Treasured Ingredients Down the Street

One of the best kept secrets in America is finally coming to the forefront.  As chefs have known all along, quality ingredients can make the difference between food that is purely functional and that which inspires.  The return to regional awareness in food is perhaps the most visible at local farmers’ markets around the country.  It is also a significant marketing push in stores such as Whole Foods Market and is trickling into the tactics of mainstream groceries.  While this is a good thing, still neglected are the small business owners with neighborhood stores and boutiques, which sell hand picked items to locals.  These days, this type of business is most often a gift shop, art store or similar storefront in an area supported by those with disposable income, often in tourist areas.  There are rare exceptions, one of which I came across during a walk through our neighborhood in Mission Hills. 

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Sara, Jenny and I decided to take the long loop that day and go down through Old Town San Diego to mingle among the throngs of tourists.  Going down Juan street, at the corner of Harney, we noticed a sign for “Sooky’s Boutique.”  Normally, it would have been dismissed as another tourist shop, but the sign mentioned Asian health products and curiosity took over.  Upon entering the small storefront, the small room was wall to wall with cosmetics, kitchen utensils, ceramic pots, colorful clothes on racks and counters along with numerous containers and boxes with Korean and Japanese labels.  It took a minute for the eyes to focus on individual items, then I began to notice familiar products that appeared to be of high quality, beautifully packaged and meticulously arranged.  The atmosphere was inviting and the store had an almost fantasy feel to it, like a movie set for an apothecary store.  In the far corner of her tiny shop, Sooky finished with a customer, who politely squeezed through the cramped aisle toward the door, and began her introductions.  Noticing our interest in her green tea display, she patiently explained how Matcha tea powder is used for tea ceremonies, Genmai Matcha as an all around roasted rice and green leaf blend and the various kinds of Sencha leaves from Japan and Korea.  It struck me when she said that this quality of green tea should be steeped in warm water, not hot and when the leaves are finished steeping, they become dark green and should be eaten like spinach.  “Nothing should be wasted.”  This reminded me of my experiences in India, where every aspect of an ingredient or tonic had meaning and value.  At this point, Sara decided to wait outside.  On the other hand, Jenny and I remained fascinated as Sooky would pick up each canister, box, vessel and ingredient, offering stories and explaining advantages with a passion that a jeweler might have with their gems.  She demonstrated in detail how the Matcha tea was served in tea ceremonies, then served Jenny and I some mild-roasted barley green tea that was both subtle and heart warming.  In addition to the teas, with great detail and enthusiasm she showed us pure Korean red ginseng, clay cooking pots, unpasteurized red miso and sprouted barley and brown rice.  Since we were walking, Jenny and I purchased a small box of Sencha green tea, looking forward to the rituals that lay ahead, and assured Sooky of our return.  Stepping back out into the Santa Ana warmed sunshine, I felt infused with positive energy and appreciative of our new discovery in the neighborhood.  As if we found a cache of golden treasures, the rest of the walk was filled with thoughts and discussions of Sooky’s healing products. 

Later, inspired by Sooky’s descriptions of her organic unpasteurized red miso, small harvest wakame and sprouted grains, I decided to make a noodle bowl for lunch.  First, I sautéed ginger tamari tofu with a softer than normal medium tofu and toasted sesame oil.  Next was a dashi with onions, matchstick ginger, kombu, tamari and mirin.  Then kamut somen noodles were added and just before they were done, baby bok choy, broccoli, kale, carrots, celery and the tofu as well.  I mixed red miso with some of the dashi and folded it into the pot.  The meal in a bowl was served steaming, rejuvenating our mind and warming our hearts. 

 

Sooky’s Boutique

4080 Harney St
San Diego, CA 92110

(619) 298-1188

Valentine’s Day

 

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The day began toasting a fresh batch of cardamom granola and starting a batch of 5 grain bread.  We walked our companion “Tea” through the neighborhoods of Mission Hills.  Spring flowers were in bloom and sweet scents wafted through the chilled morning air.  Winter in coastal San Diego often provides the advantage of blue skies accompanied by a kiss of morning coolness while the sun warms the skin.  The sensuality of this spawned meditations on the loving culinary tasks which lay ahead, and I am reminded that rites of spring originating from earthly cycles of regeneration have been celebrated since the beginning of time.  After returning home with our 13 year old German Shorthair friend, I took advantage of the clear day to plant some cactus and harvest herbs from the garden before returning to the kitchen to punch down the bread. 

