Chefs – Zester Daily Zester Daily Fri, 05 Jan 2018 10:00:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Festive Pot Pies Celebrate Thanksgiving Leftovers /chefs-wrecipe/festive-pot-pies-celebrate-thanksgiving-leftovers/ /chefs-wrecipe/festive-pot-pies-celebrate-thanksgiving-leftovers/#respond Thu, 23 Nov 2017 10:00:41 +0000 /?p=75913 Main photo: Turkey pot pies by chef Andrew Pastore at Clifton’s Cafeteria in Los Angeles. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The only part of Thanksgiving better than the dinner itself is the next day, when we feast on leftovers. Sandwiches made with sliced turkey and cranberry sauce. Turkey soup. Turkey salad. When I was in his kitchen at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles, chef Andrew Pastore showed me how to make my new favorite after-Thanksgiving dish: elegant, individual turkey pot pies.

Reopened in 2010 after extensive remodeling, Clifton’s remained true to its historical soul as a cafeteria. In the street-level dining hall, customers carry their trays between stations as they collect beverages, salads, entrees, sides and desserts.

Clifton’s takes a page from big-idea theme restaurants. Remodeled dining rooms on all four floors reflect the heyday of the 1930s when there were worlds to be explored and swank nightclubs to attend.

Pastore’s task was to provide a through line for the varied environments of the restaurant. Relaunching Clifton’s meant creating a menu that included old favorites as well as popular modern dishes, which explains why the turkey pot pies share counter space with freshly made sushi and vegan meatloaf.

You might think that a cafeteria would skimp on quality when the kitchen has to prepare as many as 1,000 meals a day. Not so at Clifton’s. Pastore sources quality ingredients that would be at home in any fine dining restaurant. He supervises every detail of preparation. He innovates familiar dishes.

Take his roast beef sandwich, for example. The pink-in the middle beef is moist and flavorful. To add kick, he smears a bit of horseradish sauce on the freshly baked bread. Another chef would layer on tomatoes. That’s where Pastore shows his inventiveness.

Instead of fresh tomatoes, he uses slow roasted Roma tomatoes. Seasoned with dried herbs, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, the tomatoes are halved and roasted in a 200 F oven for up to eight hours.  They give up their water and collapse on themselves. The result is a blast of melt-in-your-mouth tomato flavor.

It is that attention to detail and creativity that Pastore brought to updating his version of Clifton’s classic turkey pot pie.

At Clifton’s, every day is Thanksgiving

Executive Chef Andrew Pastore in a kitchen at Clifton's Cafeteria. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Executive Chef Andrew Pastore at Clifton’s Cafeteria. Credit: Copyright 2017 David Latt

Pastore cooks 40 turkeys every day. Roasted turkeys are served at the carving station. He uses the carcasses to make stock.

For his pot pies, Pastore doesn’t have leftover Thanksgiving turkey so he brines, poaches and shreds turkey breasts. For the poaching liquid he uses homemade stock, made with turkey or chicken carcasses. He would never use commercially produced stocks. They are too expensive and salty.

At our home, while the Thanksgiving turkey is in the oven, we put a gallon of water into a large stock pot. As the turkey is carved, the bones and carcass go into the stock pot, which simmers uncovered for an hour.

With the table cleared, we strain and reserve the liquid. After refrigerating overnight, the stock is portioned into pint- and quart-sized airtight containers. The stock that isn’t used to make pot pies can be frozen for up to six months.

Clifton’s Turkey Pot Pies

A 6-inch round of pastry dough used as a lid on chef Andrew Pastore's turkey pot pie. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

A 6-inch round of pastry dough used as a lid on chef Andrew Pastore’s turkey pot pie. Credit: Copyright 2017 David Latt

Pastore serves his individual pot pies in wide mouth, 16-ounce glass canning jars. If those are not available, use individual-sized bake-proof bowls and adjust the diameter of the puff pastry rounds accordingly. The rounds should be 3 inches larger than the top diameter of the jar or bowl.

Prepared puff pastry can be purchased in most supermarket refrigerated or frozen food sections.

To create a gluten-free pot pie, omit the puff pastry topping and substitute a corn starch slurry for the roux. Easy to make, corn starch and water are mixed together in equal parts without heating. Add the slurry instead of the flour-based roux as directed below.

Use a vegetable oil such as canola, but not pure olive oil, which is too dominating a flavor.

Only use kosher salt in the brine. Iodized salt has a metallic aftertaste.

All vegetables should be cut the same size to promote even cooking. For added flavors, toss vegetables in a small amount of vegetable oil, spread on a baking sheet and roast in a 350 F for 10 minutes before putting them into the pot.

The roux and the filling can be prepared as much as a day ahead of the meal. Just before serving, reheat the filling and add English peas and the finishing seasonings before topping the jar with the puff pastry round.

Prep time if using leftover turkey breast: 20 minutes

Cook time if using leftover turkey breast: 45 minutes

Total time if using leftover turkey breast: 65 minutes

Prep time if brining and poaching uncooked turkey breast: 60 minutes plus 8 hours overnight

Cook time if poaching uncooked turkey breast: 90 minutes

Total time if brining and poaching uncooked turkey breast: 2 1/2 hours plus 8 hours overnight

Yield: 8 individual 16-ounce pot pies

Ingredients to brine and poach uncooked turkey breast

1/2 cup kosher salt

2 cups brown sugar

1 gallon water

8 sprigs fresh thyme, washed, finely chopped (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

1/2 orange (optional)

8 sprigs fresh sage (optional)

1 raw turkey breast, 3 to 4 pounds

1 gallon turkey stock, preferably homemade

Directions for poaching uncooked turkey breast

1. Place salt, sugar, seasonings (optional) and water in a large plastic bag or container. Mix well. Submerge raw turkey breast in seasoned water. Seal. Place in large bowl and refrigerate a minimum of 8 hours, preferably overnight.

2. Place plastic bag in sink. Remove turkey breast. Discard seasoned water. Rinse turkey breast with fresh water. Pat dry.

3. Place turkey stock in large stock pot. Simmer. Add brined turkey breast. Cook 1 1/2 hours or until breast reaches an internal temperature of 155 F.

4. Remove breast from stock. Allow to rest 20 minutes. Reserve stock to use for pot pies and refrigerate or freeze for later use.

5. Use or refrigerate poached breast in airtight container.

Ingredients for turkey pot pie

11 ounces unsalted butter

11 ounces all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 cups yellow onions, medium dice

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 cups celery stalks, medium dice

2 cups peeled carrots, medium dice

1 cup Portobello or shiitake mushrooms, washed, thin sliced (optional)

4 cups shredded turkey breast

3 to 4 cups turkey stock, homemade

1 cup English peas, shelled, washed, fresh or frozen

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 teaspoon truffle oil (optional)

1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)

4 sheets puff pastry, cut into 6” rounds to cover eight 16-ounce glass canning jars

2 eggs

8 rosemary sprigs (optional)


1. To make roux, melt butter over low heat in a saucepan. Sprinkle flour in small amounts to avoid creating clumps. Whisk to incorporate flour into melted butter. Add more flour. Continue whisking until all flour is added. Be careful to keep the roux out of the corners of the pan where it can burn. For added flavor, create a “blond roux” by stirring over medium-low heat until flour is light golden brown. Remove from heat and reserve.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat vegetable oil. Add onions. Season with a pinch of salt. Cook until lightly transparent. Toss to stir. Add celery, carrots and mushrooms (optional). Season in layers with another pinch of salt. Stir well. Sweat vegetables 4 to 5 minutes, being careful not to brown.

