Monday, August 9, 2021

When The Water Runs Out, Again: Farming In A Drought

Seven years ago I wrote a profile of James Birch. I met him at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. I was impressed by his hard work, determination and the quality of his produce. Since then, a great deal has happened in his life. He and his wife Dawn continue to work the farm, the delightfully named, Flora Bella Farms. 

What has changed is the rain. When I wrote the profile in 2014, California was in the grip of a drought. Since then, there have been years with rain and without. But once again, in 2021, California is struggling with an epic drought. The issues are similar to what they were in 2014, although the situation could prove to be worse, depending on....well, the rain.

I am reposting the profile because the issues are still very relevant. I was motivated to share the profile because an email went out July 23, 2021 from James and Dawn saying that because there was no water, there would be no crops to bring to the Wednesday Santa Monica Market:

"The farm depends on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and there was no snow or rain this year.  We will keep you aware of our attempts  to find water and let you know when we will be back.  Until then be well and please do your part to help save our planet. Thanks, Dawn and James Birch"

Happily, today I received this email:

"Great News.  Flora Bella Farms is planning to return to the SMFM the beginning of October.  We will be bringing our greens, mustards and lettuces.  We look forward to returning;
Forever Optimistic, James and Dawn"

Here's the profile from 2014:

Much of the time when I'm at the farmers market I'm so intent on what I want to buy I'm focused on  the produce only noticing the farmers behind the flat tables loaded up with fresh leafy greens, stone fruit and root vegetables when I pay.

Flora Bella Farm holding pond 2001

Flora Bella Farm holding pond 2014

Years ago I hung out with one of the farmers at the Santa Monica Farmers Market because we were talking about doing a cookbook together (he would talk about the "farm," I would talk about the "table").








James Birch has a farm in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Fresno. The farm has a lovely name: Flora Bella Farm. But these days the farm has a problem. The area where he lives is called Three Rivers. Right now there are no rivers.

Flora Bella Farm 2014

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.
Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.
Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.
The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.
The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.
Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.
Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.
In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.
Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olivesand grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?
The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.
Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.
In the spring he knew the snowpack was below normal so he planted potatoes and squash early because they need less water and could be stored for months without damaging their quality. Hoping for the best, he also planted leafy crops.
After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.
In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.
But Birch is in a bind.
Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.
Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.
To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.
Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.
To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.
In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.
And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.
Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Fourth of July is Back! Time to Picnic. Time to Pickle

Rockets exploding overhead. Sparklers in the darkness. Time to celebrate Independence Day. Time to gather together.

Last year we couldn't. This year we can. An amazing triumph of human will and science over a deadly disease. Thank you to all those who labored to care for us and those who created a way forward.

This year for us in Pacific Palisades, we will celebrate the past and our future with a picnic on the grass facing the high school. We'll have a pot luck dinner, see one another in person and catch up.

I'll make fried chicken a chef taught me in his kitchen and potato salad I learned from my mother. And, I will bring pickles made not with cukes but with elegantly long Persian cucumbers. For me, this is a newly modified recipe, midway between a classic Jewish dill pickle and Moroccan pickled vegetables.


Ready to eat after a day for a crisp pickle or in a week or two for a more mellow pickle-experience.

Pickles

No doubt the people who made the first pickles thought they had made a mistake. Somebody accidentally forgot about some raw vegetables in a pot with an acid and salt. Surprise, surprise. A week later, the vegetables weren’t moldy, no bugs had eaten them and, deliciously, they had a nice crunch and tang. Thus was born, the pickle!

In the 1920s, my great-grandfather made pickles on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Grandmother Caroline used to tell stories about working in their little grocery store as a child. When customers would want pickles, she would hop off the counter and go out front to the pickle barrels and fish out the ones they wanted.

I never knew her parents. I never ate their pickles, but I must have brine in my veins because wherever I travel, I am always on the look out for pickles.

Persian Cucumber, Carrot, Onion and Daikon Pickles

As with with things in life, the better the ingredients, the better the result. Use the best vegetables, you'll make a better pickle. Choose Persian cucumbers that are firm, unblemished, without any soft areas. Use carrots that have a sweet taste, the better to contrast with the vinegar and salt. 

For pickled onions, slice yellow onions the long way (from root to stem) into thin strips or buy Mexican onions that look like mature scallions with fat bulbs. Whole onions take a week to pickle. Onion strips pickle in a day.

Daikon pickles are a delight. Crisp and clean tasting.

Vinegar makes a difference. White, red, yellow, there are many different types of vinegars with as many results. I use white wine vinegar I find in Persian and Armenian grocery stores that is less acidic than white vinegar and doesn't color the vegetables as would red wine vinegar. For these pickles I don't use Japanese rice wine vinegar, but I think it would work as well.

Choose a glass jar tall enough for the Persian cucumbers to stand up. Wash the glass jar in a dish washer or with hot water and soap before using.