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Later, as the aroma of baking bread filled the house, a plan for dinner started to take shape.  Four of us were to dine this evening and small portions were appropriate to frame the dessert this Valentines Day.  The sweet course would be dark chocolate and maple mousse in tempered chocolate cups garnished with a chocolate heart and a thick raspberry sauce.  The preamble to this decadence was a fresh organic pea soup garnished with a mirapoix relish. 

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The delicate flavors of the soup were followed with a dish of Latin corn blini,  red quinoa “caviar” and fire roasted poblano chile aioli. 

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On the side, was a preparation of marinated baked tofu encrusted with almond, coconut, chile and lime over a papaya-ginger sauce.  The meal was influenced by flavors from around the world to honor love, a universal aspiration.  Needless to say,  the meal was a wonderful preamble to a great evening.

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A Bevy of Bouchon

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For a number of years now, all that is petit or small has dominated haute cuisine.  Small bites of pure flavors and food essences are served together for a meal full of individual sensations.  In societies with a prevalence of plant based food, meals tended to be served in this tapas or mezzes manner.  Here in San Diego, I often prepare and serve food using this model of numerous small tastes.  This is especially true with dessert, where a simple sweet finish is all that is needed to complete a meal. 

Sara had been watching chocolate shows on The Food Network and became obsessed with the thought of me building structures out of the Aztec bean.  A trip to Williams-Sonoma was mandated where my “Honey-do list” included structural chocolate molds.  After perusing the current collection, we discovered Williams-Sonoma no longer carried such kitchen apparatus, but had the latest presentation from chef Thomas Keller and his restaurant Bouchon, named after wine corks.  Chef Keller is known for his signature small dishes and the display was pushing his book and baking mixes.  Catching my attention was a silicone mold for baking the “bouchons or corks.”  I came home with it and a recipe in mind.  I whipped up the small batch of 12 tiny vegan chocolate “corks,” then dusted them with organic powdered sugar and served them warm to Sara, who was eagerly awaiting the results.  The size and shape emphasized flavor and texture with perfect balance.  It was the right amount of food to experience the sensuality without the common pitfall of overindulging the senses at the end of a meal.

A Vegan Bouchon can be good…moist and delicate, as well as healthy.  Light in fat and made with good organic ingredients, having more than one or two can be sinless.  Needless to say, once Sara’s sweet tooth kicked in, we had to make dessert for the next meal.  This time it was an orange bouchon topped with homemade kumquat marmalade and served over and almond-vanilla bean “sabayon.” 

Making Tortillas

 

Jenny, Sara and I walked through Old Town as we tend to visit tourist destinations when guests come into town.  The streets were bustling with families and bar hoppers.  Not many people shopping, but large populations in the bars.  Mexican food is abundant and many restaurants have women in traditional Mexican dress making fresh tortillas right on the street.  The rich aroma of toasted corn wafts throughout the entire neighborhood.  Each tortilla maker uses their own method.  Some use tortilla presses with wax paper, others roll with a pin, but the most impressive were those who formed each tortilla in their hands, perfect each time before they flipped it onto the griddle.  

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Reminiscent of days when we cooked chapatis in quantity, I started to contemplate making tortillas for dinner.  As the evening approached, I made the masa ahead.  In addition, our neighbor Joe had given us Tabasco peppers, Italian mild peppers and habanero chiles, so I also decided to put up Tabasco sauce, Pepperoncini and Hot habanero sauce.  The kitchen air soon filled with spicy aromas laced with vinegar, causing the casual passerby to immediately start coughing.  Sometimes, that is what it takes to clear a room! 

The dinner menu took shape as tortillas were hand rolled and cooked one at a time.  The main course of corn, pepita and lime enchiladas with walnut sauce would use the fresh tortillas to help define the dish.  The filling was made with corn off the cob and pepita-cilantro-lime pesto with a fresh, green flavor.  The creamy walnut-shallot sauce was ladled on top of each filled tortilla and the dish was garnished with fresh local avocado. 

The home brewed Tabasco was served on the side, for those with a passion for heat.

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Inspiration often can be unexpected as food is intimately entwined in the life of every person.  