3. Add shredded turkey meat and stock.

4. Bring to simmer. Add roux in stages, a small amount each time. Stir well to incorporate. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes. If gravy becomes too thick, add small amounts of heated stock.

5. Add peas, salt and pepper to taste and truffle oil (optional). Stir well.

6. Add thyme and parsley. Stir well.

7. Add heavy cream (optional).

8. Preheat oven to 350 F.

9. Arrange glass canning jars on baking tray. Spoon filling into each jar. Fill to top. Carefully lay a piece of puff pastry over the top of each jar. Gently shape the dough onto the top and down the sides of the jar to create a “lid” that will seal in the filling.

10. Whisk eggs together. Use a pastry brush to paint puff pastry lid on top and sides.

11. Place filled canning jars on a baking sheet and place in preheated oven.

12. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until puff pastry is golden brown. Garnish each pot pie with a rosemary sprig (optional). Serve hot.

Main photo: Turkey pot pies by chef Andrew Pastore at Clifton’s Cafeteria in Los Angeles. Credit: Copyright 2017 David Latt

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

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Fried Chicken Gets The Sweet-And-Spicy Japanese Treatment /chefs-wrecipe/fried-chicken-gets-the-sweet-and-spicy-japanese-treatment/ /chefs-wrecipe/fried-chicken-gets-the-sweet-and-spicy-japanese-treatment/#respond Fri, 20 Oct 2017 09:00:41 +0000 /?p=75585 Japanese fried chicken tatsuta age with spicy ponzu sauce at Roku. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Fried chicken, oh how you are loved. Crisp on the outside, moist inside and savory-sweet, fried chicken is solidly on the list of favorite American foods. But not just in the U.S. Visit just about anywhere on planet Earth and you’ll find a version of fried chicken. Twice-fried Korean chicken, pounded-flat German schnitzel, sweet chili sauce Thai and Senegalese peanut-accented chicken are all local favorites.

Chef Roger Lee recently took me into his kitchen at Roku in West Hollywood to show me how to make the classic Japanese fried chicken called tatsuta age.

Most Japanese restaurants focus on one particular dish or technique. Maybe it’s sushi or ramen or tempura. Roku is one of those rare restaurants that celebrate many Japanese cooking techniques.

In the dining area, teppanyaki chef Michael Monzon engages his diners with Mississippi River boat excitement as he chars proteins and vegetables on his searingly hot grills.

Behind the sushi bar chef Juri Kobayashi is the quiet artist. His dishes are graced with subtle beauty and surprising flavors. A plate of amberjack sashimi is presented as if it were a delicate floral bouquet. Kobayashi decorates the thin slices of fish with slivers of strawberries and edible baby pansies. The seasoning comes from citrus yuzu, crunchy sea salt grains and spicy, freshly grated wasabi.

Some of the ingredients used to prepare the fried chicken tatsuta age at Roku: soy sauce, ponzu sauce, egg whites, chopped ginger, garlic, Sriracha. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Some of the ingredients used to prepare the fried chicken tatsuta age at Roku: soy sauce, ponzu sauce, egg whites, chopped ginger, garlic, Sriracha. Credit: Copyright 2017 David Latt

What diners never see is chef Lee’s kitchen. Like Oz behind the curtain, Lee keeps the teppanyaki grill and sushi bar supplied with all their necessaries. His kitchen also serves up much of the menu, including savory hot and cold small plates. One of the most popular is his take on the classic tatsuta age.

Frequent an izakaya, an eating and drinking bar, and you have encountered tatsuta age or karaage, its close cousin. A small plate of Japanese fried chicken is an ideal salty accompaniment with an ice cold beer, glass of crisp Chablis or a vodka martini with a lemon twist.

Dark meat for Japanese fried chicken. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Dark meat for Japanese fried chicken. Credit: Copyright 2017 David Latt

Some kitchens prepare tatsuta age with chicken breast strips. Others serve tatsuta age “neat,” without sauce. Lee uses deboned leg and thigh meat because the more flavorful dark meat stays moist when fried. Lee also coats his tatsuta age in a sweet and spicy ponzu sauce because he likes the play of textures and flavors.

Fried Chicken Tatsuta Age

The hot and spicy ponzu sauce can be served on the side or, as Lee does at Roku, the cooked chicken can be coated in the sauce before plating.

The chicken can be cooked in a deep fat fryer or, as Lee demonstrates in the video, in a shallow sauté pan.

As the preferred cooking temperature of 350 F is very important, for good results Lee recommends using a hot oil or candy thermometer.

Lee also recommends using dark ponzu, which has more flavor.

Sesame oil, cooking sake, mirin, dark ponzu, sambal chili paste, katakuriko (potato starch) and Sriracha give the dish its distinctive flavor. The ingredients can be found in most supermarkets or in Asian markets. To thicken the sauce, Lee prefers katakuriko for crispness, but corn starch can be substituted.

The chicken can be marinated for as little as 15 minutes, but Lee recommends overnight marinating to create the best results.

Prep time: 30 minutes plus overnight marinating

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes plus overnight marinating

Yield: 4 servings (2-3 pieces per person)


11 ounces deboned chicken leg and thigh meat, washed, pat dried

For the marinade:

2 cups soy sauce

1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon Sriracha

2 egg whites

1/4 cup sesame oil

For the spicy ponzu sauce:

1 cup cooking sake

1 cup mirin, Japanese cooking wine

1 cup dark ponzu

1/4 cup sambal chili paste

1 tablespoon katakuriko (potato starch) or corn starch

For frying and plating:

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 cups canola oil

Sea salt to taste

3 thin slices jalapeno, washed, pat dried (optional garnish)

1 lemon wedge, washed, pat dried (optional garnish)


1. Trim most of the fat from the deboned dark meat and portion into 1-ounce pieces approximately 1/2 inch thick for easy cooking. Leave some fat for flavor. If not cooking immediately, cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

2. Prepare marinade by placing all ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine.

3. Submerge the cut pieces of chicken in marinade at least 15 minutes, preferably overnight. Cover with plastic wrap or place in an airtight container and refrigerate.

4. Just before cooking chicken, prepare spicy ponzu sauce by placing all ingredients except katakuriko or corn starch in a small saucepan on medium low heat. Stir well. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Sprinkle in katakuriko and whisk well to dissolve. Reduce flame to low and cook until sauce thickens. Reserve until ready to serve.

5. Pour canola oil into a sauté pan. For safety, the oil should only fill the sauté pan halfway. Heat oil on medium heat. Use a hot oil or candy thermometer and bring the temperature of the oil to 350 F.

6. Remove chicken pieces from marinade. Drain to remove excess liquid.

7. Pour all-purpose flour into a bowl or onto a plate. Dredge each piece of chicken through the flour. Shake off excess flour.

8. To protect against being splattered by hot oil, drop each piece of coated chicken in the back of the sauté pan.

9. Brown on one side and use tongs to turn over each piece. The chicken should cook within 2 to 3 minutes when it reaches an internal temperature of 160 F.

10. To remove excess oil, place cooked chicken in a metal strainer. Season with sea salt.

11. Place cooked chicken in a bowl. Ladle in approximately 2 ounces of warm ponzu sauce. Lightly toss to coat. If serving sauce on the side, place in a heat-proof bowl on the serving dish.