How much brine you need depends on the size of the jar. All the vegetables must be submerged in brine to avoid spoiling. Make extra brine to keep in a separate container. As vegetables are removed, add brine to cover. 

Only use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. Other kosher salts contain additives.

Before adding the brine to the vegetables, taste and adjust. You might like less salt or more vinegar than I do. 

Prep: 15 minutes

Serves: 6

Pickling Ingredients:

6 Persian cucumbers, washed, stems removed

2 large carrots, washed, ends trimmed, peeled, cut into 1 1/2" fat sticks

1 small daikon, washed, ends trimmed, peeled, cut into 1 1/2" fat sticks

1 small yellow onions, washed, ends trimmed, peeled, sliced thin from stem to root

Brine Ingredients - Adjust proportionally to the size of the glass jar

1 1/2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt 

1/2 cup Yellow White Wine Persian Vinegar or Japanese Rice Wine Vinegar

2 cups water

1 teaspoon black pepper corns

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

A pinch hot pepper flakes

3 bay leaves

Directions:

Lay the glass jar on its side. 

Slide cucumbers into jar so they will stand up when the jar is placed upright. 

Add other vegetables.

Add aromatics.

Stir brine well and add until vegetables are completely submerged. Make certain you keep 1 cup of brine in a separate container to add later as the liquid level drops when you remove vegetables.



Thursday, April 22, 2021

If You Knew Ume, Like I Know Ume, Oh, Oh, It's Umeshu Time

When the blossoms on our peach tree bloom, I know it's spring time which means it's ume time. Prized in Asia and the Middle East, ume can be found in Persian, Kosher and Japanese markets. Eaten raw by some, ume are often dried and salted or, in the case of umeshu, used to flavor a neutral spirit like vodka or shōchū

If you love umeshu, Japanese plum wine, and you want to make your own, the race is on. Only available for three-four weeks in the spring, buy your ume soon or you will have to wait another year.

I first learned about umeshu from a supermarket news letter. Marukai, a Japanese market chain, with a store in West Los Angeles on Pico near Bundy, mails a magazine-style newsletter with the store's weekly specials. The opening article each month has an explainer about a particular Japanese food or cooking style.

The article described how to turn ume (Japanese plums) into umeshu (Japanese plum wine). The process was simple. Buy ume, wash them, pull out the little stems, place in a large glass jar, add Japanese rock sugar and a large bottle of vodka, put in a cool, dark place and come back in a year.

Now I was on the hunt for ume. I found them at Marukai, at Iranian markets and downtown at a farmers market near the Los Angeles Public Library Main Branch.


Because I had made Limoncello, the idea of waiting a year appealed to me. And the added benefit of putting out very little effort added to what seemed like fun.


When we visited Yabu, our favorite Japanese restaurant, I told the waitstaff that I was going to make umeshu. They loved the idea. It turned out, when they were growing up, umeshu was a liquor made by their grandmothers. 

When they yearned for a memory of home combined with a tasty cocktail, without grandmother's umeshu, they turned to store-bought umeshu. That did not compare to their childhood memories.

They also told me was that after the hard green ume spends at least a year bathing in the vodka, the hard green fruit would become sweetly edible.

Serving the fruit with the spirit is a nice touch. Kind of an alcoholic fruit punch. 

Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine
Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot than a plum and umeshu is a spirit, not a wine. 

Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Kosher and Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan. 
Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Blemished ume should not be used.

Available large and small, I prefer ume that are quarter-sized rather than dime-sized.

Some recipes call for each ume to be punctured all over with an ice pick. Doing so, it is said, accelerates the infusion process. That is probably true, but punctured ume discolor and are not good to eat.

Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile

Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, bright green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.

A good friend described visiting her mother in Tokyo and finding a kitchen cabinet filled with giant jars labeled the year the umeshu was bottled. I have to confess, my garage has bottles of umeshu going back five years now. Today I bottled my 2021 vintage!

When you make your umeshu, wait one year. to enjoy it. Once the infusion is ready to serve,  taste and, if the umeshu is too harsh, add a tablespoon of Japanese rock sugar, stir well and wait another month.

The longer you wait, the more the umeshu will become rounded and mellow in flavor.  
After at least a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon. In Japan, umeshu is served chilled, neat, or on the rocks or with a splash of carbonated water on ice.
Prep time: 10 minutes + one year
Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated ume

Ingredients
2 pounds ume, washed, stems removed
1 pound Japanese rock sugar
1.75 l unflavored vodka, the most inexpensive you can find
Directions
1. Place the ume in a large bowl. Cover with water and let stand 2 hours. Drain, rinse and remove by hand any stems. Wash well a gallon glass jar with a lid.
2. Place ume into the jar.
3. Add rock sugar.
4. Pour in vodka. Stir well.
5. Cover.
6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for at least one year.
7. Serve ice cold neat, with ice cubes, or with seltzer and (optional) with whole or chopped up ume as a garnish.  










