Some nights, you don’t want to dress up for a restaurant or, worse yet, keep wearing that same stiff corporate outfit for 14 hours straight. But you don’t want to cook, either. You just want to get into your sweats and veg out — no more striving, no more driving. But, after a nightmare workday, when you’re too tired to eat out or cook, alternatives, such as frozen dinners, tend to be especially limited and dispiriting. (Women do get weary/ Of eating that same old Lean Cuisine…) Sometimes we want the Really Good Food Fairy to show up at the door, bringing bounty — preferably bounty we can afford. Two years ago, searching for that elusive mid-ground between restaurant meals and frozen supermarket slop, I checked out a couple of local home-meal delivery services run by caterers. The food, delivered frozen (with soggy veggies when reheated), proved more healthy than tasty — and pricey, too, up to $25 for a dinner for one, with sizeable minimum orders required. The search continued.
So, I was excited to discover that a distinguished chef, David Abella (former chef de cuisine at Roy’s La Jolla), has opened a home-delivery meal service called ATE Comfort Cuisine. He cooks one dish per evening from a menu that changes nightly (some heartland American food, and some gentle Asian fusion) and sells them for a mere $10 per portion, including tip and delivery. “I thought this would be something really useful for working women, single mothers, college students…” he told me. (Add to that target group busy seniors and recession-battered Baby Boomers who’ve realized they can’t afford retirement after all.)
It’s a one-man operation. David cooks the meals during the day and delivers them himself during dinner hours — he doesn’t have a fleet of delivery trucks (yet). Hence, the limited delivery area (see boilerplate).
I sweet-talked him into a one-time delivery to my benighted neighborhood. David’s dish of the day was “Tuscan white bean chicken cassoulet.” I was initially put off by the title “cassoulet” (the French version is made with goose or duck, not lowly chicken), but at first bite I said, “OMG, wow!” and by the third bite, almost in tears, I said, “Oh, this is so good!” Comfort food? Yes, literally! I felt as if I was eating a meal cooked, well, not by my mom but by somebody else’s sainted Italian grandmamma.
It’s not hyperbole to say this was the best chicken dish I can remember eating in years, and one of the most savory entrées of any sort I’ve tasted in months. It was a true one-dish meal, with those healthy and delicious Italian white beans, shreds of greens, slightly spicy, zingy tomato sauce, onions, a few carrot chunks, a few slices of sausage (Spanish chorizo, probably), and a scattering of whole garlic cloves, grown sweet with the braising. The chicken itself — five substantial, tender, skin-on pieces — included a dainty drumstick, a thigh, two meaty wings, and a hunk of breast. To my appetite (I’m obviously well past the ravenous teen years), that’s an ample dinner for two. I hadn’t asked David why he left Roy’s, but I suspect the answer lies in his beautiful young son, whom he brought with him on this delivery. (Chefs like to see their offspring sometime before the kids grow up and leave home, and I know several who’ve departed large, high-pressure eateries like Roy’s for this reason.)
Other items that rotate through the menu include barbecued baby-back ribs with macaroni salad (or, in a Texas-style BBQ, with potato salad); Bolognese meat sauce with garlic bread; Mom’s Style meat loaf with shiitake mushroom gravy (shiitakes? hey, not my mom’s); panko-crusted chicken katsu; grilled marinated skirt steak with potatoes and veggies; chicken adobo with glass noodles; Chinese salt-and-pepper chicken with stir-fried Asian veggies and steamed rice; mac ’n’ cheese with baby greens; Asian baby-back ribs with Vietnamese noodle salad; and roast pork with curried lentil-vegetable stew. (You’ll find the dated menu on the website, or call to see what’s on for the evening.) You’ve got the option of subscribing to a series of dinners, but you don’t have to — no pressure. Except from me, of course: I want ATE to survive and flourish so that David can develop a delivery fleet that goes even to my neighborhood. As the Bible says: Not by pizza alone…
If you can’t get delivery, maybe you’d like to try cooking some dishes from your favorite local restaurants. Some of the most popular are on our version of Bali Hai, Coronado island, where the streets are cleaner, the sun shines brighter, and you’re so happy to be there that the food tastes better, too.
