Deceptively complex simplicity is a great way to describe what I present to you. It’s also a reason why menus aren’t often presented before hand. I create from what the market and the season present to me.
Trying to create new experiences for seasoned diners is the best kind of stressful. I feel the pressure of my clients giving me their trust regarding an unknown menu, and I don’t want to let them down. Take for instance tomatoes. What are the best tried and true combos for fresh tomato? Caprese is always a winner. Fresh salsa/pico de gallo hits the spot as well. Tossed into a salad? Sure. But I try to offer what you wouldn’t make yourself, or maybe; not even order off a menu.
Look at these two tomato courses, made about two months apart…
If You Like Fresh Tomato
The second picture was a fan favorite that night. Cherry tomatoes peeled and tossed with basil oil that has a nice hit of nutmeg, settled over my favorite greens,(kohlrabi) that are sautéed with garlic and white wine. All the dish needed was some texture and richness; enter fried pepitas. Acid, crunch, fat, tart, sweet and earthy all settled with intrigue.
The first pic was a hit as well, again, trying to highlight the tomato without the balance of burrata or buffalo mozzarella. I opted for toasted almond cream that had a little lemon zest. The tomatoes, peeled and tossed with salt, lemon juice and chives paired perfectly with that richness, happily highlighted by some basil oil.
Both dishes look quite simple, and at their technical essence, are. But the complexity that bursts through with each bite offers surprise as your senses explode…Complex simplicity.
A new year brought in a new experience. My Alaska dwelling bother came in for the holidays with some tasty, wild game treats, and we wasted no time taking advantage of it.
Although my brother has not yet waded into the wild meat procurement game, his awesome neighbor is a seasoned veteran. Wild fish and game fill his freezer, and he was kind enough to gift my brother some meat to share with his inexperienced brother in the lower 48. Halibut, rock fish, moose, deer and jerky from elk, moose and deer. All frozen, and stuffed into a suitcase bound for San Diego, narrowly missing the epic holiday flight derailments of 2022.
First, let me start by saying two things. One…I have never experienced venison that I enjoyed. The gaminess was always at the flavor forefront, which made appreciation a struggle. Second…I always wanted, but never had an opportunity to eat moose steak. Sure I’ve had it in sausage, but that was always mixed with pork and spices. Personally and as a chef, experiencing new foods is in my top 3 pleasures as a human on this planet. My brain goes wild with new palatable experiences, especially when they’re delicious. Combine that with added surprises or revelations about the ingredient, and I’m on anther plane.
This black tail deer and moose were so unbelievably good. Eliciting moans of pleasure and excitement I have not had with a new ingredient in quite some time. Both were as good or better than any steak I’ve had, and equal to my previous favorite game meat experience 15 years ago. Which was elk from New Mexico. It was fun because my brother and the gentleman that produced the meat were curious as to what I would do with said meat. Not even “are you gonna marinate it,” but rather, “what are you gonna marinate it in?”
How to cook meat has been a consistent question from many a dude throughout my career. Yes, dudes ask me about meat cookery 95% more than women. It has to be some kind of primal thing about cooking flesh over fire. Most guys over think and over prepare food as the “more is better” aesthetic is pervasive with men in the kitchen. My answers on meat preparation are usually met with disappointment and doubt. As if there’s a secret way to grill meat only chefs are privy to. The lack of complexity and preparation for steak is to many home cooks; counterintuitive for a glorious experience.
The deer and moose were cooked exactly how I would cook any prized meat that wasn’t being braised. Heavily salt the meat 2+ hours ahead, crack over some fresh pepper and grill over mesquite or oak coals. A little olive oil rubbed on the meat is good if the cut is lean. Brown each side until caramelized and delicious looking. Continue to cook as needed until desired doneness is reached using indirect heat if necessary. Let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serve with some tasty sides. Lean meats cook to medium rare and fatty cuts toward the medium side of medium rare.