Monday, April 12, 2021

How to Congee - Cooked Rice Repurposes into a Delicious Feast

Comfort food is many things to different people. 

Freshly made soup with croutons

Chicken and dumplings with vegetables

Homemade pasta with roasted tomato sauce

A bone-in steak seared medium-rare in a carbon steel pan

A baked potato with sour cream and scallions

An egg salad sandwich flavored with dill on crustless Japanese white bread

And, my favorite, congee.

Necessity led to a favorite dish

I couldn't sleep one night. Too much stress, too much going on in the world to sleep through the night. I woke up at 4 am and couldn't go back to sleep. Better to get out of bed so I wouldn't disturb my wife. Walking into the kitchen, I opened the refrigerator, hoping to find something already made or a dish that would be easy to prepare. 

I needed comfort food.

In the dull light, I saw there wasn't much. Wednesday was market day. This was Monday.

Searching in the refrigerator, I found a container of homemade vegetable stock I had made the day before, Japanese white rice from a take-out dinner two nights ago, a carrot, a shallot, an ear of corn, fresh shiitake mushrooms, green beans and a small piece of daikon. 

Not a treasure-trove, but those ingredients sparked an idea that led to my enjoying a deliciously comforting meal just as the sun was coming up.

Cooked rice. A liquid. Sautéed vegetables. That's all I needed to make congee.

What is congee?

Visit most Chinese restaurants and you'll find a section of the menu labeled "Congee." The basic components are raw white rice and a liquid. The rice is simmered for up to an hour in the liquid, which can be water or stock made from seafood, poultry, beef or pork. 

The result is a porridge-like bowl of creamy rice. Depending on the restaurant, the congee can be flavored with bits of protein or vegetables and topped with fresh scallions, fried shallots and a drizzle of hot oil. 

Inspired by traditional congee, my version is very different

I use cooked rice added at the very end so my "congee" isn't creamy. Depending on my mood, I may add a great deal of vegetables and a protein and a smaller amount of rice. Purists might say I am making soup with rice, but in my telling of the tale, I add a lot more rice than you would find in 'soup with rice.'

With my approach, the results are infinitely variable. The only constants are cooked rice and a liquid. 

Another variable is the ratio of broth to rice. For dry, cook the rice in the soup until most of the liquid is gone. For wet, cook the rice very briefly in the soup. Sometimes I like the congee with practically no broth. On a cold morning, lots of soup with the rice is the way to go. 

The rice

You can make congee out of any kind of cooked rice. 

Most of the time, I use Japanese short grained white rice or Chinese long grained rice. But, Thai brown rice, Middle Eastern basmati rice or Vietnamese broken white rice would also work.  I have even used basmati rice flavored with almonds and orange peel from my favorite Armenian restaurant, Adana (6918 San Fernando Road, Glendale 91201, 818/843-6237). 

Each rice creates a different result. The cooking time, amount of liquid used and the end result will change depending on the rice. 

Cooking tip: if the cooked rice you find in the back of the refrigerator has dried out, no worries. Cooking the rice in a liquid will reconstitute the grains. If you see mold, toss the rice. 

Generally speaking, one cup of cooked rice will serve one person. The ratio of rice to proteins and vegetables is a matter of personal taste. 

The stock

I always use homemade stock. To make vegetable stock, during the week I freeze vegetable peelings. On the weekend, I add them to a pot of boiling water, simmer 60 minutes, strain and, voila, homemade vegetable stock. Whenever we make a chicken dish, I save the bones, fat and skin, cover with water, simmer 60 minutes, strain and cool. The resulting vegetable or chicken stock can be refrigerated or frozen in an air tight container.

In a pinch, sautéing a goodly amount of vegetables and adding water will pull out flavors from the vegetables. That creates enough homemade stock for your congee. 

Homemade stock will produce the healthiest, freshest flavors. Store bought stock whether fresh in the deli department, packaged in cans or boxes or even dehydrated can be used, but the salt content tends to be high and the quality unpredictable. 

I have used all kinds of broth. Sometimes I'll use the miso soup I brought home from a Japanese restaurant or I'll make stock by boiling left-over Thai bbq honey pork ribs or turkey stock from a Thanksgiving feast or chicken stock made with the bones from a roast chicken. 

Making your own stock means you control the quality and flavor, so I recommend keeping 16 and 8 ounce containers of frozen stock in the freezer so you are always prepared to make a delicious savory meal at a moment's notice.

And, as I mentioned above, in a pinch, use water added to the sautéed vegetables to create a spur of the moment stock.

