Delhi Delicious: Chef Geeta Bansal Brings Wow Flavors to Fingerling Spuds


Born and raised in Delhi, India, Geeta Bansal grew up in a household where formal entertaining with an international guest list was practically an everyday event.


Bansal, chef-owner of Clay Oven, Irvine, was a professor at Rutgers University as well as an urban planner, but gave it up to become a restaurateur and chef specializing in Indian cuisine.


She holds dear the childhood memories of hanging out in the kitchen with the cooks – sampling, smelling and making mental notes.

Last September she was invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. A sumptuous multi-course contemporary Indian dinner was prepared. Dubbed “The Art of Spice,” her Beard menu included dishes such as foie gras samosas with cherry chutney, rabbit vindaloo with habanero curry, as well as Kashmiri lamb koftas with spicy tomato chutney. Rosewater panna cotta, too.

VIDEO: I asked her to teach me how to make one of her favorite simple Indian dishes, jeera aloo, a potato and tomato concoction clothed in an alluring mixture of dried spices.


Sharing a unique tip, she explained that most chefs don’t add water when heating a blend of spices.

It’s a dandy trick that helps to prevent burning the delicate mix. The dish can be served hot or cold, making it an appealing picnic dish for upcoming warm weather outings.


Bring along some chapati (unleavened flatbread) is you like, and some Indian pickle.


Great Outdoors: She enjoys cooking in her backyard kitchen, listening to her cockatiel Gabby sing and puttering in the garden.

Breakfast Fave: Oat bran with walnuts and Greek yogurt mixed with honey and orange juice. Green tea on the side.

The Competition: Three European restaurants are her favorites: Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, France (Chef Pierre Gagnaire); Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain (Chef Andoni Aduriz); Tickets Bar, Barcelona, Spain (Chef Albert Adria).

Jeera Aloo
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Optional: 1/2 teaspoon dried mango powder
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1 pound halved lengthwise parboiled fingerling potato such as Butterfinger or Red Thumb varieties, see cook’s notes
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Cook’s notes: To parboil potatoes, place the halved fingerlings in water to cover. Bring to boil; boil only until fork tender; do not overcook. This is a versatile dish; if desired add one of the following: spinach, arugula, dandelion greens, shelled green peas, tatsoi, cherry tomatoes or pomegranate arils while cooking in Step #2.
1. In a small bowl, place chili powder, coriander, ground cumin, mango powder (if using), and turmeric; stir to combine. Stir in water; set aside.
2. Heat oil in large deep skillet on medium heat. Add cumin seeds, sauté until slightly browned about 30 seconds. (If it burns start over.) Add spice-water mixture and potatoes.
3. Gently toss to coat potatoes and cook until heated through. then add all dry spices. Tip: Mix all dry spices together in a little water to prevent burning when added to pan. Add potato pieces and stir carefully until the spice mixture coats all the pieces. Add salt to taste and chopped cilantro; gently toss. Serve hot or cold.
Source: Geeta Bansal, executive chef-owner Clay Oven, Irvine



Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s …

A quick-to-prepare pasta dish is a delectable way to use up leftover cooked vegetables, such as broccoli florets, broccolini or green beans. Add them in Step #2 during the last minute or two of cooking the sausage.


 Easy Rotini with Turkey Sausage, Red Bell Pepper and Cheese
Yield: 4 servings
8 ounces dried rotini or fusilli pasta, farro (or spelt) rotini or fusilli preferred
6 ounces sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
3/4 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, finely diced
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, divided use
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil or Italian parsley
Cook’s notes: Farro (or spelt) rotini are sold at natural food stores, such as Mother’s Market or Whole Foods. If you prefer use another kind of rotini or fusilli.
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on high heat.
2. Meanwhile, cook sausage and red pepper in a large nonstick skillet on medium-high heat, breaking up sausage with a spatula and stirring frequently; lower heat if necessary to prevent scorching. Cook until sausage is cooked through.
3. When water comes to a boil, add pasta; cook according to package directions (you can do this while the sausage is cooking).
4. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking liquid and drain pasta. In large bowl place pasta, pasta water, sausage and bell pepper; toss. Sprinkle on half of cheese, pepper and oil; toss. Add basil and toss. Divide between 4 shallow bowls. Top with remaining cheese.

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Louie and Zov, An Irresistible Culinary Marriage

Chef Louie Jocson makes Sumac-Scented Bass

and Zov Transforms the Bistro Design


At 15, Louie Jocson put down culinary roots with Zov Karamardian and her family-run restaurant. Working as a dishwasher at Zov’s Bistro and Bakery in Tustin was his first job. Zov recognized his potential and encouraged him to attend culinary school.

He took her advice, graduating from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco before working his way up the ranks at many of Orange County’s noted restaurants. In 2011 he opened Red Table in Huntington Beach where he was executive chef and partner at the acclaimed restaurant.

Sometimes life has a way of coming full circle. Last summer, Jocson sold his shares in Red Table and returned to Zov’s in the prestigious role of director of culinary operations. His reunion was just in time to help open Zov’s Anaheim, the newest of Zov’s five eateries in the county.


His delectable Sumac Crusted Sea Bass is a dish that shows the flavor marriage of Zov’s vibrant flavor profiles and his understanding of the evolving culinary scene.


… sumac …

Sumac, the tart brick- to purple-red dried berries produced on wild bushes that grow in subtropical and temperate regions of the world (including the Eastern Mediterranean), adds both color and brightness to the dish.

The Video Tells All: Coated with salt, pepper and ground sumac, the grilled fish sits atop a bright green tangle of green vegetables and is topped with a citrus-y beurre blanc sauce.

 Kitchen Staples… urfa pepper …

Favorite new-to-you ingredient: Thanks to Zov, he has discovered the urfa pepper. It’s moderate in heat and has enticing smokiness and earthiness, as well as subtle chocolate notes. He uses it dried and ground to finish off soup, risotto or herb butters used on top of grilled steak. Or, he says it is crazy good sprinkled on vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes along with a little coarse salt.


Likes and dislikes: He has an extremely broad spectrum of foods that he enjoys. But there is something about processed peanut butter that Jocson doesn’t like. He says he would rather eat fish eyeballs.

Kitchen music: He likes to listen to Dean Martin when he cooks. He says it makes him feel good, especially the “song about the moon looking like big pizza pie.”

ZOV transforms her Bistro in Tustin

She “raised the bar!”


Wrap-around bar – cocktails, draft beers, bar-food menu.

Zov has unveiled the $750,000 remodel of her flagship restaurant in Tustin whose centerpiece is a wrap-around wood bar that features a dedicated food menu as well as expanded artisan cocktails, 25 wines-by-the-glass and several craft beers on tap.

ZovDining400The extensive remodel also includes the addition of 2 private state-of-the-art dining rooms accommodating groups of up to 15 and featuring audio/visual capabilities; updated lighting system with soffit illumination and several imported fixtures; new furnishings including dining chairs and tables as well as newly upholstered banquettes; and other features.



