Chico culinary experts share their secrets to preparing your favorites
This is for the rest of us. We, the home cooks, weekend barbecuers and amateur party-planners who trial-and-error our way through expensive ingredients and gourmet cookbooks trying to replicate the magic we taste in restaurants and drool over on TV.
Of course, most of us have no idea what we’re doing. We want to figure out how to make our favorite food or just try something new, and we’re willing to waste a week’s grocery bill on an experiment that, even if it doesn’t fail, will succeed just enough to make us think we should try it all again.
But it doesn’t have to be so bad: We just need a little help.
So, in the spirit of our growing foodie culture, with its celebrity chefs and 24-hour cooking channels, we’ve sought out five local experts to help teach us hopeless home cooks at thing or two. We focused on items that, though you might have tried making them at home, never end up being anywhere near as good as they are at your favorite restaurants: Mexican food, steak, pizza, cocktails and a creamy French sauce are on the menu. After reading what the experts have to say you might still be years of practice away from making things taste as delectable as they do, but maybe you’ll be able to glean just enough to improve the flavor of your next dinner party.
The slow road to carnitas
With Carlos Uriarte, El Paisa
“The FBI ate here about a month ago,” Carlos Uriarte said with a smile, speaking loudly to be heard over loud banda music issuing from a tinny radio and the delicious hiss rising from a fresh batch of pollo asada spread over a nearby grill. “CHP, Chico PD, the mayor has even eaten here. It says a lot about you when members of the community like that talk about food, and they talk about this place.”
There is an egalitarian air about El Paisa, where politicians, policeman and the proletariat rub elbows at picnic tables next to a perennially parked taco truck at the corner of Eighth and Pine streets, and Uriarte is a man of the people. He’s on a first name basis with many customers and greets newcomers with a heartfelt “Hola amigo,” talks football between taking orders and serves some of Chico’s best Mexican food at populist prices.
Uriarte recently let me climb aboard for a peek at the preparation of one of my personal favorite menu items, El Paisa’s peerless carnitas. Traditional recipes call for simmering the pork in water, lard or a combination thereof, with seasoning ranging from simple to more complex versions incorporating cinnamon and citrus.
The best carnitas I’ve ever tasted came out of a cauldron over a campfire stirred by an 80-year-old man with a piece of a wooden fence. Though I realize that 80-year-old man had skills and secrets that may always allude me, I’m better suited towards the simplistic, and El Paisa’s carnitas lean more toward this tradition.
The first step is picking your pork: “We use pork cushion, or pork butt, and chop it into small square pieces.” Uriarte said.
He explained the carnitas is made once a week—on Mondays—in the kitchen of Gordo Burrito (1295 E. Eighth St.), which, like El Paisa, is owned by Carlos’ brother, José. The cooked pork is stored in the walk-in freezer there and brought to the truck 20 to 40 pounds at time, where it is reheated to 165 degrees then kept at a constant temperature of 135 until served.
The reason carnitas is only made once a week, Uriarte explained, is to ensure it gets plenty of what good carnitas requires most: time.
“The most important thing is long, slow cooking,” Uriarte said. “We put the pork in water and let it cook for four or five hours. This makes it nice and soft, real tender. Also, pork is a little fishy, and you want to make sure it’s very well-cooked. If it isn’t, it’s not healthy for you.”
A common mistake, especially when making Mexican food, is over-spicing (something this gringo has a tendency toward). Uriarte stressed that simple is the way to go with carnitas. “After it’s been cooking for an hour or two and is boiling really good, we add just salt and garlic salt,” Uriarte said, noting you want to taste the pork’s natural flavor, not spices.
“You start with just water and the oil starts coming out, it turns to lard and rises to the top,” he said. “When you see the lard all over the top it’s time to pull them it out. You can also tell by the way they look.”
Uriarte pulled a large piece of pork from a demonstration pot boiling on the stove, the delectable tidbit falling apart as he prodded it with a metal spoon. My mouth was watering as he spooned a heaping helping of the heavenly pork over a bed of rice on a flour tortilla.
“Two things you want to avoid, too much grease and too much gristle,” he said when I asked for parting advice. “You want them to be soft and moist but not too greasy, and you don’t want the gristle or you get a surprise every other bite. But cook it long and slow, you don’t have these problems.”
