Daily Dish

The inside scoop on food in Los Angeles

Category: Ingredients

Hepp's Salt Barrel finds seasonings of many flavors

Brian Hepp has a thing for salt. Not like most of us, who when we crave it, reach for a bag of chips. Instead, Hepp has a passion for the nuances of salt. So much so that he's turned it into a business, called Hepp's Salt Barrel, which sells at local farmers markets, at a couple dozen local retail stores, and starting in August, through Sur La Table stores nationwide.

Hepp's got 24 salts in his Venice-based line right now. Some of them are single-origin finishing salts, such as the Portuguese Flor de Sal and Aussie Flake (the Portuguese has a dense flake and an explosive flavor, the Aussie is lighter and more delicate).

Most of what he sells are flavored salts that he has manufactured to his specifications, including his best-selling white truffle and black truffle salts.

It all started with a broke guy trying to figure out cheap presents. "I'd always played with different kinds of salts when I was cooking," Hepp says. "I thought I'd put them together in a gift pack for my family because I didn't have a lot of money."

He found that people were fascinated by the seasonings. "I thought 'Nobody else knows about all these different salts'," he says. "What if I could just share this with people? I just had a dream, a vision. I just thought if I could share this with people, it might be successful. "

He started selling five salts at a single farmers market a year and a half ago and within a couple of months had expanded his list to 20 salts and nine markets. Today,  you can find him at  the Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Larchmont, Studio City, Calabasas, La Canada, Yamashiro and Autry  farmers markets. He also has a stall at the newly opened Crafted collection in San Pedro.

Greater things are in store. He's packaged his 10 best-selling salts -- white and black truffle, black lava, roasted garlic, rosemary, ghost pepper, Thai ginger, Aussie flake, Himalayan pink and a smoked salt called applewood -- and will be selling them through Sur La Table.

The salts come in 3-ounce portions and sell for $10 each, with the white and black truffle salts selling for $20.

Hepp has even earned the coveted CSA title -- Certified Salt Advisor. In fact, he's the only one in the world. "It's kind of a spoof," he says. "People were always asking me how I knew so much about salt. So I made up a list of 30 questions and guess what -- I passed it!"


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--Russ Parsons

Photo credit: Russ Parsons/Los Angeles Times

Online warehouse sale at Cube Marketplace

Bev_hisey_ant_picnic_blanket._2__18056_stdOn the Cube Marketplace website, now is the time for their second annual online warehouse sale with most items 40% off. That means a quirky Biv Hisey picnic blanket embroidered with ants (the back has spaces to zip in three cushions). Originally $300, it's now $180. But also aged balsamic vinegars at a steep discount, wood cutting boards, hand-printed tea towels, special salts (applewood-smoked sea salt, pink Peruvian ancient ocean salt, whole spices, ceramics, Pantelleria capers, and more.

I'm partial to the FUZ grey felt egg flat or their "winepocket." Ah, but here's some of that terrificly fragrant dried oregano from Sicily reduced to $8.40 from $14. And if you're in dire need of asparagus vinegar or beer vinegar from Lower Austria, they've got it. Good for stumping pretentious self-described gourmets. Who would guess what went into your vinaigrette?

A line of spices from Le Sanctuaire, which had a posh Santa Monica store before the Espresso-spoons__31175_std owners moved the business to San Francisco, are on sale, too, including saffron from Iran. A set of six Maarten Baptist espresso spoons from the Netherlands is now $20.40, marked down from $34.

And get this, Rancho Gordo beans are on sale, too. Never seen that. Borlotti, limas, cattle beans, pebble beans, quinoa, etc. for $3.30 instead of $5.50. Time to stock up.

I could use everything and anything. But what do I really need? Carnaroli rice. They've got that, too. And some of Robert Lambert's white ginger or yuzu syrup. 



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Photos: picnic blanket and espresso spoons. Courtesy of Cube Marketplace.

A different way with grits

2_CoarseYellowGritsWhen I was testing recipes from Paula Wolfert’s new book, “The Food of Morocco,” I found one that uses stone-ground grits for couscous. She writes that “corn couscous is popular in the southern Souss region, where, in summer, it is often served with shellfish and baby turnips, and in the mountains, where it is a winter staple with meat confit and vegetables.” Sounds good to me.

She recommends coarse corn grits, preferably stone-ground. And I just happened to have some from Anson Mills in South Carolina. Their Antebellum grits are made from heirloom white or yellow corn varieties — and stone-ground. In Wolfert’s recipe, grits are treated similarly to couscous -- that is, steamed several times, after moistening the grains with water and tossing and leaving them to rest until the water is absorbed.

Though you need to start up to three  hours before serving, the process is fascinating — just how much water can the grain absorb? — and well worth the effort. The result is grits like you’ve never had them before, each grain distinct, with a clean, nutty taste. A 1-1/2 pound bag of grits will yield about 12 cups.

