Mexican salsa

Here is the simplest, tastiest, absolutely addictive homemade salsa, as learned from a Mexican grandmother today:

Open windows. Char an onion half, jalapeños, and Roma tomatoes in a cast iron skillet over medium heat, until blackened almost all over (it takes time). Peel the tomatoes and onion, don’t bother to peel the jalapeños, but remove seeds. Puree in blender to somewhat chunky consistency. Add chopped cilantro, season with salt and lemon juice. Serve with tortilla chips and beer.

The proportion depends on your mood, ingredients on hand, and the desired spiciness. Today we used 4 tomatoes, 4 jalapeños, 1/2 large yellow onion, and a medium bunch of cilantro. It made a quite fiery salsa, so the grandmother separated 1 cup of it, and blended it with 2 fresh tomatoes and another squeeze of lemon, to make a milder salsa for the kids.


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Location:San Rafael, CA

Menu today

Vegetable soup with meatballs
 Sautéed halibut, salsa verde
  Spaghetti squash
 Duck legs roasted with pears and sweet onions
  Potatoes gratin
 Pork roast with herb mustard crust
  Braised cabbage

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Here is the interview that Chef Garbo did with me for the Personal Chef magazine:
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Homemade white or red wine vinegar

Leftover wine is a rare exotic ingredient, I don’t get it every day either. Every time I manage to get hold of it, I use it to make red and white wine vinegars. Homemade wine vinegars are much superior in flavor to store-bought mass-produced versions, because they are actually made from drinkable wines, and they retain the flavor.

The process takes from four to six weeks; longer, if you want to age your vinegar in wood barrels to mellow and enhance the flavor. However, it requires no work at all, and the results are worth the wait.

The same technique can be used for either red or white wine, or even a combination of both, although the resulting vinegar may not have as clear flavor as when you keep the wines separate.

Use the homemade vinegar for salad dressings, marinades, and refrigerator pickles. Most homemade vinegars are not acidic enough to make shelf-stable pickles. One way to make shelf pickles with homemade vinegar is to mix it with distiller vinegar to increase the acidity, and use pH test (available in wine making supplies stores) to make sure the resulting pickle is safe to keep (pH below 4.5).

White wine vinegar
Makes a lot

1 bottle dry white wine
2 cups water
1/2 cup raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar, preferably from the bottom of the bottle ( the muddy residue contains the vinegar starter culture )

Combine wine, water, and apple cider vinegar in a large wide-mouth jar or a wood barrel with a wide opening on top, for air access. Cover the opening with 2-3 layers of cheesecloth to keep out the flies. Let sit at the room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for one month. A semi-transparent raft will eventually form on top of the liquid – it is called “mother of vinegar” and is made up of yeasts and bacteria that transform alcohol into vinegar.

After a month, strain and taste some vinegar. If you like the acidity, pour off and strain the amount that you will use, and replenish the jar with more white wine. If it’s not tart enough, leave it for another two weeks, then taste again.

You can run this fermentation process indefinitely, pouring off vinegar whenever you need it, and adding wine whenever you have leftover wine; the “mother” will consume alcohol and transform it into vinegar, and will keep growing, so at some point you’ll have to remove a part of it (compost, or give away as vinegar starter).

If you want a bottle of clear vinegar to keep in your pantry, pour off and strain the vinegar, then pasteurize it by heating it to 170 degrees and holding it at this temperature for a few minutes to kill “the mother”, otherwise the little particles of the culture will keep growing, and eventually make the vinegar cloudy again.

Pasteurized vinegar can be kept at room temperature indefinitely, although I found that I usually run out of homemade vinegar much faster than I can obtain more of this mysterious ingredient, “leftover wine”.

BBQ pulled pork

This post is for my brother Paul, it continues the discussion that we had last week.

On our family reunion in the Italian Alps last week, my brother and I started talking about cooking pork, and I tried to explain pork barbecue. He thought that barbecue was the same thing as grill! Yes, American BBQ is kind of like grilling, cooking slowly over wood coals; but we also call a BBQ anything seasoned with a BBQ sauce, even if it’s not cooked over the coals. And what they call a BBQ sauce is different in different parts of the country. Now try to explain this to a European.

The BBQ pork that I made today was actually cooked in the oven, then shredded and seasoned with a purchased sauce. My favorite BBQ sauce is the “SFQ”, an artisan-made San Francisco style sauce, but others work well, too. I gave up on making my own BBQ sauce when the first recipe that I pulled from the Internet started with “2 cups sugar”. Wow, this is as much sugar as I use for my morning coffee in 3 month! I went into denial, and now i just go out and buy a prepared sauce. I try not to read the labels on them.

BBQ pulled pork
Serves 6

2 Tbsp olive oil
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
Pinch allspice
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt

1 large onion, sliced
4 large cloves garlic

1 cup prepared BBQ sauce of your choice

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season pork with salt and spices. Cook, turning (in batches, if necessary), until browned on all sides, 10-15 minutes.

Transfer pork to a covered braising pan, add onion and garlic, and enough water to cover the meat half-way. Cover, cook in the oven until very tender, 2-3 hours.

Shred the meat using two forks, season with the BBQ sauce. Serve with cornbread, or on buns, or over beans or pasta.

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Garden herbs: Bay

Bay is one of the easiest herbs to grow in California. It’s a perennial shrub that does very well in any kind of soil, doesn’t require a lot of water or fertilizer. All it needs is sunshine.

For all your soups and stews, this is the savory herb that adds complexity and brings it all together.

