Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sea Urchin

A few weeks ago I saw a laundry detergent labeled “ocean scented” and it struck me as odd.  Is there really a market for people who want their cloths to smell like they just washed up on shore, still permeated with the stench of sea lions, decaying kelp, fetid tidal pools and sea gull nests?  In reality, for as much as I love the ocean, the aroma can rarely be described as pleasant….. and in a circuitous way, that brings me to sea urchin. 

Much like truffles, sea urchin is a flavor that people either love or hate.  Eating sea urchin is a cerebral experience.  The enjoyment that comes from eating urchin is not the same unctuous experience as eating a cheeseburger, but rather a memory trigger that takes your mind to a specific location.  A perfect piece of urchin will transport you to the very edge of the ocean, where you can hear the surf and breath in the sea mist.  Unfortunately, most people experience urchin in a sushi bar where they hold their breath and suck it down with a halfhearted chew as their friends watch their distraught expression.      The texture is acquired and the flavor is subjective, but the trick to enjoying it is in how you eat it.  To start, keep your mouth slightly open when you taste the urchin, this allows air to move in through your mouth and into your nasal passage (a.k.a. retronasal olfaction).  This is important because different parts of your brain are stimulated depending on how a scent is physically obtained, so the same object can be perceived differently when sniffed with your nose or “inhaled” through your mouth.  Relaxing and allowing the aroma of the sea urchin to enter the nasal passage is the only way to experience the urchin’s true flavor.  I enjoy fresh urchin, not for its flavor per se, but rather for the strong images it evokes. 

Sea Urchin, like many ingredients, should only be enjoyed when extremely fresh.  I prefer to get live urchins from Santa Barbara and clean them to order.  A very fresh urchin retains a level of sweetness and has a more subtle aroma than the more common urchin sold pre-cleaned on trays.  Last night we simply sautéed the fresh urchin with olive oil, espelette pepper, garlic and meyer lemon.  This is the perfect condiment for a piece of crusty house-made baguette.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wild Fennel Dusted Halibut with Crispy Dulse, Garbanzo Beans, Avocado and Puffed Wild Rice

When I called my friend Jerry last week to ask for local halibut, he sounded surprised.  Over the years Monterey Bay halibut has built a bad reputation as being dry and mealy.  The local halibut are much smaller than their Northern counterparts and have far less fat.  Unlike the supple ivory colored Alaskan halibut filets, the local fish is almost translucent with an aquamarine hue and firm, almost crisp texture.  When cooked, the filets quickly dry out, resulting in a mealy, flavorless fish.  No matter how carefully you cook them, or how much butter you add, the results are always disappointing.

Based on the local halibut’s tarnished reputation, there is no wonder the fisherman sounded skeptical.  In Japan, the word Hirame, is rather ubiquitous and can refer many flatfish such as Turbot, Sole and Halibut.  The local halibut, with their firmer texture and small size are actually preferred for raw preparations.  Unlike Tuna, which can actually benefit from some aging, flat fish need to be served immediately.  Since most local halibut is caught close to shore on a single day trip, they are perfect for these applications.

A lite cure using fresh fennel pollen, meyer lemon and sea salt enhances the firm texture of the filet and adds a subtle sweetness to the to the clean, briny flavor of the shaved fish.  The puffed wild rice and crispy dulse seaweed add textural contrast while the avocado contributes richness, offset by the acidity of the thin sliced meyer lemon.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Carpaccio of Lone Mountain Wagyu

Carpaccio of Lone Mountain Wagyu with Pickled Nasturtium Seeds, Wild Radish Pods, Shaved Beemster Cheese and Saffron-Mustard “Yolk” 

A few months ago I spent some time in the Belgian countryside looking for culinary inspiration.   I was amazed that most restaurants offered both carpaccio and steak tartare on the menu.   I had the opportunity to try several different local variations in Europe and was intrigued enough to create my own version here in Big Sur.

To make a great carpaccio you need to start with an incredible piece of meat.  Many chefs use beef tenderloin, but I prefer to use part of the sirloin as it is a far more flavorful cut, and equally tender when sliced paper thin.  Lone Mountain Ranch Wagyu is my preferred source for beef because of its high standards of production and product traceability.

Next you need to incorporate spice; arugula and mustard are the two most common ways.  Right now we have a number of spicy herbs growing in the garden and wild on property.  I chose to use wild mustard and radish flowers as well as pickled wild radish pods and pickled nasturtium seeds.  These ingredients add a potent heat to the dish that is balanced by light acidity and pleasant floral notes.

