Thursday, April 30, 2009

Shopping at Specialty Produce

Specialty Produce Collage

I first heard about Specialty Produce several years ago from Chef Hanis Cavin, when I took a cooking class from him at the Prado in Balboa Park. As we scooped up bites of seared scallops topped with a freshly made blood-orange hollandaise (it was a sauce-making class) someone asked about the itty bitty sprout-like microgreens on top. Hanis told us they came from this great warehouse-style store that specialized in restaurant supply, but was also open to the public - Specialty Produce. After that, it seemed like I started hearing about them everywhere, and whenever I would say I hadn't been, the response was some incredulous exclamation: "Oh, you HAVE to go!" It's not exactly the kind of place where you just do your regular grocery shopping though, so it took me a while to find the right opportunity.
Pickled cauliflower, carrots, onions and grapes
It finally came last summer, when I decided to make a mess of pickles for our annual September barbecue. I found great baby carrots, cauliflower and even grapes for pickling, and bought vinegars by the gallon jug. I also bought potatoes for my favorite potato salad, and lots of edible flowers (including lavender) for the cheese tray and decorations. (The lavender looked especially nice floating in the jar of fresh lemonade - perhaps accounting for the fact that it had disappeared after the first half hour of the party!)

When I was there, I noticed the pallets of produce and other items heading out to some of the better local restaurants. J Six, AR Valentien, etc. It seems they ALL get their stuff there. You don't have to be a restauranteur to shop there though, and they're trying to get the word out on that fact. They stock bulk quantities of dry goods, higher end pantry items (like the aforementioned vinegars) and dairy items as well as produce. (Their refrigerated warehouse is huge, and COLD, so bring a sweater or a jacket if you're planning to spend any time browsing in there!)
Goat Cheese, Olives and Bleu du Auvergne
Lately I've struck up a friendship with the lovely Kelly Orange, who I "met" on Twitter, and who invited me to come down and take these photos and do some shopping. I waited until I had another party opportunity coming up - it was a double whammy actually - dinner with friends, followed the very next day by a barbecue, where we served that chocolate cake, along with grilled sausages from Sausage King, potato salad, heirloom tomato bruschetta with with burrata cheese, the rest of the pea and fava dip, some steamed artichokes, and Labne topped with zataar spice and pita bread. It was quite a spread - we got some good use out of the items overflowing out of the box in that picture above, let me tell you. I had heirloom tomatoes, peas, favas, blood oranges, micro chives for the potato salad, spring onions, baby creamer potatoes, blackberries, champagne vinegar, even McCann's Irish Oatmeal. They've got it all, baby.

Shopping there is a little bit intimidating at first, or at least it was for me. If it's your first visit, you might want to call and let them know you're coming - they will be happy to show you around. You park on Hancock street, but enter on the North side of the building, up the stairs on the far side of the loading dock. Once inside, you sign in at the desk, get a card to wear around your neck, and you're free to shop. It's definitely a wholesale operation first and foremost though, so watch out for forklifts and pallets stacked all over the place piled high with boxes. You'll need some plastic bags, which you can find by the scales next to the entrance to the refrigerator room (or you could bring your own.) There are no carts, so you just pile up your stuff and they'll get you a box when you're done. You can pull up to the loading dock to get your stuff, or carry it out if you don't have that much. Be warned though - like Costco, it's one of those places that's hard to walk out of without a heavy load. Unlike Costco though, you won't have buyers remorse when you get home and survey your goods - you'll be too busy cracking your cookbooks and calling your friends to invite them over for a fabulous homecooked meal!

