Cocinar con amor

What does it mean to “cook with love”? The expression has become almost trite, as if talent is less an integral ingredient than passion. As if someone with enthusiasm can will a dish into greatness.

But when talent and passion merge — when a chef or cook knows the techniques (and even invents a few) while absolutely loving the process and the ingredients — magic happens.

Julio Ramirez and Marie Perucca-Ramirez

Julio Ramirez and Marie Perucca-Ramirez.

Julio Ramirez speaks of food and his eyes dance (call it a salsa). He smiles as he speaks, and spits out words one tick faster than his brain sometimes allows, malapropisms be damned. He loves to talk (for hours if you’ll let him) about food and the fascinating way it nurtures our soul. In Ramirez’s world, he embraces the words, cocinar con amor.

His passion, talent and business acumen led to the founding, along with his wife Marie Perucca-Ramirez, of two or our most heralded restaurants, The Fishwife Seafood Restaurants and Turtle Bay Taquerias, businesses they’ve long ago sold.

Certified as an Executive Chef by the American Culinary Federation, Ramirez was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Chefs in 2000. In 2001 he was awarded the ACF President’s Medallion and in 2005 he was awarded the Antonin Carême Medal by the Pacific Coast Chef’s Association for the excellence of his work and his humanitarian efforts in the community. Continue reading


Vintage Tequila Dip … and more

Vintage Tequila Dip

Momofuku's Vintage Tequila Dip is a creamy, boozy concoction and a conversation starter.

What is it about dip that’s so damn satisfying? The act of lowering a chip or cracker (or anything else equally sturdy and crisp) into a creamy or cheesy concoction is primal, agreeably self-indulgent and, yes, addictive.

In this way we shun the use of eating utensils and any civilized manners we may have attained. It drips and splatters and smears, and we simply don’t care. At large parties the dip can become a virtual cesspool of bacteria (double-dipping has not waned since “Seinfeld” shined its sardonic spotlight on the practice).

The perfect chip-and-dip companion is football, or rather the act of watching it at home, with or without a side of testosterone. And ‘tis the season, with NFL playoffs around the corner and the New Year’s Day football hangover/coma approaching.

Which brings me to Momofuku, a family of wildly successful New York restaurants, and the brain-children of David Chang, the bad-ass chef-entrepreneur who gives new meaning to avant-garde.

Chang held a company-wide “dip off” this year and the winner was Beth Lieberman, the beverage manager for the family of restaurants. She concocted something she calls Vintage Tequila Dip, an innovative mélange that is creamy and limey and boozy, with a slow, mild burn of jalapeno.

I halved the recipe and the end result was more manageable. I also added a bit of salt because it plays so well with tequila. Making the jalapeno powder was a kick. I dried chunks of peppers in the oven and pulsed the dehydrated pieces in my food processor, wearing a mask to shield me from the dust cloud that filled the kitchen. Paired with crisp, homemade flour tortilla chips, the dip is delicious, and a true conversation piece.

I also solicited the help of two local restaurants. The Monterey Cookhouse creates a yummy Brisket Dip, combining cream cheese, mozzarella and ranch dressing with bits of house-smoked brisket and barbecue sauce. It’s served with crostini, but is off the charts poured over French fries.

“Our brisket is the best seller at the Cookhouse, and something creamy really puts it over the top,” said owner Linda Cantrell. “It’s the whole thing in one package.”

Finally, chef Johnny deVivo of TusCA inside the Hyatt Regency Monterey donated his Creamy Artichoke Dip.

Enjoy the games … and the dips into decadence.

Beth Lieberman’s Vintage Tequila Dip

  • Half bottle blanco tequila (she uses Espalon)
  • Enough lime simple syrup to flavor the tequila as you like it
  • 5 cups sour cream
  • Zest of 2 limes
  • Juice from 4 limes
  • 3 oz. charred jalapeño puree
  • 1 chopped jalapeño
  • Handful of chopped mint
  • Palm sugar to taste
  • Jalapeño powder to taste (see note)
    Steps: Mix everything together then serve with tortilla chips and a large side of shit talking.
    Note: To make jalapeño powder, seed, devein and cut into even chunks six jalapeños. Place on a sheet pan and dehydrate in a 250-degree oven for at least 3 hours. When cool and completely dry, put in spice grinder and pulse into powder (consider wearing a mask to avoid breathing pepper fumes).

