Dare to Pair

Last Saturday we were walking down Swift Street carrying wine glasses. If you had driven by, you might have been confused. We looked like people who had been thrown out of a dinner party, empty glasses in hand. But really we were participating in “Dare to Pair” — a food & wine pairing competition put on by the Cabrillo Culinary Arts Program and Surf City Vintners, the cluster of wineries on the Westside of Santa Cruz. After being given a ballot, a little food tray, and a wine glass, we traveled on foot to 12 wineries around the neighborhood, sampling wine and a dish that a pair of culinary students had created.

Three stations were especially notable — the smoked trout with green apple slaw and greek yogurt cheese that was paired with Trout Gulch Sauvignon Blanc. We were also impressed with a lamb and goat cheese samosa and blistered grapes that went beautifully with MJA vineyard’s 2005 Cabernet Sauvingnon. But our favorite was station number twelve. My brother Lars and his partner Jeremy made a delicious duck breast on brioche crostini with mixed greens and a cherry vinaigrette to go with Storrs Winery’s 2006 Wildcat Ridge Pinot Noir. The cherry vinaigrette tasted like spring, and added a bright acidity and sweetness that complemented the buttery brioche and the rich duck, and brought out the fruity notes in the wine. Bravo. 5 stars.  I hope that this competition becomes an annual event. It’s a great way to support our local wineries as well as our future culinary stars, like my brother 🙂

El Sitio – Best Mexican in Santa Barbara

When we return to Santa Barbara, there are certain things that we always have to do: reminisce about our first date at the Starbucks on Coast Village Road, walk down State Street, drive by the zoo and try to spot the famous giraffe with the crooked neck, and eat at a number of restaurants that hold significance to us; Pacific Crepes (the best french onion soup), Your Place (best Thai), The Habit (best tri-tip sandwich with onion rings), and El Sitio (best Mexican). El Sitio is tucked away in a neighborhood that you probably wouldn’t find if you were just visiting Santa Barbara. Luckily, our apartments during our Junior and Senior years of college were just down the street, so we spotted El Sitio right away and ate there almost every weekend on their little patio with plastic green chairs.

$6.75 will get you the best adobado plate on the planet – “Adobado Mixto.” Tender, bite-sized pieces of pork, sliced mushrooms, and green chilis are cooked together with a spicy red adobo sauce and topped with melted white cheese. Hot corn tortillas wrapped in foil are served on the side. I’ve never ordered anything different because it is just that good, and tastes so authentic. The serving size is huge, so it’s perfect for two meals (which was a bonus as a college student).

Dustin swears by the carnitas burrito, packed with tender, flavorful meat, beans, and rice, and served on a bed of fresh tortilla chips. He always goes to the salsa bar and fills up a small cup of all three offerings – red, green, and salsa fresca. And even though they’re painful, he can’t resist the whole grilled Serrano chilies, which he eats in between bites of his burrito. Some cold horchata is the perfect match. Find El Sitio the next time you’re lunching in Santa Barbara. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

El Sitio

138 S. Salinas St.
Santa Barbara, CA
(805) 963-0171

My 25th Birthday at Soif Restaurant & Wine Bar

Soif means “thirst” in French, and this Santa Cruz restaurant known for its small plates, wine bar, and cozy wine retail shop, definitely quenched our thirsts and satisfied our appetites on November 22nd. My fabulous parents rented the private room upstairs that overlooks the dining room and bar to celebrate my Quarter-of-a-Century Birthday. A few weeks before, my Mom and I had the fun task of studying the menu and selecting a smaller version to offer our guests, paired with wines of our choice.

When everyone arrived there were plates of almonds and marinated olives already on the table, soon joined by several cheese platters, and salumi platters. When it came time to decide on the appetizer and entrée, it was extremely difficult, even though I knew for weeks what the choices were going to be. But I knew I made the right decision when I laid eyes on the Crispy Five-Spice glazed chicken wings w/ marinated cabbage. Three wings sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds arrived on top of colorful cabbage.They were sweet, tangy and ended with just the amount of heat. The marinated cabbage was the perfect cooling accompaniment. They went deliciously well with both the Prosecco and the Austrian white wine that we had chosen.

For the entrée I had the most perfect, pillowy Yukon gold potato gnocchi, served with flavorful roasted Chanterelle mushrooms and wild arugula; the simple buttery sauce allowed the ingredients to shine. The smoothness of the Windy Oaks Pinot (a local wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains) went beautifully well with the delicate gnocchi.