Sumac Crusted Sea Bass with Spinach and Shaved Brussels Sprouts

Yield: 2 servings
2 (6-ounces each) Australian sea bass (barramundi) skinless fillets, see cook’s notes
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Enough sumac to generously sprinkle one side of fillets
2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons drained capers
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cups teardrop tomatoes or grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes, halved top to bottom
4 tablespoons butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups shaved Brussels sprouts, see cook’s notes
2 cups spinach leaves
Garnish: 2 tablespoon microgreens, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: Salmon fillets or any mild white fish fillets can substitute for the Australian sea bass. The easiest way to shave (thinly slice) Brussels sprouts is to use a mandolin, but you can also cut crosswise with a sharp knife. Microgreens as immature salad greens harvested when they are only 14 to 20 days old; they are sold at Trader Joe’s in refrigerated plastic containers.
1. Season fish fillets with salt and pepper on both sides. Sprinkle sumac over one side. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil on medium-high heat in a skillet that is large enough to hold both fillets in a single layer. Brown fish sumac-side down; turn and heat until cooked through. Remove fish and set aside; keep it warm.
2. In a hot pan on medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon oil. Add shallots, garlic and capers; cook just until garlic is tender but not browned, about 1 minute. Add orange juice, lemon juice and tomatoes; cook about 1 minute to reduce liquid. Off heat, stir in butter one piece at a time, allowing butter to melt before adding the next chunk.
3. Meanwhile, in another pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil on medium-high heat. Add spinach and Brussels sprouts. Cook, stirring occasionally, until spinach wilts and mixture is piping hot. Place vegetable mixture in center of two plates and top with fish. Pour sauce on top and around fish and garnish with microgreens.
Source: Louie Jocson, director of culinary operations, Zov’s Bistro and Bakery (Tustin), Zov’s Cafes (Irvine and Newport Coast), Zov’s Anaheim, Zov’s at John Wayne Airport


… A quick tip from Melissa’s …


Black bean tostadas – a quick and easy last-minute meal.

So tasty and so quick when using canned beans.

Black Bean Tostadas with Radishes, Cherry Tomatoes and Avocado

Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 small white onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
2 (15-ounces each) cans black beans
8 tostada shells
Garnishes: 1 sliced avocado, 3 thinly sliced radishes, 1 cup shredded Jack cheese or queso fresco, lime wedges, salsa, sour cream
1. In a skillet, warm oil on medium heat. Add garlic, onion and pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion softens, about 8 minutes. Stir in cumin and chili powder. Add beans to pan with their juices. Stir and mash until beans are a chunky mixture –  only partially pureed. Heat through, stirring occasionally.
2. Assemble: Top each tostada shell with about 1/2 cup bean mixture. Top with garnishes and serve. cathythomascookslogoModified

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Three Easy Easter Desserts, Sweeeeeet. Team Them With Fresh Berries.


Meringue cookies with chocolate and pecans nest atop marinated fresh berries. Yum!

These Easter sweets fall into the easy-peasy school of dessert preparation. They are old favorites of mine, treats that I can practically prepare with my eyes closed. All team with fresh berries, scrumptious symbols of springtime.

All three treats can be prepared a day or two in advance, making a more relaxed and happier host on Easter Sunday.


French Yogurt Cake with Marmalade Glaze

Made in a loaf pan, this delicious cake is a scrumptious cross between pound cake and sponge cake. It’s glazed with an on-so-glossy mix of strained marmalade heated with a little water.

Although orange marmalade works beautifully, I often use Rose’s Lemon and Lime Marmalade (frequently available at Bristol Farms, Newport Beach, and Surfas Culinary District, Costa Mesa).



I like to use it like shortcake, topping a slice with whipped cream or ice cream and generous scoops of fresh berries. But the cake is very versatile.  It is also delicious topped with store-bought or homemade lemon curd and clouds of sweetened whipped cream.

Peanut Brittle Bars


The best bar cookie on the planet.













I love the crunch and the salty-sweet flavor notes of these easy to make bar cookies. The cookie crust is crisp and buttery good.

The topping goes on top of the hot crust; it’s a trio of salted peanuts, chocolate chips and store-bought caramel sauce mixed with a little flour. Baked until golden brown and cooled for about an hour, they are ready for cutting into bars.


I like to serve them cut into triangles, and accompany them with ripe locally-grown strawberries. If you feel ambitious, chocolate dip the strawberries.

Easy Meringue Nighty-Night Cookies with Marinated Mixed Berries


If you have a stand-alone electric mixer, Nighty-Night Cookies are probably one of the easiest treats you can bake from scratch.

They are light as air, with chocolate and nuts hidden inside. When my daughter was a child she called them “angel kisses.” The recipe uses French meringue, the simplest style of meringue to prepare.


Although in classic French baking, a bowl-shaped meringue would hold the berries, but that requires a skilled hand and a pastry bag; this easy version has the marinated berries in the bottom of a bowl with the meringue cookie(s) plopped on top.

Voila, my friends. Easy and delicious, too.


Meringue Nighty-Night Cookies with Marinated Mixed Berries
Yield: about 24 cookies, enough marinated berries for 6 servings
2 large egg whites
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans
Optional: 1 teaspoon vanilla, see cook’s notes
Marinated berries, see cook’s notes
Garnish: sprigs of fresh mint
Cook’s notes: When I use these cookies as toppers for marinated berries, I like to keep them bed-sheet white, so I omit the vanilla. In a bowl, combine 1/2 cup medium-dry sherry, 1 teaspoon minced orange or tangerine zest, 1/4 cup fresh orange or tangerine juice and 1 teaspoon sugar; stir to dissolve sugar. Add 2 1/2 cups hulled and quartered strawberries (if large, cut into sixths).Refrigerate at least 1 hour, tossing occasionally. Add 1/2 cup fresh raspberries and 1/2 cup fresh blackberries; gently toss and set aside for about 15 minutes. Gently toss before serving.
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In an electric stand mixer, beat egg whites until foamy on medium speed. Add salt and increase speed to high. When soft peaks form, add 1 tablespoon sugar and beat 30 seconds. Repeat adding sugar one tablespoon at a time and beating 30 seconds afterwards, until all sugar is added. After all sugar is added, beat 1 minute on high speed. Fold in chocolate chips, walnuts and, if using, vanilla. Drop tablespoonful portions onto prepared sheets. I use two spoons – one to scoop and the other to push the batter off the spoon.
3. Place in middle of preheated oven. Turn off heat and allow cookies to “bake” overnight. OR, bake in a 325-degree oven for about 25 minutes. Cool.
4. For serving: Divide berries and the marinade between 6 bowls. Top each with one or two cookies. Garnish with sprigs of fresh mint.
Advance preparation: Cookies can be prepared up to 3 days in advance. I leave them at room temperature on the baking sheet covered loosely with parchment paper or waxed paper. Strawberries can be tossed with marinade up to 3 hours in advance and refrigerated; toss in remaining berries about 15 minutes before serving.

Peanut Brittle Bars
Yield: about 48 bars
Butter for greasing pan
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into about 16 pieces
2 cups salted roasted peanuts (not dry roasted)
1 cup milk chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 (12.5-ounce) jar caramel ice cream topping
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; preheat to 350 degrees. Grease a 15-by-10-by-1-inch baking pan (jellyroll pan) with butter.
2. In large bowl, combine all base ingredients except butter. Stir to blend. Add butter; using a pastry cutter or large fork, cut in butter until crumbly (you can also pulse on/off in a food processor, but make sure to stop when it gets crumbly, do not process until it forms dough). Press evenly into prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven until golden brown, about 12 to 14 minutes.
3. Sprinkle peanuts and chocolate chips over warm base. In small bowl, combine caramel topping and 3 tablespoons flour; blend well. Drizzle evenly over chocolate chips and peanuts. Bake at 350 degrees for an additional 15 to 17 minutes or until topping is set and golden brown. Cool 1 hour. Run a knife around the edge. Cut into bars.
Advance preparation: Bars can be prepared up to three days in advance. Store at room temperature loosely covered.
Source: Adapted from “Pillsbury Best Cookies Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, $19.95)