Cookhouse Smoked Brisket Dip

  • 2 lbs. smoked brisket, chopped into small cubes (barbecued tri-tip may be substituted)
  • 1 small sweet onion, sliced into rings and grilled
  • Two-thirds cup barbecue sauce (see note)
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • One-third cup ranch dressing
  • ½ cup grated mozzarella cheese
    Steps: Smoke brisket or cook tri-tip, let cool and cut into small cubes. Grill sliced onions and chop fine. Add to chopped meat. Add barbecue sauce and stir. In a separate bowl, mix together cream cheese, ranch dressing and mozzarella cheese. Put meat mixture into bottom of a shallow baking dish. Pipe cheese mixture on top. Put under the broiler until cheese is brown and bubbly. Spoon onto crostini, or pour over French fries.
    Note: The Cookhouse sells its special barbecue sauce in bottles, as well as with smoked brisket (call ahead).

Chef DeVivo’s Artichoke Dip

  • 2 T. oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 cup diced canned artichokes
  • 1 cup feta cheese
  • 1 cup cream cheese
  • 2 8-oz packages thawed and drained spinach
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • Salt
  • White pepper
    Steps: In a large pot with the oil, sweat the onion until transparent (about 4-5 minutes). Next add the artichokes and cook until soft. Add both cheeses and slowly melt them in the pan until creamy. Add the chopped spinach and heavy cream. Reduce the cream by three-fourths or until tight. Fold in your seasonings and serve with your favorite chip, pita or crouton.



Sweet Elena’s Mincemeat Pie

mincemeat pie

Sweet Elena's mincemeat pie is completely vegetarian.

Each holiday season Elena Salsedo-Steele tries to reconcile us with mincemeat pie. That’s no easy task. She’s fighting ignorance, misconceptions and the sheer gall behind the jars of that gooey glop sold in supermarkets.

Elena Salsedo-Steele

Elena Salsedo-Steele prepares her mincemeat filling.

Salsedo-Steele, the owner and creative force behind Sweet Elena’s Bakery in Sand City, veers away from the centuries of tradition behind these pies, which developed in England as a way of preserving meat without salting or smoking. Most of us have never tasted a true mincemeat pie (also called mince pie or Christmas pie), a remnant of a medieval tradition of spiced meat dishes, usually minced mutton.

Today, we are accustomed to eating mince pie as a dessert, but actually it began as a main course dish with more meat than fruit (a mixture of meat, dried fruits and spices).  As fruits and spices became more plentiful in the 17th century, the spiciness of the pies increased accordingly.

“We use no meat and no suet,” says Salsedo-Steele. “It is completely vegetarian, and has nothing to do with the jars of mincemeat filling that have traumatized millions of people!” Continue reading


Phil’s famous cioppino

Throwdown with Bobby Flay

Chef Bobby Flay, right, laughs it up with Phil DiGirolamo during filming of "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" in 2009.

  As Phil DiGirolamo faced the camera to shout the familiar send-off at the end of “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” the show’s star leaned in to whisper in the victor’s ear: “Things are going to get crazy for you now.”

The owner of Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing blinked, gulped and said his line (on hand as a judge, I can tell you it took the completely flabergasted DiGirolamo three takes!).

He was “ready for a Throwdown!” beating Chef Flay in 2009’s Battle Cioppino, but could not even fathom the coming onslaught of national interest in his famous Sicilian stew.

“It’s been crazy, crazy, crazy,” said DiGirolamo recently from his iconic restaurant. “Bobby told me it would be like this.”

Since the original airing (and following subsequent repeats on Food Network), orders for buckets of cioppino have come from across the globe (Phil’s website crashed four times the first day). DiGirolamo has since expanded his operation, freezing the cioppino and shipping it next-day air.

“It got bigger than all of us here,” he said. “It’s changed the way we do business.”philcooks

Phil’s has always been a popular spot, but after “Throwdown” it’s a dog-eared page on everyone’s travel itinerary.

