional dishes one of my favorites is Pescado Veracruzana, a dish that showcases fish fillets adrift in a scrumptious sauce primarily made with diced tomatoes, green olives, pickled jalapenos and capers. On the menu, instead of fish fillets, she often riffs on the theme and substitutes shrimp for the mellow white-fleshed fillets.

Watch Chef prepare this simple dish. In my home kitchen, she used black cod that she sautéed skin down to create a potato-chip crunch on the surface.

She started the Veracruz sauce by sautéing a sliced white onion, an onion variety that is most often used in Mexican dishes. That variety has a clean, interesting taste and is more tender and thin skinned than other varieties.

Fish Veracruz-style is a welcome recipe for home cooks to have in their arsenal. The sauce can be made in advance (capers should be added at the last minute to prevent over-saltiness). And it takes a very short time to prepare the fish right before serving. Accompany it with rice and maybe some ice-cold margaritas.

More about Chef Katy Smith …

Secret Skill: She sings and grew up acting in musical theater productions. When she attended University High School in Irvine, she played the lead in “Singing in the Rain.” Joyously, she jumped out of a giant cake.

Favorite Restaurant: Locally, she loves 370 Common. It’s walking distance from her small 40’s Laguna Beach cottage. She says that the restaurant feels like home with incredible roast chicken and “the best” french fries. She also adores Chicago’s Fat Rice, an eatery with an alluring Macanese menu.

Her drink: Rye Manhattan on the rocks.

Here’s the recipe:

Puesto’s Pescado Veracruzana
Yield: 2 servings
About 1 tablespoon olive oil
Medium-sized white onion, halved, sliced
1 quart diced fire-roasted canned tomatoes
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 ounces green Manzanilla olives, quartered
2 ounces finely diced jalapeno escabeche, see cook’s notes
2 tablespoons escabeche liquid (pickling brine)
2 dried bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano, see cook’s notes
Chopped Italian parsley
2 (4-ounce) skin-on fish fillets, snapper or black cod
Olive oil
2 tablespoons capers
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish: Italian parsley and cilantro
Garnish: lime slices
Cook’s notes: Chef prefers jalapeno escabeche because the chilies are pickled with onions and carrots, but plain pickled jalapenos can be substituted. Remove any stems from oregano (and discard the stems). Rub the oregano leaves between your palms before adding to mixture.

    1. 1. Heat oil in large deep saucepan on medium-high heat. Add onion; cook, stirring occasionally until lightly caramelized and tender. Add tomatoes, garlic, olives, jalapeno, escabeche liquid, bay leaves, oregano and parsley. Simmer on medium heat for 20 minutes.


    1. 2. Towards the end of simmering, cook the fish. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1- to 2-tablespoons oil. Add fish skin-side down; cook until almost cooked through and turn. Cook just long enough to just barely cook the fish throughout.


    1. 3. Add capers to sauce. Taste sauce and add salt and pepper as needed. Place most of sauce on platter. Top with fish, placing it skin up. Spoon remaining sauce on top. Garnish with parsley, cilantro and lime wedges, plus a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Puesto in Los Olivos Marketplace is at 8577 Irvine Center Drive in Irvine. A second is at Park Place, 3395 Michelson Drive in Irvine.

Puesto at Park Place

For more, go to Orange Coast Magazine –

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.”

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Feast By Firelight, Or Not

Recently, I wrote a story for the OC Register (as well as other newspapers owned by the Southern California News Group) about delectable dishes suitable for camping, cabins, and the great outdoors. 

BUT, I soon discovered that many of the dishes are fabulous prepared on the grill at home!  Scrumptious.

The story showcased the cookbook “Feast by Firelight” by Emma Frisch (Ten Speed Press, $22). The author’s simple-but-delicious recipes detail what to prepare before you leave, as well as menu suggestions and equipment lists.

(Note that the recipes work for home meals, too, because they offer advance preparation ideas that are welcome elements for busy cooks.)