Menus are usually not planned, rather, menus are created according to what is vibrant and available on the day of a party. Menus also need to jive with the clients dietary needs and personal tastes. Sometimes there’s a vegan in the group while other times someone is gluten free and only eats fish. Cooking in an unknown environment that might or might not have the usual equipment or quality is also a heavy variable for a personal chef. Dinner for two is always fun; it’s a time to push boundaries and develop new directions. Things that can’t be done when cooking for 10 because of time constraints.
Take the first pic below of the chicken wings. This new recipe was bound to need some tweaking before it could be served. When it’s a dinner for two, there’s time to make sure any unknowns become knowns; and having time for heavy adjustment is part of creative fun. Conversely, dinner for 10 needs a measured approach consistent with variations on known winners. No matter the count, seasonality and vibrancy is at the forefront of any dinner.
Crispy achiote chicken wings with orange syrup, pickled turnip, cilantro stems and chives
Roasted chestnut puree with arugula/basil/golden beet salad and citrus poached cranberries with fresh nutmeg and thyme
Phyllo baked feta with honey/lemon syrup, toasted sesame seeds and fresh parsley
Fig jam stuffed poached pear over homemade sauerkraut, cinnamon roasted walnuts and draped in gorgonzola cream
Fresh white seabass roasted with green tomato and olive oil and topped with snow pea and celery root salad dressed with lemon/orange vinaigrette. Below is white wine and fennel sautéed collard greens and butternut squash bisque
Prime NY strip or roasted chicken breast with red wine/beef bone/maitake mushroom sauce. Perched atop cardoon mashed potatoes and crispy salt and pepper brussels sprouts
Like many other American homes, chili is a Halloween staple here at the house. Since the beginning of time, my mother made her chili recipe every Halloween. The tradition has been continued by the kids since leaving the nest. Friends and neighbors all know there will be a crock of chili at the Halloween party. Even if there wasn’t a gigantic party, chili would still be made. And chili when it’s chilly, is always a good way to start the season.
Disclaimer:This post could have been 3 times longer. There are a lot of variables to chili that can be waxed on about. Even though this post is long winded…it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Chile or chili?
Some have a chili recipe, and others have a secret chili recipe. Some open cans while others roast and de-seed whole chiles of unknown origin. Notice the spelling on the last chile. Being in Southern California, it has always been customary to use the Spanish spelling of the word. So a chile grown from a garden is spelled with an e. While chili in a pot, is spelled with an i. However it’s spelled; hopefully it’s being made every year or two. It’s a fun dish to make with innumerable varieties that are usually satisfying.
The worst thing that can happen with chili is making it bland. It can’t really be over seasoned, which is part of it’s fun factor. Well…anything can have too much of something, but it’s hard to over do it with chili. One seasoning that shouldn’t be omitted in a tasty chili is an umami heavy flavor.
Umami is a good decision
(Umami ?) Yes, It’s been covered on this blog before. Any memorable chili recipe has some form of earthen savory flavor, or glutamate; whether you’re adding it knowingly or not. This year it was in the broth; 3 cans of Campbell’s Beef Consumé. My wife had randomly bought it a month earlier because it was on sale and seemed like a good pantry item. Since it needed some beef flavored salt, those cans seemed like a win. Last year it was beef bouillon cubes; and the year before that it was a couple packets of Goya seasoning. Every year is different but it always helps the end product.
Musgo, is the way to go
Chili recipes in my house tend to follow the *musgo* model; which means they’re never the same. One reason for that is; once cooking has started, going back to the store for something is not in the playbook. It’ll get a work around in some fashion, or a trip to the neighbors. In food, there is always another option if you know where to look. Therefore, chili in this house changes year to year. As does mood, the timeframe or goal for the bowl. Last year was hectic so that pot was an experimentally simple version. No extra effort ingredients like fresh onion or garlic, whole chilies or bacon. Just ground beef, canned tomato product, bouillon cubes and dry spices. It was great! But this year was more layered and complex with some fun additives.
