Monday, September 28, 2015

Local Libations: Field to Glass {Edible Monterey Bay}

This piece appeared, in print, in the Fall 2015 issue of Edible Monterey Bay. Click to read it: there.

Local Libations: Field to Glass
Bar Cart Cocktail Co.’s Katie Blandin Shea distills the seasons with foraged ingredients
Story by Camilla M. Mann

The setting was a Carmel flower shop closed for the night. Ten young women circled a rustic table, leaning in to learn Katie Blandin Shea’s secrets for using foraged plants like juniper and chamomile to create cocktails that each tells a story. Really, really good stories.

Her premise: a good drink begins with fresh flavors. To that end, she sources seasonal ingredients from farmers’ markets, estate gardens, and wild fields and forests.

Blandin Shea officially launched her Bar Cart Cocktail Co. last spring, offering workshops such as the one in the flower shop, Burst + Bloom, as well as her main business—designing and serving custom cocktails at public or private events. But everything in her career seems to have led up to this moment, and it’s no wonder that her personal passion for cocktail experimentation has long since won an ardent following among her friends.

Blandin Shea studied agribusiness at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and has worked on organic farms and in the food and beverage industry ever since. She managed Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch heirloom apple orchard and herb garden in Davenport before overseeing Serendipity Farms’ market stands and sales distribution. More recently, she has worked with a local ginger company.

At the inaugural session in March of Flowers & Gin, her workshop series, Blandin Shea provided seasonal ingredients including juniper bark, jasmine and chamomile. While guests sniffed, crushed and swirled, to infuse spirits and syrups to bottle the flavors of spring, she poured her cocktails. For the namesake libation, Flowers & Gin, she blended gin, honey, chamomile, tangerine and strawberry, topping it with spring blooms. In a nod to winter’s departure, Blandin Shea created a drink called Cashmere, which featured foraged juniper, jasmine, almond milk and gin.

“I would say I’m a cocktail craftsman, creating a drink the way a chef would create a dish,” she says. “I aim for a sense of place and story with each sip.”

She fashions nonalcoholic versions of cocktails when the occasion calls for it.

For example, she developed a mock negroni for a fundraising dinner hosted by MEarth, a food and environment education nonprofit organization located on the Carmel Middle School campus. As a standin for the classic cocktail’s campari, she made a grapefruit peel and amaranth syrup; to replace the gin, she brewed a juniper, bay, sage and pine tea. With the richness of flavors, you didn’t miss the alcohol. She’s also game to interpret any theme.

For a private luxury watch release party, she used kale-cucumber juice to mirror the green face of Rolex’s Datejust Pearlmaster 39 and added garnishes that echoed the timepiece’s variegated sapphires. Blandin Shea also makes her own infusions, bitters, shrubs, tinctures, juices and other ingredients for her regular cocktail line, and carefully selects spirits to match them.

“I look at the desired outcomes of flavors and choose a spirit with the same notes or complementary notes to enhance the ingredients,” she says.

About her kaffir lime-bay leaf bitters, she says, “The cachaça sugar cane spirit is sweet and vanilla-like and works well with the astringent, woody notes in the bay and the tropical notes of kaffir lime.”

If you find yourself planning a wedding or other event with a budget for handing your bartending to an artist, but kaffir lime and bay aren’t your thing, no matter. Blandin Shea specializes in custom drink menus and offers complimentary tastings to make sure they’re what you have in mind. And she’ll even bring her own handmade bar.

Camilla M. Mann is a freelance writer, photographer and foodie blogger based in Seaside.

Bar Cart Cocktail Co. •

EXPLORE: Bar Cart Cocktail Co. will pair drinks with Big Sur Roadhouse’s entrant in the Carmel Valley Annual Chili Cook-off on Sept. 17 in Carmel Valley and will serve its nonalcoholic creations at The Party with Alton Brown on Oct. 3 at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Make It Sustainable Weekend.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Chef Cesario Ruiz of My Mom’s Mole Unlocks the Sauce’s Mysteries {Edible Monterey Bay}

September 15, 2015 – this piece went live on the Edible Monterey Bay blog. Read it there.

Chef Cesario Ruiz of My Mom’s Mole Unlocks the Sauce’s Mysteries
Story by Camilla M. Mann

This Saturday, Friends of Santa Cruz Parks—a not-for-profit organization devoted to sustaining local state parks and beaches—hosts its third annual Mole & Mariachi Festival in downtown Santa Cruz. Six competitors will prepare their versions of mole, vying for two honors: Peoples’ Choice and Judges’ Choice. Mole, for those unfamiliar, is “like a Mexican curry,” explains Cesario Ruiz, the chef behind My Mom’s Mole and one of the festival’s contestants.

Mole, pronounced MOH-lay, is a general designation for a number of sauces used in Mexican cuisine. In the Aztec language Nahuatl, mōlli simply means “sauce.”

“Every region, and really every cook, has its own version,” says Ruiz. “It’s just a blend of spices and different ingredients.”