My trainer Paul Cecere, known fondly in our house as “Jefe,” doesn’t like to cook fish in the house. I told him about the recipe from the story that cooks salmon enclosed in foil over an open flame – a technique that could easily be adapted to his gas grill.

The idea is especially appealing because the fish is topped with a refreshing, easy-to-prepare sauce – so even if the fish is a little over-cooked, the sauce gives it a just-right moistness and flavor.

Here’s the recipe  — and if you want more outdoor glamping recipes, go to my story

“First Night” Packet Salmon with Lemon, Thyme and Blueberry
Yield: 4 servings
1/4 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
2 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus 2 lemons, each cut into 6 thin slices
Four 6-ounce wild salmon fillets, frozen, see cook’s notes
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
8 fresh thyme sprigs
Cook’s notes: Frisch suggests that frozen seafood is oftentimes fresher than “fresh” seafood. When handled properly, it has been frozen within hours of harvest, preserving both the quality and flavor of the fish at its peak. Ask your fishmonger where the seafood is from or purchase directly from an online buying club such as Wild for Salmon, Alaska Gold, and Vital Choice. Your freezer will be stocked with last-minute meals.
1. Home Prep or for home cooking, several hours ahead: In a lidded jar, combine the blueberries, honey, and lemon juice. Use the back of a spoon to gently smash and muddle the blueberries with the honey and lemon juice. Seal the jar tightly and then chill for up to 3 days. Put four 12-inch square sheets of aluminum foil on a work surface. Lay 3 lemon slices, with edges overlapping like dominoes, in the center of each foil sheet and top with a frozen salmon fillet. Season the salmon with the salt and lightly dust with pepper. Top each salmon fillet with 2 thyme sprigs. Fold up two sides of the foil to meet in the middle and fold the edges over each other to seal the top. Then fold the two open ends of the foil to seal the packet. Seal the salmon packets in a ziplock bag and then chill for up to 24 hours.
2. Outdoors or on the grill: Fire the grill to medium heat and position the grill grate 4 inches above the coals (or turn on the gas grill at home). Using tongs, place the foil packets over direct heat and cook for 8 minutes. Using two forks, open the foil seal along the top, allowing the steam to escape and preventing the salmon from overcooking. Use a thermometer to check that the internal temperature has reached 140 degrees. An easier way to check for doneness is with a fork; the salmon should be firm and easily flake apart. (If you see white juice seeping out, a protein called albumin, it’s overcooked. But don’t worry, the blueberry syrup will moisten the fillet.) Serve the salmon directly from the foil. Spoon the blueberries over the top. Store cooled leftovers in an airtight container, chilled, for up to 1 day.

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Marche Moderne’s Dish: French, but Polynesian

Florent Marneau, executive chef-owner of Marche Moderne in Newport Coast, prepares Poisson Cru adrift in a frothy Coconut-Lime Vinaigrette. And yes, it’s perfect dish to cook when entertaining at home.

Some critics have named Newport Coast’s Marche Moderne the best French bistro in California. I wouldn’t argue that point.

Owners Florent Marneau, executive chef, and his wife Amelia Marneau, executive pastry chef, create flawless dishes made with the finest ingredients. Their dishes boast flavors that are balanced to perfection, their presentations splendidly orchestrated. Both are perfectionists and well-thought-out dishes that please both eye and palate are de rigueur.

Recently, Florent Marneau joined me in my home kitchen to show how to prepare his irresistible Poisson Cru with Coconut-Lime Vinaigrette, a dish inspired by a trip to the South Pacific. In Tahiti, he enjoyed the dish tossed and served informally in a halved coconut.

He gives the dish a more elegant take at the restaurant, arranging the components on a dressed-up dinner plate. Fish slices repose in frothy sauce at 3, 6, 9 and 12 positions.

Here’s the yuzu paste …

Here’s the white shoyu (soy sauce) …

Favorite Veg: He loves the base of leeks completely burned. The outer burned portion is removed and the interior has a complex, super-leek flavor. He slices it and serves it with a warm vinaigrette made with garlic, red-wine vinegar, green onions, shallots and chopped hard-cooked eggs. Very French.