Specialty Produce
1929 Hancock Street, Suite 150
San Diego, 92138
(619) 295-3172

Check out their website for a complete list of their in-stock items, updates on their selections from the farmers markets (including the Santa Monica market) and new seasonal specialty items - as well as information on the restaurants they serve.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spring Dinner Party 3.28.09

Lately I've been feeling like time is slipping through my fingers, which explains why it took me so long to post about this dinner party we had in the backyard last month. Or at least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Spring Dinner Party 3.28.09
I love cooking in the Spring and Summer, because so very little actual cooking is required. Meal assembly is more like it - chopping, slicing, tossing - a little blanching here and there, maybe a little grilling. It's not so difficult to pull a multi-course meal together when the ingredients of three out of the four courses require minimal intervention. On this occasion, I did kind of go the high maintenance route - shelling and blanching peas and favas for a dip, and making a risotto (which I can't help but call "ris-ought-o" since watching Hells Kitchen with Gordon Ramsey.) But the cake was baked the day before, and I bought the cheese and bread so all that remained was for me to take the marvelous produce the good lord (and Specialty Produce) gave me and make the most of them. And crack the wines of course. This was our menu:
Spring Dinner Party 3.28.09
Spring Dinner Party

Pea and Fava Bean Crostini with Garlic, Parmesan and Mint

Marinated Heirloom Tomato Salad with Burrata over Baby Greens

Aspsaragus and English Pea Risotto

Lemon Almond Cake with Strawberries and Vanilla Quark

Spring Dinner Party 3.28.09
I don't really have a recipe for the dip, because I just felt my way through it - tinkering and blending until it tasted right. First I shelled and blanched the English Peas and Favas (it takes more than you might think, so buy plenty) and pureed them in a food processor with half a clove of garlic, some salt and pepper, a little mint, quite a bit of lemon juice, a good glug of olive oil and a lot of grated parmesan cheese. Next time I'd use pecorino romano - it has a bit sharper flavor, and the reggiano parmesan is just a little too expensive to use here, where its mellow nutty flavor doesn't really shine. This was really good with champagne and actually improved with a little age. I served it with some crostini brushed with olive oil.
Spring Dinner Party 3.28.09
To make the salad I diced some heirloom tomatoes and marinated them for about an hour with some finely chopped red onion, a pinch of sea salt, a splash of red wine vinegar, a grind or two of pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and some micro-basil that I pinched off of some seedlings I had just started. I tossed the greens with balsamic vinaigrette, topped them with the tomatoes, added a hunk of burrata from Taste Cheese in Hillcrest, and drizzled the tops with the juice from the tomatoes. This was our first taste of heirloom tomatoes this year, and boy were we ready.
Spring Dinner Party 3.28.09
Then there was the risotto. I mean, the ris-ought-o. Yes, I will not be making this for a dinner party again anytime soon. This is the second time I've done this, and both times the result has been an unacceptable delay between courses. I really need to work on my technique - and should do it on my own time, on a weekday after work sometime, instead of when my guests are hungry. (Then again, if they keep drinking, it matters less and less what the meal tastes like, right?) This was a good idea in theory - just a basic white wine and parmesan risotto recipe with blanched asparagus tips and peas stirred in toward the end, but the risotto was just a little too al dente, and an hour of cooking really is too long. It looked nice anyway.
Spring Dinner Party 3.28.09
The dessert was one of those can't go wrong sort of things - just what you want to serve after a rather long and wine-intensive dinner. The lemon and almond cake was made the day before and topped with macerated berries, and a fantastic new-to-me discovery, vanilla bean quark from Spring Hill Dairy. It's available at the Farmers Markets in Little Italy, Hillcrest and even La Mesa, and it sells fast, so get there early (they also do lemon, but I prefer the vanilla.) A half pint carton is $5. and well worth it. It's tangy, cheesecake-y, just a bit sweet - and perfect with berries and lemon cake, and a little dessert wine, if you're so inclined.

Most of the groceries for this meal came from Specialty Produce. If you live in San Diego and you like to cook (and especially if you like to throw parties) and you haven't been, you really must go. The better restaurants and catering companies in San Diego rely on them for their ingredients, and they carry a number of items you can't find anywhere else. It's such a great place it really deserves its own post, so look for that coming soon.