Mole is so versatile, in fact, that one region in Mexico boasts more than half a dozen different kinds, including mole negro, colorado, amarillo, verde, chichilo, and coloradito. Each of the six varieties has different colors and flavors based on their traditional combinations of distinctive chilis and herbs. The best known of Oaxaca’s moles is mole negro, named for its inky hue. It often includes chocolate in addition to its chili peppers, onions, garlic, and more.

But, for all its variations, all mole begins in the same way: with dried chili peppers. “Some chilis,” Ruiz says, “only grow in certain parts of Mexico. It’s the chilis that make mole unique.” Oaxaca, a region renowned for its moles, is large and mountainous, and, Ruiz continues, its climate is ideal for growing several different kinds of chili peppers.

Ruiz hails from Guanajuato, a region just to the east of Jalisco. “It’s a hot region,” he says, “so hot peppers are important to my mole.” The recipe he plans to enter on Saturday includes more than two-dozen ingredients and is more spicy than sweet. It was inspired by his mom’s recipe but he has added specific flavors and twists to make it his own.

In addition to tasting Ruiz’s signature mole at this weekend’s festivities, mole-lovers can spend an afternoon making the sauce with him at his new monthly classes at the El Pájaro CDC Commercial Kitchen Incubator in Watsonville. After partnering with Friends of Santa Cruz State parks for two mole classes this summer, Ruiz decided to continue sharing how to make one of Mexico’s culinary gems. His class, titled Mysteries of Mole Unlocked!, will be held the second Saturday of every month. 

When asked about his favorite way to use mole, Ruiz answers without a moment’s hesitation. “Tacos,” he says. “I like to take roasted chicken, pull it, and simmer it in mole until it’s thickened.” That meal takes only 30 minutes to assemble, but the mole takes longer to prepare. For the first four hours of his class, attendees will use locally sourced produce and experience how the complex ingredients come together to become mole. During the final hour of the class, they will sit down for a communal feast featuring the mole they’ve helped make.

“People will learn a lot, but more importantly, the environment is relaxed and fun,” he says. “People have a lot of time to explore and enjoy.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Lunchroom Renaissance

September 8, 2015 – this piece went live on the Edible Monterey Bay blog. Read it there.

The Lunchroom Renaissance
Story by Camilla M. Mann

September 8, 2015 – The beginning of the school year, at least in my household, launches what I, only partially in jest, call ‘The Lunchbox Wars.” Through the years, my boys and I have battled about their reusable containers—some were difficult for little hands to open, some leaked like crazy, and some were banned after ‘the glass incident’ in the cafeteria; now only plastic containers are allowed at our school. We argued about whether or not curry egg salad would get them teased at the lunch table.

School lunches, that is to say cafeteria lunches,  were mostly off the table because the food did not meet my requirements for quality and choices. That is changing. School lunches are enjoying a renaissance thanks to new programs being implemented in local districts around the Monterey peninsula.

Based on the philosophies and practices of Chef Ann Cooper who completely revamped the lunches in Berkeley public schools, Carmel Unified School District (CUSD) adopted a new food services program this school year.

Over the course of a decade, Cooper eliminated almost all processed foods and introduced organic fruits and vegetables to the daily menus in Berkeley schools. Cooper also founded what is now the Chef Ann Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping schools ensure that every student has access to fresh, healthy food each and every day. One of her programs The Lunch Box provides schools with free step-by-step guides, tools, and recipes to improve their food programs. CUSD is also utilizing Nutrislice, a new software product, that allows families to look at the lunch menus and see nutritional information on the choices.

One CUSD parent who has students at both Tularcitos Elementary School and Carmel Middle School shared, “We’re excited for the new lunches. They are hoping the portions are bigger this year. I’m just glad they’ll be getting more locally-sourced produce and have more organic options.” Looking through the menus with her, we agreed that we wouldn’t mind trying the lunches. Gone are the days when “pizza” and “corn dogs” are choices. Students are getting “whole wheat pasta with choice of housemade marinara or fresh made meat sauce, roasted zucchini, and a banana.” Also, the menu boasts: “Fresh garden salad made with local produce will be served daily.”

Real Good Fish, formerly Local Catch Monterey Bay, has partnered with Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) through their Bay2Tray program.  Maria Finn, Director of Marketing and Member Services for Real Good Fish, explains, “We are sourcing local seafood that normally doesn’t have a market and putting it into school lunches.” Bay2Tray encourages schools to embrace serving fish that traditionally would have been wasted because they are by-catch species that are less familiar to consumers. Or, in the case of our local Pacific grenadier, the fish is not pretty. But once it’s filleted and prepped, no one would ever know the fish has a bulbous head, bulging eyes, and oddly tapered tail.

Finn also explains the educational aspect to their program. “We also send fishermen into the schools to talk with kids and answer their questions about the ocean and seafood.” She recounted when fisherman and chef Kevin Butler recently visited Ord Grove Elementary in Seaside. “The students had a lot of questions. Some were easy and some a little tougher. Along with sparking their passion for the ocean, we hope they start healthy eating habits for life.”

Both programs – CUSD’s version of the lunchbox and MPUSD’s Bay2Tray – are making significant headway to combat the Lunchbox Wars and provide local students and families with some great new food options.