Ecuadorian cuisine with Chef Alejandra

Today I volunteered to assist an Ecuadorean-born, French-trained chef Alejandra Espinoza with teaching her class on Ecuadorean cuisine. Chef Alejandra puts a slight French twist on traditional Ecuadorean dishes, like seasoning the fish with lime juice and piment d’Espelet, or using shallots, white wine, and cream to turn an otherwise simple quinoa with vegetables into a delicious risotto. She uses freshest local seasonal ingredients for her menus, but her pantry items come from South America, Europe, and all over the world.

The menu:
Guacamole, green plantain chips
Shrimp ceviche with chulpi

Grilled ling cod in lime sauce
Quinoa risotto with squash, white corn, pecorino cheese

Tres leches with fresh strawberries

The beauty of working alongside a chef with such a unique and diverse background is that you learn a lot.

– Use slightly overripe avocados for easy mashing into a guacamole
– You can get the best, freshest local catch if you come to Pier 33 very early in the morning
– Ecuadorean ceviche is not spicy (unlike the Peruvian ceviche that I was familiar with). The aromatic broth used to cook the shrimps is then strained, chilled, and added to the marinade, alongside the lime juice, red onions, and cilantro. No chilies!
– Ecuadorean guacamole, on the other hand, is almost too hot for me to eat
– Green plantain, thinly sliced and deep fried, makes wonderful crunchy chips
– Chulpi, the South American snack of salted roasted corn of a particular variety, is dangerously addictive
– Having a housecleaner help during a cooking class makes the chef’s work 100x easier. Thank you, Dina!
– Parking in Cow Hollow is a nightmare, but it’s doable after 6 pm

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Location:San Francisco, CA

A night of music and food

Last week I got a call from Bettina Devin, she needed help with food for a party. One of her favorite students, talented and beautiful singer/songwriter Chloe Jean had released her first album, the release party was happening in a new stylish San Francisco night club Hawthorn on Thursday, November 6, and Bettina was responsible for the party appetizers for a little over 200 people who RSVPd for the event. Of course, I wanted to help!

After a brief brainstorming session we came up with a menu that was elegant and satisfying, and could be executed and served to a hungry mid-week crowd on a short notice and tight budget, in a club with no kitchen, with the help of a few friends and students.

Bettina put in long hours making tons of chicken liver pate and 200 deviled eggs, three different flavors. One of her students enlisted her whole family to make a huge tray of lumpia, Filipino fried rolls. I searched Bay Area ethnic stores for interesting finger foods, and prepared a few spreads to serve on toast, and two flavors of homemade hummus. Just before leaving for the party, I put 200 cherry tomatoes, basil leaves, and mozzarella balls (my basil plant is gone, cut to the ground; the local stores are out of mozzarella balls), and 200 sausage bites with cornichons, on skewers.

We set up the food serving station in the back room bar. The star herself, Chloe, came over when she had a minute to help us to set up the tables!

Then the guests arrived, the music was beautiful, we danced, and everybody loved the food!

The menu:

Marinated green and black olives
Deviled eggs (Dijon, curry, wasabi)
Smoked salmon spread on rice crackers
Stuffed grape leaves
Chicken liver pate on water crackers
Crudite with hummus (mild or spicy)
Cannellini beans bruschetta with pickled red onions
Minted green pea and ricotta bruschetta
Caprese skewers
Smoked sausage skewers
Cream puffs

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Location:San Francisco, CA

Wine and appetizers tasting at La Honda Winery tomorrow

Come see my friend Luisa of Luisa’s Catering and me, and taste our small bites paired with local wines at La Honda Winery in Redwood City tomorrow, April, 19th, 12 noon-4 pm.

The menu:
English Peas and Ricotta Cristini
Sweet Potato Arancini

Goat Cheese & Prosciutto Crostini
Stuffed Roasted Cherry Peppers

Mediterranean Pizzettas
Mini Crab Cakes
Flatbreads with Three Dips

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Location:La Honda Winery, Redwood City, CA

Dinner party menu tonight

One of the guests tonight was a vegetarian, so most of the menu is vegetarian, to make sure that everyone can eat it. The main course is fish, with a vegetarian option.

I wish I could take more, and better, pictures, while cooking for dinner parties. Usually, though, I’m so busy cooking, tasting, and interacting with the hosts (and their wonderful pets) that most of the food goes uncaptured.