If so, you’re a potential reader for Top Tables Coronado, Celebrating the Island’s Favorite Restaurants and Recipes (Chefs Press, 111 pages, $14.95; available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, from the publisher, and from restaurants covered). This is the latest book issued by Chefs Press, a new publishing company specializing in cookbooks by San Diego restaurant chefs. Their first was Cicciotti’s Kitchen, a hardcover by the chef of Cicciotti’s Trattoria in Carmel Valley. This autumn, Jeff Rossman of Terra will have a hardbound book out. In between those two is this just-issued volume of Coronado restaurant recipes, a softcover with some 40 dishes ranging from upscale concoctions from the Hotel Del’s several restaurants (including a useful recipe for braised beef cheeks from 1500 Ocean) to simple, easy choices from Chance’s Bistro and Spiro’s Gyros. Other contributors include Bistro d’Asia, Brigantine Seafood, Costa Azul, Island Pasta, Miguel’s Cocina, Peohe’s, Primavera, Vigilucci’s, and Yummy Sushi. (Alas, there are no recipes from Mistral or Candelas.)
I wouldn’t recommend this book for a total cooking beginner, due to editing problems which I’ll detail later. But there’s a lot of admirable work in here that would make this welcome to a moderately skilled cook. I love the fact that Spiro’s Gyros (with probably the best chapter of all) gives a homemade recipe for gyros meat — it’s bound to be better than the mass-made commercial product — along with other lucid, inviting recipes that actually might inspire you to cook. Not only is there a perfect recipe for tzatziki sauce, but the recipe for avgolemono soup is way above average, all fluffy from beaten egg whites. (I am a bit worried about the souvlaki recipe, though, which seems to call for brushing the cooked meat with its raw-meat marinade — a health no-no nowadays. Nine more words would solve this problem: “Pour over meat to coat well; reserve extra marinade.”)
Primavera’s fine recipe for spaghetti carbonara incorporates the culinary reasoning behind their recipe. Try it once, and with the insight it gives you, you’ll never again wind up with either raw or scrambled egg in the dish.
Chance’s Bistro’s recipe for Mussels and Clams looks like a keeper — I love the first step of briefly roasting the tomatoes with herbs and garlic to dry them (very cheffy). Their blender-started rendition of tortilla soup cuts right to the chase, an easy method that saves hours of time and probably preserves the fresh-tomato flavors better than more laborious preparations, precisely what you want when your garden (or farmers’ market) tomatoes are burgeoning.
And Peohe’s discloses how to make their sublime Halibut Mai’a with Frangelico, a favorite dish that you can easily cook at home.
Not every chef was able to turn out perfect recipes for this book, and the book needs a stronger editorial hand to make it easier to use. Pretty food photography doesn’t compensate for what I can only call lax editing; worse yet, as in that souvlaki recipe, rigid considerations of book-makeup sometimes seem to outweigh common sense: You can’t sacrifice nine possibly lifesaving words in a recipe for the sake of a pretty picture or a rigid formula for layout.
Chefs Press doesn’t work like a traditional publishing company. Most book companies offer the writer an advance against royalties, a lump sum typically paid half upon signing the book contract and half upon manuscript delivery. (The company is gambling that there will be royalties because the writer gets to keep the advance.) Here, instead, the publisher invites the chef/writers to become publishing partners. That is, the chef must make a firm commitment to buy a substantial number of copies of the book at half-off to sell in his or her restaurant, and/or to his friends and relatives, or at his garage sale in a few months… (The writer does get 50 percent of the list price for the copies she sells and royalties on outside sales.) The book company takes charge of design, production, printing, and marketing, and they seem to have a staff food photographer to shoot all the dishes and make them look pretty.
But here’s where a few quibbles come in: there doesn’t seem to be much editorial intervention in any aspect of the book — not the general text and not the recipes. Reading the restaurant introductions in Top Tables, I found a few glaring grammatical errors. And reading through the recipes, I noticed that each restaurant’s chef seemed free to make up his or her own recipe format. Most were okay, but several violated a basic rule: in standard American recipe-writing, all ingredients are listed in the order in which the cook handles them — not by importance or cost or bulk. Even if the recipe calls for, say, a skinned wild gazelle and a pound of peacock’s tongues — if the first thing the cook touches is an onion, that should start the ingredient list.