In the meantime here, have some cake!
lemon almond cake
Lemon Almond Butter Cake
(based on this recipe and the yogurt cake in Molly's book, which she originally posted about here.)
This simple, relatively sturdy cake can be made in less than an hour and is just the thing with summer fruits, especially berries. The flavors of the butter, almond and lemon play off each other perfectly, and the moist texture allows it to stay fresh for days. It's great with coffee as a simple snack all on its own. You could also sub a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a swipe of the inside of a vanilla bean for the lemon, and pair it with a chocolate glaze for another dessert entirely.

1 cup of All Purpose flour
1/2 cup of almond flour or ground almonds (I used Bob's Red Mill)
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 large eggs
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup oil
2 tsp grated lemon zest (about one lemon)
½ cup plain organic yogurt (low fat or whole, but not non-fat)

for the glaze whisk together:
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

Line a 9 inch round cake pan with parchment paper, and grease the pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together the flour, almond flour, sugar, and baking powder in a large bowl making sure there are no lumps. Whisk the almond extract, eggs, butter, oil, zest and yogurt together in a separate bowl, then gradually add the wet to the dry ingredients, mixing just to combine.

Pour the batter into the cake pan, and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the middle springs back when touched, and a toothpick comes out completely clean. Cool the cake in the pan for thirty minutes or so, then turn out onto a cooling rack covered with parchment and and peel the parchment off the bottom.

Brush the bottom of the cake with the glaze and allow to stand for at least half an hour before turning back over onto a plate. (The paper on the rack will help you flip it back over and keep it from sticking to the rack.) Alternatively, you can use a toothpick to poke holes in the top and just glaze it right side up as well!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I Heart Kim Chee - Korean BBQ at Buga

Dinner at Buga
What's not to love? Spicy, sweet, pickled? Seriously. I'm actually surprised it took me this long to try kim chee, but then again - I kind of like it that way. I like to think that things in your path come along in their own time - restaurants, cuisines, countries, even people. I also really like having something to look forward to, and I'd been looking forward to trying Korean Barbecue for a long time.
Dinner at Buga
Too busy to cook and too late to set up a dinner at someone's house, our supper club decided to dine out this month. Being both budget conscious and curious - we narrowed our options to Korean or Vietnamese, and ultimately settled on Buga. Chowhounders and a few friends of mine had recommended it as THE place to go for Korean BBQ. I got sucked into reading reviews (why don't I do anything else as obsessively as I research restaurants??) on Yelp, and was a little bothered by the wide ranging comments - talking about the service, prices, etc. I needn't have worried though, the service was perfectly lovely, and the prices were reasonable. Dinner at Buga
After poring over the menu and asking a few questions, our group of five decided to order two grilled meats - the kalbi and sliced pork belly - and three other dishes, the Jap Chae, Vegetable Bibimbap, and the delicious-looking spicy stir fried pork dish pictured below, the name of which is escaping me right now. It was a big hit with our group. Soon after we ordered, our server returned to light the gas grill in the center of the table and drop off the panchan - small, savory, cold dishes meant to be shared. These included small servings of cucumber kim chee, radish kim chee, cabbage kim chee, pickles made with zucchini, squid and broccoli, a chili sauced eggplant, cooling daikon - and some rice paper and chili sauce to garnish the meat. I loved them all, including all three of the kim chee varieties - but I think I loved the radishes most. The fermentation makes them a little funky, but a good kind of funky - the umami kind. The Jap Chae reminded me of Vietnamese glass noodles - stir fried with pork and vegetables, and the pork reminded me of delicious spicy Chinese food. I wasn't as fond of the Bibimbap, but it was popular with the rest of the table. Despite all the chilis, nothing was unbearably hot, and the flavor was tempered with sweetness.
Dinner at Buga
The meats for the grill initially seemed a bit expensive, but given that there was enough of each for five of us to share (small portions, but still) the $20. price tag didn't seem so high. The meat is sliced thinly and cooks quickly. Of the two meats we chose, the kalbi was by far my favorite - the pork belly was fine, but very fatty and a little bland. Signs in the restaurant announce that they serve Coleman Natural Beef - which was purchased last year by Meyer Ranch. This isn't pastured beef, but it is raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, and according to humane standards. (At least according to their website.) Assuming this is true, the meat is undoubtedly a little more expensive than ordinary commodity beef, making the price seem a little more reasonable. All of our food and a large Korean beer that Lisa and I shared came to less than $30. per person, tax and tip included. (We had contemplated ordering one of the family style meals but were very glad we hadn't when we saw the bill.)