There are two kinds of bay: the Mediterranean (noble) laurel, and California bay. Both trees grow everywhere in the Northern California. The Mediterranean laurel, most often used in cooking, has slightly pointed rounded leaves, peppercorn-size berries, and strong but delicate smell. The California Bay, often found growing wild in parks, has elongated leaves, walnut-size berries, and very strong, sweet and pungent, up-in-your-face smell. It can be used in soup and stews as well, but be careful to remove it after 10-15 minutes, or you’ll end up with a laurel soup, it’s this strong!

Chicken stock

Homemade chicken stock makes the house smell good, and it cannot be replaced with store-bought chicken broth in the recipes for clear soups, or, in fact, anything, soups, stews, sauces, whatever.

The best chicken to use for a flavorful, clear, inexpensive homemade chicken stock is a mature hen (“stewing chicken”) that Asian grocery stores sell for next to nothing. Some farmers markets have whole chickens with head and feet on – these are even better. The goal is to get a lot of connective tissue that adds body to the stock. As an alternative, use chicken backs that are left over from the whole chickens that you cut up for roasting or frying, or buy at Whole Foods real cheap; or even leftover roast chickens, supplemented with chicken feet and necks, sold separately.

For the aromatic vegetables, use fresh clean trimmings from the vegetables that you used for other dishes – cut carrots for a salad, put the carrot cores in the stock; braise fennel and leeks, use the green parts in the stock; use the large outer cloves of garlic for a sauce, save the inner cloves, unpeeled, for the stock; etc.

Makes about 4 quarts

1 whole chicken, preferably with head and feet, large chunks of fat removed, liver and gizzards removed, cut up
3 chicken backs, plus any chicken necks and feet you can get
2 roast chicken carcasses and bones, plus some necks and feet
Cold water to cover
1 large onion, peeled, halved
2 ribs celery, cut into large chunks, or trimmings from a bunch of celery
2 carrots, cut into large chunks, or equal amount of leftoverp carrot cores and trimmings, chopped
1 small whole fennel, or equal amount of fennel tops, chopped
2 medium leeks, or green tops from 4 leeks, chopped
1 bunch of parsley stems, or one whole parsley plant
3 sprigs thyme
15 whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves

Put chicken in a large stockpot, cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low. Skim all the foam that floats to the top, discard. Add onion, celery, carrots, fennel, leeks, parsley, thyme, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Adjust the heat to maintain a low simmer (a bubble breaks the surface every second). Simmer for 4 hours. Laddle the stock through a sieve into a clean pot; discard the solids. Refrigerate the stock for 5 days, or freeze in an air-tight container for up to 4 months.

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Spring in the garden

Fava beans are coming up, alpine strawberries in fill swing, my first artichoke appeared this morning, green garlic is good and plentiful; mourning doves are reusing the nest that they built in my garden storage three years ago.

The gopher ate through a plastic planting container trying to get to the celery. Now tell me that no one likes celery.

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Menu this week, no dietary restrictions

Like all personal chefs, I mostly work with clients who follow special diets or have dietary restrictions. Vegetarians and vegans, people with food allergies or intolerances, those who want to lose weight or build muscle, – if they don’t cook for themselves, they have to hire a professional cook who would prepare meals to meet their unique dietary requirements.

I do, however, have a few clients who can eat all kinds of food. The reason they have a personal chef is that they value being able to sit down to a home cooked dinner with their family every night, and they want to introduce the kids to a variety of foods and to develop their palates, but they are too busy to make the dinner themselves most of the time.

Here is a menu I have prepared for a client with no dietary restrictions this week:

Spring minestrone soup

Seafood paella

Dijon chicken
Quinoa with lemon and zucchini

BBQ baby back ribs
Cabbage and carrot slaw

Greek meatballs, cucumber yogurt sauce
Penne with arugula and pine nuts

Penne with arugula and pine nuts

Greek meatballs

Seafood paella

The BBQ baby back ribs were a request from the youngest of the client’s kids; they came out super-delicious and tender; but I didn’t take a picture…

Local fresh ingredients (the clients keep hens in their backyard):

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How much does a personal chef cost? A case study

People often tell me: we love what you do; such a wonderful service, we wish we could afford it. In most cases they don’t realize that they actually can afford the service.

When I cook a week’s or two week’s worth of meals for my client, I work all day in their kitchen, so they have to pay me for a whole day of work; and I buy tons of groceries to put all these meals together. The total price looks big. But when you consider the amounts of food that you get as a result, the price per meal is actually lower than when you dine in a mid-range restaurant.

Today’s package was a “4×6”: 4 main dishes, with sides, 6 servings each, and a pot of soup. 24 complete dinners.

The menu:

Wild mushroom and barley soup

Steelhead trout fillet, dill sauce
Roasted duck legs with rosemary and orange
Fillet mignon, creamy mushroom sauce
Caribbean pulled pork

Roasted potato “fries”
Farro risotto
Garlic and lemon green beans
Mixed root vegetables, honey-orange glaze

My fee for this service is $325. The cost of the groceries today was $149.24. The total bill was $474.24, or $19.76 per dinner. Less then for a decent burger and fries in a restaurant.

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Location:Mill Valley, CA

What I love about being a personal chef #2: Variety

Monday: East Mediterranean menu, calorie count
Tuesday: Vegetarian family menu; plus, a dinner for 6 in the evening
Wednesday: Healthy family meals with few restrictions, plus baby food
Thursday: Organic semi-vegetarian family menu, plus baby food
Friday: Strictly organic gluten- and dairy-free menu with multiple restrictions
Saturday and Sunday: I grill for my boyfriend and I.

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Location:San Francisco Bay Area