Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Willy Ono

The culinary talent in our kitchen continues to grow with the addition of Willy Ono.  Most recently Willy was in Europe working at such iconic restaurants as Mugaritz and Noma (both listed in the top 50 restaurants in the world) as well as up and coming restaurants like Relae in Denmark.  Prior to his work in Europe he was a sous chef at the Mandarin Oriental in New York.  When it comes to having a refined international palate, Willy had a bit of a head start, growing up with a Japanese father and Columbian mother.  He has a passion for exploring new cultures, ingredients and techniques.  I think he is the perfect person to work with Jacob and I on developing new menus and accomplishing our ambitious goals.   It is my pleasure to welcome him and his family to Big Sur.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Monterey Bay Sardines

There was a time not so long ago when millions of pounds of fresh sardines were caught and processed in Monterey.  During the 1940’s, a combination of over-fishing, pollution and climate change plummeted the sardine population, shuttering dozens of canneries and putting thousands of people out of work.  Over the last few years the sardine population has started to recover and commercial boats can once again be seen fishing for them in the bay.  Sadly most of the locally caught sardines are destined to be shipped overseas where most will be processed into fish-oil, pet food and other fish-based products.  A few high-grade sardines will be packed and canned - some even making their way back here to the Central Coast.  These tiny fish are so labor intensive that practically none are sold fresh in the US.

 Sardines have a rich-red meat that is covered in an iridescent skin so fragile it will tear with even the most gentle touch.  Due partly to their high fat content, the sardines do not last long and must be eaten immediately after they are caught.  A fresh sardine cannot be compared to a canned sardine- any more than a can of tuna can be compared with a sashimi grade tuna loin.  Fresh sardines have a firm texture with a buttery, mouth feel and a clean-refined flavor, perfect for eating raw or lightly cured.

We received some fresh sardines and decided to showcase them on the dinner menu.  We fileted the sardines, carefully removing the tiny bones before dusting them with local sea salt.  After fifteen minutes we rinsed the filets and patted them dry.  The filets were then brushed with a meyer lemon-fennel pickling liquid.  We cleaned the spine and fried it until crisp (my favorite part of eating sardines).  A few pickled-carrot chips and local olive oil finished the plate.  The dish is reminiscent of a traditional Spanish escabeche with our own Big Sur twist.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Yucca Blossoms

This week brought the first good rain of the season.  I was woken up at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning to a spattering of raindrops against my bedroom window and a cold wind whipping up the coastal ridge and through my open window.  With the rain comes the inevitable inconveniences of fall - the sliding rocks, muddy roads, power outages, downed trees and other events that make us slow down and remember that Big Sur is further from town than we sometimes think.  The rain also signals a change in season and the promise of new and exciting ingredients.  Hillsides that have been covered in dry - golden grass will soon be bright with new growth, tiny chanterelles will begin growing from spores hidden below fallen oak leaves and wild watercress will flourish in seasonal streams.  When the sun had finally risen, I looked out my window to see a beautiful yucca in full bloom.

Yucca is a temperamental plant, only blooming sporadically under ideal conditions.  They require just the right amount of warmth, coupled with a good rain and a well-timed hatching of yucca moths to pollinate the flowers.  For these reasons you cannot predict when or if these mysterious plants will produce blossoms.  The yucca blossom is in fact so rare, that while it is the state flower of New Mexico, where I was raised, I don’t ever remember seeing them flower.  This was a great way to start my day - and I took a moment to enjoy the majestic plant framed by the coastal sunrise.....before getting a machete and hacking it off.  What can I say - I’m a chef, not a florist, and this rare flower was destined for the kitchen.

The beautiful white blossoms are similar in flavor and texture to Belgian endive and lend themselves to being marinated, sautéed or quickly fried in a lite tempura batter.  I created a lunch special with sautéed yucca petals and tempura yucca blossoms accompanying seared rare tuna.  The rest of the blossoms are going to be pickled this evening and used later in the month.  This week I hope to make a drive down the arid south coast to see if other plants are in bloom. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Butternut Squash Agnolotti

If you have been reading this blog you may have the impression that we only work with exotic ingredients and challenging techniques.  Receiving rare ingredients and experimenting with new techniques is always fun, but most of our dishes are actually classically-based and rely upon easily accessible, seasonal ingredients.   The butternut squash agnolotti, currently on our lunch menu, is a great example of how a classic recipe is sometimes hard to improve upon.  