Chili is built for fun additives. Hot sauce, unexpected spices, chocolate, alcohol, varied meats and veggies. Then you have the option for toppings and all the complications they can bring. It’s really all beautifully endless.
Magic in the musgo
Musgo this year might be “must use again” next year. There was some frozen browned up beef fat trimmings and homemade hot sauce amalgamation; both of which will be hard to replicate next year. The browned beef fat was ground up in a food processor and added to the bacon to melt away. Another cool secret that is now “The way,” is grilling the meat. Fresh ground beef made into hamburger patties and grilled; just enough to get some grill flavor.
So if you have never made a pot of red. Carve out a day when you have some time, grab a soda and crank some tunes. Go get some chile, preferably when it’s chilly, and have some creative fun making chili.
*Whatever you have in the pantry or fridge that must go, or has been around for awhile.
Barcelona Chili 2022
3lbs good ground beef from a butcher (80/20)
2lbs ground pork
5-7 guajillo chilies, tops and seeds removed
5-7 California chiles, tops and seeds removed (use New Mexico for a spicy pot)
3/4 lb bacon, chopped up
1/2lb browned beef fat trimmings with a couple tablespoons beef fat, minced
1tsp chile de arbol or cayenne
4-5c diced onion
1/3c minced garlic
1c…maybe more, ground cumin
3 cans Campbell’s beef Bouillon
1/2c smoked paprika
2 large dried avocado leaves
1-2″ cinnamon stick
1 tsp salt
1/4c amazing hot sauce
*3/4lb each, dried black beans and pinto beans, soaked overnight*
1/4-1/3c cornstarch, mixed with some water to dissolve
Form patties and season the meat with salt and pepper, then grill over flame driven grill, (not in a pan or grill where the flames don’t hit the meat). Also, start and continue with a hot grill. You are looking for lot’s of grilled flavor but not overly charred or burned burgers. You also don’t need it cooked all the way through. Afterward, let it cool and use your hands to break it up into the proper texture.
Cover all the seeded chiles and raisins with boiling water for 10-20 minutes, then puree everything in a blender.
Cook, render and brown the bacon. Before it gets too brown, add in the beef fat to toast. Add the cayenne to toast for 20-30 seconds then remove about 1c of fat from the mixture into a large sauté pan. Use that to sauté the onions until they are cooked though and a little browned.
Stir in the garlic for a minute or two then add the cumin. Cook, toss and stir for a minute then remove from the heat.
Put the bacon fat mixture back on the heat. Once hot, add the pureed chile. Cook as much as possible without destroying your stovetop from all the splatter. Any amount is good, but frying that chile a bit is best. Once your patience is gone, add in the onion mixture along with all remaining ingredients, sans the cornstarch. Cover with water by a couple inches and bring to a boil.
Simmer for a few hours and taste for seasoning, then stir in the cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil again. Stir while boiling to emulsify in the fat.
*Yes, add beans. Get outta here with the no beans in chili bs. Chili with only meat is a meat sauce or “chile con carne,” not a balanced bowl of love with varied texture and flavor.
Salmon is a rarity on my menus. It’s a Tuesday night dinner item that many people cook for themselves. As a personal Chef in San Diego, it is my mission to give the diner something new. What better way to do something new, than to double or triple down on the classics; or the “assumed” knowns. This first entrée for a group of 8 is just that. Salmon, shrimp, chimichurri and polenta. All known classic items you see on menus everywhere. But if I can make your eyes roll backward with these seemingly pedantic recipes, then we are all winning.
Attention to simplicity
All it takes to make food delicious is to cook it perfectly. A simple to understand rule but not always easily achieved. Lets take a look at polenta. Coarsely ground cornmeal cooked with water (and maybe some milk) with a pinch of salt until the cornmeal has softened. Then hit it with one or multiple dairy fats of your choice. Serve immediately or chill, slice and brown. But this polenta picture above is 90% fresh corn. Using fresh corn kicks up the bright summer vibe and adds diversion from the classic. Cooked, puréed, cooked again and hit with more corn and a solid hit of butter. It’s marvelous.