“People come from all over the world,” he said. “They hold rehearsal dinners here, memorials. They say things like ‘my father’s favorite place was Phil’s,’ so they scatter the ashes on the ocean and come back here for cioppino.”

It even changed the way DiGirolamo viewed his recipe. What was always a closely guarded secret is now given away to anyone who asks.

“What the heck,” he said. “I got tired of saying no to people.” Continue reading


Noodles from ancient Siam

Siamese Bay pad Thai

The pad Thai at Siamese Bay in Monterey.

When perusing exotic menu items at Thai restaurants, Americans tend to gravitate toward Pad Thai, a simple, dry noodle dish with authentic roots dating back to ancient Siam. But this dish would never have reached cult status on the streets of Bangkok, or crossed the oceans to America for that matter, if not for some fierce nationalism, political maneuvering and clever marketing.

In the years before World War II, Thailand’s Prime Minister Luang Phibunsongkhramget launched a campaign to increase Thai nationalism and centralization. To make more rice available for export, he branded a popular Chinese-style noodle dish as “Pad Thai” (“pad” meaning stir-fry). His campaign educated the poor in the production of rice noodles, and soon the dish was being prepared in every small cafe and street cart in the country.

It quickly became a widespread staple and one of the national dishes of Thailand. Traditional Pad Thai is dry and light-bodied, with a fresh, complex, balanced flavor. It should be reddish-brown in color, not bright red and oily as seen in many Americanized restaurants. Pad Thai includes stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, fish sauce, scallions, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, red chili pepper, lime and a variety of optional ingredients, including shrimp, chicken or tofu.

There are as many ways to make Pad Thai as there are moods of a cook. Whatever the combinations or ingredient list, it’s important to retain the tell-tall flavors of hot, sour, sweet and salty so characteristic of Thai cuisine.

Pad Thai in wok

Chef Vanisee stirs the pad Thai at Siamese Bay.

When it comes to flavor and authenticity, I like the Pad Thai at Siamese Bay in Monterey. I order it medium spicy (enough to draw a small pool of tears), with shrimp and ground peanuts. Owner Sam Taisaeng says it’s a top seller, and quite easy to make. It’s a version his wife and restaurant cook Vasinee learned at culinary school in Bangkok, where it’s quite common to get a bowl of such noodles on the street for the equivalent of $1.

Vasinee starts with an extremely hot wok, adding a bit of vegetable oil. Then she puts six cleaned, butterflied shrimp in a bowl with one egg. She dumps that mixture into the hot oil, quickly adding one ladle of her homemade pad Thai sauce (a secret mixture containing, among others, vinegar, paprika, sugar and salt). The shrimp cooks and the egg scrambles, and she adds the softened rice noodles, simmering until the liquid is absorbed. The plate is garnished with strings of red cabbage and carrots, bean sprouts, cilantro and ground peanuts.

Annabelle Liscomb

Annabelle Liscomb in the kitchen at the American Legion in Seaside.

Thai-born Anna Liscomb of Louisiana Thaibelle (read more on Liscomb in this week’s Grub Hunter column in The Herald) makes a quick-and-easy version of Pad Thai served at the American Legion Post in Seaside from Friday through Monday. Liscomb shaves steps off the process by using bottled Pad Thai sauce, a concoction that includes sugar, tamarind, soy sauce, fish sauce, tomato paste, salt, vinegar, lime juice and other ingredients to effectively mimic the authentic, labor-intensive process.

She does not use eggs, but is liberal with condiments of bean sprouts, raw red cabbage, cilantro and crushed peanuts. For those who prefer it spicy, she adds ground chile pepper. Her recipe follows.

Finally, I have included an easy-to-follow recipe from one of my culinary heroes, Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet and former heralded restaurant critic for The New York Times in the 1990s. Continue reading


Chef Wood revitalizes the Ranch

Carmel Valley Ranch

The renovated pool area sits adjacent to the Lodge Restaurant, which now offers outdoor dining.

Chef Michel Richard’s culinary résumé cannot be questioned, but the decision in 2008 to bring his big-city food to bucolic Carmel Valley remains a head-scratcher.