Hollandaise from scratch
With chef Charles Lynn
For most people, hollandaise sauce is something they might order for a special brunch out, on eggs Benedict or a seafood omelette. But make it at home? Premade cans of sauce or powder mixes are just not satisfying, and making it from scratch is just too difficult.
But Chico chef Charles Lynn says hollandaise can and should be made—from scratch—at home, and enjoyed on even more dishes, like infusing a little zing into a vegetable side. “It’s one of those old-fashioned kind of sauces,” he said. “It’s still used in restaurants and breakfast houses a lot, but people don’t make it because it can be tricky.”
Lynn, currently teaching part-time at Fair View High School, is a former working chef who still loves to cook and share his passion for properly prepared foods.
After graduating from the Tante Marie Cooking School in San Francisco in 1990, he worked at some of the city by the bay’s high-end restaurants, such as Campton Place on Union Square, Zuni Café and Flying Saucer. In Chico, he was the chef at the former Zephyrs Restaurant (where Christian Michaels is today).
He hasn’t lost his passion for working with food, though, and still does private catering, workshops and demonstrations, including one in my home kitchen on a recent morning.
The ingredient list for hollandaise is basic: 3 egg yolks; 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks); 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice (about half a lemon); salt and pepper to taste; and fresh chopped tarragon (optional).
Lynn cracked the eggs one at a time, letting the whites slip through his fingers, and placing the yolks in the blender.
After melting the butter in a small saucepan, he poured it into a tepid (slightly warm) glass measuring cup with a spout.
“[Hollandaise] is a warm emulsion sauce that’s thickened by mixing it with acids and fats,” Lynn explained. “People need to realize that eggs are really delicate little creatures. … Once you have the egg out of its shell, it doesn’t take much to cook the yolks.”
As the engines in the red blender took off on high speed, Lynn first mixed in the lemon juice, and then started adding the warm butter extremely slowly, drop by drop in the beginning, until a half-cup had been added.
Before adding the rest of the warm butter, he poured the blender’s contents into a small, tepid, stainless-steel bowl, and whisked continuously as he poured the butter in slowly (leaving residual butter solids behind). He finished off the thick sauce with salt, a couple of twists of fresh-ground black pepper and a dash of the tarragon.
Lynn served the hollandaise immediately with a little prosciutto over asparagus and sliced carrots he’d blanched ahead of time, and the sauce was perfectly creamy and lemony.
Hollandaise can actually be prepared ahead of time and stored in a Thermos or warm, covered bowl. “That’s the beauty of the sauce,” Lynn said. “You can hold it warm for about an hour. That’s nice to know if you’re having a dinner party, or something where you’re doing multiple tasks in the kitchen. But, you can’t reheat it once it’s cooled.”
Eggs Benedict is the most popular dish with hollandaise, but “there are many variations of eggs Benedict,” Lynn said. “You can do so many things with it. It’s good to make it on a biscuit. I like to make it with thin, dry prosciutto slices on top, after you’ve added the sauce and let it puddle around the dish. It’s elegant, a different twist.”
A coffee drink, with kick
With Garry Shadwick, Edwards Premium Spirits
Garry Shadwick has a smile that can light up a room and a twinkle in his eye that lets you know there’s a hint of mischievousness beneath his clean-cut exterior. Surely, after nearly 30 years of tending bar in Chico (he’ll celebrate that anniversary next June), he’s kept his sense of humor intact, so when I approached him about revealing some of his cocktail know-how, he was excited about the prospect.
“People have asked me for years to give up this recipe—this is the first time I’m going to reveal it,” he said. A look at the seasonal menu at Edwards (968 East Ave.), where Shadwick serves as the exclusive bartender, gave a hint at the popularity of this drink: Garry’s Cowboy Coffee is at the top of the list.
Shadwick, who’s lived in Chico most of his life, has been serving the wintertime favorite just about everywhere he’s bartended—from The Oaks (now Mom’s) to Gina Marie’s (now 33 Steaks, Booze & Jazz) to Nash’s—and although it’s changed names, the recipe has remained the same. Shadwick added his own name to the cocktail two years ago, when he was offered the Edwards gig (Edwards is named for owner Ed Burns, who also owns the bar next door, Quackers). He still works two nights a week at Applebee’s, where he’s been bartending for more than a decade, and four nights—Wednesday-Saturday—at Edwards, where he’s also happy to host private parties and business meetings.