Salmon follows the same rule as most fish; buy as fresh as possible and don’t overcook. I usually broil most thick pieces of fish. Pan searing stinks up the house and grilled can be dicey in terms of sticking to the grate. Getting color on fish is also not always best for flavor. If I’m eating shrimp cold, I like it poached and chilled. Otherwise, I utilize the grill. Often marinated and usually brined, it’s important to apply some char on marinated shrimp. (Any marinated protein for that matter.) That char is another layer that helps pull this dish into the summer spotlight as the shrimp are tossed into the chimichurri; allowing juices and maillard love to imbue. These attributes also focus regional flavors that can be expected from a San Diego personal Chef.
Not salsa verde
Chimichurri is common in restaurants, and for good reason. Herbs, chile, acidulation, pungent alliums and rich olive oil. But in most restaurants, it’s usually the same green, purée akin to a Mexican verde sauce in terms of look and flavor, and is often underwhelming. My chimi is all done on the board with a knife, allowing layers of flavor to shine instead of muddling together into ambiguity.
Most parties get a grilled item or two. The only time I don’t grill something is when I don’t have a working grill. We all have a little caveman in us, so fire charred items on any menu are a must. It allows for a smokey counterpoint that tickles the parietal lobe in the most wonderfully familiar way. It’s also a way for me to Maillard the hell out of things without sending your smoke alarm into a tizzy.
Bringing The Dish Together
Below is a classic dish and photo for Chef Joshua Alkire, (me).The dish is classic and still original, balanced in texture and flavor, and familiar yet peculiar. The dish is part of the menu from my last post. Tikka masala swordfish with banana roasted mashed potatoes and a za’atar grilled carrot. As with all of my food, everything is always from scratch. I start with spices that are toasted and ground; then add in yogurt, lemon, olive oil, garlic and ginger Use this to marinate the sword fish, then grill to perfection.
Grilling swordfish can yield a dry piece of meat if your not careful. Luckily…I’m careful. Fresh fish is pricey so I can’t screw it up. Before you get to grilling the fish, the sauce needs to come together. That starts with caramelized onion, garlic, ginger, spices and tomato paste, added in their appropriate succession. Water to cook for awhile, then hit with some cream and mount it all with a pat of butter before service.
Next are the banana roasted potatoes: Potatoes, garlic, shallots and herbs are roasted until they are perfectly browned and ready for dinner. But then I top it with sliced bananas and broil until caramelized. While still hot, everything gets transferred to a bowl and mashed with butter and cream. Not mashing totally, as we need to leave some roasted potato texture. I like the combination of banana and potato over the use of plantains. It gives us a layered effect of savory and sweet that is more dynamic than the flavor plantains provide.
Photos Are Hard
The photo is classic because, as per usual it looks unassuming. Often times I am missing a garnish that really makes photography pop. Photos for me are truly difficult. The dish I just walked you through is just another course, and all courses have multiple steps. Then I’m getting these to the table while still hot and doing dishes in between. So leaving time to take pictures is often impossible. Especially good pictures with dynamic angles and perfect lighting.
Before first bite, nervous doubt can hover in the kitchen. It can feel a little uneasy not choosing your menu, or not knowing what you’re getting for dinner that evening. Especially from a guy you’ve never met. I understand the trepidation, but the method exists for a reason. Creating something new, is the norm for this chef.
Not having a pre-planned menu isn’t based on ego or laziness. It’s about freedom, expression, spontaneity and duty. Freedom to choose foods that are exciting or beautiful. Expression because food is art. Spontaneity to choose new ingredients or switch directions and trust my instincts. Then duty; the duty I have to you, the client. The duty to reward your trust and make sure you’re presented with an amazing product. I guess ego is in there to a point because I don’t want to let you down. Or allow you to feel regretful of not going with a chef that manages things a little more traditionally. Just rest assured: Wherever the party, I’m looking to impress.