French Yogurt Cake with Marmalade Glaze
Yield: 8 servings
Butter for greasing pan
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds, see cook’s notes
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup plain yogurt (not Greek-style)
3 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup flavorless oil, such as canola or safflower
1/2 cup lemon marmalade or orange marmalade, strained
1 teaspoon water
Cook’s notes: To grind almonds, place slivered almonds (without skin) in food processor; whirl until finely ground.
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan with butter. Place pan on baking sheet.
2. Whisk together the flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt in medium bowl.
3. In a large bowl, combine sugar and zest; use fingertips to rub zest into sugar until sugar is slightly moist and aromatic. Add yogurt, eggs and vanilla; whisk vigorously until mixture is very well blended. Still whisking, gradually add dry ingredients. Switch to a large rubber or silicone spatula and fold in oil. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top.
4. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until cake begins to come away from the side of the pan; it should be golden brown and a thin knife inserted into the center will come out clean. Place pan on cooling rack and cool for 5 minutes. Unmold and place on cooling rack right side up. Cool to room temperature.
5. For glaze: Put marmalade in small saucepan and stir in water. Heat on medium-high, stirring, until jelly is hot and melts. Using a pastry brush, gently brush cake with glaze.
6. For serving: If desired, use the cake for strawberry “shortcake.” Cut into eight slices and place in shallow bowls or plates with lips. If desired, brush top with high-quality strawberry jam. Top with sweetened whipped cream and (hulled and cut) fresh ripe strawberries. Finish with more whipped cream.
Advance preparation: Wrapped well, this cake can be prepared 3 days in advance at room temperature. It can be frozen airtight without the glaze.
Source: “Baking From My Home to Yours” by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin, $40)


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Chef Marc Johnson, Oak Grill at Island Hotel, Shares Composed Salad with Burrata Cheese and Prosciutto


Part of the allure of Oak Grill is the outdoor garden patio, a dining option shaded by beguiling old trees whose limbs host charming cylindrical lanterns. The restaurant opened in late spring last year at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach. Although the successful redesign may be what first gets diners’ attention, it’s my guess that the food is what truly wins them over.

oakgrillpatio2Marc Johnson, Oak Grill’s executive chef, crafts dishes that showcase seasonal ingredients in irresistible ways. One bite reveals evidence of a very talented kitchen, headed up by a chef that puts a lot of thought into his dishes. Nothing on the plate seems random or boring.


Crucial to Johnson’s culinary know-how were the years he spent working with the acclaimed chef James Boyce, both at Studio at the Montage Laguna Beach and later at Boyce’s restaurant Cotton Row in Huntsville, Alabama.

VIDEO MAKES IT EASY: Chef Johnson showed me how to make his seasonal composed salad, a colorful assemblage of roasted carrots, prosciutto and burrata cheese (fresh soft-textured Italian-style cheese with an outer shell of fresh mozzarella and a core of cream). Arranged on an elongated plate, the dish is garnished with a date relish, a sweet-herbaceous-citrusy mixture of dates, lemon zest and juice, fresh herbs and toasted pine nuts.


Every bite of this salad is delicious, yielding different combinations of seasonally-driven flavors and contrasting textures.


You can simplify it by using fewer components.

But why mess with perfection?

Great Cut: Johnson’s wife Abby is a barber in Corona del Mar and owns CDM Barbers with her mother.

What’s New: A favorite new-to-him ingredient is zershk (also called barberry), a small red Persian berry. He says that they are mildly sweet and very tart; he uses them in rice or salads.

The Competition: His favorite Orange County eateries include Taiko in Irvine for sushi, as well as Ortica Pizzeria in Costa Mesa. About the later, he says he appreciates the char created in the wood-fired oven and the song-and-dance of the open kitchen.

Fanning Artistic Flames: While studying sculpture and metal craft at the University of Arizona, he made big batches of breakfast burritos and sold them to hungry co-eds. Moki’s Open Kitchen, paying homage to his childhood nickname, paid the rent.

Best Grilled Bok Choy: The irresistible taste? The secret is a marinade that includes Yuzu Kosho, a seasoning paste with yuzu (aromatic Japanese citrus), chilies and salt.

Insider Secret: He collects socks.

Roasted Carrot, Prosciutto and Burrata Salad with Date Relish
Yield: 4 servings
1 pound baby heirloom carrots, preferably different colors (stems intact if possible)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup pitted dates cut in matchsticks
1 tablespoon minced or finely grated lemon zest, colored portion of peel
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Optional: balsamic syrup, see cook’s notes
4 ounces burrata, quartered
3 to 4 fresh figs or dried figs, quartered
2 handfuls of baby kale
Vinaigrette: 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil mixed with 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
8 thin slices prosciutto
8 crostini (thinly sliced toasted baguette)
Cook’s notes: To make balsamic syrup, gently simmer aged balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan until reduced by half in volume. Cool. To toast pine nuts, place in small skillet on medium heat. Shake handle to redistribute, heating until very lightly browned and aromatic.
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel carrots, leaving a small portion of the stem attached. Place in single layer on rimmed baking sheet and toss with oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Roast until tender-crisp and lightly caramelized, about 15 to 20 minutes. Cool. (Can be done in advance and refrigerated.) Cut in half lengthwise.
2. Prepare date relish: Combine dates, zest, cilantro, mint, pine nuts, oil and juice. Set aside. If using, prepare balsamic syrup and cool.
3. Plate: On 4 long rectangular plates, place burrata cheese in middle. If using, drizzle on some balsamic syrup, using either a squeeze bottle or small spoon. Place figs and carrots on plates. Toss baby kale and vinaigrette; scatter on plate. Top with date relish. Twist each thin slice of prosciutto into a quasi-rose shape and add. Place crostini at one end of each plate.
Source: Marc Johnson, executive chef Oak Grill, Island Hotel, Newport Beach


… Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s …

According to celebrity chef Michael Symon …

Brussels sprouts are a lot more versatile than we give them credit for.

 occhefMelissaTipTurkeyBrussels500One secret is to slice them into really thin ribbons and then toss in a flavorful vinaigrette.

Turkey Cutlet with Brussels Sprout Salad
Yield: 4 servings
½ cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 (4-ounce) turkey cutlets, pounded to a ¼-inch thickness
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoon honey
¼ cup chopped fresh tarragon leaves
4 cups thinly sliced Brussels sprouts (from 3/4 pound)
1. Put a large skillet over medium-high heat. Put the flour in a shallow bowl and season well with the salt and pepper. Season both sides of the turkey with salt and pepper. Dredge the turkey in the seasoned flour, shaking off the excess.
2. Add the olive oil to the preheated skillet. Put the turkey in the pan and cook until light golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side.
3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar, mustard, honey, tarragon, and a good pinch of salt. Add the shaved Brussels sprouts and toss to combine. Put the turkey cutlets on plates, top with the Brussels sprouts salad, and serve.


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The Joy of Cooking – With Sue


(Sue and Cathy while conducting a culinary tour to Greece, 1995)

Clad only in underpants. That was my attire the first time I met Sue. I was four and my big brother George took me to Sue’s house to swim in her family’s pool. I remember the event because after the dip, wearing those wet skivvies, I was sent home. My teenage brother stayed on to make time with Sue.


(Sue in high school, taken by a Los Angeles Times’ photographer)

Who could have imagined that less than three decades after that swim, Sue and I would build a culinary career together? It was a cooking school bond that would have us teaching side by side for over 20 years, from the late 70s through 2000. Sue and George had married by that time and built a happy life together. Our mutual love for cooking and teaching made us a good team. Thousands and thousands of Orange County home cooks took our Tasting Spoon classes.


(Prepping for a cooking class mid 80’s)

Sue Young was downright fearless. Not prone to “culinary stage fright,” she never seemed nervous, whether we were cooking for 30 students or 300. If the oven holding a ginormous prime rib burst into flames, she made a joke while I doused the flames with baking soda. If a soufflé collapsed she renamed it using a moniker that praised its density. When equipment failed, electricity went out, or students asked if they could substitute cottage cheese for butter, she carried on.


(Teaching at Sue’s home in the San Fernando Valley, the home that my parents built and I grew up in. Later Sue and George purchased the home and raised their family there.)

Often at the beginning of class I would explain our relationship to students by saying that Sue was married to my perfect brother George. She denied his perfection by making loud gagging noises in the background.