Dessert was the hardest decision of all, but I couldn’t say no to homemade churros, soft in the middle and crispy and cinnamony on the outside, served next to a small cup of thick, rich hot chocolate -A heavenly birthday dessert definitely worthy of a candle. I decided to end the meal with an espresso, and a final glass of the bubbly Prosecco. It was a wonderful night with all the flavors I love, and of course the people I love too!

I wish I could reflect on everything that was consumed that night, but it would take too long for me to write (and you to read). So please enjoy the pictures and overview of everything we enjoyed!

Small Plates:

Roasted Marcona almonds
Marinated olives

Salumi Platter:

Salame Rosa

Cheese Platter:

Le Delice de Bourgogne – triple milk cow’s milk; France
Mad River Roll – ripened goat’s milk; California
Petit Agour – raw sheep’s milk; Basque
Taleggio – cow’s milk; Italy
Blu Val Chiusella – raw cheep and cow’s milk; Italy

Appetizer (choice of one):

Crispy Five-Spice glazed chicken wings w/ marinated cabbage

Endive salad w/ Butter pears, Gruyere & walnuts

Roasted Kabocha squash on baby Mizuna w/ toasted hazelnuts and Manchego cheese

Entree (choice of one – duck not pictured; too busy eating it):

Yukon gold potato gnocchi w/ roasted Chanterelle mushrooms & wild arugula

Red Wine braised beef cheeks w/ baby carrots & horseradish mashed potatoes

Crispy duck breast & leg confit w/ Romano beans & huckleberry gastrigue

Dessert to die for (choice of one):

Vanilla bean rice pudding w/ red wine poached dried plums

Apple walnut crisp w/ vanilla ice cream

Warm chocolate cake w/ espresso ice cream

Churros w/ hot chocolate

The Wines:

NV Soligo Prosecco
Prosecco di Valdobbi, Veneto, Italy

2007 Ecker “Von Stokstal” Gruner Veltliner
Donauland, Austria

2006 Windy Oaks “Estate Cuvee” Pinot Noir
Santa Cruz Mountains, California

2006 Windy Oaks “Diane’s Block” Pinot Noir
Santa Cruz Mountains, California

Soif Wine Bar & Restaurant
105 Walnut Ave. Santa Cruz

A Food Pilgrimage to Big Sur

After you’ve wound your way along the beautiful Highway 1 coastline, past the cabins grouped together called “resorts,” motels, general stores, and the ranger station, is the charming Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. So many delectable things come out of their wood burning oven at this simple, rustic, Big Sur gem. This is what my mom and I consumed during our 24-hour food pilgrimage:


selection of breads with butter and salt

wood roasted quail, micro greens, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, and vinaigrette

mache lettuce, apples, goat cheese, walnuts, and apple cider cinnamon vinaigrette

butter-braised line-caught california sea bass

succotash of fava beans, butter beans, peas, corn, baby green beans, and fingerling potatoes

pizza of carmelized onion, figs, goat cheese, and arugula

lemon steamed pudding, huckleberries, and lemon verbena sauce

Melville 2007 pinot noir

Although we could have eaten outside on the deck in uncomfortable metal chairs, we were drawn to the coziness of the inside, which was softly illuminated by candles. Seated next to us was a table of bearded men who looked like lumberjacks. Presented with our menus (single sheets of paper attached to clipboards), we chose a beverage – two pints of Anchor Steam, brewed just up the coast in San Francisco. We also ordered a plate of mixed olives in olive oil because it seemed like the right thing to do.

We had just begun to sip the foam off the top of our beers, when a small cutting board arrived with four kinds of bread from their wood burning oven – pumpkin, asiago cheese, multi-grain, and one that we think was sourdough. Next to the pile of bread slices on the cutting board was a small cup of unsalted butter and a beautiful pile of salt crystals. It was too dim in the room to see, but when I lifted my salted bread up to the candle, I could see specks of orange and gray. It was fun to take a pinch of salt and season our bread as we ate. Along with the olives, we probably could have left after that and been satisfied.

Our salads arrived on huge plates. My roasted quail was so crispy and flavorful like bacon, and just barely wilted the micro greens beneath it. The roasted red peppers and mushrooms were a perfect earthy match to the quail and the vinaigrette with a hint of sweetness. My mom’s salad tasted like the epitome of fall with apples, walnuts, goat cheese, bundles of mache lettuce and an unforgettable apple cider-cinnamon vinaigrette. By this time we had scoured the extensive wine list and decided to go with a pinot noir that was so smooth and delicious, it paired with everything we ate.