I’m a total convert. 

Continue reading »

Cook’s stocking stuffer: Mutti of Parma tomato paste

Tomato2 (1 of 1)I love this stuff. 

The other day I was making a soup out of some kale from the garden, some leftover chickpeas and a few odd potatoes (along with a bay leaf, some garlic and fresh thyme). But it needed something.

Found in the fridge: an almost used-up  tube of Mutti tomato paste. I squeezed in a little and my soup came together. I really wouldn’t do it with any other tomato paste, but Mutti of Parma, Italy, produces the best.

They’ve been making it since 1899. Their paste is double-concentrated and made only from tomatoes and salt. That’s it. After all the company’s motto is “solo pomodoro. Per passione” — only tomatoes, for passion.

The firm uses only Italian tomatoes and a slow process of dehydration. It’s easy to taste the difference — none of that sludgy, bitter or cooked-down taste of regular tomato paste. This tastes bright and carries the deep flavor of sun-warmed tomatoes.

Use it to beef up the tomato taste of a sauce, or add an underlying tomato note to a brasato or stew.

Any cook would love it as a stocking stuffer. Sold in 4.5-ounce tubes at $3 to $5, depending on where you buy it. Available at Mozza2Go and the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, among others. Save even more by buying in bulk: I ordered a six-pack from Amazon for $17.28 which works out to less than $3 per tube.


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Photos: My almost used-up tube of Mutti tomato paste. Credit: S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times


Sour grape juice: The French call it verjus

Verjus1 On Sunday, showing off the Hollywood farmers market to a visiting friend, I was walking extra slowly and noticed a stand selling verjus for the first time. Maybe they've been selling it for years, who knows? But there it was, Mill Road Verjus made from organically grown grapes from the Monahan Family Farm in Paso Robles, in 16-ounce and 32-ounce bottles.

Verjus is basically the juice of unripe wine grapes. Tart and fruity, yet less acidic than vinegar, verjus has been used by cooks in Europe and the Middle East for hundreds of years. It makes a wonderful salad dressing, and also can be used as a marinade or a deglazing liquid.

Until recently, verjus was something you'd see in French cookery books but never have the hope of finding. I remember seeing it listed as an ingredient, but where? In "The Cooking of Southwest France," Paula Wolfert has a recipe for chicken legs with sour grape sauce in the style of the Dordogne. It uses 6 to 7 tablespoons of verjus. In “California Dish: What I saw (and cooked)at the American culinary revolution”, Jeremiah Tower cites “the miracles of verjus in cold soups thickened with almonds” from an 1892 French cookbook called “Le Viandier.”

Anybody have any other ideas for using verjus? 

Mill Road Verjus from Monahan Family Farm, 3695 Mill Road, Paso Robles; (805) 238-6965. Prices: 16 oz., $3.75; 32 oz., $6; case, $50. Sold at Hollywood Farmers Market and a few others.


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Photos: Verjus for sale at farmers market. Credit: S. Irene Virbila/Los Angeles Times.

Turntable Kitchen: Pairing food and music

Turntable kitchen logo Food and music combined can meld two art forms into one blissful, head-bobbing, hip-shaking pairing. After dancing around the kitchen of their San Francisco apartment time and time again, Kasey and Matthew Hickey decided to take their love for food and music a step further by launching the website Turntable Kitchen.

The couple hand-picks music to be listened to while cooking and eating suggested recipes. Recent pairings include a sweet corn and raspberry ice cream paired with Canadian singer-songwriter Feist's "Let It Die"; and a blueberry-mint jam paired with the self-titled debut album by Brooklyn-based trio Widowspeak.

Through Turntable Kitchen, the Hickeys hope to introduce more people to the natural connection between food and music. To that end, Matthew picks the music and Kasey chooses the recipes. Most recently, the duo launched the Turntable Kitchen Pairings Box, a monthly subscription in which subscribers receive a hand-assembled box in the mail with a custom-mixed vinyl record featuring favorite and up-and-coming bands; seasonal, themed recipes; dried ingredients; and suggested pairing and tasting notes.

Tkwatermelon saladBelow, the couple share their thoughts on the topic of, you guessed it, food and music:

What restaurants in San Francisco do you find yourself going to again and again -- and what do you order?

Kasey Hickey: Outerlands (any of its soups and a side of bread), NOPA (giant baked beans and a pork chop) and Koo (amazing appetizer called Spoonful of Happiness -- it's to die for, and comes with a shot of sake).

How do you begin when selecting a song?