Stories flowed. Laughter erupted. Wine poured.

We felt like pioneers. The Food Network didn’t exist, and only a handful of teachers were giving cooking classes in Southern California. Unlike most cooking classes today, our 3-hour marathons were demonstrations rather than student-participation episodes. We prepared six recipes, offering troubleshooting advice along the way. Teaching two classes a day, the morning class was repeated in the evening for new sets of eyes and palates.

During our tenure we saw food trends come and go. In the early years, French cooking was the rage and I remember boning whole ducks through their necks, then stuffing them with heaven-knows-what. Sue looked on with a dimpled smile, content that she wasn’t prone to such folly.

Food processors were the new must-have culinary gizmo in the 70s. We pureed everything from asparagus to zucchini, using the device to amaze our students. Merrily we ground, chopped and minced.

At about the same time, the popularity of nouvelle cuisine took hold with lighter, more delicate dishes that emphasized presentation; we carved root vegetables in to flowers and tomatoes into roses. On the plate, dishes were composed to yield balance and color contrast. Edible flowers produced a final flourish.


The culinary landscape was going through a revolution, and we went along for the ride.

Teaching cooking was just part of what we joined forces to do. Not long after we started teaching, we hosted international culinary tours to Europe and Asia. The culinary-travel concept was new and often we had to sweet talk chefs into the idea of letting tourists into their kitchens. We busted down barriers in renowned restaurant kitchens, taking notes and asking questions, while our guests reveled in their delicious good fortune. Sometimes Sue’s height worked to our advantage when foreign chefs mistook her for the oh-so-tall Julia Child.

When trying to ferret out which of Sue’s recipes to include in this story (three from the thousands she created when we were teaching together), I called friend Anne Nelson to give me a place to start. Nelson went through her recipes and counted 95 different classes that she took with us. One of her favorites is a simple bar cookie that Sue dubbed with a name that isn’t used in polite company, a somewhat offensive term used to describe a promiscuous woman. Students thought the name was hilarious, and embraced the easy-to-prepare bar cookie with glee. I’m renaming them “Sue’s Naughty Bars.” She called them Slut Bars.

CathySueShower473Sue has retired and lives in Marina Del Rey. She still makes my brother smile and adores drinking Champagne. And she still tells great stories.


Sue hornswoggled this delicious salad recipe from the chef at the Tate Museum in London in the early 80s. We were conducting a tour that included cooking classes in London, Florence and Venice.

Joan Cromwell’s Salad
Yield: 8 servings as a first course, 4 as a main course
1 pound green beans
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup sweet pickle, diced
1 teaspoon minced lemon zest
1 pound cooked bay shrimp, see cook’s notes
1 head butter lettuce, washed, separated into leaves
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt and white pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dry ground mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup vegetable oil or extra-virgin olive oil
Salad components:
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup diced sweet pickle
1 teaspoon minced lemon zest
1 pound cooked bay shrimp, see cook’s notes
1 head butter lettuce, washed, separated into leaves
Cook’s notes: To toast almonds place in single layer on rimmed baking sheet and bake 3 to 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool. I like the sweet taste of the tiny bay shrimp (90 to 125 per pound) sourced from Canada that are sold at Santa Monica seafood in Costa Mesa.
1. Trim beans and cut into 2-inch lengths. Fill a large pan or Dutch oven 3/4 full with water; bring to boil on high heat. Add beans to boiling water. Cook until barely tender, 3 to 10 minutes depending on size of beans. Drain and refresh with ice water. Drain. Wrap in clean kitchen towel. Refrigerate until chilled, or up to 2 days in advance.
2. In a large bowl, whisk vinaigrette ingredients together. Add beans and remaining ingredients except lettuce; gently toss. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Place lettuce “cups” on plates or serving platter. Divide salad among leaves and serve.
3. Tiny stuffed potatoes make delicious appetizers or side dishes. For these, Sue fills them with a combination of blue cheese and cream, and then tops them with bacon and green onions. She baked them atop a bed of course salt to keep them upright. If you prefer not to use salt, use a baking pan that allows a little space between the potatoes but is small enough to help keep them erect.

suesaladTateAnd … The Devil’s Baked Potatoes à la Sue


The Devil’s Baked Potato Appetizers
Yield: 20
Coarse salt, such as kosher
20 bite-sized potatoes, either small red new potatoes or fingerlings
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Garnish: 4-5 strips bacon, cooked crisp, crumbled
Garnish: 3 thinly sliced green onions, including 1/2 of dark green stalks
1. Place salt in oven-proof platter or baking pan (big enough to hold 20 small potatoes leaving a little space between them, 1/2-inch deep. Fifteen minutes before baking, preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Place potatoes in saucepan and cover with water. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium, cover and cook 8-10 minutes, or until barely tender. Drain. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, use small end of melon-ball cutter to remove one scoop from center of one side.
3. In a medium bowl, combine blue cheese, cream and pepper. Mash until roughly combined. Pour olive oil into a small dish (such as a custard cup); dip just the top of each potato (the side where you scooped it out) into oil. Spoon the cheese mixture into the cavity of the potato. Place potato filled-side-up in salt in baking pan. Repeat with remaining potatoes.
4. Bake 9 to 11 minutes, or until piping hot and skin is a little crisp. Sprinkle with bacon and green onions. Diners can dust any residual salt off or leave it on to suit their taste.
Source: Sue Young


Sue’s Naughty Bars
Yield: 36 to 48 bars
Soft butter for greasing parchment paper
1 package white cake mix, such as Duncan Hines Classic White
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 cup finely chopped nuts, such as walnuts, pecans or pistachios
1/2 cup dried cranberries or apricots, or a combination of both
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with parchment paper. Grease paper with butter.
2. In a large bowl of an electric mixer, combine cake mix, oil and eggs. Mix on medium speed about 1 1/2 minutes, or until thoroughly blended, scraping down sides with a rubber spatula as needed. Spread half of the mixture on the prepared parchment paper using a rubber spatula.
3. In medium saucepan combine chocolate chips, sweetened condensed milk and butter. Bring to simmer on high heat; reduce heat to medium and gently simmer with mixture bubbling around the edges, stirring frequently until butter and chocolate melts. Cool 10 minutes. Stir. Pour chocolate mixture over cake base.
4. Add nuts and dried fruit to remaining cake batter; stir to combine. With a small spoon (and a clean finger) place dabs of mixture over chocolate layer in single layer (it is not possible to spread into a layer). Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Let rest on cooling rack for 15 minutes. Run a kitchen knife around edges. Invert on cutting board. Remove parchment paper. Cut into bars.
Source: Sue Youngsuenaughtybarsclose

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Valentine’s Day Treasure – Buy or Make French Macarons, Sunshine


Pastry Chef Stephane Treand’s hands moved effortlessly as he piped small mounds of macaron batter onto large baking sheets. One hand guided the bag, while the other applied gentle pressure, the piping dance so ingrained in memory that his movements required little concentration. Nine rows of nine, each little macaron shell looking like the next.  macaronStephanePoses450(Pastry Chef Stephane Treand at The Pastry School in Costa Mesa’s SOCO Collection. – Thanks to Paul Rodriguez for this photo.)

A group of food writers watched knowing that they would soon be trying to replicate Treand’s macaron moves. The scribes gathered to take a baking class at The Pastry School, Treand’s new teaching area located next to his pastry shop, ST Patisserie Chocolat.


(You can buy them next door at ST Patisserie Chocolat, but what fun to make them!)

The shop feels Parisian, but not in an old-school sense. The pastries seem traditional yet re-imagined; innovative. French-born Treand is a recognized master craftsman. In 2004 he received the highest honor that there is in the French pastry industry when he was awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de France certification by the President of France.