My wood-fired pizza was an appealing purple (figs), white (goat cheese) and green (arugula). Underneath everything was a thin layer of caramelized onions. It was so good I didn’t miss tomato sauce or mozzarella. My mom’s butter braised sea bass was so simple and delicate. Beforehand we had selected which veggie dish to accompany the entree. The succotash turned out to be the perfect choice – a medley of beans, corn, peas and tiny potatoes.

After I had asked for the rest of my pizza to be wrapped up, the dessert menus arrived, which of course we couldn’t turn down. The steamed lemon pudding was nice and light. The huckleberries and lemon verbena sauce made it even better. Two glasses of really good champagne ended our almost-3-hour meal.

I guess we couldn’t get enough the night before. Or maybe it was because we wanted to get out of our “charming” little cabin as soon as possible, but we were back the next morning for our coffee and breakfast to fuel us for our hike.


roasted asparagus quiche with asiago cheese

ricotta-apricot jam danish

house-made donut, donut hole included

freshly brewed coffee

The quiche was quite possibly the best quiche we had ever tasted. The crust was so flaky, and the inside was so rich, made with fresh eggs from TLC Ranch in Watsonville, California. I never thought asparagus could be so good for breakfast. The danish was light and flaky, with the perfect thin layer of ricotta and jam. Donuts are always hard to turn down, but when they’re made by the Big Sur Bakery, they’re even harder. Needless to say, we definitely had enough fuel for our hike to the ocean and through the redwood trees, still recovering from the fire that swept through them earlier in the year.

Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant
Reservations: 831.667.0520
Highway One
Big Sur, California 93920

When in Merchant Town, Eat as the Merchants Ate …

You could easily walk right by the restaurant we ate at last Saturday and not even know it. It blends into the rest of the old merchant town of Ohmi in Shiga prefecture. Traditional houses and businesses resembling those of late Edo and early Meiji period line the quiet streets; a gentle reminder that Japan hasn’t always been bustling with crowded crosswalks, neon signs, and electronic districts. A group of our English students made reservations at Satou–pronounced sa-toe, meaning “sugar”–where we joined three other tables of diners in a single room and embarked together on an 8-course feast.

We were intrigued when a woman wearing an ornate kimono carried a bowl of what appeared to be snow to our table. Upon closer inspection we saw decorative sake cups chilling in the ice, and in the middle, buried deep, was a glass container of sake. Our lunch was off to a great start as one of our students offered the obligatory Kanpai! before taking the first sip.

There wasn’t much time to admire the snow bowl, because the woman was already placing a small dish in front of each of us. We waited until all the tables in the room were served, and the woman had given an explanation of the dish (that we couldn’t quite understand, so we relied on the rough translation from students ). Then we all started together on the first course: halved shrimp, cucumbers and radish in a cool vinegary broth with specks of seaweed. It was refreshing and reminded us of a Japanese version of gazpacho.

We saw the woman peering at us from behind the kitchen as we finished off our first course. She was probably surprised that us gaijin (foreigners) were using chopsticks. This is a common misconception among our students and restaurant staff. Yes, indeed, we can use chopsticks and we can also eat raw fish!

Our dishes were whisked away and replaced with black lacquer bowls with tight fitting lids. We removed the lids. Once the steam cleared we saw the clear broth, flavored with two kinds of Japanese citrus peels: yuzu (orange) and sudachi (green). In the middle was a block of tofu marbled with some ground shrimp paste. It was covered by a transparent circle. We must have looked confused because my students began to explain that it’s a vegetable like a cucumber that grows in Okinawa . It was so thin that we didn’t notice its taste much at all. Sprouts from a fresh water plant called junsai floated on the surface, but they were covered with a naturally occurring gelatinous substance that made them not as appealing.

As the woman cleared our soup bowls and began to pass out beautiful bright green plates, she explained that they were supposed to be for dessert, but she bought them for the purpose of serving sashimi. We agreed that they were appropriate. Soon our attention was no longer on admiring the woman’s dishes, but on the most beautiful sushi boat we’d ever seen.