12. Serve hot chicken pieces on an attractive platter with a garnish (optional) and warm ponzu sauce in a bowl (optional).

Main photo: Japanese fried chicken tatsuta age with spicy ponzu sauce at Roku. Credit: Copyright 2017 David Latt

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

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How A Basque Chef Smokes Out Food’s Subtle Natural Flavors /people/75460/ /people/75460/#respond Fri, 06 Oct 2017 09:00:29 +0000 /?p=75460 Chef Bittor Arginzoniz slicing beef. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Etxebarri

When my friend Andoni Luis Aduriz invited me to dinner in Spain’s Basque countryside, I knew the food would be wonderful. Aduriz is the chef at San Sebastián’s Mugaritz, one of the world’s most famous restaurants, so he knows cooking. But I’ll admit I had my doubts when he described the tasting menu we’d be having at Etxebarri, in the town of Atxondo. “Every dish has at least one grilled or smoked component,” he informed me.

Fast-forward to a grilled egg yolk, the bright golden orb quivering over a bed of zizas (chanterelles). Marbled slices of housemade chorizo, ibérico pork streaked fire-engine red with smoked paprika. Grilled baby octopi the size of large grapes, their flesh tinged with the slightest char. The nacreous iridescence of grilled bacalao. By the time we got to dessert — grilled puff pastry, topped with smoked-milk ice cream — I couldn’t help but laugh. At myself.

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Chef Francis Mallmann Sets Fire To Food Of Uruguay /chefs-wrecipe/chef-francis-mallmann-sets-fire-to-food-of-uruguay/ /chefs-wrecipe/chef-francis-mallmann-sets-fire-to-food-of-uruguay/#respond Fri, 09 Jun 2017 00:00:11 +0000 /?p=73891 Chef Francis Mallmann. Credit: Copyright 2016 Peter Buchanan-Smith

“Fire is a language all its own. It’s magical. Mysterious.” No, these are not the words of a committed arsonist, but rather Francis Mallmann, one of South America’s greatest chefs, a man famous for his deftness with this most elemental of cooking tools.

Raised in Patagonia by an Argentinian father and Uruguayan mother, the 60-year-old Mallmann waxed poetic on the subject of fire when we sat down to talk at his Restaurante Garzón in the tiny Uruguayan town for which it is named.

Garzón is a curious place for a world-renowned chef to put down roots, but then Mallmann is a curious figure — part master craftsman, part culinary shaman. He opened his first restaurant in the Argentinian Andes at the age of 19 before moving northeast to set up shop in the Uruguayan beach resort of José Ignacio, a summer destination for the Argentinian upper crust. During the off-season, he staged in some of France’s most legendary kitchens, under the likes of Roger Vergé and Alain Senderens.

By the age of 40, he’d reached the top of his field, winning Le Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine from the International Academy of Gastronomy, but instead of viewing the award as validation, he saw it as a wake-up call. “It made me sad. I’d forged a path through European cuisines, but I didn’t have my own culinary language.” In an effort to find it, he turned back to his childhood and began investigating the native cuisines of the Andes and other parts of South America.

A small town draws big names

The restaurant deck at Bodega Garzón. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Bodega Garzón

The restaurant deck at Bodega Garzón. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Bodega Garzón

His search led him to Garzón, a place he describes as having a wonderful aura. “It’s got great bones — the streets, the trees, the beautiful old houses. There’s a peaceful quality here.” He wasn’t the only one who saw the potential; I’d gone there in March as the guest of Bodega Garzón, a winery established by Alejandro Bulgheroni, an Argentinian oil tycoon who’s one of the world’s richest men.

To describe it as Uruguay’s most ambitious new winery isn’t saying much in a country smaller than Missouri that’s home to more cattle than people, but Bulgheroni’s $85 million project is not what you’d call a shoestring operation. Covering more than 520 acres, the complex includes a restaurant, a private wine club and an olive oil production facility that resembles a modern Tuscan villa, and there are plans to build a boutique hotel amid the vines. Mallmann was brought in to help design the kitchens and create the menus.

As you’d expect from a project this ambitious, Bodega Garzón’s wines are anything but shabby. Indeed, they’re likely to gain this small but progressive country a closer look by international connoisseurs. In particular, the Albariño and Tannat bottlings are worth seeking out.

Although the winery is opulent, its restaurant menu is of a piece with the gaucho-inspired dishes Mallmann serves at his own place down the road. His food highlights the earthy flavor combinations, techniques and ingredients (particularly the excellent meat) of Argentina and Uruguay, whose populations are a blend of indigenous and immigrant, the latter category hailing primarily from Italy and Spain. And running throughout Mallmann’s cuisine, always, there is fire.

No translation necessary

Chef Francis Mallmann tending to the hearth at Restaurante Garzon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sofia Perez

Chef Francis Mallmann tending to the hearth at Restaurante Garzon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sofia Perez

His favored medium notwithstanding, however, Mallmann brings to his food an undeniable delicacy — fire as perfume, not punishment. “People think that cooking with fire is a masculine thing, something brutal, but it’s actually quite fragile.”

He made his case at the dinner he hosted for the winery’s official opening. In the square outside his own restaurant, Mallmann and his team spent the day tending to a split-leveled fire that was surrounded by a circle of crucified lambs, which were themselves ringed by flames. By the time guests arrived that evening, the darkness of rural night had been deferred, revealing a tableau that suggested an offering to the gods — or a scene from “Lord of the Flies,” take your pick. But despite the fierce manner in which the meat had been cooked, it remained remarkably tender, and its subtle flavor was surprising.

“The ‘simple’ approaches are the most difficult,” Mallmann said, “because there’s nowhere to hide. Things can go wrong with the tiniest shift.” He pointed to the strong winds that had buffeted Garzón that day, constantly altering the fire’s temperature and, therefore, the way the meat cooked. Mastery of such a technique can only be achieved through repetition and attentiveness. “The language of cooking is one of silences — it’s of the hands and all the senses.”

Throughout our conversation, Mallmann returned repeatedly to the metaphor of language, which seems fitting for someone who has used cooking to communicate with people all over the world. “If you bring a president and a farmer together around a fire, you don’t need words,” he said. “Fire is part of our collective memory — it’s what unites us.”

Tomato, Goat Cheese and Anchovy Bruschetta

Tomato, Goat Cheese, and Anchovy Bruschetta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Santiago Solo Monllor

Tomato, Goat Cheese and Anchovy Bruschetta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Santiago Solo Monllor

Excerpted from “Seven Fires” by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books, 2009).

According to Mallmann, the key to this recipe is to burn the tomatoes to achieve a “toasty bitterness” that contrasts with the sweetness of the liquid they contain.


36 cherry tomatoes (about 1 pound)

1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 day-old baguette (10 ounces) sliced into 24 half-inch-thick rounds, toasted until crisp

8 ounces Bûcheron or similar goat cheese

24 anchovy fillets (about 3 1/2 ounces), drained and halved lengthwise

Parsley, Olive Oil and Garlic Sauce (see recipe below)


Cut the tomatoes in half and put them in a bowl. Add the oregano, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine.