“First, whenever you make a hot drink, you want to get your glass warm,” he said while pouring hot water into a clear coffee mug. “Otherwise, the drink’ll get cold too fast.”
While the glass warmed, he pulled out his ingredients: Bailey’s Irish Cream, Kahlúa and Jameson Irish Whiskey. A fresh pot of coffee rested next to him.
“I use 1 ounce of each alcohol,” he said, picking up the Bailey’s first and pouring it into the glass. “Then fill the rest with coffee, and top it with whipped cream.”
Simple enough, right? It’s perfect for winter because, while the drink is creamy like a hot chocolate or mocha, it has a certain kick to it, and after the first sip the whiskey starts to warm your insides.
Since it didn’t take too long to master Garry’s Cowboy Coffee (he jumped on the Dallas Cowboys bandwagon when they became the first NFL team to get cheerleaders, he joked), we decided to make a second drink as well. The Long Island Iced Tea, a Chico favorite, is also simple, but somewhat exotic for a home cocktail concoction.
The ingredients are as follows: 1 oz. each of vodka, rum, gin and triple sec; 2 oz. of sweet and sour (“Make sure it’s yellow—don’t buy the green stuff,” Shadwick warned); and a splash of Pepsi. In keeping with the Cowboy theme of the evening, he mentioned that adding an ounce of tequila would make it a “Texas Tea.”
The great thing about both these drinks, Shadwick said, is that if they’re not quite to your liking, you can adjust the amounts of any of the alcohols to your taste. And neither requires name-brand liquors, either. So if you don’t have Jameson for your coffee drink, use any Irish whiskey, Shadwick said.
He added a final bit of bartender wisdom: To make the coffee drink—or any sweet drink or dessert, for that matter—just a little bit swankier, Shadwick has a recipe for homemade whipped cream that’s sure to wow friends and family at holiday parties: Take a small carton of heavy whipping cream and, while whipping, add an ounce of amaretto and about a teaspoon each of cinnamon and powdered sugar.
“Amaretto is the key,” Shadwick said.
—Meredith J. Graham
Cooking the perfect Steak
With Mike Hall, 5th Street Steakhouse
Listen up, Weber junkies. It is time for us to come inside from the cruel, dry, chewy world of outdoor steak grilling, pour ourselves a glass of red wine and learn a few things from someone who has probably cooked more perfect steaks in Chico than any other person in town.
Mike Hall is the chef de cuisine at 5th Street Steakhouse (345 W. Fifth St.), the perennial winner of Best Fine Dining in CN&R’s annual Best of Chico contest, and he recently took some time away from his daily prep duties to school us on a few of the key principles of cooking a perfect steak.
Hall has been cooking in restaurants since he was 12 years old, when he started working in the restaurant his mother, Kathy Hall, owned in Big Valley. After four years at Johnson & Wales culinary school in Providence, R.I., Hall came back to Chico 10 years ago to work with his mom again, landing a job as a sauté cook at 5th Street, where she was (and still is) the pastry chef. Since then, he’s worked his way up the ladder to head chef.
As Hall laid out the various cuts of beef on the table and cutting board—from the wonderfully marbled rib-eyes to the deep-red velvety filets—it was readily apparent that we were not going to be talking about the same piles of shrink-wrapped meat the average barbecuer digs through at the grocery store.
“The difference between ours and [the grocery store’s] is ours is prime beef and theirs is select or choice.”
Since you’re not going to find much prime (or be able to afford it) in Chico, you’ll want to ask for choice where available. And, Hall suggests, find out how long it’s been aged. “[Aging] breaks down the connective tissues,” he said, adding that 5th Street ages its steaks for 30 days. Whatever the grade, he said, you’ll want it aged no less than 20 days.
While Hall shared that his personal favorite steak is a rib-eye (“It’s got the most amount of flavor and fat”), he was going to be cooking a 6 oz. petit filet on this day—the filet accounts for 60 percent of 5th Street’s steak sales—and we were not going to be throwing it on a grill.
“Searing it [in the pan] caramelizes the meat,” he said. “Searing it seals the juices in.”