Slices of tuna, mackerel, sea bream, and yellow tail, sitting atop a pile of shaved ice, garnished with shiso leaf, and sprouts, were just crying out to be eaten with wasabi and soysauce. The mackerel was especially delicious as it had been soaked in vinegar prior to being served. I was wary at first of eating the skin, but it didn’t deter at all from the flavor of the fish.

Even after we’d devoured the sashimi, I was sad to see the plate leave. The fresh cut flowers poking out of the crushed ice were a stunning table decoration. But the woman had more in store for us, such as a long, ceramic dish filled with little goodies. Starting from the left side there was a small bowl of bamboo, shredded dried fish, and brown seaweed. It was a harsh way to start the 4th course, but we told our taste buds they had to build up some endurance. We still had many things to try. In front of the little bowl was a block of “freeze-dried” tofu, as my students explained to us. This had a much more pleasing taste, except for the small dab of fermented fish paste on top. (I was hoping and expecting it to be something sesame flavored. My mouth was extrememly disappointed).

The soramame (“sky beans” or Japanese broad beans) tricked us. When we put them in our mouths they were sweet like candy. They must have been boiled with sugar. What a nice surprise. Behind them were snow peas with a sweet tomato sauce. The crunchy, pickled renkon (lotus root) was a nice contrast to the sweetness of the beans. This was the best section of the dish.

A piece of salmon with a creamy sesame-tartar sauce was a nice familiar item that we happily consumed. The toothpick with sweet, candied ginger was delicious too. However, we should have saved it as a reward for trying the shredded daikon (white radish) mixed with sea urchin. One bite of that was enough for me. Dustin was more gracious and ate it all.

Working our way down to the right end of the dish, we ate a piece of zucchini with some cooked eel lodged in the center. After eating the sea urchin, the eel was nice and mild, lacking that overwhelming fishy taste. We ended with a whole sardine. My students and Dustin popped the whole thing into their mouths, but I couldn’t eat the part with the eyes. I’ve never been able to eat things that are looking at me. By the time we finished all the items on the dish we were already getting full. A feeling of panic came over us as we realized we still had 4 more courses to go.

The next course didn’t photograph too well because it was moving too fast! We figured a video might capture it better.

A bubbling nabe (pot of soup) was set in front of us, containing leeks, shitake mushrooms, and balls of mochi (pounded rice) stuffed with ground meat. We could have ended the meal right there with the level of satisfaction that we felt.

But the woman returned with more. A bowl of sweet boiled pumpkin, spinach, and bamboo in a light broth with a piece of wheat gluten shaped like a leaf. We must be nearing the end, we thought. Then the woman put a giant bowl of rice in the middle of our table with a thud. We laughed because it seemed like a more appropriate response than a groan.

The rice was so good we only wish we had been able to enjoy it earlier in the meal, maybe in place of the sea urchin. It was steamed with little bits of ginger, infusing the entire bowl with a lovely aroma. It was accompanied by a small dish of picked daikon, nasu (eggplant) and cucumber, and a bowl of miso soup. We were ready to take a short nap right there at the table, but when we heard that the next course was dessert we gave a sigh of relief and decided we could finish the marathon.

Not one, but two desserts awaited us. There’s a saying in Japanese similar to “there’s always room for dessert!” At this moment we had to believe it was true! On the left was a glass with three layers: Sweet red azuki beans and sliced bananas topped off with a scoop of yuzu sorbet, garnished with a few Japanese maple leaves. On the right was a chilled bowl of clear jelly with sliced fruits, decorated with rainbow sprinkles. We washed our excessive dessert down with some genmaicha green tea that has a nice toasty flavor because the tea leaves are combined with roasted rice.

Full and content (well, beyond content) we left the restaurant Satou. The woman in the kimono held out her hand. We’ve been in Japan so long that we almost forgot what that gesture means. Then it came back to us. She happily shook our hands and thanked us for dining in her restaurant. We left with a small gift–some embroidered flower cell phone charms, something modern in the midst of a town so old–and navigated our way back through the streets, just like the merchants did long ago.

Coconut Shrimp

First things first, I’d like to say a very enthusiastic “Happy Mothers’ Day!” to my amazing Mom, my favorite cook who has continually inspired me to explore all things culinary! Second, Oh how we love these crispy shrimp with a tropical flair. This is one of our favorite recipes when we want something that tastes like home without having to trek all the way to the import food store to get ingredients. I first became addicted to coconut shrimp at Aldos in Santa Cruz, while enjoying the view of the Harbor along with my family and of course Faith, our German Shepherd, sitting happily under our table. Aldos is known for encouraging local dogs (0r out-of-town dogs) to lounge on their harborside deck. Tonight we ate our coconut shrimp with fries and sweet chili-lime sauce for dipping. The recipe comes from Epicurious.