The menu tonight:

Tartlets with goat cheese and caramelized onion
Eggplant caponata on toast
Carrot and orange soup

Heirloom tomato Caprese salad

Pan-fried halibut, creamy mushroom sauce
Stuffed portabello mushroom (vegetarian option)
Quinoa with zucchini and lemon
Green beans

Cheese and fruit plate
Panna cotta with fresh berries and warm chocolate sauce

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Location:San Francisco, CA

Magician’s Birthday

On a gorgeous summer afternoon friends and family gathered for a garden party by the pool to celebrate the birthday of a magical silk painting artist of international fame, tireless world traveller, and a beautiful woman Natasha Foucault.

Natasha’s art transforms everyone: the ladies were more beautiful than ever, wearing Natasha’s hand-painted silks, the men had her custom-made ties, and everyone was inspired by her art, her charm, and travel stories.

I had the honor to prepare the festive dinner for my art teacher and friend. Both Natasha and I were born and raised in Russia, and we love Russian cuisine, so we decided to start the dinner with zakuski, the traditional appetizer spread.

Natasha is a connoisseur of wild mushrooms, and an experienced mushroom hunter. She supplied a wealth of the finest wild mushrooms that she had collected in Northern California last season and saved in the freezer for the party.

Porcinis, chanterelles, slippery jacks – these mushrooms may seem rare and exotic to a modern Californian, but they are dear and familiar to any Russian mushroom hunter, and their aromas bring memories of childhood, of dark dense forest, sunny meadows, cool streams under shady trees, the far-away land that we still consider our own. It was such an exquisite pleasure to create both traditional and modern “fusion” dishes with these darling fungi!

For the main course we needed something simple, something that could be prepared and enjoyed while the temperature was still in the 90-ies. I opted for the grill. It is somewhat tough to grill meat, fish, and vegetables for 40 people in 95 degrees, with the sun shining straight on your back while the grill flares up in your face, but the pool made it much easier. As soon as everything was grilled and while the guests were helping themselves at my hot buffet, I got out of my chef’s coat and into the pool, and came to the table totally refreshed.

The tables were set on the lawn. While we were enjoying the meal, saying toasts and drinking wines from around the world to the health and happiness of our friend, the sun went down, the temperature dropped a little, and the host turned on the pool lighting to make our night under the stars even more magical. Then there was music, dancing, more wine, and simple and perfect seasonal fruits for the dessert.

Happy birthday, dear magician, happy birthday to you!

The menu:

Russian potato salad (Olivier)
Mushroom piroshki
Cabbage piroshki
Chicken liver mousse
Exotic mushrooms pate, porcini topping
Chanterelle, goat cheese, and caramelized onion tartlets
Assorted cold cuts
Breads, crackers

Grilled marinated beef tri-tip
Grilled Alaskan wild salmon
Assorted grilled vegetable skewers

Raw fruit and berry crumble with almonds

Chanterelles, goat cheese and caramelized onion tartlets
Makes 12

For the mushrooms:
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
8 ounces chanterelle mushrooms, fresh or frozen, thawed
salt, pepper
2 sprigs thyme, leaves picked and stems discarded

For the caramelized onion:
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

For the goat cheese filling:
4 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature
2 Tbsp heavy cream
1 egg

1 sheet of purchased frozen all-butter puff pastry (Dufour), thawed in the refrigerator

For the egg wash:
1 egg
1 Tbsp water

Heat olive oil and butter in a pan over medium heat. Add mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, add thyme leaves. Sauté until all the water released from the mushrooms has evaporated. Let cool.

Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add onion; sauté till it starts to turn golden. Add balsamic vinegar, cook to reduce to syrupy consistency. Let cool.

Mix goat cheese with cream and egg to make the cheese filling.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out the puff pastry between two sheets of plastic wrap. Remove the top plastic, slice the pastry into 12 squares. Turn the squares oven onto cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, remove the plastic. With a 3-inch round cookie cutter, mark a circle in the middle of each square, taking care not to cut all the way through. Freeze.

Mix egg and water for the egg wash.

Remove the puff pastry from freezer. Spread some goat cheese filling inside the marked circles. Top with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms. Brush the border with egg wash. Bake until the pastry has puffed and the border is golden, about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack.

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Location:Redwood City, CA

Russian appetizers menu in British Bankers Club for the New Years Eve

I’ve been working with the executive chef of British Bankers Club gastropub
in Menlo Park to add a gourmet Russian-style appetizers spread, “zakuski”, to their New Years Eve menu.