Step by step he showed the participants every nuance, from how to “glue down” two layers of parchment paper on the baking sheets with dabs of batter (the bottom sheet was lined with boldface circles that showed through the top sheet – stencils to guide the baker with sizing and shaping), to how to fill and sandwich shells with ganache.


Anita Lau (l), Diary of a Mad Hungry Woman blogger, teamed up with Anne Marie Panoringan (r), a food writer for OC Weekly. After seeing her lovely baked macaron shells, Lau said that she was quite pleased with herself because she never considered herself a baker.


Priscilla Willis (l), She’s Cookin blogger, brought her baking-enthusiast daughter, Chloe Willis (r).


They also turned out lush macarons, reveling in the fun they had in the process.


Piping macaron batter into Valentine’s Day heart shapes, Treand told me that he was leaving to work in Japan for a few days. He serves as executive chef-consultant for Occitanial Pastry Shop in Tokyo.

The perfect macaron, he said, is shiny on the top and the crust is crisp; yet inside it shouldn’t be hard, the center should be a little chewy. There should be a rough-textured “foot” or “crown” at the base of each shell, a ring that forms during baking when the batter slightly rises.

He had high praises for the class as they packed up their bounty in take-home bakery boxes. Sweet words for sweet treats. Valentine’s Day treasure.

Cathy’s Notes: Chefs use scales to measure ingredients. It is the most accurate method to measure, which is especially important with fine baking. For years I’ve owned a small glass digital scale that has served me well. There are several models priced at about $50. Days after the class, I went back to The Pastry School to measure in the ingredients with measuring cups and spoons, but a pastry chef would never rely on those loosey-goosey implements.


Chef Stephane Treand’s Macarons
Yield: to make 50 to 60 macarons
3 3/4 cups almond powder (335 grams), see cook’s notes
3 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons powdered sugar (440 grams)
1 1/4 cups egg whites, room temperature (270 grams)
1 tablespoon egg white powder (5 grams), see cook’s notes
3/4 cup granulated sugar (150 grams)
Optional: purple food coloring gel
Filling of choice, recipes follow
Cook’s notes: To make almond powder, finely grind blanched (skinned) almonds in a food processor (slivered almonds work well for this); strain (sift) two times through a sieve. Measure the nuts after sifting. If they seem moist, spread on rimmed baking sheet and place in a 250-degree oven until dry but not browned; cool before use. Egg white powder is different from meringue powder because it doesn’t contain cornstarch. It is sold at Surfas Culinary District in Costa Mesa and some baking supply stores. Instead of parchment paper, nonstick reusable Silpat macaron mats that have circles on them to help form macarons are sold at Or use a 1 1/2-inch ring cutter to trace circles with dark ink (such as a Sharpie), 1 1/2-inches apart on parchment paper. Place this reusable parchment upside down on baking sheet and top with another sheet of parchment.
1. Sift almond powder with powdered sugar; set aside. Preheat oven to 325 degrees (or 300 degrees for a convection oven).
2. Place egg white in the large bowl of a stand mixer; beat on medium speed for 30 seconds using the whisk attachment. Combine egg white powder and granulated sugar. Add about a tablespoon of the sugar mixture to the egg whites and continue to beat about 45 seconds. Keep adding the sugar mixture to the egg whites in small amounts, beating about 45 seconds between additions. Beat until egg whites are firm and glossy, being careful not to overbeat them. They should be stiff enough that when bowl is turned upside down the mixture (meringue) stays in place.
3. Using a sturdy spatula, mix almond powder-powdered sugar mixture into egg whites; mix rigorously enough to combine well (mixture will end up a little runny). Remove half of mixture to a separate bowl and stir in just enough food coloring to tint the mixture light lavender.
4. Line large baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat (see cook’s notes), securing corners of paper by placing a small dab of the batter beneath each corner (this will “glue” the paper in place). Fit two large pastry bags with plain 3/8-inch tips. Using a rubber spatula, place two large scoops of the macaron batter into each bag, one with the lavender batter, one plain. You want the bags about half full. Place bag on its side on work surface and push batter down toward to tip and twist to close open end. Holding bag at a 60-degree angle, pipe small mounds of mixture (about 1 inch in diameter), spacing them about 1 1/2 inches apart. Tap baking sheets by lifting sheet about 3 inches from work surface and dropping flat on the work surface. This will spread the batter slightly and reduce air bubbles. Bake in preheated convection oven for 12 minutes or in the center of a conventional oven for about 15 minutes, or until firm to a light touch. If they are baking unevenly, rotate the baking sheet 180 degrees half way through baking. Cool on parchment set on cooling rack; peel them from parchment.
5. Match macaron shells that are the same size. You can use two that are the same color, or one cream-colored and the other lavender. Pipe ganache on flat side of one shell and place second shell on top – sandwich style. Press lightly until ganache is visible all the way around but not oozing out. For best results, place completed macarons on sheet pan, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving. Or freeze up to 1 week (once thawed they should not be refrozen). Because they are small, they defrost quickly.
Source: Chef Stephane Treand, The Pastry School, The SoCo Collection, Costa Mesa


Vanilla Ganache
Yield: about 3 1/2 cups
Scant 1/4 cup cocoa butter, small disks, (25 g)
1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream (250 grams)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste
2 1/3 cups white chocolate, small disks such as Valrhona or Callebaut (375 grams)
5 tablespoons butter, cut into 10 pieces (60 grams)
Cook’s notes: Vanilla paste, small disks of Valrhona or Callebaut white chocolate and cocoa butter are sold at Surfas Culinary District in Costa Mesa and online at
1. Place cocoa butter in a microwave safe container; microwave just until melted.
2. In a medium saucepan, combine whipping cream and vanilla paste. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Remove from heat and stir in one third of the white chocolate disks; stir until melted. Add half of the remaining white chocolate and stir until melted. Add remaining white chocolate and stir until melted. Stir in melted cocoa butter. Add butter and stir until melted. Line a rimmed baking sheet with plastic wrap. Spread ganache on plastic and cool.
Source: Chef Stephane Treand, The Pastry School, The SoCo Collection, Costa Mesa


Some of the ingredients for this Cassis Ganache (that are shown in the photos) are difficult to find. There are a wide variety of purees (coulis) at Surfas Culinary District in Costa Mesa, but they don’t stock the cassis flavor. Cassis puree is sold on The recipe can be found on the Orange County Register’s Website at

For information about upcoming classes at The Pastry School, go to




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Six-Course Vegetable Tasting Menu – Stonehill Tavern’s Raj Dixit Produce Wizardry

It makes me sad when someone tells me that they don’t like vegetables! Really sad.

I’m not a vegetarian. But I know how delicious fruits and vegetables can be.


Take a look at what Executive Chef Raj Dixit is turning out at Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort & Spa, Dana Point.

A luscious multi-course “Vegetable Discovery Tasting Menu.” So darn luscious.




Off menu starters included some of the best very-crisp Kale Chips I have ever tasted (beautifully seasoned with the Japanese seasoning mix, togarashi).

stonehillwhitemisomarshmallow300 And … light as air White Miso Marshmallows topped with Maca tea powder.



FIRST COURSE: Every bite was scrumptious of this avocado-themed dish.  Blood orange came along for the ride, plus candy-cane beets, slivers of baby coconut, sorrel, radishes, hearts of palm and a crisp quinoa tuille.

And look at the presentation. A crystal fish-bowl like vessel atop a lotus-folded linen napkin. Lovely.

Our beverage? A gin sour. Nice.


Second, ROOTS, SHOOTS, TUBERS EN PAPILLOTE: Veggies cooked in a bag are added to incredible 24-hour tomato broth.

A roll stuffed with a woodsy whole mushroom was served on the side.



COURSE NUMBER THREE: Caramalized Sunchokes adorned with plenty of Vaucluse winter truffles (Provence – France), coddled egg and a tasty foam. On the side? Grilled artichokes with three optional dipping sauces. Don’t get full, we’re only half way done.