Buga is located just off 805 at Clairemont Mesa, in the parking lot of a Motel 6. It actually used to be a JoJo's coffee shop - if you remember those. (We ate there when I was a kid - and at Organ Power Pizza across the street, where the oven was powered by yes - a pipe organ.) The atmosphere isn't going to win any awards, but it's clean, they have nice large booths and you won't be looking at the floor or the light fixtures anyway. You'll be looking at the grill and the marinated meat sizzling away on it, the nifty white bowls filled with tidbits of spicy, pickled deliciousness, and your friends' smiling faces.

Buga Korean BBQ
5580 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92117
reservations recommended

Kirk wrote about Buga in 2005, and by the looks of it not much has changed! Check out his post here

Friday, April 03, 2009

Eggs en Cocotte at Farmhouse Cafe

Brunch at Farmhouse Cafe

A few weeks ago, I made a list of 100 good things to eat (and drink) in San Diego, and you can bet that if I'd had these back then, they would have been right up there near the top. A couple of Sundays ago I duped talked James into coming with me to the Hillcrest Farmers to help me pick up some seedlings from Phil at Sage Mountain Farms, and then sweet talked him into getting some breakfast (which required more cajoling than it should have, really.) We wound up at the counter at Farmhouse, just as it started to rain. The coffee was hot and delicious, the welcome warm, and the food absolutely fantastic.

ricotta pancakes
We started with a "petite" serving of the Ricotta Pancakes with orange butter - a perfect solution for people like me who like sweet breakfast but not too much of it. Soft and dense, they are just right for sharing. I moved on to the Eggs in Cocotte - which were highly recommended by my next door neighbor at the bar and our server. With good reason, I now know. They are baked in a little ramekin with some heavy cream, parmesan cheese and tomato concasse with a little wine. The texture is creamy and custard-like, with a more complex, savory flavor than most breakfast dishes. Toasted Bread and Cie levain and some fried potatoes round out the plate. James chose a chorizo fritatta which was also very good.
Brunch at Farmhouse Cafe

I'm always hard pressed to make breakfast or brunch recommendations here in town, because so many places are hit or miss, and/or have a ridiculous wait on weekends. I just don't believe in that - though it seems a lot of people feel differently, judging by the crowds outside Hash House on weekend mornings. There are a few places that have just one good dish on the menu, like Brockton Villa (which I still like because I just love that little house) with their Coast Toast, Hob Nob with their Corned Beef Hash, and Crest Cafe's ricotta pancakes. There's really only one dish I like at Hash House too, now that I think about it. Sage Fried Chicken with Maple Reduction (that did make the list) but I just can't bring myself to wait an hour and a half for it. Urban Solace also serves good brunch, with an especially nice pecan french toast.

Farmhouse is only open for brunch on Sundays, which coincides nicely with the nearby Hillcrest market. That is, if you can resist the Thai coconut pancakes and kefta kebab sandwiches offered there...

The Farmhouse Cafe
2121 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA, 92116
(619) 269-9662

Other posts about Farmhouse - dinner last fall , and lunch when they opened.
I like them so much, they even have their own flickr page!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

My Favorite Chocolate Cake (No Foolin'!)