Heat a chapa or large cast-iron griddle over very high heat. When it is very hot, place the cherry tomato halves cut side down about 1 inch apart on the hot surface; work in batches if necessary. It is very important not to move the tomatoes while they cook, or they will release their juices and lose their shape and texture. Keep in mind that it is hard to char a tomato too much: best to err on the side of charring; and if you do move one, you are committed and you should remove it immediately. When you see that the tomatoes are well charred on the bottom, almost black (about 4 minutes), remove them using tongs or a spatula and place burnt side up on a large tray, about an inch apart so they don’t steam.

Arrange the toasted bread rounds on a platter. Spread some of the goat cheese on each round, and place 3 tomato halves on top of the cheese. Garnish with the anchovies and drizzle a teaspoonful of the sauce on top. Serve immediately.

Parsley, Olive Oil, and Garlic Sauce

Excerpted from “Seven Fires” by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books, 2009).


1/2 cup packed minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


Combine the parsley and garlic in a small bowl. Slowly add the olive oil, whisking to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The sauce can be kept refrigerated for three to four days.

Main image: Chef Francis Mallmann. Credit: Copyright 2016 Peter Buchanan-Smith

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Havana’s In-Home Eateries Steal The Show /world/havanas-in-home-eateries-steal-the-show/ /world/havanas-in-home-eateries-steal-the-show/#comments Thu, 23 Mar 2017 09:00:23 +0000 /?p=72478 Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Havana is back in the news. For more than half a century, Cuba has been off limits to Americans. With the reopening of the American Embassy in August 2015, tourists are flocking to Havana. The city is bustling with new restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars and paladars, the uniquely Cuban restaurant created in a family’s home.

The paladar movement began after the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing Cuba in what is called the “Special Period,” when the economy suffered greatly. The government experimented with private enterprise and allowed a few private citizens to turn their homes into restaurants.

In 1999, we ate at La Guarida, a paladar on the third floor of a dilapidated building with an auto repair shop on the bottom floor. Walking up the curved staircase, we passed tiny apartments, their doors open to allow for the circulation of air.

Made famous as the location for the classic Cuban film, “Strawberries and Chocolate” (“Fresa y chocolate”), La Guarida was a restaurant created inside a small apartment. Customers ate in what had been the living room. Another room had also been cleared of its furniture to make way for a dozen small tables and chairs. Plates of chicken with rice and vegetables were served, and I remember we were charged for bread. All in all, the food was good but not special except that by 1999-Havana-standards, the quality was very good.

Fast forward to 2015 and a return to La Guarida found the restaurant in the same peeling, dilapidated building. Cars were still parked inside the building on the ground floor and the restaurant was still reached by climbing up the broad staircase to the third floor.

But La Guarida no longer looked like a family’s apartment. The restaurant now takes up the entire floor with a large kitchen, sleek modern bathrooms and large, expansive rooms decorated with crystal chandeliers and quality paintings. Sitting in any of the dining rooms or the small bar, you could imagine you were in London or New York. The menu no longer has home-cooked favorites such as chicken with rice and vegetables. La Guarida’s fine-dining cuisine would be easily found in Paris or Berlin with prices to match.

A dining room at La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

A dining room at La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Like La Guarida, many paladars no longer look like private homes. Paladar Vistamar is in an upscale neighborhood of 1950s modernist houses. Located on the second floor, the restaurant occupies what was once the living room and terrace. The dining areas are framed by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the ocean-facing side of the building. Eat outside on the covered terrace and you will have the best view of the ocean and the pool below.

When we had lunch on a sunny, clear day, the ocean still churned from a storm that had passed over the island the night before. Waves crashed against a concrete retaining wall and swept across the pool.

Pork, chicken and rabbit were on the menu, but given the proximity to the ocean, we chose seafood. A red snapper ceviche was fresh and bright. A green salad with freshly cooked shrimp and lobster was beautifully presented, although foreigners were advised to avoid eating leafy greens because of problems with the quality of the water. On the advice of the waitress, we ordered sides of the delicious, soupy black beans and steamed rice or as they are called here Moors and Christians (“moros y cristianos”). To finish the meal, a light flan with fresh fruit was served as dessert along with cups of Cuban espresso.

For Americans, a stay in Havana always involves conversations about the current state of relations between the two countries and what will happen when the embargo ends.

Walking around the tourist areas of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), you might be tempted to believe that Cuba has returned to a capitalist culture. That would be a mistake. Havana is a city living in two worlds. In the tourist sections of the city, capitalist-socialism is very much in evidence. Wide boulevards have been recently paved. Hotels are being constructed within sight of José Martí Square in Old Havana.

Chef Boris Panta in the kitchen at Paladar Vistamar platting red snapper ceviche. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Chef Boris Panta in the kitchen at Paladar Vistamar platting red snapper ceviche. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The other Havana is a few blocks from the neighborhoods visited by foreigners. On those streets, the pavement is potholed and the buildings are in a state of decay. Of course there are beautiful suburbs outside of the Old City and Central Havana. But most of Havana suffers from the effects of poverty and the consequences of the embargo.

Part of a larger complex, El Cocinero is next door to one of Havana’s cultural sensations, Fábrica de Cubano Arte, known locally as F.A.C. or Fábrica. An artist collective originally subsidized by the Cuban government, Fábrica is the ultimate hyphenate. Café, art gallery, screening room, lecture space, dance hall and bar, the expansive former peanut oil factory has dozens of rooms that are filled every night by hundreds of young Cubans. When you visit El Cocinero and after you have eaten and enjoyed one of their delicious, light-as-air piña coladas, definitely follow the music to Fábrica where you can dance until 3:00 a.m.

Since the “Special Period,” paladars have blossomed into a subculture and have transformed the Havana culinary scene. Now the paladar is an iconic feature of the new Havana as much as the 1950s American cars that are everywhere in the city. As you make a shortlist of paladars you must visit on your trip to Havana, Ivan Chef Justo deserves to be at the top of your list along with La Guarida. The handiwork of two chefs who used to cook for Fidel Castro, Ivan Chef Justo is a soulfully curated vision of a traditional paladar. Family photographs line the walls along with portraits of 1950s Hollywood celebrities. Relying on small private farms for their ingredients, Ivan Chef Justo, like many paladars, is pursuing a farm-to-table program long popular in the United States but new in Cuba.

The sign on the outside of the paladar La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The sign on the outside of the paladar La Guarida. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

When we ate at Ivan Chef Justo, we were part of a large party. We were served family style with large platters filling the center of the table. Lobster stew with carrots, mashed yucca, Moors and Christians, roast chicken and, my favorite, roast pork with crispy lacquered skin, were eaten with relish.

During our week-long stay in Havana, we ate most of our meals in paladars. Talking with other travelers, we heard about their favorite paladars and we told them about ours. If you have friends traveling to Cuba, ask them which paladars they enjoyed and check La Habana online ( Because the more popular paladars are booked months in advance, email the hotel concierge to request reservations so you don’t miss out. And bring a lot of American dollars to exchange for the local currency called C.U.C.s (“cukes”) because, as of this writing, American and European credit cards are not accepted inside Cuba.