FOUR – Carrot Agnolotti: Plump little stuffed pasta rounds – seasoned with cardamom and sunflower seeds and adrift is a dashi scented sauce.


On the side, a generous assortment of cauliflower, all colors, plus some green romanesco

– some fried, some not. All very, very tasty.


VEGETABLE-FRUIT DESSERT, SO LUSH: Pastry Chef Maren Henderson never fails to create desserts that are irresistible. Here she teamed parsnip pudding with raw honey, hazelnut praline, tangerines and showoff-pieces of caramelized meringue sheets.

Note that I have eaten part of this dessert before I remembered to take a photo. Bad Cathy. So bad. So happy.

The very generous multi-course Vegetable Discovery Tasting Menu at Stonehill Tavern is $125 per person, not including gratuity. Stonehill Tavern is in the St. Regis Resort & Spa, Dana Point. (949) 234-3200


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Top Chef Celebrity Shirley Chung, Steams Fish in Banana Leaves, Luscious and Simple



Shirley Chung is gregarious and quick to laugh, but behind the cheery smile is a chef-restauranteur who is highly focused on her craft.


Now her high-energy personality is at work in a new restaurant in Irvine, Twenty Eight, where she is executive chef and co-owner. She dubs the restaurant’s cuisine “modern Chinese,” cooking that she says represents Chinese culture and cuisine around the world, with dishes that respect traditional flavors and utilize local seasonal ingredients. She says that it is interesting to see that in many restaurants in China, a younger generation of chefs are bringing back old techniques with modern approaches.

Twenty Eight Restaurant & Lounge is at 19530 Jamboree Road, Irvine.

 She joined me in my home kitchen to teach me how to prepare fish fillets steamed in banana leaves, a simple yet irresistible dish accompanied with fennel-citrus salad.


Using fresh leaves to wrap the fish brings alluring perfume, while a finishing drizzle of spicy aged soy adds a just-right burst of flavor.




COMING UP Benefiting No Kid Hungry:
TWENTY EIGHT Restaurant & Lounge will host its first exclusive Chef Dinner prepared by Top Chef New Orleans star contestants Chef Shirley Chung and Chef Nina Compton. This fierce female duo is coming together to present an incredible menu for two seatings per night on Wednesday, February 25th and Thursday, February 26th.

Chef Shirley and Chef Nina will present a seven-course collaborative menu. Each chef will present three courses inspired by their competition dishes on Top Chef Season 11. The dinner will culminate with Twenty Eight’s noted Black & White Dessert. The dinner will feature two seatings from 5 p.m. – 6 p.m. and again from 7:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. each night on Wednesday, February 25th and Thursday, February 26thTickets for the Top Chef Duo Dinner are priced at $188 per guest ($68 for wine and cocktail pairings) and are available for purchase at

The Competition: Her favorite restaurant (not including Twenty Eight) is Raku in Las Vegas, a small Japanese restaurant with delicious yakitori and an inviting selection of sake. The eatery is open until 2 AM, making it a popular after-work hangout for culinary professionals. The restaurant has been a three-time semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the Best Chef Southwest category.

Veg Hero: Hands down her favorite vegetable is napa cabbage. She says that in China, every family cooks up hundreds of pound of the pale green wonder every year, often fermenting it, or stir-frying it with pork belly.


Shirley Surprise: She used to be a radio disc jockey for a Chinese language FM station in San Francisco. She had two shows; one was a pop culture music show, the other an interview show.


 Chef shows how to cut citrus into supremes (peeled sections).

Steamed Cod in Banana Leaf with Chili-Infused Aged Soy Sauce and Citrus-Fennel Salad
Yield: 6 servings
1/2 cup aged soy sauce, see cook’s notes
2 tablespoons mirin, see cook’s notes
1 Serrano chili, thinly sliced crosswise, see cook’s notes
6 fresh banana leaves, cut into 7-by-7-inch square pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 (4 ounces each) fillets fresh local black cod, skin on
1 fresh fennel bulb, trimmed, halved, thinly sliced
1 seedless orange, cut into supremes (peeled sections), see cook’s notes
1 seedless grapefruit, cut into supremes (peeled sections), see cook’s notes
2 Meyer lemons, one cut into supremes (peeled sections), other cut in half, see cook’s notes
1 tablespoon Spanish olive oil
Cook’s notes: Chung prefers the Wan Ja Shan brand of aged soy sauce. She says that aging removes the sharpness, making it fruitier with rounder flavor. Mirin is a type of rice wine similar to sake, but with less alcohol and more sugar. Use caution when working with fresh chilies. Wash hands and work surface upon completion and do not touch eyes or face.
To cut citrus into supremes (peeled sections): Cut top and bottom off citrus, making those two cuts parallel to each other and cutting just below white pith. Place cut-side down on work surface. Cut off peel and pith in strips about 1-inch wide, starting at the top of the fruit and cutting down (following contour of shape). Working over bowl to collect juice, use a sharp small knife to cut parallel to one section’s membrane, cut to center; turn knife and cut along the membrane on the other side of that section to remove it. Repeat until all sections are removed and cut from their membranes.
1. Heat soy and mirin in a small saucepan on medium-high heat until mixture comes to a simmer. Remove from heat. Add Serrano chili slices. Allow to rest overnight or 8 hours.
2. Toast the banana leaves over heat, so they become pliable and fragrant. Season fish with salt and pepper. Wrap each fillet skin-side down in middle of a banana leaf; fold leaf over lengthwise, then fold over sides. Add enough water to bottom of steamer so that it doesn’t touch the steamer basket. Bring to boil on high heat. Add banana-leaf packets to steamer basket; cover and boil over high heat for 6 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, prepare salad: In a medium bowl, combine fennel, grapefruit supremes, orange supremes and lemon supremes from one lemon. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper; gently toss.
4. When cod has finished cooking, place one on each of six plates. Open top of banana leaf and spoon about 1 1/2 teaspoons of unstrained soy mixture on top of fish. Serve salad next to fish. Squeeze a little fresh lemon juice atop fish.
Source: Shirley Chung, chef-partner Twenty Eight Restaurant & Lounge, Irvine

Twenty Eight Restaurant & Lounge is at 19530 Jamboree Road, Irvine.

Many thanks to Curt Norris, master videographer-photographer.


…Tip from Melissa’s…

Roasting fresh asparagus is an easy way to cook it, a method that builds appealing texture and flavor.

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and preheat to 450 degrees. Remove the tough portion at the bottom of each asparagus stalk. Place on rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil and rotate asparagus to lightly coat with oil (you can roll them around with your hand); sprinkle with coarse salt, such as kosher salt. Make sure asparagus is in a single layer. Roast 7 to 10 minutes depending on width of stalks.

One luscious way to serve it? Serve with burrata cheese and drizzle on a simple vinaigrette spiked with fresh minced tarragon. Grind on some black pepper.

Burrata is a fresh, soft cheese made from mozzarella and cream –  outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream.

Cheese shops sell it, some supermarkets as well as Trader Joe’s and Costco.

Ace videographer-photographer Curt Norris must have liked it.

Clean plate, happy man.

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Three Thrills 2014 – Inspired Chef Dishes for Home Cooks


The flavor combinations in this one-pot meal are unexpected and completely irresistible.

Dining out or eating in the homes of friends and family, teaches me new techniques or ingredient combinations.

They are dishes that send me home to develop my own spin, simplifying the creation if it’s complex, changing it just enough to make it approachable for home cooks without sacrificing flavor.