Vegetables and proteins

Use fresh vegetables or left-overs. Roasted vegetables from last night's dinner or bok choy and broccoli from Chinese take-out can be chopped into bite sized pieces and added to the congee. My go-to base ingredients are fresh, chopped onions, carrots, kale, shiitake mushrooms, green beans, daikon, broccoli stems or crowns and Savoy cabbage leaves, if I have them and corn kernels when in season.

For a protein, tofu, chicken, pork, fish and shellfish are good to add. Use cooked or raw proteins, knowing that the cooking times will be different for each. Cooked proteins only need to be reheated. Raw proteins can take longer, although fish and shellfish cook very quickly. Tofu can be added along with the stock.

Vegan or omnivore 

Use ingredients you like. Stick with plant-based and make a best-ever vegan congee with homemade vegetable stock, rice of your choice and all the vegetables that make you happy. 

If you're an omnivore, just about any animal protein or seafood works well. Use any protein you enjoy. Cooked meats with a lot of flavor, like bbq brisket or Vietnamese bbq pork or roasted dark chicken meat will add layers of flavor. Raw pieces of fish filets, crab, shrimp or lobster, add flavor to the broth as they cook. 

Congee with Scallions and BBQ Pork

As with all cooking, if you use quality ingredients, the resulting dish will taste better and be healthier.

Every element added to the congee should build to a final, layered conclusion. You can keep the result simple, like a piano recital, emphasizing the "quiet" of the stock and the rice or jazz it up with a composition with rhythms of hot, sour, sweet and savory.

I often add bbq pork from my frequent trips to Little Saigon south of LAX. From my home, the drive takes under an hour, barely enough time to catch up on The Daily, one of my favorite podcasts. On the return trip, I listen to the news and happily eat a Bánh mi from Bánh Mì Saigon ( 8940 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, CA 92683, (714) 896-8782) next to My Thuan, a favorite supermarket.

Cut all ingredients into small bite-sized pieces, the easier to pick up with chop sticks.

The recipe is for one, so multiply the ingredients by the number of servings you are making.


Serves 1

Time to prepare: 20 minutes

Ingredients

2 tablespoons yellow onions or shallots, cut into thin slices
2 tablespoons carrots cut into rounds or small "sticks"
2 shiitake mushrooms, washed, stem trimmed, cut into thin slices
1/4 cup broccoli, florets cut apart (optional)
1 tablespoon corn kernels (when available)
1/4 cup green beans, washed, cut into 1" sections (optional)
1 scallion, washed, root end removed, cut into 1/4" pieces
1 cup cooked rice
2 cups stock, preferably homemade
1/2 cup bbq pork or cooked beef, pork or chicken or raw shellfish or fish, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 teaspoon soy sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon Vietnamese sweet and hot sauce often served with bbq pork vermicelli (optional)
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil

Directions


Organize all the ingredients before beginning.

Heat small saucepan over medium flame. Add olive oil. Soften but do not brown. Add remaining vegetables, stir and soften.

If using cooked proteins, add and sauté briefly, then add stock. If using raw seafood, add to the broth.

Simmer 5 minutes.

Add rice. Break apart any grains that are stuck together. Stir well.

Simmer 5 minutes.

Pour into a large bowl. Top with scallions. Serve with chop sticks and a spoon. Serve hot and eat before the rice absorbs all the liquid.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Carbon Steel Pans Sear in Flavor with High Heat and Easy Clean Up

A few years ago I convinced a chef to teach me how he made crispy skin on a filet of fish. chef Taylor Boudreaux said it was easy. I couldn't believe that. For years I had tried to cook a filet of fish with the skin on and the result wasn't good. Either the skin was chewy or burnt to a crisp.

When I ate Boudreaux's salmon filet with mushrooms, the charred skin was crisp as a slice of perfectly cooked bacon. A perfect contrast to the moist, sweet flesh.

He reveals the secret in the video. A carbon steel pan. That's it. The pan takes an incredible amount of heat. Up to 700F. The skin sizzles and in seconds is perfectly seared. A quick flip to char the flesh and then into a 350F oven to cook the filet on the inside.

After I bought a pan and seasoned it and used it successfully on a fish filet, I discovered the pan's other advantage. Easy clean up. Very much like a cut-down wok, the pan needs only a quick cleaning with a soapy sponge to remove the left-over oil, heated again on the stove top to burn off the water and that's it. No strenuously scrubbing to clean the pan the way I had done for years with the stainless steel pans I relied upon. Just a quick clean up and I was done.

A cast iron pan also works well at high heat, but from my experience the carbon steel pan does a better job. Both pans are relatively inexpensive. A carbon steel pan will cost half the price of a comparably sized, quality stainless steel pan. When you shop for a carbon steel pan, buy one that is made with a thicker gauge steel. I have been using de Buyer pans. Chef Boudreaux recommends Matfer Bourgeat. The advantage of the thicker gauge pans is they retain heat longer than the pans made with a thinner steel.

