Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hot down, summer in the kitchen - Chef Sean's summer supper (San Diego)

When Chef Sean traipsed into town on a whim, his first words were, “What are we making for dinner?”

Now let me explain. When I talked about making dinner, it usually referred to a pan of homemade lasagna, but when Chef Sean broached the subject, he was speaking of demi-glaces, buerre blancs and anglaises – oh my!

The Main Ingredient
Quality product was a necessity, so we high-tailed it around town procuring the best of San Diego: 1) Pancho Villa: this Mexican market offered affordable produce, Mexican cheeses, fresh tortillas made on sight, and a meat counter that hit every entrail and flank of the meat rainbow (along with the beef bones we needed). 2) Iowa Meats: they were usually the top pick for specialty proteins, but they only had frozen duck breast, so we ended up finding fresh at Whole Foods. 3) Point Loma Seafood (PLS): we first stopped at Blue Water Market on India St, but their Ahi paled in comparison (literally) to the deep magenta of the PLS tuna and their unmatched display case of still seemingly moving fish.

Chef Sean’s Summer Supper 2013

First course: Shellfish in white wine broth served with fresh herb & goat cheese garlic bread

I felt like King Neptune had just called forth all of the fish in his kingdom and placed them before me. My bowl came piled high with mussels, shrimp and clams in a broth that married wine and sea with sweet traces of tomato beneath the salty bite of bacon. But the standout citizens were the mussels who had been brought up with a gentle, knowing hand and given the proper attention necessary to summon a briny shine and extinguished any back-talking chew.

Shrimp and clams completed the conga line of perfectly cooked shellfish and I couldn’t help but hum, “Under the Sea” in homage to this seafood celebration. As for the garlic bread, the chef's choice of ciabatta stood up to the slathering of goat cheese and herb, compound butter that formed a delicate shell on top, that when dipped in the broth weakened and happily soaked it all in – this sop was tops.

Second course: Soy/ginger cured Ahi tuna taco - tempura fried avocado, queso fresco, spicy aioli

Street tacos instead of salad – sweeettt!! The Ahi was left unadulterated before curing in a concoction of ginger, cilantro and soy sauce. Its almost raw, sensual feel had the softness and color of lips - a pink that seemed more likely to be found on an artist’s canvas than in nature. It lay next to a tempura avocado that posed the same powerful “crunch and cream” dynamic that rivaled the simple brilliance of an ice cream cone. Clumps of queso fresco fell in with swirls of spicy aioli and all were enhanced by the freshly made corn tortilla that fit demurely in my palm.

Third course: Seared duck breast with blackberry demi-glace served with homemade, rosemary gnocchi* in almond browned butter and sautéed spinach

When beef bones were braised for hours to create a true demi-glace, you knew it was something worth waiting for. Deeper than Aristotle; more body than Jessica Rabbit; this blackberry demi-glace motorboated the tastebuds and did a lap (it up) dance atop a sliced, duck breast, whose rosy pink center came rimmed in a G-string of skin. With all that body, the blackberries became the backbone of the sauce with a tart, acidity that climbed its way to the top of each complex layer. My only issue was that Chef Sean had forgotten the halved blackberries he’d prepared as a garnish and because they were missing, when a blackberry seed was found with the teeth, it took the brain a second to process what it was.

*The name game: The chef had labeled these gnocchi, but I preferred to call them potato dumplings because when you heard a certain term, it set you up for expectations. There’s a lot in a name – sorry Shakespeare. A rose by another name might still smell sweet, but if you were expecting lilacs and they smelled like roses, you might be disappointed. Just like when I thought of gnocchi, I imagined light and airy pillows dissolving on the tongue. But Chef Sean’s delightful nuggets of potato pasta were much more like a dumpling - like a baby periogi that hadn’t received its filling yet. After a few minutes in boiling water, they were crisped brown in the pan with a mix of duck and beef fat. Then they were tossed with butter and slivered almonds, browned into a nutty decadence that was rounded out by the subtlety of sautéed spinach. WOW.

Fourth course: Homemade baklava with ginger/honey drizzle and orange/saffron ice cream

Phyllo dough.
Melted butter.
Chopped walnuts and honey.

Baklava was dense and sticky, making me heavy with thoughts of grandmothers in babushkas baking in Old World kitchens. One bite overtook the mouth and held it captive, thick with honey holding firm the flaky dough that dissolved on the tongue. It slowed the chewing process, which slowed the mind into appreciating just how satisfying one mouthful could be.

We didn’t leave enough time for homemade ice cream, but that didn't mean Chef Sean didn't have a few tricks up his sleeve. One gallon of store bought vanilla + 3 oranges + a few strands of saffron = orange/saffron ice cream. The flavors were so bold it tasted homemade - the saffron was present, but not overpowering, while the orange brought an almost floral finish and gave some give to the sticky nuts and honey. The final touch was a drizzle of ginger/honey for spiciness that cleansed the palate and said a final goodnight.

Summer lovin':
Summer lovin' had me a blast
Summer lovin' happened so fast
We went shopping at Pancho Villa's
Got some bones and some tortillas
Shiny shellfish cooked to perfection
Duck breast slices got a berry injection

Baklavaaaaaa (pause)
The last hurrah
But ohhhhh!!
Those saffron noooooo-tes......

Thanks for another great meal Sean!!