Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Student Chef is Back - Finally!

The Student Chef is the core of the culinary program at San Joaquin Delta College. The chef instructor, the students and the teaching assistants run the restaurant, named The Student Chef. It's been around for over 20 years, and under the supervision of Chef John Britto, they were turning out excellent French cuisine at very reasonable prices. When Chef Britto retired a few different chefs took over as instructor with uneven results, but now with the ascension of Chef Berkner (who co-owns Taste Restaurant in Plymouth with his wife) as instructor, the program seems to be back on track. The students respect and admire him and he knows how to cook!

My friend Vincene and I settled on splitting the tempura prawn appetizer with tomato ginger relish and avocado mousse ($3.75). It arrived hot, with a crisp tempura coating. The relish was hand cut into perfect small dice and flavorful with a little kick. The avocado mousse looked so suspiciously like wasabi that I wanted to reach for the nonexistent soy sauce. However I wasn't fooled for long and polished that off too.

For lunch I ordered the lemongrass salmon ($6.25), which came with Japanese eggplant, grilled squash and Thai coconut broth. My request was for goldilocks salmon - just right! Neither overcooked nor slimy, the cooks delivered the goods. V. ordered the lamb chops ($7 ?) and were they ever perfectly cooked - caramelized yet medium rare and tender. She let me have one and I was in heaven!

We also split the dessert, an mousse trio. Two out of three of the items were excellent, and that ain't bad.

The menu changes every three weeks, which I think is great. The students all get a chance to master new techniques and master the menu. The service in the dining room is a little uneven but it's to be expected. When I had my turn as a server I was a real disaster at first. Luckily I have a since of humor! Once I soaked a tablecloth with a tray of glasses of ice water - luckily the diners mostly escaped. I goofed up royally on this one couple that ate at the Student Chef regularly, so when they came back again I'm sure they hoped to escape me. The look of fear on the man's eyes when he saw me coming was worth it all. However, I took much better care of them that time and all was pretty much well.

Finally, the Student Chef is the best deal in gourmet dining in town. They're open Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 am to 12:30 pm during the semester. Check the delta college website for information. Buon appetito!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fresh Cranberry Beans - Yum!

Paul and I like to go to the farmer's market first thing on Sunday mornings. We head straight for the fruit - Paul for the peaches and nectarines, and I make a beeline for the berries. My favorites are the big three - strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. I like to visit the fig and honey man - last Sunday I bought basket of amazing big, succulent figs that I grazed on for several days. I forgot him yesterday until we were headed out, dang it, but I won't forget again!

Of course we also browse other delights, and now I have discovered fresh cranberry beans. We bought them fresh in the pods, which were really leathery, making shelling them a must. The beans may have been extremely mature; hence the leathery coverings, but they worked out deliciously. They have a nice creamy flavor which marries well with onions and their ilk. It's the end of the fresh season, darn it, but we'll be ready next summer! They are also available dried, if you prefer.

I had an idea rolling around in my head that I wanted to try. Actually, it took two tries, and yesterday's results were delish. Since the beans were tough they took a while to cook. Since I love to cook low and slow this time of year, there were no worries. Just relax and let the food and (gas) flames do their thing.

2 tablespoons chopped pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon)
olive oil as needed
2 dashes red pepper flakes
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced or passed through a press
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 pound cranberry beans in the pod (yields about 1 1/2 cups after shelling)
1 1/2 cups water, divided
1 cup reduced sodium chicken broth

If you have a 2 1/2 quart saucier pan, use it. It has a nice shape and is deep enough to work comfortably. Saute pancetta over medium low heat until golden. Remove from pan.

Add red pepper flakes and onion and sweat (don't brown) until tender, about 5 minutes. Add a little olive oil if needed. Drop in garlic and cook 1 minute. Pour in wine and reduce until almost dry in pan, about 6 or 7 minutes.

Add 1 cup water, beans and pancetta to pan. Stir, bring to boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Cover. Make sure liquid is simmering very gently under that lid. Check back in 15 - 20 minutes. If water is greatly reduced then add 1 cup chicken broth and cover. Simmer until 20 minutes or so and check for tenderness. You may need to add the last half cup of water depending on the tenderness of the beans. The simmering process took me 1 1/2 hours but it could take much less, depending on your beans. You can serve them with the amount of juice that you prefer. I served them up fairly dry, which is perhaps unusual, and delicious. The beans were tender yet "al dente."

I'm nuts for red pepper flakes as well as cayenne. They don't just add heat - they add depth of flavor and they are staples in my spice repetoire. Don't add any salt until close to the end. The pancetta and broth both have salt to spare and that may be sufficient for you. You don't want your lovingly cooked beans to taste like you took a tumble with the salt shaker!