Paladars of Havana:

  • El Cocinero Paladar (Calle 26, Vedado, between Calle 11 and 13,  +53 7 832 2355)
  • Fábrica de Cubano Arte (Calle 26, between Calles 11 and 13, Equina 11, Vedado,  +53 7 838-2260)
  • Ivan Chef Justo (Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon, close to the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, +53 7 863-9697 and +53 5 343-8540)
  • La Guarida (Concordia. No. 418, between Gervasio and Escobar, +53 7 8669047)
  • Paladar Vistamar (Avenida 1, 2206, between Calles 22 and 24, Miramar, +53 7 203 8328)
  • Rio Mar (Aveneda 3rd and Final # 11, La Puntilla, Miramar,  +53 7 209 4838)


Main photo: Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Chefs Discover The Vegan Soul In Iconic Comfort Foods /chefs-wrecipe/chefs-discover-the-vegan-soul-in-iconic-comfort-foods/ /chefs-wrecipe/chefs-discover-the-vegan-soul-in-iconic-comfort-foods/#respond Tue, 17 Jan 2017 10:00:20 +0000 /?p=76747 Chef Olivier Rais in his kitchen at Rive Gauche in Zurich's Hotel Baur au Lac with a serving of his vegan risotto. Credit: Copyright 2017 David A. Latt

In pursuit of a healthy cuisine, chefs are adding vegan dishes to their menus. Eliminating all animal products? That raises flavor concerns for some diners. Comfort food, says Swiss chef Olivier Rais, helps make that transition.

At Rive Gauche, Rais focuses on grilled meats and seafood, the mainstay of the restaurant in Hotel Baur au Lac across the street from Lake Zurich. Vegetarian dishes have long been popular in Switzerland. Hiltl, the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe, opened in Zurich in 1898. Rais always served elegant vegetarian dishes, but putting vegan dishes on the menu seemed like a bridge too far.

Trained in classical French and Italian cuisines, he had always relied on butter and eggs when he made savory dishes and baked goods. Everything changed when he worked with chef Tal Ronnen at Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles. Ronnen showed him how to employ plant proteins as emulsifiers to replace eggs and nut purees, margarine and nondairy cheeses instead of butter, milk and cream.

Enjoying the playfulness of vegan substitutions, Rais’ face lights up when he talks about creating a dish that appears to be roasted bone marrow but is actually a heart of palm stalk with a porcini mousse filling. He was especially proud of a juicy vegan burger he made with dehydrated and smoked mushrooms mixed with beets, barley, broccoli and coconut oil.

When I visited, Rais served a watermelon-tomato gazpacho, sous vide carrots with cumin and ravioli made with tofu “skins” filled with dried tomatoes and zucchini sauced with watercress coulis. Visually gorgeous, the dishes were delicious.

The economics of vegan dishes

Vegan ravioli filled with dried tomatoes and zucchini on watercress coulis served warm, prepared by chef Olivier Rais. Credit: Copyright 2017 David A. Latt

Vegan ravioli filled with dried tomatoes and zucchini on watercress coulis served warm, prepared by chef Olivier Rais. Credit: Copyright 2017 David A. Latt

Rais admits that preparing vegan dishes requires more labor and expense. In the U.S., vegan products are more readily available than in Europe. In Zurich imported vegan ingredients are difficult to locate and more expensive than local, animal-based products. Rais hopes that his diners will support the higher cost of the vegan dishes he has added to the menu.

In the meantime, he offers dishes like the risotto in the traditional style using butter and Parmesan cheese as well as a vegan dish without dairy products. And, of course, he will continue to serve a full menu of grilled meats, poultry and fish prepared on the kitchen’s powerful 800 F grill. Ultimately, by serving vegan dishes Rais can now offer a menu that delights all diners, whatever their preferences.

Rive Gauche Vegan Risotto

Micro-green garnish for vegan risotto at Hotel Baur au Lac, Rive Gauche kitchen, prepared by chef Olivier Rais. Credit: Copyright 2017 David A. Latt

Micro-green garnish for vegan risotto at Hotel Baur au Lac, Rive Gauche kitchen, prepared by chef Olivier Rais. Credit: Copyright 2017 David A. Latt

Short-grained Arborio rice should be used because it creates the creaminess associated with good risotto. Another rice can be used, but the risotto will be less creamy and the result can be more like porridge.

On the video Rais demonstrates a basic risotto with only a few flavor ingredients. For more robust flavors and textures, add sautéed diced carrots, zucchini, broccoli, shelled English peas or mushrooms.

In the U.S., vegan products are available in upscale supermarkets and health food markets.

The vegetable stock, cashew butter and fennel puree can be prepared the day ahead so the cooking of the risotto can be accomplished quickly and easily.

Homemade vegetable stock is preferable to using powdered stock. To make vegetable stock, put a gallon of water into a large pot with two cups each of chopped tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions and mushrooms. After boiling uncovered 45 minutes, the stock will reduce by half. Strain with a colander or run through a food mill. Reserve stock in an airtight container and refrigerate. Whatever is not used for the recipe, freeze in pint-sized containers for later use.

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus overnight soaking of raw cashew nuts

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes, plus overnight soaking of raw cashew nuts

Yield: 4 servings


1 cup raw cashews

1 medium sized fennel bulb, washed, root ends, fronds and outer skin removed

4 cups vegetable stock, preferably homemade

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 shallots medium sized or 1 medium yellow onion, washed, root end, tip and outer skin removed, finely chopped

3/4 pound Arborio rice

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup vegan margarine

3/4 cup vegan white cheese, grated

1 Granny Smith apple, washed

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sea salt to taste

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional)

1 tablespoon sprouts, herbs, edible flowers like baby pansies or finely chopped Italian parsley leaves (optional)


1. To make the cashew cream, cover raw cashews with water. Soak overnight. In the morning, place cashews into a blender. Add small amounts of water as needed to create a creamy puree. Refrigerate in an airtight container. This step can be done a day ahead.

2. Roughly chop raw fennel bulb. Place cut-up fennel in a steamer pot with 3 cups water.  Cover and steam until soft, 2 to 5 minutes. Remove and cool. Puree the steamed fennel. Refrigerate in an airtight container. This step can be done the day ahead.

3. In a small pot, heat vegetable stock on a low flame and set on the back of the stove top.

4. In a large saucepan or sauté pan, heat olive oil on medium-low heat. Add finely chopped shallots. Stir and sauté until soft. Do not brown.

5. Add Arborio rice to shallots. Stir well and sauté until rice is almost translucent.

6. Add white wine. Simmer. Stir well until the wine is reduced by half.

7. Add 1 cup vegetable stock. Stir well. When the liquid is absorbed, add another cup of stock. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

8. Continue adding stock, 1 cup at a time and stir. As the rice absorbs the liquid, the kernels will soften. Continue adding stock and simmering until the kernels are al dente.

9. Stir frequently to prevent the rice from burning on the bottom of the pot.

10. Mix in 3/4 cup cashew cream and 1 cup fennel puree. Stir well to incorporate.

11. Add vegan margarine and incorporate.

12. After margarine melts, add vegan cheese. Stir until cheese melts.

13. Core and peel the apple. Make a very fine dice yielding 1/4 cup. Add to risotto and mix well.

14. The risotto should be creamy. If rice begins to dry out, add small amounts of stock as needed and mix well.

15. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. To counter the creaminess, if desired, add a small amount of dry white wine.

16. Portion risotto into four plates. Garnish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, sprouts, herbs and edible flowers like baby pansies or with finely chopped Italian parsley (optional).