Although I reside in La Mesa, the menu listed below was for a La Jolla based client. Because I want people to experience something different. I try to stay playful, for all our benefit.
Gorgonzola wrapped red grapes coated with toasted walnuts and vinaigrette Seared green tomato and seared mozzarella with balsamic/honey arugula Swordfish tikka masala with banana roasted mashed potatoes and za’atar grilled carrot Garlic kale and zucchini salad with roasted tomato, fresh herbs and fried oregano French onion soup over rib-eye “sashimi” with mushroom flauta and a side of grilled rib-eye Toasted almond and coconut macaroon with fresh lemon curd, strawberries and rhubarb
2022 has been a whirlwind. My small covid era parties of 2-4 guests have returned to the normal 6-12 count. With the larger groups of vacationers back on the coast, renting rad houses for supreme parties. Combining that with my kids in little league, I look back and can’t believe summer is upon us. Not much has changed over the years, I still love cooking for private parties and bringing the highlights of each season to the table. Always smilin’, focused on inspiration and bringing unexpected creativity to every dinner.
For instance: The orange sauce in the metal bowl pictured to the left is a roasted honey nut squash vinaigrette that went underneath a celery root, apple and kohlrabi salad with fresh pickled beets. Shown below is Fresh yellow fin sashimi with almond/Fresno chile chimichurri with aligot potatoes. With this kind of vibrancy in food, I can assure you I am not the only one that’s always smilin’.
Courses like these come from taking what the season, market and weather tell me. Menus are not pre-planned so I am never bound to just my thoughts in front of a screen. I can smell, see and touch what I choose before I commit. More to come soon, stay tuned!
This year is off to a smashing start, and the starters are smashing. New in 2022 is a theme throughout the year…and hopefully next year…and the next.
Fulfilling menu requests continues to fire me up. The need to deliver on someone’s request is my favorite pressure. Food memories are strong, and I want to be a part of that. Producing a perfect version of something is (and has always been) part of a chefs journey. Especially classics, recipes that (for whatever reason) don’t get much play as time ticks by. But…those recipes are classics for a reason, and it’s always fun to be revisit them. Like that crab cake in the picture above. A lovely starter made in the traditional manner, updated with some bright pickles and complimented with a familiar but intriguing little sauce.
Next with new in 2022 and the star of this years starters, were these rolled tacos…
Not to be confused with taquitos. These were stuffed with fresh Yellowfin tuna, pickled cucumber brunoise, chives, and black caraway; and then stuffed tenderly into a perfectly fried corn tortilla shell and served with ginger/sesame/chile/soy dipping sauce. The combination of sushi/Mexican/crunchy/soft/familiar/new, was a bit of a homerun.
*Furthermore; apologies for the heavy solidus use. Some menus have an extraordinary amount of flavor layering going on.
We spent the summer getting sun kissed, eating watermelon and grilling. Now the air is crisp, blankets are back strewn over the family room and a warm bowl of soup is a welcome familiar hug. As the calm before the winter holiday season, Autumn is relaxing and relaxing is Autumn-atic.
I’m not gonna wax on but gosh darn…I love me some chill in the air. As a chef that fly’s by the seat of the seasons, there is a big exhale at the end of each one. As the new seasons emerge, new ingredients come into play. Away with the cucumbers and zucchini while welcoming large squashes and sweet root veggies. Stone fruits are now only in jams and fresh pears are sparkling with personality.
And of course we can’t forget chili. An October staple in many an American household, ours is no different. I make chili every year for Halloween (just as my mom did), and I have never not made it. It’s never the same and always an unusually obscene amount. If it doesn’t get torched that first week using it for breakfast lunch and dinners, then we’re always happy putting it in the freezer and revisiting a bowl in January.
Halloween through Super Bowl is usually a whirlwind; there are parties to work and parties to attend. When not consumed with holiday obligations and fun, I’m snuggling down with a righteous bowl of soup and a fire. I hope everyone has a safe, fulfilling and memorable holiday season.