Cast iron pans are easy to find. Carbon steel pans, not as much. In the Los Angeles area, the only source for the pans is Surfas Culinary District. In New York, I have seen them upstairs at Zabar's

Recently, I have seen a great many De Buyer pans on Amazon. I recommend looking there. Given the variety of De Buyer pans, I recommend the frying pans, not the pans with higher, rounded sides and frying pans with smooth bottoms. The ribbed bottoms are excellent to create grill marks, but the ribs inhibit good sautéing.


Using the pan exclusively, I discovered the beautiful work it does on steaks. 


Treated very much in the same way as the fish filets, each side of the dry seasoned steak is charred and, if the steak is more than 1" thick, then placed into a 350F oven to cook the interior of the steak for five minutes. While the steak is resting for five minutes under aluminum foil, quickly sear your favorite vegetables in the pan to pick up the pan dripping flavor and serve as a side dish.


After that, I moved on to tofu, shrimp, octopus and chicken breasts. And then onto vegetables. Broccoli, shiitake mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, carrots, asparagus, green beans, English peas and corn kernels. Every firm fleshed vegetable I tried worked perfectly when I applied high heat using the carbon steel pan.

Blast the Heat for For A Charred Vegan Salad

Chef Tips For Crispy Skin Pan Seared Salmon Filets

Friday, February 5, 2021

Eating Well & Having Fun in Orange County's Little Saigon

Having written about Little Saigon over many years, I visited last week to pick up ingredients for Super Bowl Sunday's feast. Since I was shopping in the markets, I also stopped at favorite restaurants and food vendors to pick up food to eat during this week. A rare treat that I enjoyed immensely. If you are visiting Los Angeles, Little Saigon is easy to visit and only 30 minutes south of LAX. Use WAZE to find the best time to visit. Avoid rush hour.

Certain foods cause people to become rhapsodic. Proust had his madeleines. I have pho ga. At Pho Vinh Ky, the large bowl of chicken soup and rice noodles arrives with a plate of fresh herbs and vegetables and a small bowl of dipping sauce.
Traditionally, the herbs and vegetables are added to the broth. Rau ram, ngo gai, bean sprouts, mint, Thai basil, purple perilla, a lime wedge and thick slices of serrano peppers add brightness to the flavors. I love the dipping sauce, nuoc cham gung, a mix of lime juice, dried pepper flakes, finely chopped fresh ginger and fish sauce. Everyone has their own way to eat pho. Mine is to eat the noodles first. Each spoonful flavored by the pungent, hot, salty dipping sauce.
If you haven't eaten Vietnamese food, you have missed out on one of the great Asian cuisines. Known primarily for their noodle soups, plates of barbecued meats piled high on mounds of broken rice or served in a bowl with vermicelli noodles and stir fries spiced with lemon grass, Vietnamese food has spread into the wider culinary community because of the popularity of pho (hot beef and chicken soups with noodles) and banh mi (crusty baguettes with spicy meats and pickled vegetables).With several large Vietnamese communities around the country, we are lucky to live close to Little Saigon in Orange County.

My trip to Little Saigon begins at Pho Vinh Ky with a large bowl of pho ga (chicken soup with noodles), only dark meat, and a Vietnamese iced coffee with milk. Arriving early in the morning, the restaurant is cold and mostly empty. The large window faces a small parking lot bordering busy Westminister Boulevard. A dozen Vietnamese men and women are also eating pho. Their heads bent low over the steaming bowls, chop sticks in one hand, a Chinese soup spoon in the other, they eat the more familiar, beef version of pho. 
Because we live an hour away from Garden Grove and Westminster, the epicenter of Orange County's Vietnamese community, instead of eating several dishes at one restaurant, I'll eat one dish at each of my favorite restaurants, taking home what I don’t finish and moving on to the next one. If you hadn’t guessed, that means I bring freezer packs and a small cooler for take-away because the left overs are delicious for next day-breakfast and lunch.

In between meals, I'll hunt out the best bargains at the local supermarkets. 

Here is the list of places I love going to in Little Saigon. Hope you have an afternoon to explore the area. A few weeks ago, I brought home two live Dungeness crabs from ABC (see below: a supermarket on Bolsa at Magnolia) for $5.99/lb. The shiitake mushrooms were also a bargain at $4.99/lb. at My Thuan.

RESTAURANTS

Many of the restaurants only take cash.  Most of them open for breakfast and stay open until late (which can mean 7:30am - 11:00pm; but often it means 10am - 10pm).