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

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Ferran Adrià’s Disciples Put Their Spin On elBulli’s Legacy /people/76476/ /people/76476/#comments Thu, 05 Jan 2017 10:00:14 +0000 /?p=76476 Chefs Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas worked in the famed elBulli kitchen and now own and operate multiple acclaimed restaurants in Spain. Credit: Copyright 2016 Maribel R. de Erenchun

As have other grand masters of the kitchen before him, Ferran Adrià has established a family of chef-disciples who have gone forth into the world to perpetuate his groundbreaking deconstructionist philosophy and aesthetics.  The challenging, frequently surreal innovations that made his elBulli five-time winner of the best restaurant in the world and arguably the most influential restaurant of the last century did not become extinct with the closure of the legendary address in 2011; instead, the “school” of Adrià takes his legacy ever further into the future.

Three of those culinary crusaders rolled into my hometown of Manchester in northwest England with a roadshow of thrilling cooking that has won their Michelin-starred restaurant Disfrutar in Barcelona the title of Best New European Restaurant 2016. It was less a tribute act than a new band (or should I say brigade) arising phoenix-like from the shuttered halls of the fabled gastronomic laboratory. It was also a demonstration of how the elBulli influence will shape the way we eat and our sensory and cultural understanding of food for a long time to come.

Ibérica, a high-end chain of Spanish restaurants in the United Kingdom, played host to the trio — appearing for two nights only in London and Manchester. Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas met each other more than 15 years ago in the elBulli kitchen, where they trained as chefs and went on to hold top positions. When the restaurant closed to metamorphose into the elBulli Foundation, they stayed on the team, actively working with Adrià to produce the immense Bullipedia.

Chefs put stamp on their food

Crispy egg yolk with mushroom jelly. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francesc Guillamet

Crispy egg yolk with mushroom jelly. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francesc Guillamet

In 2012 they decided to open their own restaurant, Compartir, in the idyllic village of Cadaqués, Spain, on the Costa Brava so closely associated — so appropriately — with Salvador Dali. Two years later, they opened Disfrutar, more avant-garde in vision and style but still informed by the same  deep knowledge of their home region, respect for ingredients and acutely intelligent use of techniques.

Adrià remains their close friend and mentor, but they are not prêt-à-porter versions to his couture. The trio speak as one: “When elBulli closed, we all needed time to rest, step back and think about which way was right for us. We can never replicate the elBulli kitchen, nor would we want to, but there is still so much more for us to discover.”

One of their hallmarks is attention to detail. Such was their concern, they even brought their own eggs to the UK from their farmer in Spain who raises poultry to their own demanding specifications. The result was the evening’s show-stopper: crispy egg yolk with mushroom jelly, a playful but perfect composition that somehow conjured a deep-fried runny yolk into a surgically sliced white eggshell containing a pool of intense jellied stock.

Deceptively simple food

Red tuna Ibérico. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francesc Guillamet

Red tuna Ibérico. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francesc Guillamet

One of their signature dishes, red tuna Ibérico (using sustainable fish from Balfegó), showed their characteristic deceptive simplicity. An immense amount of work had gone on behind the scenes into rendering Ibérico ham fat, making the most perfect tomato purée and slicing raw tuna loin to the exact thickness of 0.2 centimeters before combining the elements and topping the fish with fresh chervil and pearls of Arbequina Caviaroli, encapsulated extra virgin olive oil produced by an innovative family-run company in Spain.

Other standout dishes included a beetroot and fruit salad with ajoblanco sorbet — a clever and ravishingly pretty reinterpretation of the cold Andalusian summer almond soup — and a sweet-but-tangy, rich-but-light cheesecake with raspberry sorbet.

‘Don’t live in the past’

Beetroot and fruit salad with ajoblanco sorbet Credit: Copyright 2016 Francesc Guillamet

Beetroot and fruit salad with ajoblanco sorbet Credit: Copyright 2016 Francesc Guillamet

What was the essence of their experience with Adrià?

“Work, work, work! Just try and get better all the time. Keep your foot on the pedal. Get the best products possible. Be happy for five minutes when you do something new, but don’t stop there. Keep on trying. Don’t live in the past.”

ElBulli was about much more than food on a plate; it involved the impact on the senses; mind games; the conceptual links between the arts and the kitchen; the time, the place and all the indefinable other factors that went into the magic that was wrought on a Spanish mountain overlooking the Mediterranean.

But nothing lasts forever, and although I might only have had a brief sample of that experience years later on a rainy night in a cold industrial city in Northern England, it was good to learn the elBulli dynasty is keeping the flame alive.

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Celebrating Julia Child With Succulent Ossobuco /chefs-wrecipe/celebrating-julia-child-with-succulent-ossobucco/ /chefs-wrecipe/celebrating-julia-child-with-succulent-ossobucco/#comments Wed, 04 Jan 2017 10:00:08 +0000 /?p=76545 Ossobuco. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Julia Child and I became good friends late in her life, when I moved to Boston and met her in person for the first time. Of course, I had known about her for a very long time — she was the first television food personality I ever saw. One summer, when I was on home leave from an overseas assignment, my mother called me into the television room. “You’ve got to see this,” my mother said. I remember exactly what Julia was making that day — swordfish, which she seared in a pan, then finished in the oven with cherry tomatoes and herbs, and fresh green beans that she tipped into a pan of boiling water, then brought the water back to a boil with a kitchen tool called a “buffalo.” Heated and plunged into a pan of water, the tool quickly brought the water back to a boil. I have never seen or heard of anything similar since.

Julia and her husband, Paul, were still living in their beautiful, old Victorian on Irving Street in Cambridge, and I lived up on Prospect Hill, almost around the corner. I was working then for the American Institute of Wine & Food, Julia’s baby, so we met often as I groused about the blind men in San Francisco who controlled the purse strings. “We all just have to bite the bullet, dearie,” she would chirp across the kitchen table as Paul mixed his famous gin-and-it cocktails before dinner.

Julia and I did not agree about a lot of things. In fact, she reminded me strongly of my recently deceased mother, who clung to her own opinions with the same dogged determination with which Julia clung to hers. One of the things we disagreed most strongly about was veal. When I think back on it, it seems ridiculous, but Julia believed the only genuine veal came from calves that had been raised in strict confinement. Meanwhile, I was made dreadfully uneasy by the information that those calves had to be fed massive doses of antibiotics to keep them alive until they could be slaughtered. “Pink veal is not veal,” she would contend, shaking a finger at me. “It’s baby beef” — each word separated by a slight pause for emphasis.

Well, Julia went on to the great kitchen in the sky and I left Boston for other climes, and the veal controversy was never settled between us. But I cling to the belief today that the best and most traditional veal is not raised in a box, and even if the flesh grows a bit pink from the occasional bit of grass consumed (it’s iron in the grass, I’m told, that turns the flesh from white to pink), it is nonetheless much better for our health to eat meat that has not been contaminated by antibiotics and other medications.

This recipe is in memory of Julia, but please note you could do it with lamb shanks instead of veal.


When making ossobuco, use a single slice of shank, bone and all, about 1 1/2 inches thick, for each diner. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

When making ossobuco, use a single slice of shank, bone and all, about 1 1/2 inches thick, for each diner. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Italians think of ossobuco as a Milanese dish, to be served with saffron risotto — one of the few times on the Italian table when rice (or pasta, for that matter) is served as an accompaniment rather than as a separate course. True Milanese cooks often add tomatoes to the cooking medium. I prefer it without.

