Wednesday, July 27th, 2016
Often the public perception of chefs is that they rule over all that they survey with an iron fist. While this may have been the case under the French brigade system, and is certainly reinforced by TV personalities like Gordon Ramsay, the truth is that the modern kitchen is a much more egalitarian environment. I often look to my cooks and sous chefs for inspiration and feedback while developing new dishes. I’ve found that having open ears and an open mind does wonders for kitchen morale and camaraderie; and getting beyond the mentality that, as “chef” the ideas that come to me are always better than those of others, leads to a more dynamic and delicious menu. In other words, I’m not always the lone writer; sometimes I collaborate and other times I wear the hat of an editor.
Josh Sappelt and I have worked together for many years. He started at Delfina Restaurant about one month after I did. We moved up the ladder together, with Josh ultimately serving for a couple of years as my sous chef at Delfina before he and his wife left to spend a year working at an orphanage in Guatemala, followed by 3 years living in Boston while his wife was earning a graduate degree.
When he and his wife moved back to the Bay Area, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to reunite with Josh. I consider him not only a good friend, but over the years we have developed a synergy and understanding that can’t be taught. He understands implicitly what my vision for the food at Comal is, and I am lucky to have someone whom I completely trust on nights when I am not at the restaurant. Josh has great palate, and brings great ideas to the table. Often he will suggest something that he has eaten while dining out, or read about in either the press or a cookbook, and then we riff off of that together until we arrive at something that is delicious and fits our menu.
After reading about a recipe for lobster poached in coconut milk from David Sterling’s Beard Award winning Yucatan cookbook that was published last year, Josh cooked up a recipe using shrimp and brought it to me to taste. I have long been wanting to put a seafood stew on the menu, and while I had been thinking of taking a more traditional approach using a spicy tomato-based broth, this broth was light, complex and delicious. So we began brainstorming and collectively have come to a dish using mussels, clams, shrimp and local rock cod poached over the wood grill in a coconut-Seville orange broth with chayote, corn and charred gypsy peppers. As one of our Platos Fuertes, this “Caldo de Mariscos” will serve 2-3 people, and be accompanied as always with rice, beans and tortillas. We will be debuting this dish tonight, and it will continue to be in rotation on our daily changing menu going forward. And I have to say that playing in a band is a lot more fun than being a solo artist!
Thursday, August 28th, 2014
(above: Chilipepper Rock Cod “Zarandeado” – pictured here with grilled spring onions and asparagus)
A few years before Comal opened, I was feeling a little burnt out from my previous job, having gone a couple of years without taking significant time off. What I needed more than anything was a “lay on the beach” type of vacation. I remembered that I had won the use of a condo in Puerto Vallarta at a silent auction the previous year, and decided to cash it in. With a former roommate and fellow chef in tow, we headed off to Mexico.
Whenever I travel, especially abroad, eating the local specialties is always an important part of the experience. While in the taxi en route from the airport to the condo, I asked the cab driver what local dishes should not be missed. Immediately he responded that we should make sure to have a fish “Zarandeado”.
“Zarandeado” refers to the action of rotating the fish over the wood coals while it is cooking. What makes this preparation truly distinctive is the rub that is smeared on the fish. It is a mayonnaise-based marinade that has some flavors that one would expect to find in Mexico, and others that are truly surprising. Traditionally it is flavored with tomatoes, chiles and garlic. It also contains soy sauce, an ingredient introduced by the sizable Chinese immigrant population in Puerto Vallarta. This rub creates a fantastic crust as it caramelizes the skin while the fish is turned over open coals. The best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta for seafood are right on the beach where the fishermen dock with the daily catch. One can select an extremely fresh fish, have it cleaned, rubbed, and on coals over a pit dug in the sand within minutes after it has been landed.
This was the inspiration for the dish that we run at Comal off of our wood grill, showing up on the menu most often during the summer months when we have our best local catch. It is accompanied by grilled vegetables and, like our other “Platos Fuertes”, it comes with rice, beans, tortillas and salsas.
For those who want to try making it at home, check out this recipe in Food & Wine that describes our take on this classic dish.
Friday, August 1st, 2014
Many of us who live in the East Bay have stepped outside in the morning to find wild turkeys hanging out in our front yard. Turkeys are native to North America, not only were they an important food source for the Native American tribes, but also for the indigenous peoples of Mexico. While many consider chicken mole to be a quintessential Mexican dish, the truth is, chickens did not exist in Mexico until introduced by the Spanish after the conquest. In Oaxaca, for thousands of years, “guajolote” or wild turkey, was the traditional protein to be served with mole negro, and it continues to be served today as special dish on festive occasions such as Christmas.
I have always felt that turkey is an under-appreciated meat in American restaurant culture. Other than our yearly Thanksgiving dinner, it rarely is served other than as a sandwich filling. Perhaps it is because it is a larger bird, many chefs find it difficult to create a dish that is appropriately proportional for an individual diner, but with a menu that emphasizes sharing with our “platos fuertes” section, I saw a perfect opportunity to get turkey on the menu. My thought process was to both keep things traditionally Mexican by serving our roasted turkey with a trio of our moles, while accompanying the main dish with a Mexican spin on a traditionally American vegetable: collard greens, braised with bacon, habanero chiles and lime. Of course, as do all of our “platos fuertes”, it also comes with rice, black beans and tortillas.
It has been really fun to see this dish that germinated from a simple idea develop a cult following among our guests, earning a regular spot in our daily rotating menu. I just hope that the plump Tom that was giving me the evil eye this morning from my front lawn isn’t plotting his revenge.