Pho Vinh Ky
8512 Westminster Blvd, Suite F
Westminister 92683
714/894-9309

Next to the Stater Brothers’ Market, west of Magnolia, east of Beach (Beach Blvd Exit on the Garden Grove/22 Fwy), Pho Vinh Ky has the best pho ga (chicken noodle soup) in the area. The light broth is clean tasting, the dark meat is sweet and the noodles are chewy. The interior is nondescript. The waitstaff is friendly even if they don't speak English. Besides the pho ga, the other dishes I would also recommend the spring rolls with shrimp and pork, crispy rice noodles with vegetables and tofu, BBQ pork with vermicelli, BBQ shrimp with vermicelli, the pork chop with broken rice and the BBQ pork with broken rice, topped with a fried egg.


Garlic & Chives by Kristin
Mall of Fortune Mall
9892 Westminster Ave & Brookhurst
Garden Grove, CA 92844
 714/591-5196

An upscale Vietnamese restaurant with affordable prices and an extensive menu. There are many familiar dishes on the menu like bbq pork with vermicelli and fish filet on a sizzling platter. The difference is the quality of the ingredients and presentation. Fancy enough for date night but inexpensive enough to bring the family, Garlic & Chives is one of my favorites especially because my wife loves their Grilled Fish with Turmeric and Dill and their shrimp only spring rolls (usually they come with shrimp and pork). I like the squid salad, pork ribs and the bbq pork vermicelli (order the egg rolls as an extra).

Dim Sum
Located inside My Thuan Supermarket
8900 Westminster Blvd
Westminster, CA 92683
www.mintleafoc.com

Visible through the glass doors leading into the north side of My Thuan Supermarket (see below), Dim Sum took over the space called Mint Leaf. The cafe serves a dozen dim sum as well as another dozen Chinese and Vietnamese dishes as varied as braised chicken feet and soy sauce noodles with vegetables. I always buy a serving or two of shrimp filled har gow, pork filled bao and shumai. I eat a few at one of the tables and bring the rest home for a taste treat that night.

Dim Sum - Giai Phat Food Co.
9550 Bolsa Ave. #123, 124,
Westminster, CA 92683

In a mini-mall there are a dozen other restaurants including a Chinese take out restaurant serving inexpensive, well-made dim sum.

T.P. Banh Bao 2
13067 Euclid Street
Garden Grove, CA 92843
714/539-4119

On the edge of the Vietnamese area of Garden Grove, just north of the 22 Freeway, T.P. Banh Bao 2 is tucked away in a corner of a mini-mall next to Dalat Supermarket (see below). There is usually a line of customers waiting to take home a package with a dozen bao. Serving freshly made bao with a dozen different fillings, the most popular bao is filled with ground pork. Delicious fresh, they freeze well. When re-heated, they taste almost as good as they did when they were first made.

Le Croissant Dore
9122 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683 
714/895-3070
lecroissantdore.com

On the eastern end of a mini-mall with half a dozen small restaurants there is a French-Vietnamese bakery/restaurant called Le Croissant Dore that sells good Vietnamese style French pastries. One of the specialties of the kitchen is a bœuf bourguignon that’s spicy with unexpected heat. Served with a freshly baked baguette, customers eat in a small dining room within sight of the bakery counter or outside at half a dozen tables which are usually occupied by circles of men, talking and reading newspapers. The Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk is delicious but very strong.

Saigon’s Bakery
8940 Westminster Blvd
Westminster, CA 92683
714/896-8782
http://saigonsbakery.com

A few doors from My Thuan (below), Saigon's Bakery sells breads, rolls and Vietnamese pastries, drinks and sweets, which, for most items, when you buy two, the third is free. People stand in line to buy the foot-long banh mi with a dozen different fillings. The baguettes are perfectly crisp on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside.

MARKETS

There are a great many supermarkets in Little Saigon as well as Korean Markets in Garden Grove. Each one is different although they carry many of the same products. The prices are also pretty much the same, but there are notable differences between them. At most markets you can buy fresh vermicelli noodles in a variety of styles. Check the ingredients label on the packages to find the brand that uses the fewest preservatives.

My Thuan Supermarket
8900 Westminster Blvd.
Westminster CA 92683
714/899-0700

A large supermarket with excellent fresh produce, dried noodles and frozen seafood, My Thuan has better prices than most of the nearby markets. My wife loves charred octopus salad with potatoes. My Thuan sells both fresh baby octopus and large frozen octopus. The fresh seafood, poultry and meat counters have all the cuts familiar to anyone who shops in Asian markets. The quality is above average. The prices are very affordable. 

Hoa Binh Garden Grove Supermarket
13922 Brookhurst Street
Garden Grove, CA 92843
714/534-8899

How Binh Garden Grove shares the parking lot with a mini-mall collection of Vietnamese stores and eateries and the drive-the drive-through Starbucks on the corner of Brookhurst and Westminister. Of all the markets I visit, How Binh has the best prices for fresh produce and fruit. The fresh shiitake mushroom price is the lowest in the area. The fish market is good but usually more expensive than ABC Supermarket.  