Matthew Hickey: When I select a pairing, I like to start by thinking about the flavors in the meal. I'll write down a few descriptive terms to help get the process going with words like floral, sweet, rustic, intense, subtle, upbeat, textured, contemporary, etc.  I'll also take into account geographic factors, which can help narrow down my selections. So, for example, if we have a sweet, upbeat and rustic recipe that includes ingredients that are commonly associated with the Pacific Northwest, I'll go through my record collection and rack my brain for a band whose music is also sweet, upbeat, rustic and, ideally, from the Pacific Northwest.

Favorite cookbook?

Kasey: The Canal House series are always on heavy rotation, "Heart of the Artichoke" by David Tanis, "Good to the Grain" (for baking) and both of Heidi Swanson's books. Even though we're not vegetarians, I love her interesting twists on seasonal cooking and choices of spices and grains.

Recent ingredient-obsessed usage?

Kasey: Marash pepper -- I put it in and on everything these days. I'm obsessed!

Five favorite recipe-song pairings?

Matthew: I have a number of personal favorites, but five recent ones that come to mind are (in no particular order):

1. SBTRKT paired with honey and rose water tapioca
2. The Decemberists paired with spicy, picked green beans
3. Beirut paired with poached halibut and corn salad
4. Crab pasta paired with James Vincent McMorrow
5. The Black Keys paired with the American burger


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Photo: Turntablekitchen.com

Where to find snail roe (and just about everything else) in Las Vegas

Brett1 (1 of 1) When I was in Las Vegas recently, a friend emailed me from London asking what I did during the day there. I spent some time hiking in Red Rock Canyon, hunkering down in my room to work and checking out what’s new at Unica Home’s showroom.  

I also visited Artisanal Foods, about three miles off the strip. Since I was last in Vegas, Brett Ottolenghi had opened a retail shop. Since 1998, he’s been providing area chefs with truffles, special oils and vinegars, Iberico ham and more. He started his wholesale business as a teenager and was the subject of a New Yorker profile in 2010.  

Nothing fancy to look at: just shelves and some refrigerators stocked with top-quality, hard-to-find ingredients. I could have spent a lot of money here -- in fact, I did spend quite a bit, but could have spent more, much more.

How about that entire 19-pound jamon Iberico de bellota for about $900? (He even Wasabi1 (1 of 1) sells the ham holder as well.) Or a whole summer's worth of chorizo for paellas and bean soups? I would have bought some of the giant prawns caught 600 feet down near the Great Barrier Reef if I could figure out how to get them home in the car safely.

Ottolenghi is a charmer, as much a geek about quality ingredients as Steve Wozniak is about computers. He knows a lot. That’s why the chefs come to him if they have trouble finding something. “If they need asparagus or cucumber vinegar,” he says, “they come to us. So we end up with a lot of vinegars.” Some of his favorites are those from Albert Katz in Napa Valley, who grows his own grapes and his own apples and makes vinegar in a 19th century barn. “He sells out every year, but refuses to raise his prices or make more.”

I bought a 5-liter can of estate-bottled Arbequina olive oil called Merula and some gorgeous freeze-dried saffron from Spain, plus incredibly fresh and moist vanilla beans from Madagascar and Tahiti and some Q brand tonic water (a fave for gin and tonics). And if I hadn’t already been stocked up with espelette pepper and fennel pollen, I would have bought some of that too.

Saffron1 (1 of 1) He has salt cakes the size of dinner plates from the Himalayas and a slew of other salts, great anchovies from Cantabria too. He breaks out a giant tin of the saffron, each pistil pristine and intact, the fragrance overwhelming. Next, he pulls out a container of fresh wasabi from Oregon. I could have spent hours there checking out everything the store offers.

What’s next? He’s excited about finding a source for ... snail roe.

OK, next time I see a recipe that calls for snail caviar, I know where to go. Meanwhile, I’m going to be enjoying my vinegars and olive oil and most of all, that saffron.

Check out the store's website where you can order a number of items by mail. In the works: an Artisanal Foods app.

Artisanal Foods Inc., 2275 East Sunset Road., Las Vegas, Nev. 89119; (702) 436-4252; www.artisanalfoods.com


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 Photo: Brett Ottolenghi. Credit: S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times


Guinness cupcake for Dad? Sugar Blossom Bake Shop has you covered

Tired of buying your dad beer for Father's Day? Why not switch up that tired tradition and buy him a beer cupcake instead? Thanks to pastry chef Lei Shishak at Sugar Blossom Bake Shop in San Clemente, you can do just that.

From June 10 to 19, Shishak will offer these rich, brown-and-bubbly little Guinness cupcakes, ready to serve at any family gathering featuring man-centric activities geared to celebrate paternity in its many-splendored glory. Yes, this year, being a dad matters. And beer cupcakes are the fresh-baked proof.