The “zakuski” menu includes Russian potato salad “Olivier”, my own version of a beet vinaigrette, smoked fish plate, cold meat cuts, including beef tongue with horseradish sauce and chicken liver mousse, marinated vegetables assortment, and, of course, piroshki.

For a full-size holiday dinner, the chef created a nine-course menu that starts with zakuski and proceeds as a succession of courses of French and Central European origin, with his own unique twist.

Celebrate the New Year with good old-world food, good drinks, music, and dancing:

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Location:Menlo Park, CA

Terrine of grilled eggplant and fire-roasted peppers with tomato confit

Good bye, summer!

They are probably the last ones of the season, and I’ll miss them terribly. But at this weeks farmers market an almost six-pound bag of slightly overripe organic heirloom tomatoes was $5, and they were of absolutely beautiful, sunny orange and red varieties. I had to take them home, and now everything I eat has tomato sauce on it. I also put away a couple of bags of tomato confit in the freezer for later.

Tomato confit

Makes a lot

1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
10 cloves garlic, peeled
5 sprigs oregano
5 sprigs thyme
5 pounds ripe (or slightly overripe, undamaged) tomatoes, or as many as you can fit in your roasting pan, cored
Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Cover the bottom of a roasting pan with olive oil, spread onion, garlic, and herbs in the pan. Place tomatoes on top of onion mixture, stem side down, fitting them close together. Season with salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Bake about one hour, or until tomatoes char on top and blister. Let cool a little. Remove oregano and thyme. Puree vegetables in blender, working in batches, adding liquid from the bottom of the pan as needed. Store in a refrigerator, or freeze in locking bags or in ice cube trays. Use on pastas, eggs, beans, thin with stock to make tomato soup, braise fish fillets in it, or make my simple version of a vegetable terrine, while eggplants and bell peppers are still in season, and the weather is grill-friendly.

Terrine of grilled eggplant and fire-roasted peppers with tomato confit

Makes 1 4-cup container

2 bell peppers
3 small Italian eggplants
Olive oil for grilling
Salt, pepper
2 cups tomato confit
2 bags unflavored gelatin

Preheat a gas or charcoal grill. Place peppers on the hottest part of the grill, char on all sides, turning occasionally, until almost all the skin blackens. Place in a covered container and leave until cool enough to handle.

Slice eggplants lengthwise 1/4 inch thick. Brush with olive oil, season generously with salt and pepper. Remember that the vegetables will be served cold, so stronger seasoning will help them shine. Grill, turning once or twice, until soft and nice grill marks are created.

When peppers are cool enough to handle, remove the skins – they should slide off easily – and cores and seeds. Work over a bowl to catch the juices. Slice peppers lengthwise.

Line 4-cup Pyrex container, loaf pan, or terrine with plastic wrap. Put a layer of eggplant slices on the bottom, with the best grill marks facing down – this will be the top of the finished terrine. Top with a layer of peppers. Repeat, finishing with a layer of eggplant, with the best grill marks facing up, in case you decide to serve the terrine in the mold.

Divide tomato confit into two roughly equal portions. Bring one to almost boil, add any pepper juices to it. Sprinkle gelatin on cool confit, let sit two minutes. Add hot confit, mix well. Pour tomato-gelatin mixture over the vegetables in the mold. Pierce in a few places with a bamboo skewer, to let the tomato flow under and around the vegetables. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Turn the terrine over to a cold plate, remove the mold and plastic, slice to show the colorful layers, and serve with more tomato confit, if desired.

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Location:San Rafael, CA

Market find: candy stripe figs

These pretty “candies” come from the farmers market and are actually a variety of figs, properly named Candy Stripe. Lighter in flavor than popular Black Mission figs and with a hint of citrus, they go well into sweet-savory dishes.

Quarter them for arugula salad with almonds, figs, and sherry vinaigrette; or cut a cross on top and insert a dab of goat cheese, season with a drop of honey and fresh ground black pepper; or wrap them in prosciutto slices; and enjoy the flavor of the early fall.

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Location:San Rafael,United States

What I love about being a personal chef #5: Dinner parties

I get to go to all the parties, and I get paid for this!