In a traditional carpaccio shaved parmesan adds saltiness and texture.  I decided to go with a super-aged gouda finely grated on the microplane.

You need crusty bread to enjoy the dish - so our baker made a rye baguette with black garlic and nasturtium petals folded into the dough.  Instead of raw egg, we created “yolks” out of Dijon mustard, saffron and local honey.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Eating Big Sur - Edible Monterey Bay

Recently, Edible Monterey Bay, a publication that celebrates local food culture around the country, wrote a story about me and Sierra Mar.  Click here to give it a read: 

Monday, August 20, 2012


Whenever we order tuna for Sierra Mar we source directly from the fish market in Honolulu.  I have had the pleasure of witnessing this market first-hand, walking through the auction floor at 4 a.m. just as the auction started.  Buyers from around the world bid on thousands of fish displayed in a refrigerated warehouse.  The buyer who works on our behalf knows that we want the very highest quality tuna.  Not only that, but we prefer larger fish with firm texture, bright red color and well-marbled belly meat.  Simply ordering a 1+ grade tuna does not ensure this kind of product, since the grading is largely subjective and based on number of different criteria.

All of the tuna that comes to Post Ranch is the highest quality available - but what we served over the weekend was simply exceptional.  The top of the loin was firm and bright red, fading into a perfectly marbled belly.  This marbling is more common in the winter months, but can occasionally be found other times of the year.  The additional marbling in the meat gives a decadent texture and smooth flavor that quickly takes on herbs and other aromatics.

For Saturday night's amuse bouche I trimmed the marbled portion of the loin and marinated it with white miso and honey before charring it rare on the grill.  We served the sliced toro with yuzu-white soy pickled cucumber, wasabi mousse and red shiso from our garden.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Wild Fennel

This time of year the entire Central Coast is covered with wild fennel.  While it is genetically similar to Sicilian Fennel, a highly regarded ingredient in Italy, the local fennel is largely overlooked.  Every part of the plant is edible; dried stalks for smoking, young fronds for salads and seeds for cures and sausages.  All of these are excellent, but the bright yellow flowers, filled with sweet licorice scented pollen is the real culinary treasure.  We recently included a dish using wild fennel pollen on the menu at Sierra Mar: 

Burrata with wild fennel Pollen
Sea Salt, Heirloom Tomato

Thursday, August 16, 2012

LA Food & Wine Festival

I just got back from the second annual LA Food & Wine festival.  Sierra Mar was featured in three events and we took the opportunity to showcase some of our new recipes.  

On the way down the coast we picked up 2000 oysters from Morro Bay and paired them with lemon verbena infused cucumber juice, balsamic pearls and borage blossoms.  We displayed them on a custom ice-bar that encased pieces of giant kelp from Monterey Bay.  The dish and presentation went over incredibly well and were a perfect fit for the record breaking heat wave.  The most challenging part of the event was convincing people that the balsamic pearls were not caviar - something that worked to our benefit towards the end of the night when we ran out of oysters and filled the ice display with heaping plates that appeared to be piles of beluga caviar.  Thanks to Johnny Jet for letting us use this picture below.  Johnny had a great write up of the event that can be read here:

During the event's second night, we were honored to get an invitation to participate in the Delicacy Dinner in Laguna Beach.  We prepared smoked steelhead trout roe with sweet corn pancakes and lime crème fraiche as a passed appetizer and local red abalone as the second course.  We fresh shucked the abalone and pressed them with smoked kelp fronds so that by the time we reached LA, they were perfectly cured and ready to slice.  The smoked giant kelp enhances the abalone’s naturally subtle flavors and reinforces its connection to the Big Sur Coast.  Inspired by the expansive kelp beds that can be seen from the Sierra Mar dining room we paired the abalone with six varieties of locally foraged seaweed, each prepared in a unique fashion to complement their individual attributes.  My two favorites were the crispy dulse leaves and pickled kelp stipes.

For the grand finale, we partnered up with Lone Mountain Ranch to showcase their 100% wagyu beef.   These are some of the highest rated steaks in the world and the response from fellow chefs and food writers was unbelievable.  We seared the wagyu rare and served it with pickled watermelon rind, elderflower compressed watermelon, spicy nasturtium aioli and Balinese black pepper.

In total we served just over 3000 people.  It was amazing how many people approached us to share their experiences at Post Ranch and how much it meant to them.

Now that I am back home in Big Sur, it is time to continue developing dishes for my Taste of Big Sur menu that will be debuting the first week of September.  Stay tuned for the newest creations from the Sierra Mar kitchen!