For presentation purposes, use a single slice of shank, bone and all, about 1 1/2 inches thick, for each diner. Be sure there’s enough meat on the bone — as you move down the leg of the animal, you get more bone and less meat. You want the total to be not more than one-third of the weight in bone, and the rest in meat. If you can’t find a butcher who will cut you proper ossobuco (“hole-bone”), you could also make this with whole veal or lamb shanks. It won’t be alla Milanese, but it will be very good.

Prep time: 35 minutes

Cook time: 4 hours

Total time: 4 hours and 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


2 medium yellow onions, chopped

2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

2 celery sticks, as green as you can get, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

3/4 cup olive oil, divided

2 3-inch strips lemon zest

2 to 3 pounds ossobuco

3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 cups beef or chicken stock

Several sprigs of fresh thyme

2 or 3 bay leaves

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Sea salt to taste


1. You’ll need a deep, heavy saucepan or stock pot that can go in the oven and is large enough to hold all the pieces of meat in one layer. Combine the onions, carrots, celery and garlic with half the olive oil in the pan and set over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, then stir in the lemon zest and remove from the heat while you prepare the meat.

2. Dry the ossobuco slices with paper towels. Combine the flour with plenty of pepper and dredge the meat in the flour.

3. Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet and when very hot, quickly brown the ossobuco slices on both sides. As they brown, remove with tongs and set them on top of the vegetables in the saucepan.

4. When all the meat is done, remove and discard most of the fat in the pan. Add the wine and bring to a boil over high heat, scraping up all the brown bits. Let the wine bubble and reduce, then transfer the skillet contents, with all the brown bits, to the vegetables.

5. Turn your oven on to 300 F.

6. Add stock to the skillet, bring to a boil and transfer to the saucepan. Stir in the thyme, bay leaves and parsley, but don’t add any salt until the end of cooking. Let the liquid in the pan come to a simmer over medium heat, then cover and transfer to the oven. Cook the meat, very slowly, for about 3 hours, turning the pieces from time to time — three or four times over the course of the baking. When the meat is done, it will be very tender — falling off the bone — and the sauce will be thick.

7. Remove the meat to a heated serving platter and taste the sauce. If necessary, add salt. If the sauce seems too thin, reduce it by simmering. If it’s too dense, on the other hand, add a little more stock, wine or water and bring to a simmer. Spoon the sauce over the meat and serve immediately.

Note: A traditional garnish for ossobuco alla Milanese is a gremolata, made by finely mincing together lemon zest, garlic and flat-leaf parsley, sprinkling it over the meat just before it is sent to the table.

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Sweet Figs: 3 Healthy Recipes That Need No Sugar /chefs-wrecipe/sweet-figs-3-healthy-recipes-that-need-no-sugar/ /chefs-wrecipe/sweet-figs-3-healthy-recipes-that-need-no-sugar/#respond Mon, 19 Sep 2016 09:00:20 +0000 /?p=75401 A plate of fresh figs (Black Mission, Calimyrna and Brown Turkey figs) at the Oaks at Ojai. . Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Here’s the challenge. Create a daily spa menu with 1,000-1,200 calories. Do not use refined sugar or salt. Use fresh fruit, vegetables, low-fat animal proteins, fish and whole grains. That’s how chef Christine Denney at the Oaks at Ojai begins every day. She prepares meals using full-flavored, fresh ingredients. To celebrate fig season, she demonstrated three easy-to-prepare dishes: a stuffed baked figs appetizer, a side dish of fig salsa and a bitter greens salad with figs, almonds and Manchego cheese.

Most of Denney’s career was spent in fine-dining restaurants. Ten years ago, when she took over the kitchen at the Oaks, she had to rethink how she created flavor. No more beef, pork or lamb. No using butter, refined sugar, salt, white flour or white rice. And, she needed to create vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes.

Faced with those restrictions, she returned to basics and decided, as all good cooks do, that good food relies on good ingredients.

Fortunately, the Ojai Valley is just a half-hour from the California coast inland from Santa Barbara. The valley is famous for growing high-quality produce, citrus and avocados. On the property itself, Denney harvests ingredients she uses in her dishes.

Many of the plants at the Oaks that guests take to be purely ornamental are in fact used in her kitchen. Mature orange, lemon, guava and tangerine trees surround the pool where swimmers do laps and the morning exercise class does its workout. Along the walkway to the 46 guest cottages, she harvests rosemary, prickly pears, lavender and mint. And, of course, there are fig trees growing on the property. In good years, Denney gets a bumper crop.

Unfortunately, this year her fruit trees aren’t doing well, a consequence of California’s continuing drought. In a normal year, the figs at the Oaks are ready to harvest in early fall. This year, what figs did appear ripened a month early at the end of summer.

Luckily there are fig growers in the valley. For the video demonstration, she found a good supply of Calimyrna, Brown Turkey and Black Mission figs.

Use good-quality, fresh ingredients for flavorful and healthy meals

Fig and dried fruit salsa with a turkey burger and house made whole wheat pita bread prepared by chef Christine Denney at Oaks at Ojai. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Fig and dried fruit salsa with a turkey burger and house-made whole wheat pita bread prepared by chef Christine Denney at Oaks at Ojai. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

As part of her culinary strategy, she believes in creating meals that are full of flavor. Long ago she realized that extreme diets rarely lead to long-term weight reduction. At the Oaks, her goal is to serve meals that illustrate a culinary approach focused on farm-fresh produce and fruit, balanced servings of starches and proteins, and animal and seafood products low in fat and herbs.

Figs fit nicely into that mix.

Because Denney avoids using refined sugar in her dishes, she likes adding figs because of their natural sweetness.

A good source of fiber and manganese, the versatile fruit can be eaten raw, baked, grilled, poached or made into jam.

Baked Stuffed Figs

Use any variety of available fresh figs. They can be any size you like, large or small.

The figs should be ripe, neither too hard nor too soft.

The stuffed figs can be baked in the oven or placed on the “cold” side of a hot outdoor grill. In the summer, while hot dogs, chicken breasts, hamburgers and steaks are on the hot side of the barbecue, the nut- and cheese-stuffed figs can cook on the “cold” side.

Serve the stuffed figs either as an appetizer or as a dessert.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


8 to 12 fresh figs depending on size and appetite

12 mint or basil leaves

1 to 2 ounces soft cheese, preferably blue, feta or goat cheese

12 toasted pecan halves or 1/4 cup toasted, sliced almonds


1. Wash and pat dry the figs.

2. Preheat oven to 350 F or grill to hot.

3. Trim stems from figs using a sharp paring knife.

4. Using the paring knife, from the top of the fig, cut down halfway. Make a second cut from the top so the fig opens like a flower.

5. Place a fresh mint or basil leaf on the inside of each fig.

6. Place a teaspoon of cheese on top of the leaf.

7. Add the nut on top of the cheese.

8. Press the four sides of the fig together.

9. Place the figs onto a baking tray and put in the preheated oven. If grilling, place the baking tray on the “cold” side of the grill. Cook 15 minutes or until the cheese softens.

10. Serve warm.

Fresh Fig Salsa

A good accompaniment for grilled turkey burgers, hamburgers, grilled chicken or sliced turkey.

Use any kind of fresh fig. For color contrast, use a mix of Calimyrnas and Black Mission figs.

Use a microplane or small-hole grater to grate the fresh ginger root.