Robertson Family BBQ Desserts

I've tried a lot of chocolate cakes in my time, and baked a few myself, but I knew, the instant I tasted it at Starlite one evening last fall, that this one was The One. It was dark, dense, moist, not too sweet, and absolutely huge - with nice thick layers about one and a half inches tall. I liked it so much that I asked our server for the recipe and wrote my email address on a slip of paper for him to give to the chef. I'd almost forgotten about it when lo and behold - about two months later the recipe appeared in my inbox.

This is pretty rare for me, settling on one recipe I could use for the rest of my life. Aside from my go-to roast chicken I seldom make anything the same way twice. This cake just really does it for me though. Not only is it perfect in terms of its flavor, moistness and size - it's one of the simplest recipes I've seen and very nearly foolproof. It also stores well (I froze mine for a week) and it's so moist that I can't imagine it would ever dry out.
Starlite Chocolate Cake

The only caveat is that the recipe makes a LOT of batter. So much, that at first I didn't believe it would fit into the two cake pans. When it came time to mix the wet and dry ingredients together, I discovered I actually didn't have a big enough bowl, and had to retrieve an enormous one I found at an estate sale, that I had planned to sell in my Etsy store. That bowl is now in my kitchen cabinet, which is where it will stay now that I know I will need it every time I make this cake. If you don't have an enormous bowl, you might try adding half of each of the wet and dry ingredients (by weight) to a third bowl in two batches.

This cake bakes up so tall that you could probably get away with halving the recipe and baking one layer for most occasions. It is nice to know though, that when one of those occasions comes along when nothing but a big, honkin' chocolate cake with thick, fudgy frosting will do - this one's your man.
Starlite Chocolate Cake

Starlite Devils Food Cake
adapted from Sharon La Bate - Pastry Chef at Starlite, and graciously shared by Marguerite Grifka.

Dry Ingredients:
3 cups sugar
2 ¼ cups All Purpose Flour
2 ½ cups cocoa (I used Valrhona)
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
1 Tablespoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt

Wet Ingredients:
3 eggs
3 yolks
1 ½ cups coffee
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
6 oz. melted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 ½ cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line two nine inch cake pans with parchment and grease well (grease the pan before putting the parchment in so it doesn't slip, then grease the paper too.)

Whisk all dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Whisk all of the wet ingredients together well in a separate bowl.

In a very large bowl (a six quart or larger Kitchen Aid should also work) gently fold the dry into the wet ingredients, and whisk gently, just to get rid of any lumps. (If you don't have an enormous bowl but you do have a kitchen scale, you can also weigh out half of each and blend them together in a third bowl, then just pour each batch directly in the cake pans.)

Evenly divide the batter between the two pans, and bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out nearly clean (a few moist crumbs are ok) Allow the cakes to cool on a rack for 15-20 minutes, then turn out of the pans, peel the parchment off, and allow to cool completely before storing.

This batter would also make great cupcakes - just fill your papers about 3/4 full, and bake for about 15-20 minutes, until dry and springy to the touch. Take the cupcakes out of the pan as soon as they are cool enough to handle, so that the steam doesn't cause the papers to come off.

Thick Fudgy Frosting
1 pound of powdered sugar
3 sticks of butter, softened
8 ounces of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted
2 Tablesoons cocoa powder
1/3 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
dash salt

Whisk cocoa powder and salt into warm melted chocolate until dissolved set aside to cool to warm. Using a stand mixer with the whisk attachment on high speed, beat butter until light and fluffy. Lower the speed and gradually beat in powdered sugar, then sour cream and vanilla, scraping the bowl down as needed.

With the mixer running on low speed, add melted chocolate to mixture and blend, scraping the bowl well to make sure it's all incorporated. Frost the cake immediately. If the mixture gets too thick, you can thin it with a little milk or cream.