The regular personal chef service, cooking weekly family meals, is a lonely job. After interviewing the client about their dietary needs and preferences, I sometimes work for them for months without meeting them. The main reason why they need a personal chef is that they are busy people, right? So when I come with my culinary mission, they are rarely home, and when they are, they are busy in the home office or taking care of the kids, and don’t have time to stop in the kitchen and chat with the chef. It’s fine with me: I love my independence, peace and quiet, and being in full control of the kitchen.

But we all need some social moments, and for me cooking for home dinner parties and conducting interactive dinners and private cooking classes means exactly that. Meeting fellow humans, in their best, relaxed and happy form.

Most modern houses and apartments, fortunately, have open kitchens, so I get to enjoy the party and interact with the guests, share recipes and cooking tips and do a little tasting, while I prepare a special dinner for them.

Also, dinner parties give me an opportunity to practice nice food presentation, while in the regular meal service the presentation options are limited by storage requirements. A meal vacuum-packaged in a rectangular Pyrex dish for storage in the freezer can look beautiful, but I challenge you to make it look striking.

Pictured here is daikon and zucchini salad with lemon dressing that I made for a dinner party for a small San Francisco social media start-up today. This salad is very light and refreshing. It’s also low on calories, vegan, raw, and gluten-free, so everyone, no matter what their diet is, can enjoy it. The choice of a sharper or a fruitier olive oil for the dressing can take it in different directions.

Daikon and Zucchini Ribbon Salad with Lemon Dressing
Serves 6

grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
1 shallot, minced
1 cup olive oil
1 large daikon (Japanese radish), peeled
3 very fresh and tender zucchini
6 large basil leaves
sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

Make the dressing: cover minced shallot with lemon juice, let sit for a few minutes. Add olive oil and whisk together.

Using vegetable peeler, shave daikon and zucchinis into paper-thin ribbons. Arrange on six salad plates. Rub basil leaves gently with olive oil to prevent darkening from contact with air. Roll the leaves together, and slice them very thin. Unroll the basil – you’ll have very thin basil ribbons. Scatter grated lemon zest and basil ribbons on top of the salad. Pour dressing over salad. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Another raw treat for the same party – raw berry crisp, slightly modified from the recipe on Whole Foods website.

Cherries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries; blue agave and maple syrup, date-pecan-almond topping.

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Chicken liver mousse

Chicken liver mousse is easy to make, and its elegant appearance, smooth texture, and unusual, rich flavor make it a perfect party appetizer.

There are endless variations to this recipe. I sometimes garnish it with mushrooms, make it with madera instead of port, chop instead of pureeing some of the livers for added texture, etc. My friend Y. uses heavy cream in place of butter, and he likes to garnish the top with chopped pistachios. My grandma didn’t use any wine, but added cooked carrots for sweetness and nice warm color. Last time I made it, I didn’t have port, but I had a jar of dried figs that I steeped in port about a week earlier. I ate the figs, and used fig-infused wine for the mousse.

The mousse discolores if exposed to air, so protect it with a film of butter on top, or press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface, then cover tightly.

Warning: This is not a low-calorie food. No way.

Chicken Liver MousseChicken Liver Mousse
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 lb. Chicken livers, trimmed
Salt, freshly ground white pepper
1 small pinch allspice
1 pinch ground nutmeg
2 Tbsp cognac
1/2 cup ruby port
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
4-5 drops truffle oil (optional)

To garnish:
Fried shallots
Assorted herbs
2 Tbsp butter

Serving chicken liver mousseHeat olive oil and 1 Tbsp butter in a heavy pan over medium heat. Add onion, cook,
stirring, until transparent, about 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, leaving some
oil behind. Increase heat to medium-high. Add chicken livers, cook until golden on the
outside but still pink and juicy inside, about 2 minutes per side. Season with salt,
pepper, allspice and nutmeg. Remove and set aside to cool slightly. Add cognac, port, and thyme
to deglaze the pan.

Combine onions, livers, cognac and port from the pan, truffle oil (if using), and 1 stick
unsalted butter, in a blender. Puree until smooth, working in batches, if necessary.
Spoon the mixture into deep serving dish, spreading it out to eliminate air pockets.
Decorate top with fried shallots and herbs. Melt 2 Tbsp butter and pour over the top, to
keep air out. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Serve with baguette slices or water crackers, and more port.

To make fried shallot: Slice shallot into very thin rings. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil plus 1 tsp butter over medium-low heat. Gently fry shallot rings until golden and crispy. Remove and dry on paper towels. Use to garnish soups, salads, pates, or just about anything.