ABC Supermarket
8970 Bolsa Avenue at Magnolia
Westminster 92683
714/379-6161

Great for live lobsters (usually $8.99- $10.99/lb) and Dungeness crab ($5.99-7.99/lb), they have a large selection of fish, some in live tanks, fresh and frozen. I prefer the produce section at Hoa Binh Garden Grove, but ABC is good as well, although more expensive, with shiitake mushrooms, leafy vegetables, citrus, onions, aromatic herbs and garlic as well as fresh poultry (chicken and duck), beef and pork. 

Bolsa BBQ
8938 Bolsa Avenue
Westminster, CA 92683
714/903-2485

Sharing the parking lot with ABC Supermarket are a dozen other businesses, restaurants and bakeries. Bolsa BBQ sells freshly prepared whole pig, chickens, ducks and delicious bao with hardboiled egg & pork.

Dalat Supermarket
13075 Euclid Street  at the intersection of Garden Grove Blvd & the 22
Garden Grove 92843
714/638-9900

The majority of dried noodles sold in Asian markets use lye. One of the few companies to avoid using lye in their noodles is found at Dalat: Twin Rabbit Vegetarian Noodles (Mi Chay Soi Lon) Product of Vietnam - dried wheat noodles: $1.19.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Eating Well & Safe at Home for Super Bowl Sunday - Ribs & Wings

Super Bowl LV! Mahomes vs. Brady! Enough said! That promises to be a great matchup. We'll enjoy the game at home. Like always. Without our friends who would normally join us for the game and a feast. We'll have a feast, even if we can't have our friends over.

I'm making two favorites that I've written about before. Spicy, flavorful kimchi chicken wings and deeply flavored, slow roasted brown sugar pork ribs.

Have a great Super Bowl Sunday and enjoy the feast.

Kimchi Chicken Wings

Chicken wings are sold whole, the drumstick only or the two-bone part. If you prefer one part of the wing over another, buy only those. The whole chicken wing will be less expensive and the wing tips can be roasted and used to create stock.

I prefer to serve the wings cut up because the whole chicken wing is too difficult to eat. 


When you can, find preservative-free kimchi. I have been enjoying Mommy Boss napa cabbage kimchi. Read the label carefully because there are different kinds of kimchi, I would recommend only using cabbage kimchi without dried shrimp.

Serves 4

Time to prepare: Marinate overnight, prep 20 minutes, bake 60 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds chicken wings

1 cup kimchi, without preservatives

1/2-3/4 cup brown sugar, depending on taste

1 medium yellow onion, washed, pat dried, peeled, root and stem removed, thin sliced from root to stem

1/4 cup kimchi liquid

1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

Thinly slice kimchi and mix together with onion slices, brown sugar, kimchi liquid and olive oil.

Add chicken wing parts to marinade. Mix well. Place in a covered bowl or sealed plastic bag. Refrigerate over night.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Prepare a roasting pan. Line the bottom with aluminum foil. Because the drippings are sticky (and delicious!) I place a Silpat sheet on top of the aluminum foil so I can easily retrieve the bits of caramelized onions and kimchi. Place a wire on top of the aluminum foil and Silpat sheet.


Place the chicken wings on top of the wire rack, allowing space between each part to allow for even cooking. Reserve the liquid marinade with the onions and kimchi.

Place wings into preheated oven.

While the wings are roasting, place the reserved marinade into a small sauce pan and reduce the liquid by 1/2 over a low heat.

Remove wings from the oven after 30 minutes.

Turn wings over and baste with reduced marinade, placing onion and kimchi slices on each wing.

Return to oven.

After 30 minutes, remove and check for doneness. The onions and kimchi slices should be lightly browned and beginning to crisp. The wings should be tender. If not, return to oven and continue baking. Check every 10 minutes for doneness.

Serve hot as an appetizer or on top of steamed rice. The wings are delicious at room temperature, perfect for a picnic. However they are served, have a good supply of napkins available.

Slow Roasted, Brown Sugar Pork Ribs
Stafer-at-home means being careful but it doesn't mean we can't enjoy a great summertime feast. Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and any day, we can enjoy a meal and celebrate life even during a pandemic.

For me, that means making pork ribs.

My mother taught me to make pork ribs with a thick coating of sauce sweetened with brown sugar and raisins. Eating those finger-licking ribs was one of my favorite childhood memories.
Everything changed on a busy research trip to Abilene and Fort Worth, when I ate at 25 restaurants in 36 hours. I fell in love with West Texas BBQ.
At restaurant after restaurant, I watched grill masters lay bundles of mesquite into their subcompact-car-sized smokers. With the heavy metal doors open, the wood crackled as flames enveloped the logs The grill masters seasoned their racks of pork ribs with thick, grainy coats of brown sugar and spices rubbed onto the meat.  Waves of dry heat radiated from the smokers. But the heat that would cook these ribs would come not from an open fire but from smoldering mesquite embers.
When the doors were closed, the blazing logs were starved of oxygen. The flames died and a delicate smoke filled the air. At that moment the grill masters loaded in the racks of ribs coated with sweetened dry rub. Hours later, the ribs were removed, their outer coating thickened to crispness, creating what grill masters call “bark.”
I loved those ribs even more than the ones from my childhood.
At home, without the benefit of a smoker, I experimented for years to duplicate that sweet-crispness. Nothing could ever recreate the wonderful mesquite smokiness but I did succeed in making ribs with bark as good as any I enjoyed in West Texas.