Impromptu Pizza

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Last night Joan and Sara felt like pizza.  Responding with a “no problem” I fired up the Wolf oven.  Normally the dough requires a couple of hours to rise, but fortunately there was a frozen par baked Tuscan crust saved from last week waiting for such an occasion.  For vegan pizza, the approach can be similar to any meal. It is a combination of bread, vegetables and proteins.  In this case, I made a simple almond pesto for the base, sliced  some tomatoes and small broccoli florets.  Thinly sliced red onions were caramelized, then braised with balsamic vinegar.  Red veined Bordeaux spinach from La Milpa Organica at the Hillcrest farmers market was seared in extra virgin olive oil, crushed red pepper and finely minced garlic.  Then, I sautéed some small tofu cubes with tamari and smoked paprika. In addition, chopped Kalamata olives, diced red bell peppers and capers were on hand to sprinkle. The pizza was assembled with the creamy pesto on the bottom, spinach, tofu, onions, broccoli, sliced tomatoes, red bell pepper, olives and capers. After baking the pizza at 375 for 25 minutes, we sliced it and served it piping hot —about 50 minutes after starting. This was half the usual time and significant for busy, impromptu lifestyles.  A pizza does not have to be unhealthy.  In this case, it was full of life and unconventional textures.  Good company, good pizza…an enjoyable evening for all. 

Thanksgiving Menu 2008

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A vegan dinner for 20 featuring traditional American flavors, ingredients and textures. It was a wonderful evening with family, friends and food. Much to give thanks for.

Organic local salad of amaranth, apples, savoy cabbage, marinated red onions, toasted sliced almonds and almond-dijon vinaigrette

Whole baby beets and greens

Mashed potatoes and roasted shallot-vegetable gravy

Maple-orange cranberry relish

Traditional fresh sage and walnut dressing

Green bean casserole with bechamel and crusty shallot topping

Maple baked Cranberry beans

Candied rosemary yams with lemon-maple cashews
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Tofurky roast with Crimini mushroom-leek gravy (ok, I did it for the audience)

Butternut squash with wild rice and pine nut stuffing
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Sweet yam, toasted pecan and marshmallow casserole (check out www.sweetandsara.com, the most incredible marshmallows!)
Maple pecan pie

Pumpkin pie

Spicy Almond Creamed Corn

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This year, the peak of the corn harvest has passed.  Still, just before frost, there are still fresh ears available that are a little tougher, but retain some of the sweetness.  This recipe is ideal with peak harvest corn, but is also a good way to use any fresh corn. The level of spiciness may be adjusted by the amount of jalapeno used, even to the point of removing it entirely.

Serves 6

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon fresh jalapeno chile, seeded and minced

2 1/2 cups sweet corn, cut off the cob

1/2 cup sweet onions, finely diced

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 cup water

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 1/2 cups plain soy milk

1/2 cup almond flour

1/4 teaspoon white pepper, freshly ground

Heat oil in a saute pan on medium heat, then add jalapeno, cook for 10 seconds and add corn and onions.  Cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes until corn starts to lightly bown around the edges. Stir in salt, water, Dijon, soy milk, almond flour and white pepper.  Cook until liquid becomes creamy.  Serve hot as a side dish.

Swiss Chard

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Popular throughout the Mediterranean, Swiss chard is thought to originate in Sicily and is widely available throughout the U.S.

Swiss chard has a very specific taste that ends to take over any dish it is put in. While pleasant, sometimes a different flavor and use is desired.  This recipe is just that.  It is a variation of the Sicilian eggplant relish, caponata.  Onions, dried cherries and balsamic vinegar create a sweet and sour effect that works with the chard, making a delightful condiment or side dish.


Sicilian Swiss Chard

Serves 6

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1 sweet onions, sliced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (omit for a milder version)

1/4 cup dried cherries

1/4 cup slivered raw almonds

1 large bunch Swiss chard, stemmed and thinly sliced (4 cups packed)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper 

In a saute pan on medium low heat cook oil, onions and crushed red pepper flakes until the onions are clear. Add almonds and cook another minute, then add remaining ingredients.  Cook, covered at a low temperature until the Swiss chard is tender and the liquid gone, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Serve warm or cold.  Will keep in a refrigerator up to 3 days and is excellent for antipasti or picnics.