And since the average home cook doesn’t have a 1,000-degree broiler like 5th Street’s, Hall pulled out a standard cast-iron pan and turned up the flame all the way.
Before the steak went in, he brushed all sides with melted butter and sprinkled it with a mixture of Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper. After the pan was smokin’ hot he set it in and started to sear the first side.
“Cook just long enough for a nice golden-brown sear,” Hall said, adding that you want to keep turning it until you’ve seared all surfaces.
Once all seared, he said, simply throw it into a 350-degree oven to finish cooking to desired doneness. But, he said, don’t use a meat thermometer, unless you want all those juices you’ve worked so hard to seal in to come flooding out.
“We go by feel,” Hall explained. Using just your hand and a thumb you can gauge when your steak is ready: If you like it cooked rare, take your right thumb and press it against the fleshy base of your left thumb (left hand relaxed) and get a feel. Then, take your thumb and press the side and the center of the steak; when they feel the same, you have a rare steak. And just go down the hand for the rest of the scale: between thumb and index (medium-rare); below middle finger (medium); ring (medium-well); pinky (well).
And most important, Hall says, let it rest 2-3 minutes “so those juices can relax from the center. … [and] allow the heat to go to the center.”
Tips on crispy crust
With Craig Thomas, Farm Star Pizza
The gourmet pies at Farm Star Pizza (2359 Esplanade) are known for their carefully chosen ingredients bought from local farmers and suppliers. Their selections change with the seasons and local harvests and take on colorful names like Mr. Green Jeans (featuring basil pesto, herb ricotta and oven-dried roma tomatoes) and Nanny Goat (Nueske bacon, goat cheese, leeks and roasted garlic).
What doesn’t change, though, is their signature foundation: the thin and crispy gourmet whole-wheat crust. And on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, owner Craig Thomas—also the owner/chef of the Red Tavern, the popular fine-dining spot down the Esplanade—agreed to show me the ropes of making the crunchy base of his Neapolitan-style pizzas. The atmosphere was instantly relaxing as I passed the dining room with customers happily doodling on Farm Star’s black tables with large chunks of colored sidewalk chalk.
Though he understandably wasn’t about to share his restaurant’s exact crust recipe, once in the kitchen Thomas did reveal one of the secrets to its popularity: “We use three types of flour instead of just one: mostly hi-gluten, with a little Massa Organics and Bob’s Red Mill,” he said as he poured them into a huge mixing bowl. He then added water, to approximately half the volume of the flour, and sprinkled in a dash of yeast, then revealed another of his special touches: extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, which he said provides a cleaner flavor and makes the dough easier to shape.
Thomas proudly said he uses no sugar in his crust, unlike most pizza parlors. Instead, he lets the dough ferment a full 24 hours to bring out its natural sweetness.
As he mixed the dough and let it firm up for 20 minutes, Thomas told how he opened Farm Star less than a year ago after demand for pizza grew enormously at the Red Tavern.
“It’s different and crazy now, running two restaurants and making 60 to 70 pizzas a day,” he said.
Thomas resumed mixing the dough for nine minutes, then tore it into chunks that he carefully kneaded into the 12-ounce balls that make up their 14-inch crusts. He placed each on a steel baking tray and covered them with plastic in the cooler for fermenting.
Kitchen manager Roxanne Hill said the prepared dough is rolled fairly thin and sometimes air tossed or stretched by hand depending on its temperament, the heat and gluten action.
At Farm Star the pizza is cooked very hot, at 650 degrees for only 4-5 minutes, to give the crust its crispiness and a slight char. For home cooks without a commercial oven, Hill recommended baking for 12-15 minutes at 450-500 degrees, watching closely until it’s golden brown and bubbly. She also suggested keeping the ingredient amounts light to moderate to ensure the crust does not collapse. However, if you want to skip the mixing and kneading, Farm Star sells balls of dough for only $4.
I got to try a slice of the crust topped with the Nueske bacon, goat cheese, roasted garlic, braised leeks and scallions that make up the Nanny Goat pizza. It was marvelous. The crust was crunchy, light and airy, yet held the ingredients firmly. Its yeasty, whole-wheat flavor blended especially well with the tender cubes of bacon and goat cheese. Delicioso!