Agnolotti is an ancient pasta shape that originated in Piedmont, Northern Italy.  There are numerous variations - but we practice the “agnolotti al plin” which is slightly rectangular and gently pinched to form smooth pillows that work perfectly for trapping sauce.  I've included the recipe below along with a few preparation videos.

Pasta Dough
  • 1 lb. Flour
  • 12 Egg Yolks 
  • 2 Whole Eggs 
  • 1 tbs Olive Oil 
  • 1 tbs Milk 

  • 1 ea 2# Butternut Squash
  • 2 tbs Sea Salt
  • 1 tsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper
  • 3 tbs Butter
  • 1 tbs Ras El Hanout (Moroccan Spice Blend)
  • 1 cup Mascarpone Cheese
  • 1 tsp Lemon Zest from Micro Plane

For Finishing
  • 8oz Butter - Cooked over low heat until very brown.
  • 2 tbs Lemon Zest
  • 1 tbs Salt
  • 2 tbs Chopped Sage

Preparation Instructions
To make the pasta dough, combine all of the ingredients into a mixing bowl.  Mix by hand until it forms into a smooth, elastic dough.  Roll the pasta into thin sheets using a pasta machine or rolling pin.

For the filling, take fresh butternut squash, cut it in half and season it with freshly ground ras el hanout, sea salt, black pepper and butter.  The halves are then roasted in the oven until soft.  Scoop them from their shells, place them into a mixer and combine with mascarpone cheese and lemon zest.  Mix until they are smooth.  Adjust final seasoning to taste.

Lay a sheet of pasta lengthwise in front of you on a well-floured surface. Put the filling into a piping bag and pipe a line along the front edge of the sheet.  Brush the sheet with egg and egg wash.  Fold the sheet over the filling and use your fingers to make indentations every inch to form small pouches.  Fold the pasta over again and use a cutting wheel to remove any extra dough and then cut between pouches. 

To finish the pasta cook in boiling salted water for 2 minutes and then sauté quickly in brown butter with pecans, sea salt , chopped sage and lemon zest. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Introducing Our New Chef de Cuisine - Jacob Pilarski

I am excited to announce a new addition to our team!  After spending several years as sous chef for David Kinch at the acclaimed restaurant - Manresa, Jacob Pilarski will be joining Sierra Mar as my Chef de Cuisine.  Jacob is a graduate of New England Culinary Institute and has a diverse culinary background with strong fine-dining credentials, training in chemistry and a passion for cooking and local ingredients.  It is my pleasure to welcome Jacob into the kitchen - and I can’t wait to begin our culinary collaboration.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Phelps 40th Harvest Celebration

This past weekend I was invited to cook dinner at the Joseph Phelps Vineyard in Napa Valley.  The Phelps family invited 60 lucky members of their wine club to be guests at an exclusive dinner held in one of the barrel rooms.  Giant oval wooden barrels that had been imported from Germany for aging Riesling in the early 1970’s lined one side of the room.  On the other side, picture windows overlooked acres vineyard stretching down to a historic green schoolhouse at the lower end of the estate.  The kitchen was simple, but functional, and is said to have been designed in part by Alice Waters and Jeremiah Towers - the focal point being a long butcher block table made from thick slabs of oak, worn smooth from years of use.  Dominique and I worked on creating a menu that would accentuate the incredible line-up of wines that the family had selected from their library.  There were a number of great bottles - but the two that stood out to me were the 1989 Backus Cab and the 1973 Late Harvest Riesling, that had likely been aged in the now retired wooden barrels that lined the dining room, and over the years had turned from golden to dark amber.  Several members of my culinary team: Yulanda (Pastry Chef), Jacob (Chef de Cuisine), Amber and Maya helped make the event a great success.  Here's the menu and wine pairings:

Phelps Preferred 40th Harvest Dinner
October 12, 2012

Hosted By
Bill Phelps, Damian Parker, Mike McEvoy, Duane Harris
Chef John Cox, Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn

Local Abalone
Brown Butter, Heirloom Tomato and Capers
Joseph Phelps Chardonnay, Pastorale Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 2009

Squab Rillet
Black Currant, Dried Fruit Brioche and Toasted Hazelnut Milk
Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir, Quarter Moon Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 2009

Dandelion Marinated Elk Tenderloin
Beemster Polenta and Caramelized Quince
Joseph Phelps Insignia, Napa Valley 1999
Joseph Phelps Insignia, Napa Valley 2009
Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, Backus Vineyard Oakville, Napa Valley 1989

Snowy Mountain Strawberry Peak
Pickled Chanterelles, Hay Roasted Onion
Joseph Phelps Syrah, Napa Valley 1999

Honey Cremeux
Pear and Almonds
Joseph Phelps Late Harvest Riesling, Napa Valley 1973

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Picking Fresh Herbs

The kitchen will sometimes unexpectedly run out of herbs mid-way through our dinner service.  This time of year that typically happens around 7:45 and I will have to momentarily abandon my post at the front of the line to go replenish our stock of wild herbs and blossoms from our living roof.   Whether this is a case of poor planning or perfect timing I will never say.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cardoon Thistle Cheese

A few weeks ago I was walking past the farm-stand at Earthbound Farms in Carmel Valley and spotted two beautiful cardoon plants in full bloom.  This is a rare sight, because while thistles, like artichokes, are well adapted to the cool, foggy climate of the Central Coast, cardoons have fallen out of fashion and are rarely commercially cultivated.  You might still find cardoons used in a traditional Italian fritto misto or in a gratin, but few chefs take the time to go through the tedious preparation required to remove the layers of inedible strands of fiber.  My interest in these cardoons was not the stalks, rather the bright purple stamens bursting out of the mature flowers.  These stamens contain a powerful enzyme that is used in Portugal, Sicily and Spain to replace rennet in the cheese making process.  Rennet is used to separate milk into curds and whey and is typically derived from a calf’s stomach.  Just a few pulverized stamens from a cardoon flower are powerful enough to coagulate a cup of fresh milk.  The resulting curds are smooth with a slightly bitter finish, reminiscent of fresh artichokes.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a box filled with cardoon flowers from Earthbound Farm last week.  When they removed the plants from their display, they remembered that I had commented on them and were kind enough to send them down the coast with our kitchen gardener Antoine.  For me, getting my hands on a rare ingredient like this is far more exciting than getting truffles or foie gras.  I wanted to feature a traditional Portuguese-style fresh cheese accompanied by different variations of artichoke and fennel.  To start I cleaned baby artichokes from Pezzini farm and slow-braised them with olive oil, fennel, garlic and thyme.  We shaved giant artichokes and then fried them to create thin, crisp chips.  Fennel pollen, olive oil, wild chive flower, bronze fennel frond and red-clay sea salt finish the dish.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Albacore Tuna with Cocoa Butter Roasted Carrots and Nante Carrot Curry

Albacore Tuna doesn’t have the glamorous reputation of its relatives - the Ahi and giant Bluefin.   The fish are smaller and their color ranges from pale pink to dark rose.  The canning industry has not done much for Albacore’s reputation, tagging it with slogans like “chicken of the sea” and packing dried out chunks in watery brine.  In my opinion, when properly prepared, Albacore can be superior to both Yellowfin and Bluefin in both flavor and texture.  When our fisherman caught two albacore off the south coast, we didn’t hesitate to buy them.

These two fish were caught and processed onboard using the taniguchi method.  In Japan, this detailed method of preparation is often required by reputable buyers when they inspect large tunas.   Without going into too much gritty detail - the process quickly stuns the fish and knocks its central nervous system offline.  The fish is then gutted, put into a protective sleeve and plunged into a salted ice brine.  This process ensures the best possible texture and flavor.  Not only does the method result in a higher grading product, it is also likely more humane.