Local foodies all remember when Richard signed a deal with Carmel Valley Ranch to replicate his iconic Citronelle restaurant in Washington, D.C. Richard’s talent notwithstanding, the deal seemed to be ego-driven, with a celebrity chef devising the big-city-styled menu before hopping on a jet.

A lot has changed at Carmel Valley Ranch since this two-year experiment imploded. Hyatt Hotels heir John Pritzker purchased the resort from New York City-based Blackstone Group for $20 million and pumped $35 million more in renovations. The result is a 139-room, rustic country playground worlds away from the urban hotels constructed by Pritzker’s father.

And they turned over the culinary program to Chef Tim Wood, a classically trained chef with rural sensibilities. Wood started his career in the Catskill Mountains of New York, sourcing ingredients from the small family farms of the Hudson Valley. It’s there he learned the importance of seasonality and sustainability.

Chef Tim Wood

Chef Tim Wood walks through the resort's culinary garden.

After a stint in Manhattan, including at the famed but now closed Rainbow Room, he worked with Chef Michael Lamonico at Windows on the World at the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Needing a new beginning, he set out across the country, traveling three months until he ended up at Bernardus Lodge, serving as chef Cal Stamenov’s sous chef for eight years.

After working at the Carneros Inn in Sonoma, Wood and his wife moved back to Monterey County to answer Pritzker’s call. The Woods lived on property for months while the renovation took place, and the chef worked with general manager Dan Korn to rebuild and re-imagine the resort. Continue reading


Easy terrines at home

Terrine from L'escargot

L'Escargot chef Kerry Loutas serves a different pâté (more correctly, terrine) each day at his Carmel restaurant.

Charcuterie, the art of making sausages, other cured or smoked meats, along with cooked preparations such as pâtés and terrines, is on the rise in this country, and the Monterey Peninsula is no exception.

The easiest test for the home cook is the terrine, made for centuries in farmhouses throughout Europe by thrifty, respectful cooks who put to good use every bit of the animal. A terrine is what American meatloaf aspires to be. (Read my full article about this topic in The Monterey Herald at

To help you on your way, I have asked local restaurants to provide home cook-friendly recipes for pâtés, or terrines.

Chef Kerry Loutas from L’Escargot in Carmel has offered his recipe for Chicken and Pork Terrine. He’s modified it for the home cook, using ingredients more readily available than rabbit, duck fat, caul fat or fatback. Fandango (Pacific Grove) chef Pedro De La Cruz , who earned his chops in the 1960s at the French-inspired Club XIX in Pebble Beach, gave up a recipe for Duckling Pâté. And, finally, look for a simple Chicken Liver Pâté from chef Brandon Miller at Mundaka in Carmel. Continue reading


Rosa’s pork tamales

Pork tamales

Rosa Sanchez's pork tamales with guajillo sauce.

Think of tamales as gifts from the gods. Wrapped inside each bundle are 5,000 years of Mesoamerican history, and the love and devotion of a cook with obvious patience and a strong urge to please.
A quick tutorial for the sheltered or grossly oblivious: Tamales are made from a corn-based dough called masa, and filled with everything from meats, cheese, vegetables and chiles before being wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed.
“Laborious” best describes tamalemaking, with soaking, simmering, spreading, swathing and steaming all part of the process.
The people of Mexico enjoy a love affair with this painstakingly prepared comfort food. Families gather to enjoy tamales as part of large fiestas, especially during Christmas, Las Posadas and Dia de los Muertos. In large cities they are ubiquitous as hot dogs on the streets of New York.
Rosa Sanchez has been wrapping tamales since she was a small girl tugging on the apron of her abuela. When she left Jalisco, Mexico, nearly 30 years ago, she crossed the border with several treasured recipes locked in her head.

Sanchez owns Rosa’s La Villa Restaurante in Seaside ( and is generally regarded as the best Mexican cook on the Peninsula (a frequent visitor is NFL legend John Madden). Now a grandmother herself, she still toils in the kitchen, making, among other specialties, handmade tortillas and tamales each day. Continue reading