Here are three of my 2014  FAVORITES (whittled down from a very long list – but more on that later):


Chicken with Caramelized Onion and Cardamom Rice:

My niece Holly Sue is a chef. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, many years ago she left a restaurant career to raise her family, but later started a highly successful at-home personal chef business when her boys were approaching middle school age. Her clients pick up made-from-scratch family dinners twice a week. The wait-list for folks who want to get in on those meals is substantial, filled with the names of hungry households that long for scrumptious food eaten at their own dining tables.

jerusalemHolly Sue told me that one of her go-to dishes for her family is a vibrantly-seasoned chicken and rice dish from Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook, “Jerusalem” (Ten Speed Press, $35). I tasted it and fell in love.


The combinations of flavors are both surprising and delicious. Cinnamon sticks, cloves and cardamom pods come to the party, along with currants, deeply caramelized onions and fresh herbs, ingredients that give the mixture irresistible appeal.

If you want, the dish can be made in advance and chilled, then reheated slowly on low heat adding some chicken broth to the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching. It’s served topped with a good dollop of Greek-style yogurt and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.


Raj’s Avocado Spheres Stuffed with Crab

These perfectly round, bright green spheres are constructed with fresh avocado on the outside and crab salad on the inside. They are the brainchild of Raj Dixit, executive chef at Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point.

Dixit puts the elegant bite-sized spheres on silver spoons and presents them as passed appetizers. Or he makes a little larger version and serves each one as a plated amuse-bouche, a gift from the chef that arrives before the first course is served.

To speed up the preparation, I lightly coat the crab with simple Louis dressing. Dixit uses a condiment he calls “yuzu- miso,” a sauce made with egg yolks, yuzu juice, white miso, extra-virgin olive oil and creme fraiche, plus a little minced shiso (fresh Asian herb from the mint family) and orange zest.


I won’t kid you, it takes some time to peel and cut avocados and form them into the spheres that surround seafood salad. It’s the kind of dish to make when you have some time and aren’t pressured. Turn on some good music, pour yourself a glass of wine and dig in.

Or, take an easy route, and mound the salad atop peeled-and-halved avocado; rest them atop crisp baby greens and crown each with some thinly sliced green onion, a lemon wedge off to the side.


Herbed Green Rice

This dish transformed the way I think about the liquid I use to cook long-grained rice.

As a teen, I learned that lightly browning rice in warm oil or a combination of oil and butter before it is cooked in broth, creates both desirable flavor and texture. I used chicken broth, vegetable broth or beef broth. Simple.

But this year I learned how to add irresistible flavor by heating the broth and whirling the hot liquid it in a blender with handfuls of fresh herbs; fresh parsley, mint, cilantro and chives. The smooth, deep green potion is the liquid used to cook the rice.

The fragrant basmati rice is supplemented with toasted ground fennel seeds and sautéed vegetables as well, along with a smidgen of hot sauce. I omit the hot sauce when making this dish for my one-year-old granddaughter Francoise. She adores it.

The dish can be made in advance, refrigerated, and reheated in the microwave oven.

Chicken with Caramelized Onion and Cardamom Rice
Yield: 4 generous servings
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
2 medium-large yellow onions, halved, thinly sliced
2 1/4 pounds skin-on bone-in chicken thighs, see cook’s notes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 whole cardamom pods
4 teaspoon whole cloves
2 long cinnamon sticks, each broken in two
1 2/3 cups raw basmati rice
1/4 cup currants
2 1/4 cups boiling water
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, divided use
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
Optional garnish: 1/2 cup plain Greek-style yogurt mixed with 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Cook’s notes: I like to trim away excess skin that hangs over the sides of the meat, leaving about a 2-to 3-inch wide piece of skin atop the chicken thighs.
1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large deep skillet or Dutch oven on medium heat. Add onions; cook until deep golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 10 to 15 minutes. Place in small bowl and wipe out pan. Place chicken in large bowl and season with 1 1/2 teaspoons each salt and pepper. Add remaining oil, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon; use clean hands to mix together well. Heat pan again and place chicken (skin side down) and oil-spice mixture in it. Sear chicken 5 minutes per side and remove from pan (this is important because it partially cooks the chicken). Remove chicken from pan. The spices can stay in the pan but don’t worry if some spices stick to the chicken. Remove most of the oil in the pan, leaving behind a thin layer in the pan. Add rice, caramelized onion, 1 teaspoon salt and plenty of black pepper. Add currants and stir well; return seared chicken (skin-side up) in single layer, pushing them down into the rice.
2. Add boiling water over the rice and chicken; cover and cook on low heat for 30 minutes. Take pan off heat, remove lid and quickly place a clean tea towel over the pan and seal again with the lid. Leave undisturbed for another 10 minutes. Add herbs, using half of the parsley. Use a fork to fluff the rice. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot or warm, each serving topped with a good dollop of yogurt and some chopped parsley.
Source: adapted from “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, $35)

Raj’s Avocado Spheres Stuffed with Crab
Yield: 8
Louis Dressing:
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons purchased chili sauce, such as Homade or Heitz that contain tomato sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon finely minced orange or lemon zest (colored portion of peel)
3/4 cup cooked, chilled crab meat, picked over to remove any shell
2 ripe (but not squishy) avocados
Juice of 1 fresh lime or lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Plastic wrap
Vegetable oil spray
Coarse salt, preferably fleur de sel
1. Combine Louis dressing ingredients in small bowl; stir until combined. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place crab in a separate bowl and stir in just enough dressing to lightly coat the crab; toss.
2. Work with 1 avocado at a time. Cut avocado in half; pit and peel. Working with one half of an avocado at a time, place cut-side down on work surface; cut lengthwise horizontally so the top portion is about 3/4-inch thick (the top portion is what you will use). Place top portion flat-side down on work surface. Cut lengthwise slices 1/8-inch apart, leaving the avocado in place on the board. Use your knife to separate the 2 bundles of avocado slices into 2 equal portions, sliding your knife down the middle cut and pushing one away from the other. Use the palm of your hand to fan out the slices of each bundle so the slices are slightly overlapping. Trim a 1/8-inch portion off each end of the slices. Spray a square of plastic wrap with nonstick vegetable spray and squeeze on a little lime or lemon juice in the middle. Place 1 avocado “fan” on wide knife blade (scoot blade under “fan” to lift it) and invert each fan onto separate prepared plastic wrap squares. In the middle of the fan put a knob of crab salad (about 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons).
3. Cradle the plastic in palm of your hand, cupping it to start the rounding process. Then pull up the corners of the plastic and twist plastic to form a sphere. Repeat with remaining pitted and peeled avocado. Each avocado should yield 4 small spheres. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt. Use avocado trimmings to make guacamole or a tasty snack.
Source: Raj Dixit, executive chef, Stonehill Tavern

Herbed Green Rice
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 cup chicken broth plus 1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup packed Italian parsley
1/4 cup packed mint leaves
2 tablespoons minced chives
1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon hot sauce, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup finely diced fresh fennel bulb
3/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups raw white basmati rice
1 tablespoon butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook’s notes: The original recipe called for adding 1 crumbled chili arbol when sautéing the vegetables. I prefer to use one teaspoon of Frank’s RedHot sauce to the cooking liquid in Step#2. I like it because it adds a spark of acidity and (for me) has just-right spicy heat. If you use Sriracha “rooster sauce” use 1/2 teaspoon.
1. Toast fennel seeds in a small pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until they release their aroma and turn light golden brown. Cool. Grind in mortar and pestle, or place in small zipper-style plastic bag and pound with mallet or bottom of a pot until ground.
2. Bring chicken broth and water to a boil in medium-large saucepan. Turn off heat.
3. Place parsley, mint, chives and cilantro in blender. Add 1 cup of the hot liquid and puree herbs at medium speed (cautiously hold down lid of blender with potholder). Add remaining liquid and puree at high speed for about 2 minutes, stopping to wipe down sides and lid as needed. You should have a smooth, very green broth.
4. Rinse out pot and heat it over high heat. Add oil, fennel, onion, toasted ground fennel seeds and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until onion and fennel are translucent. Add rice, 1 teaspoon salt and pinch of pepper; toss to coat and cook just until rice starts to turn a very light brown. Add herb broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Add butter. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender and liquid is absorbed. Turn off heat and leave rice covered for 5 minutes. Fluff rice with fork. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
Source: adapted from Chef Suzanne Goin and “The A.O.C. Cookbook” (Alfred A. Knopf, $35)


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Eight-Leg Treasure From the Deep – Chef Rainer Schwarz Turns Octopus Tender and Delicious


Wine-braised octopus, legs grilled until lightly charred, is paired with a luscious tomato vinaigrette and creamy garbanzo puree.