I crusted the tuna with local sea salt and green coriander seeds then flash seared it.  The dish was finished with multi-colored carrots from Swank Farm, slow roasted in cocoa butter and a light carrot curry prepared with kaffir lime leaves, ginger and fresh coconut water. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Matsutake Mushrooms

The first Matsutake Mushrooms of the season are starting to pop up.  I love their rich, piney aroma and meaty texture.  I am working on a dish with Wagyu beef, charred Tokyo scallions, fried rice cake filled with matsutake mushrooms and a miso-roasted bone marrow vinaigrette.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Local Squid

The other day we received two small bags of squid, so fresh that their skin was still pulsating with different colors.  This may not sound special, considering Monterey is known for its commercial squid fishery, but in fact it is quite a find.  Blocks of perfectly cleaned, quickly frozen, locally caught squid can be found at many local stores and on the menus of numerous restaurants.  It is not surprising that people prefer the convenience of pre-cleaned squid, especially when few of them take the time to read the fine print on the packaging.  While this packaged squid may be caught in California, it is often processed in China and then distributed back to the US and other international markets.  Few fisherman will bother selling a couple of pounds of fresh squid to a local chef or market.  They prefer to unload their entire catch to a single exporter.

When I have squid this good, I want to showcase its mild flavor and inherent sweetness.  After carefully cleaning the squid, I score the tubes and dip them quickly into an aromatic poaching liquid until they are barely cooked and still tender.  Cous cous cooked with fresh squid ink and meyer lemon puree finish the plate.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Alliums are not far behind salt when it comes to the list of the most important ingredients in the history of cooking.  The Allium family is a broad group of flowering plants that encompasses such items as onions, garlic, chives and leeks.  These plants are characterized by their pungent aroma and often colorful flowers displayed at the ends of long stems called scapes.  Hundreds of species are known to exist, but only a few are grown commercially.  Each species is unique, ranging from the tiny tubular chive with its mild flavor and dark purple flowers, to giant red onions with tear-jerking potency and tall curling scapes.  There is a specific flavor nuance to each member that can be used to enhance a dish or when the wrong member is chosen, quickly overpower and ruin it.  How the item is prepared will also determine the flavor outcome.  Leaving the allium raw will maintain its astringency while cooking it will progressively create a sweeter and milder result.  If the raw, chopped white onions that find a home on hot dog condiment stations and taco bars is one extreme - then Korean black garlic is the other.  These whole cloves of garlic are slowly fermented at 140 degrees for over a month until the cloves inside dry out and blacken, softening into a sweet paste with a hint of acidity that can be compared with an aged balsamic vinegar.

The idea behind this dish was to create a preparation that combines different alliums that both enhance and contrast one another.  I started with a pureed base of chive and green garlic, added milk poached garlic cloves, red onion confit, blanched leek hearts and black garlic.  The result explores the broad range of textures and flavors found within the allium family, yet presents itself as a single cohesive component in the context of this sea bass preparation.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Thanksgiving Muse

The other day in the garden I watched a group of deer and turkey eating apples that had fallen from one of our trees.  My first thought was “Wow, I bet those would be delicious.”  And my second thought, after ruling out any resident turkey or deer being added to the menu, “Why do the deer and turkey always seem to be hanging out in the same area?”  It turns out there is a very logical, though unsubstantiated, reason for this.  Apparently the turkey have excellent eyesight and the deer have an incredible sense of smell - so together they can identify more predators than either one could individually.  This is interesting - but why do they let a chef walk right through, a cleaver length away?  Perhaps they just know they are off limits…

Monday, October 1, 2012

New Lunch Menu

Last week was a busy one here at Sierra Mar!  We just unveiled our new three-course lunch menu and have received a fantastic response from both long-time friends and first time guests.   The menu is inspired by the abundance of Autumn, yet remains fresh and light.  I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than sitting high above the fog enjoying a leisurely lunch. 

Some of my favorite dishes are the wild steelhead trout with smoked roe and crispy potato cake and the Berkshire pork tenderloin that has been brined with freshly juiced apples from the garden.  The Mangalitsa country ham with goat-butter biscuits and anise hyssop is a great way to start.  Here are  pictures of a few new dishes.