Opened about a year ago, Sugar Blossom is Shishak's homage to her favorite things: quality, all-natural ingredients and the tender, warming feelings that accompany a good sweet treat. After all, she dropped out of a fast-paced career in New York City finance to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Before opening Sugar Blossom, she was the executive pastry chef at Michael Mina's Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point.

That's pastry-chef street cred to be sure. And your dad deserves nothing but the best. Also, if you want to make these boozy dreamcakes yourself, Shishak has been kind enough to share her recipe after the jump. It hasn't gone through the Test Kitchen, but it looks good.

Continue reading »

Canning it: The magic of dried food

Picture of dried beans

If you look around your kitchen at what food is fresh and what food is preserved you might be surprised. Everything in the freezer is preserved, as is everything in a can. A bag of beans, fruit leather rolls, that saucisson sec and the chile ristra are all preserved by dehydration.

Dehydration is really the easiest and most practical preservation technique for the home cook. Removing water to less than 20% by volume creates a product that is shelf-stable so that mold and bacteria have nothing to latch on to. 

Dehydrate your garden beans by leaving them on the stalk. When they’re completely dried and make a rattling sound when shaken, harvest and shell and they’ll last in a cool dry place for up to a few years. You can tie herbs like rosemary, oregano and thyme in a bunch, hang upside down and in less than a week they’ll be ready to use or put into jars.

Try using a clean window screen laid over a few cinder blocks as a drying rack. Put figs or washed Roma tomatoes on the screen, leave them out for a few very warm days (covered with a net if you are worried about birds)and they will be nicely sun-dried. The end result should be pliable but not brittle. That’s one of the beauties of living in Southern California; we have the ideal climate for sun-drying. 

There are other ways to dehydrate without investing in extra tools. Lay out vegetables in a single layer on a rack and place it in the oven -- set as low as it can be -- and walk away for several hours. Check and turn periodically. This is a fantastic method for grapes, chiles and apple slices. Peels and odd scraps of carrots and onions can be dried in the oven, then ground and used as a seasoning. Oven-dried, pitted black olives are an incredible addition to a cheese plate.

When dehydrating, use quality produce without bruises or blemishes. If there is damage on your fruit or vegetables you’re more likely to end up with spoiled food.

Los Angeles Master Food Preservers are trained and certified by the University of California Cooperative Extension in food preservation. They are volunteers who provide information and technical assistance to home preservationists in L.A. County. The Master Food Preservers can be found on Facebook.

-- Rachael Narins

Photo credit: Rachael Narins

Attention, gardeners: Arbequina olive trees are ideal for containers [updated]

Olive 2 (1 of 1) A few years ago at the Carmel farmers market, I bought a couple of spindly Arbequina olive trees. They could hardly be called trees, more like foot-long slender sticks with a few leaves attached. As they grew (slowly), I transferred them to larger and larger pots. Now, they're handsome four-foot-tall trees, with silvery grey leaves and small speckled olives.  [UPDATED: An earlier version of this postspelled Arbequina with a tilde over the "n."]

I chose Arbequina rather than the more common Frantoio olive because I like the small, pretty Arbequina olives, and two, because the tree has a compact form that does very well in large pots.

Arbequina hails from Catalonia in northeast Spain where it makes fine olive oil as well as eating olives. It's also widely grown in California, mostly for oil. The beauty for the home gardener is that Arbequia is self-fertile. It doesn't need another olive tree to pollinate.

Last year I looked for the olive lady at the farmers market so I could buy a few more baby trees, but she wasn't there. I  checked local nurseries and online but couldn't find a one. Yesterday, I tried again and this time I found several West Coast sources. I was excited until I read the small print: Most involved buying in olive-grove quantities.

And then via McEvoy Ranch in Marin County, which produces olive oil and has a shop at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, I found Bay Flora. This online site is the only one I've found so far that will sell and ship individual trees and small orders. Right now Bay Flora has small (very small) Arbequiña trees for $24.50, slightly larger for $34.50 and 5-gallon trees for $95 (temporarily out of stock on that size, though). Other olive varieties include Ascolano, Picholine, Coratina (from Puglia), Frantoio, and the weeping Pendolino. Shipping is 25% of order to California.

The California Olive Oil Council also has a site that lists tree sources. Many sell only in quantities of 20, or 50 or 100. But then again, you could get together with friends or give everybody you know a wee olive tree for Christmas.

Keep in mind that shipping can be relatively costly. On the other hand, driving hundreds of miles to pick a couple of trees isn't so cost effective either. However, if you're already driving to the Bay Area, do make an appointment at McEvoy Ranch. You -can buy 1-, 5 and 15-gallon organic olive trees ($20, $45, and $120). Contact Samantha Dorsey at samantha@mcevoyranch.com. The Ferry Building shop also sells 1- and 5-gallon plants.

For now, I'll take the post office. With four trees, I should eventually have enough olives to cure a batch each year.


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