Finally, a cookbook editor checks that every ingredient mentioned ends up being used and that every ingredient mentioned in the dish is listed at the start. In Bistro d’Asia’s Orange Shrimp recipe, the shrimp in the ingredient list turns into chicken in the instructions. (This restaurant has some of the easiest recipes but least trustworthy directions and measurements. Three pounds of beef to serve four in Mongolian Beef? A whole cup of heavy oyster sauce in a dressing for Siamese lettuce wraps for four? I doubt it.)
Some ingredients need more explanation. For example, we learn that “tamarind sauce” for glazing a salmon is available at Whole Foods and Amazon — but what exactly does this term mean? Is it the thick, viscous, intensely sour tamarind purée that comes in jars from India? Or some new commercial product? The “resources” section of the book doesn’t specify. In addition, several recipes call for sauces for which there are no recipes. I can overlook the call for chocolate sauce, but when it comes to Vigilucci’s requirement for marinara sauce or Costa Azul’s call for ranchero sauce, do they really mean just any old supermarket brand? Will Vigilucci’s dish taste the same with Ragu?
In addition, some two-column recipe layouts are wacky and confusing, running left to right across the columns, instead of the classic format of straight down in column one, then start again running straight down in column two. (Made me dizzy. Magical realism recipes?) Forget the pretty pictures and spiffy layout — the book needs more editorial attention to the words that convey the vital information about how to cook these dishes.
I’m quibbling only because I want to help Chefs Press get off on the right foot. I think a local cookbook publisher is a great idea. All the people involved are publishing pros — but, unfortunately, not cookbook publishing pros until now, so they still have much to learn.
For the launch of this book, they’re working with the Coronado Chamber of Commerce and Coronado restaurants to create a monthlong dining event in Coronado. Top Tables Restaurant Month will be held during June and will offer diners an opportunity to eat at selected Top Tables locations at a discount if they purchase a copy of the book at one of the restaurants or at the shops on the property of the Hotel Del.
The hot food-science news of last week, reported by Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times, is that the President’s Council on Cancer came out and said we’ve got too many damned industrial and agricultural chemicals in our lives and our foods, few of them tested for human safety, and that this is probably a factor in many cancers. The American Cancer Society, a more conservative and seemingly industry-friendly group, came back and basically said, “There, there, don’t you worry your pretty little heads, just stop smoking and you’ll be fine.” (The ACS still hasn’t even seriously considered the issue of gasoline fumes, which are vastly more ubiquitous.)
Then came the battling letters to the editor, scientist vs. scientist. A plurality of the independent scientists who wrote to the Times seemed to favor the viewpoint of the president’s council: our bodies and bloodstreams have become repositories of potentially toxic chemical residues.
The council offered a few recommendations. Top among them: choose organically grown produce, and if not, rinse thoroughly to remove the pesticide and weed-killer residues likely to be clinging to them. Choose natural meats raised without antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides — and don’t char them or cook them well-done. Get a water filter (here in SD, that seems almost a necessity, given the flavor of our tap water), and store the filtered water in glass, not plastic. Use glass containers and covers, not plastics, when heating foods in the nuker. All this goes double if you’re pregnant, nursing, or have small children.
Finally, a bit of sad restaurant gossip. Blanca’s chef, Jason Neroni, has gone back to New York. He loved his unprecedented creative freedom while working at Blanca, he says, but his wife couldn’t find a job here in her field (arts administration), and supporting a family on one salary proved impossible. Blanca’s owners are searching again. I’m just glad I got to eat his exciting cooking while he was here. ■
ATE Comfort Cuisine
DELIVERY AREAS: UTC, University City, Mira Mesa, Carmel Valley.
HOURS: 4:00–10:00 p.m., Monday–Saturday (closed Sunday). Nightly changing menu of a single entrée with appropriate sides.
PRICES: $10 for one generous portion, all-inclusive.