After mixing, the salsa will gain flavor if allowed to rest at room temperature for half an hour.

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


1 1/2 cups diced fresh figs

1/4 cup diced yellow bell pepper

2 tablespoons finely minced red onion

1/4 cup dried cranberries or black raisins

2 tablespoons finely minced jalapeno pepper or 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes

2 tablespoons finely minced fresh mint (optional)

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon finely minced or finely grated fresh ginger root, peeled


1. Combine the fresh figs, dried fruit and vegetables in a large bowl. Toss gently to mix well.

2. In a small bowl, mix together lemon juice, olive oil, jalepeno or red chilli flakes, fresh mint (optional) and grated ginger root.

3. Drizzle the dressing over the figs, dried fruit and vegetables.

4. Toss well.

5. Serve at room temperature.

Bitter Green Salad With Figs, Nuts and Grated Manchego Cheese

Chef Christine Denney with a bitter green salad with fresh figs, nuts and cheese at Oaks at Ojai. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Chef Christine Denney with a bitter green salad with fresh figs, nuts and cheese at Oaks at Ojai. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Use any greens you enjoy. For the cooking demonstration, Denney used arugula. Watercress, frisee, chicory and escarole would also be good, as would conventional lettuces like green or red leaf or romaine.

Denney uses oil and vinegar produced by the Ojai Olive Oil Co. If flavor-infused olive oil and vinegar are not readily available, use high-quality extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

When grating lemon zest, Denney advises caution so that only the peel and none of the white, bitter pith are used. The best tool for zesting is a microplane. If one is not available, use a grater with small holes.

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


6 cups arugula or other greens

3 tablespoons fig-infused balsamic vinegar

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1/4 cup finely minced fresh basil

5 tablespoons basil-infused olive oil

8 fresh figs, washed, pat dried, stems removed, cut into quarters or sliced

1/4 cup grated Manchego cheese

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds or pistachios


1. In a large bowl, add bitter or leafy greens.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, herbs and seasoning.

3. Add olive oil to the seasoned vinegar. Just before serving, whisk well to emulsify the dressing.

4. Drizzle dressing over greens. Toss well.

5. Transfer to a platter (if using). Garnish with figs, cheese and nuts and serve.

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

Main photo: A plate of fresh figs (Black Mission, Calimyrna and Brown Turkey figs) at the Oaks at Ojai. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Want Seoul’s Spiciest Curry? You’ll Have To Sign A Waiver /cooking/74941/ /cooking/74941/#comments Mon, 29 Aug 2016 09:00:17 +0000 /?p=74941 Owner Shapour Nasrollahi relaxes at Persian Palace, the spiciest restaurant in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

South Korea is proud of its spicy food. It is one of very few cold weather countries to embrace the chili pepper. Foreigners are often incredulously asked, “You can eat that?” when tucking into a bowl of kimchi jjigae or a plate of fire chicken.

But the hottest food in South Korea isn’t kimchi stew, fire chicken or any of the country’s other gastronomical blast furnaces. In a small alleyway in Seoul’s theater district, an Iranian restaurant, Persian Palace, serves food so hot it has sent patrons to the hospital.

A hobby takes flight

Shapour Nasrollahi puts the gravy -- Level 3.5 -- on a chicken curry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

Shapour Nasrollahi puts the gravy — Level 3.5 — on a chicken curry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

Shapour Nasrollahi, the owner of Persian Palace, is that rare but increasingly common creature, an immigrant to South Korea, a naturalized Korean citizen with no Korean ancestry, only a passion for Korean culture, language and society. Born and raised in Iran, he served as a medic in the Iran-Iraq War, and was wounded in the leg during battle. In 1990 he moved to Japan, in an attempt to emigrate to Canada to attend medical school.

But after visiting a friend in Seoul, he decided to stay and learn the Korean language — he was fascinated with “Hangul,” Korea’s ultra-scientific writing system, studied in linguistics departments around the world. He learned the language and enrolled in college, obtaining degrees in medicine and psychology. He figured he would eventually go to work at a large South Korean company, but in the meantime, he’d like a break — he figured he’d cook.

“Cooking was my hobby all my life,” he says. “I thought just to have a six-month to one-year break, and I’ll make one small shop to do what I want, cooking.”

Spicy to ultra-spicy curries

Curries ready to burn – from left, a Level 2.5 Veg, 3.0 Dal, and 3.5 Chicken. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

Curries ready to burn – from left, a Level 2.5 Veg, 3.0 Dal, and 3.5 Chicken. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

Shapour’s spicy to ultra-spicy curries became legend, and soon his hard-to-find shop became extremely popular. He expanded and bought out the whole building, built a pub downstairs, and hasn’t closed for a single day in 10 years. “I wanted to do this business for six months,” Shapour says. “Six months became almost 15 years.”

So how spicy is it? Shapour has engineered a number system so people can decide how hot they want their food. The lowest level is 2.0, which he says is comparable to kimchi. Two-point-five is like a “Mexican chili” pepper, and from there it gets stronger and stronger. If you want 5.0, he takes your blood pressure first, to decide if it’s a good idea or not. After 6.0, a customer has to sign a waiver, promising that “if anything happens to him, he’s responsible.”

Off-the-scale heat

A patron wipes her brow. Shapour Nasrollahi says his curries are far stronger than any native Korean food. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

A patron wipes her brow. Shapour Nasrollahi says his curries are far stronger than any native Korean food. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

“Look,” Shapour says, “Level 5, sometimes they order, but I never, ever saw a person eat all of Level 5 and go out nicely. Do you know what I mean? They fall down.”

No one has ever eaten a Level 10, though one patron once ordered one.

“Three years ago, one Korean guy he came here, it was Christmas Eve,” Shapour says. “He was almost 100% drunk, he asked me for Level 10. I made Level 7 for him, because he made trouble here. I gave him Level 7. I told him, ‘This is Level 10.'” Shapour laughs. “As I remember, two spoons he ate, and he never came back here again. I don’t know what’s happened to him.”

Shapour uses a mix of 24 spices to make his curries, eight of which are spicy. Chief among those is the Sahara pepper, a small, round and wrinkly red pepper, which Shapour says is off the Scoville scale in hotness. He makes a masala out of it, as well as inserting it directly into the curries. “With bare hands, if you touch it, and then you touch your eyes, God [help] you.”

A complex mix of flavors

Shapour and his chefs prepare the curries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

Shapour and his chefs prepare the curries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

Shapour doesn’t practice medicine anymore, but he still sees himself as something of a doctor, using traditional ingredients to heal. For example, he says Iranians view cumin as good for digestion and post-pregnancy, cinnamon as a tonic for headaches and to warm you up, and cardamom as good for brain disease and to control anger.

But is the food really that spicy? Our party ordered four curries at four different heats: a vegetable curry (2.5), dal (3.0), chicken (3.5), and turkey (4.0), all eaten with plain nan.

Shapour’s reputation as a cook stands up. A complex mix of flavors — cumin, coriander, curry and more — rise through the heat. But they are extremely hot, the last two painfully so, by far the hottest food we had ever eaten in South Korea. The final two curries were left unfinished.

And when one of us complained of indigestion caused by the fire, Shapour immediately provided a glass of Alka-Seltzer — he keeps a stock of it behind the cash register for situations just like these.

Main photo: Owner Shapour Nasrollahi relaxes at Persian Palace, the spiciest restaurant in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson

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