Something That Few Know: He and Amelia love camping and bought a small motor home. They love to have a great meal with their two children around a big fire –  far from home in spots such as Wyoming or East Oregon. They plan the meals ahead and sous vide the dishes, then buy fresh fruit and vegetables at remote farms along the way.

Drink of Choice: Kir Royale, Champagne and Crème de Cassis

Poisson Cru with Coconut-Lime Vinaigrette
Yield: 4 servings
Crispy skin for crisp garnish: 3 or 4 pieces chicken skin
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Coconut Vinaigrette:
4 tablespoons yuzu juice, see cook’s notes
1 tablespoon yuzu kosho paste, see cook’s notes
Minced zest and juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon white shoyu (white soy sauce), see cook’s notes
Granulated sugar, to taste, about 1 teaspoon
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup coconut milk (include the thick-creamy cap that rests on top in the can)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 pound sushi-grade big-eye tuna, bloodline removed, cut into block without sinew, thinly cut into slices about 2-by-1-inches
1/2 pound sushi-grade Japanese or domestic fluke, thinly cut into slices (a little thinner than the tuna) about 2-by-1 1/2-inches
Minced lime zest
Ripe, but not squishy, avocado scoops (done with small melon baller device)
Breakfast radishes, cut into very thin lengthwise slices (mandolin is best), stored in chilled or iced water to curl
Green onion, cut thinly on diagonal
Micro cilantro
Lemon-infused extra-virgin olive oil
Smoked sea salt
Cook’s notes: Yuzu juice, yuzu kosho paste and white soy sauce are sold at Japanese markets; Mitsuwa in Costa Mesa is a good source.

  1. For crispy chicken skin. Place chicken skin in small skillet. Add about 1/4 cup water, just barely enough to almost cover; season with salt and pepper. Place on medium-low heat and cook until fat renders out and skin is crisp. Place on paper towel.
  2. For vinaigrette: In a large mixing bowl, add yuzu juice, yuzu kosho paste, lime zest, lime juice, white soy sauce, and sugar. Whisk in coconut milk. Add olive oil in thin steam, whisking constantly to emulsify. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. To plate: On each of 4 dinner plates, spoon sauce in middle of plate and spread out a little with the back of spoon. Top each with 2 tuna slices and 2 fluke slices. Top with minced lime zest. Garnish with small avocado spheres, radish “curls,” green onion slices, a drizzle of lemon-infused extra-virgin olive oil, pepper, micro cilantro and smoked sea salt. Serve immediately.

Here’s quick tip from Melissa’s Produce:

Tom Yum soup is a delicious sweet-sour-spicy concoction. If you use store-bought Tom Yum paste it only takes about 10 minutes to prepare it. Yes!

Yield: 3 to 4 servings
4 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon store-bought tom yum paste
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped
Optional: 1 tablespoon minced lemongrass
Juice of 1/2 lime
Optional: 2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 small red Thai chili, very thinly sliced, see cook’s notes
1 teaspoon sugar
4 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced or pulled apart if in clumps, see cook’s notes
2 green onions, sliced, including 1/2 of dark green stalks
Optional: 3/4 pound raw shelled and deveined shrimp
Garnish: about 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Garnish: lime wedges for optional use
Cook’s notes: Use caution when working with fresh chilies. Wash work surface and hands after completion and do NOT touch face or eyes. Use any fresh mushroom you like. My favorites are the shimeji mushrooms I find in small cellophane bags at Asian markets; they grow in clumps and have lovely brown caps.

  1. Heat broth in large saucepan on medium-high heat. Stir in tom yum paste, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass if using, lime juice and fish sauce if using. Add chili and sugar. Lower heat and simmer 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, green onions and if using, shrimp. Simmer long enough to cook shrimp (if using), about 2 minutes. Garnish with cilantro. Provide lime wedges for optional squeezing.





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