Enjoying dinner at Aldos with Mom and Dustin. Dogs welcome.

For the Sauce:

3/4 cup Asian sweet chili sauce
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (we omitted this due to its scarcity in Japan)
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

For the Shrimp:

3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon curry powder (preferably Madras style)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten to blend 1 cup club soda
Vegetable oil (for deep-frying)
1 1/2 cups medium shredded unsweetened coconut
16 large shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails left intact (the recipe makes enough batter for almost 32 shrimp!)

  • Mix sweet chili sauce and lime juice in small bowl. (Can be made 1 day ahead) Cover and chill.
  • Whisk flour, curry powder, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl. Add egg and club soda; whisk just until combined but still lumpy. Let stand 15 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, pour enough vegetable oil into heavy large saucepan to come halfway up sides of pan. Attach deep-fry thermometer to pan; heat oil over medium heat to 375°F.
  • Line baking sheet with paper towels. Spread coconut on plate. Working with 1 shrimp at a time, dip into batter, allowing excess to drip back into bowl, then roll in coconut.
  • Working in batches, deep-fry shrimp until cooked through, about 2 1/2 minutes. Transfer shrimp to paper towels to drain. Serve hot with dipping sauce and fries.

Tidbits from Kauai

We spent 5 rejuvenating days on the Garden Isle for our spring break. Waimea Plantation Cottages was our home for the first three nights on the quiet side of the Island.

My dad barbecued fresh Mahi-mahi, Opakapaka, steak, asparagus, and onions on our ocean view porch,

We drank tons of mai tais.

In town we ate at the Shrimp Station, home of the supposed “best coconut shrimp on the island” (the verdict: we’d had better, but it was still really good), and some really messy but satisfying shrimp tacos. Of course the sights were impressive too:

Beautiful Waimea canyon,

the Napali Coast (look familiar?) *cute Jurassic Park theme song*,

A tubing adventure down old plantation canals (sorry, didn’t get captured on film), and a self-guided tour of the Kauai Coffee Plantation.

The last two nights were spent on the resorty side of the island at the Sheraton. On our drive over there, we stopped in various quaint towns to eat ahi tacos & coconut ice cream.

We took in a view of taro fields.

Dustin jumped off a waterfall while we watched.

We visited a lighthouse and bird sanctuary, and walked on a quiet beach.

When we weren’t laying on the beach, getting a long overdue tan, and swimming in the ocean (we avoided the pool that had an odd green-ish tint to it), we visited the noted Spouting Horn that spits ocean water 50 feet into the air. We ignored the warning signs and walked down the rocks to a get a closer look (I guess Dustin got a better glimpse than I did).

We had to eat lunch at Puka Dog, the famous Kauai style hot dogs (that just so happened to be featured on Anthony Bourdain!) The hotdog or polish sausage, along with mustard and a special sauce (choose from mango, papaya, coconut, etc.) is contained in a bun with a hole at the top. A brilliant idea, really, except as you hold the dog upright, all the sauce drains to the bottom, so the last few bites are a little unmanageable. But I still give it a thumbs up, and I must not be alone because the line was going out the door by the time we left.

At Roy’s in Poipu we snacked on salted edamame seasoned with sesame oil, while we tried to decide what to order. With the help of our friendly and eager-to-please waiter, we ended up with a gigantic appetizer boat for 5 filled with all sorts of delectable things – Szechwan ribs, seared Ahi with spicy mustard and ginger, chicken and basil spring rolls, skewered shrimp, and fried wontons. Then I devoured some of the best fish I’d had in a while; Hawaiian Ono swimming in steaming Chinese ginger-sesame oil with fluffy jasmine rice. My Lime Drop was phenomenal, almost as good as the pineapple upside-down cake and the chocolate souffle with a molten center for dessert. We consumed so much, our table was one of the last to leave the restaurant that night.

There’s something about a vacation in a tropical place that makes it hard to come back to wherever you came from. We’re still transitioning back to day-to-day life in Japan, but the cherry blossoms are helping. They’re in full bloom right now and they’re beautiful. It’s our last spring in Japan to enjoy them so I better get outside!