High heat versus slow cooking

Mix of kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, cumin, coriander and cayenne for dry rub slow roasted pork ribs. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Mix of kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, cumin, coriander and cayenne for dry rub slow roasted pork ribs. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Cooking with high heat is exciting. There is great pleasure in watching the pyrotechnics of an outdoor grill as sizzling fat catches fire.  Roasting at low heat in the oven lacks that excitement.
And yet, what happens in an oven set at 250 F has its own kind of magic. In the darkness of the oven, the waves of steady heat melt the fat inside the rack, tenderizing the meat and gently fusing the dry rub to the outside of the ribs.
The best magic of all is that the oven does the work. No standing over a blazingly hot grill on a hot day. Once the oven door closes, there is nothing to be done.
Walk into the kitchen and a savory-sweet aroma scents the air. Pull the baking tray out of the oven and press a finger against the outside of the rack. The soft pliancy of the meat has been replaced by a jerky-like crust as sweet as a crème brulee topping.

Slow-Roasted, Dry-Rubbed Pork Ribs

Rack of pork ribs, trimmed. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Cooking time depends on the size and thickness of the rack.
Buy good quality pork. Asian and Latin markets are often a reliable source of fresh pork products. Unlike the ribs sold in upscale supermarkets, the ribs in these markets will most likely be untrimmed.
Above the actual ribs, the rack will have a top portion with boneless flap meat and a section with thick bones similar to country style ribs.  Another smaller piece of flap meat will stretch across the back of the rib bones.
Requiring only a sharp filleting knife and a few minutes, removing the flap meat and the top portion is not difficult. The flap meat is excellent to use in stir fries, slow roasted in the oven or grilled on the BBQ.
A white membrane is attached to the outside of the flap meat. Use a sharp filleting knife to separate the meat from the membrane and discard.
The flap meat and country style bones can be prepared in the same manner as the ribs.  They will cook more quickly and should be removed from the 250 F oven after a total of 2 to 3 hours depending on thickness.
While the rack of ribs does not have to be turned over, the flap meat and country style bones should be turned over after one hour for even cooking. After another hour, use kitchen shears to cut off a small piece of meat to test for doneness. Return to the oven if the meat is not yet tender.
To eat the country style ribs, have a sharp paring knife handy to help cut out those hard to reach tasty bits tucked between the bones.
The ribs can be cooked ahead and reheated. In which case, do not cut apart the ribs until ready to serve. Reheat in a 300 F oven for 15 minutes.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 6 to 8 hours
Resting time: 5 minutes
Total time: 6 hours, 35 minutes to 8 hours, 35 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Ingredients
1 rack pork ribs, 4 to 5 pounds, washed, dried
3 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup cumin
¼ cup coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
Directions
1. Place a wire rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 250 F.
2. Select a baking pan or cookie sheet that is 2 inches longer than the rack of ribs. Cover the pan with aluminum foil for easy clean up. Place a wire rack on top of the aluminum foil.
3. Lay the rack of ribs on a cutting board, bone side up. Use a sharp filleting knife to remove the tough membrane on the bone side of the rack. Let the knife help you lift the membrane. Use your fingers to pull the skin off the bones and discard.
4. Do not cut off any fat.
5. In a bowl, mix together dry ingredients.
6. For easy cleanup, lay a sheet of plastic wrap on the cutting board. Place the rack on the cutting board. Layer a thick coat of the dry spices onto both sides, covering the meat and bones.
7. Reserve left-over dry rub in an air tight container and refrigerate for later use.
8. Carefully place the rack of ribs on the wire rack meat side up.
9. Put the baking sheet into the preheated oven.
10. Roast six hours. Remove from oven. Use kitchen shears to cut off a small piece and taste.
11. The outside should have a jerky-crispness. The meat inside should be moist and tender. The tapered end of the rack where the bones are small will cook faster than the rest of the ribs. Use the kitchen shears to cut off that section before returning the rack to the oven for another one-two hours. Be careful not to dry out the meat.
12. Once the ribs are cooked, remove from oven and let the meat rest five minutes.
13. Cut between the rib bones and chop into pieces any flap meat without bones. Serve hot with a green salad, Cole slaw, baked beans or freshly steamed vegetables.
 

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