Executive chef-partner at Driftwood Kitchen, Laguna Beach, and The Deck on Laguna Beach, Rainer Schwarz, knows how to deliciously nuance seafood, incorporating vibrant flavors and contrasting textures into everything from whole crisp-skinned branzino to hamachi crudo, buttermilk-fried soft shell crabs to seared sea scallops adrift in truffle-spiked risotto.


That polished skill-set also applies to his Grilled Spanish Octopus, an alluring concoction that appears on the Driftwood Kitchen’s small plate menu.


The eight-legged wonder is tenderized by long, gentle braising in a mixture of fruity red wine, leeks, herbs, dried chili flakes and garlic. A wine cork is also added to the pot, an ingredient trick that Schwarz says insures tenderness. Once cooled, the legs are grilled until heated through and caramelized, a light char gracing their exterior.

Watch the short video to see Schwarz’ prep and plating.


On the plate the diagonally-cut chunks of octopus sit atop hummus-like garbanzo puree. And draped over the top is an heirloom tomato vinaigrette, a mixture that flavor boosts the dish with Spanish sherry, capers, shallots and agrumato, a lemony extra-virgin olive oil that is made by pressing whole lemons along with the olives. Zahtar (a tasty condiment made with dried herbs, sesame seeds and salt) is judiciously sprinkled over the top.



Born in Austria, Schwarz originally came to the U.S. to work with the Patina Group’s Joachim Splichal; the two chefs met when Schwarz was Chef de Cuisine at the Grand National Hotel in Switzerland.

Restaurant favorite: Other than one of his restaurants, Schwarz says that his favorite eateries are constantly changing. Jaleo, Chef Jose Andres’ restaurant in The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, is his current pick. He loves Jaleo’s baby squid from southern Spain sautéed with Spanish white beans. It’s a dish he dubs “simple delicious food.”

What’s always in the fridge at home: Plugra butter (European-style American-made high butterfat butter, the only brand his son, Max, 15, will eat), a good white wine and good cheese.

Early Austrian days: He studied accounting in school and was a professional chess player until he fell in love with cooking at age 15.


Thanks to Curt Norris for his time and talent – his mouth-watering photography and video-taping (and editing).


Driftwood Kitchen’s Grilled Spanish Octopus
Yield: about 6 to 8 servings
Braised Octopus:
1 Spanish octopus, 4 to 6 pounds
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves peeled garlic
White and light green portion of 2 leeks, washed, thinly sliced
1 bottle fruity red wine
2 tablespoons dried red chili flakes
2 bay leaves
Heirloom Tomato Vinaigrette:
5 ripe heirloom tomatoes, finely diced
1 large shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup Pedro Ximenez (Spanish sherry)
1/4 cup capers, drained, rinsed
1 cup agrumato (extra-virgin lemon olive oil)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Garbanzo Bean Puree:
2 cups cooked, drained garbanzo beans, canned beans OK
Extra-virgin olive oil, enough to give a smooth creamy texture
Juice of 1 Meyer lemon
For grilling octopus: olive oil
Garnish: zahtar
Optional garnish: tiny peppardews, microgreens, radishes cut into matchsticks
Cook’s notes: Note to home cooks, this vinaigrette would be delicious atop any grilled fish. Agrumato oil is sold in shops that specialize in gourmet items, such as Surfas in Costa Mesa. Zahtar is sold in Middle Eastern markets and in spice shops such as Savory Spice Shop.
1. Start by rinsing the octopus by hand in cold water, scrubbing it with your hands in the process. Heat oil in large Dutch oven on medium heat. Add garlic and leeks; cook on medium heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in wine, chili flakes and bay leaves. Add octopus; simmer gently on low heat, covered, until tender. Remove octopus from liquid; cool.
2. Meanwhile, prepare vinaigrette. In a bowl or glass measuring cup, combine all vinaigrette ingredients except the oil; stir to combine. Add oil in a very thin stream, stirring constantly. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Set aside.
3. For garbanzo mixture, place beans in food processor. Process gradually adding olive oil, whirling until mixture is a smooth puree. Strain through sieve. Stir in the juice of 1 Meyer lemon. Add sea salt to taste; set aside.
4. Once the octopus is cooled, cut legs off body. Heat a grill pan on medium-high heat and oil it generously with extra-virgin olive oil. Grill octopus legs until caramelized and lightly charred. Cut legs on the diagonal into 1- to 2-inch pieces. Smear some of the garbanzo mixture on each plate. Top with octopus. Stir vinaigrette and spoon over octopus. Sprinkle with zahtar to taste. Garnish with tiny sweet peppadews, radish and microgreens, if desired.
Source: Chef Rainer Schwarz, The Deck on Laguna Beach and Driftwood Kitchen, Laguna Beach


Here’s a quick tip from Melissa’s …


Use kale in an open-faced sandwich.

Kale-topped toasts adorned with sunny-side up eggs make a delectable breakfast treat, but they also could be the centerpiece of a tasty lunch or supper. If you prefer firmer yolks, turn the eggs to cook on both sides, or substitute moist scrambled eggs or scrambled egg whites.

Breakfast Toasts with Kale and Sunny-Side Eggs
Yield: 4 servings
4 (3/8-inch thick) slices rustic whole wheat bread
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
5 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, divided use
1 large garlic clove, minced
6 cups Tuscan black kale (cavolo nero) or curly-edge kale – that has been washed, patted dry, midrib removed, loosely packed, cut into 1/4-inch wide crosswise slices, see prep
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 eggs
Seasoned salt
1. Adjust oven rack to 8 inches below broiler element. Turn on oven light and broiler. Place bread in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Broil until just lightly browned, about 30 seconds. Remove from oven, turn bread over and lightly brush with olive oil, using about 1/2 tablespoon. Sprinkle each toast with 1 tablespoon cheese. Return to broiler. Keep a close eye on the toast; broil until lightly browned, about 40 to 50 seconds.
2. Line a large plate with paper towels. Heat oil in large, deep skillet on medium-high heat. Add garlic, kale and water; season with salt and pepper. When liquid comes to a boil, cover and cook until tender, about 6 to 8 minutes, tossing mixture 2 or 3 times during cooking (common kale will take longer to cook than Tuscan kale). Remove lid and cook until most of liquid evaporates, about 1 minute. Add lemon juice and toss. Place on paper-towel lined plate.
3. Place toasts on 4 plates. Generously spray a medium-size nonstick skillet with cooking spray. Place on medium-high heat. When hot, add eggs one at a time, placing them in a single layer. Reduce heat to low. Cook until white is set, about 2 minutes. Divide kale between 4 toasts. Using a spatula, remove each egg from skillet and place on top of kale. Sprinkle eggs with seasoned salt and remaining cheese. Serve immediately.
Nutritional information (per serving): calories 300; fat calories 120, total fat 14 grams; sat fat 4 grams, cholesterol 190 milligrams; sodium 710 milligrams; total carbohydrates 27 grams; fiber 5 grams; sugars 4 grams; protein 17 grams; vitamin A IUs 310%; vitamin C 210%; calcium 30%; iron 20%
Source: “50 Best Plants on the Planet” by Cathy Thomas (Chronicle, $29.95)


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