Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another Fresh Start

If you live in Marin County and you are any sort of food aficionado, you are well aware of two of my favorite local restaurants: Insalata's and Marinitas, both just doors apart in San Anselmo. Both restaurants are the domain of chef/owner Heidi Krahling, who consistently maintains these two stellar eateries to ongoing acclaim. In addition to running two successful restaurants, Heidi is a busy mom of two teens and even recently found the time to write a cookbook, aptly named "Insalata's" (her uber-appropriate family name, btw). Needless to say, when Heidi decides to bottle up her secret for success, I'll be first in line to purchase what certainly will amount to a magic (and delicious!) potion.

I've been a fan of Heidi's for more than a decade. In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to photograph her at work when she was a featured chef at Marin Ballet's Great Chefs in Great Homes series. At that time, Insalata's was fairly new, and I had yet to actually eat there myself. But after that evening of watching her in the kitchen, I made the pilgrimage to the restaurant and was instantly enamored with the fresh, healthy, delicious Mediterranean fare; I couldn't even begin to tell you how many times I've eaten there since. When she opened her Latin-focused Marinitas not too long ago, I didn't wait but a week to get my margarita-starved self in the door. I'm not kidding when I say I often catch myself daydreaming about the restaurant's deconstructed tamales.

So yes, I'm enamored of her cooking. So enamored that I have adopted her off-the-charts famous Fattoush salad as my own (even included it, with homage and credit to Heidi, in the Fare to Remember cookbook). But through all these years, despite eating at both restaurants often, ordering tray after tray of takeout from Insalatas catering service, and even having several mutual friends, my path never did cross with Heidi's. Until last week.

Remember when I wrote about the Fresh Starts Cooking School run by Homeward Bound of Marin? (No? Silly you. Check out the previous post here.) Well Heidi was February's featured chef at Fresh Starts; there was no way that I wasn't going to be in the audience. Besides, I had a hot-off-the-presses copy of her book to get signed, a very thoughtful gift from a vendor that I work with whose company had printed the gorgeous tome (thanks again Judith!). I rounded up some friends to accompany me, and a random Wednesday evening suddenly was full of promise.

Heidi's class certainly didn't disappoint. She presented recipes from her new cookbook, so the dishes were all Mediterranean inspired, and were some of my favorites that keep me coming back to Insalata's time and again. She was so personable and fun, I felt like I was in the kitchen with a girlfriend. In fact, Heidi, if you're in the market for a new friend, I'm available! :) Turns out, we have a couple things in common in the kitchen: she doesn't bake all that much, and she loathes following a recipe. Sound like me? And, of course, we have the common appreciation for fresh, local ingredients prepared with world-influenced flavors.

Through the course of the evening, Heidi chatted her way through a demonstration of six different recipes (even including a baked dessert - what a trooper!):
  • Portuguese Caldo Verde - A white bean, potato, chorizo and kale soup; a.k.a. "comfort in a bowl."
  • Eggplant Muhammara and Carrot Houriya - Two chunky dips of Syrian origin that simply beg to be scooped up with pita chips (ironically, variations of these two dishes are also included in the Fare to Remember cookbook, submitted by another friend and called by different names. I was thrilled to find out their proper names; in Fare to Remember, they are simply called Roasted Eggplant Dip and Carrot-Harissa Puree… which now seem lame. I even featured the carrot dip right here on this very blog - I do love it so!).
  • Za'atar - A parsley/sesame seed-based condiment popular in Arab cuisine; delicious when poured over hummus or served with either of the two dips named above.
  • Fattoush Salad - Her signature… there might have been a riot had she not included it.I think she rolled out a stat something along the lines that if there are 100 people in the dining room for lunch at Insalata's 75 of them would be having the Fattoush Salad. You gotta give the people what they want!
  • Coconut Macaroons - Moist and delicious cookies with a recipe simple enough I might even try my hand at them. Might. If the sky were falling. LOL.
So my friends and I watched, took notes, laughed… and ate. I snuck a photo or two, and even did have a conversation with Heidi at the end of the night after she had signed my book. (Even though I am a fan, I'm still pretty shy… it took a friend initiating the conversation for me to jump in. Thanks Heidi for being so cool.)

Once again, it was a great evening, thanks to Fresh Starts. If you're in Marin - or within driving distance of Marin - please consider coming out to support this wonderful program. Chances are, you'll see me in the front row!

Fattoush Salad
By Heidi Krahling

Salad Ingredients
  • 3 hearts of romaine, torn roughly by hand (about 6 cups)
  • 3/4 cup sheep's milk feta cheese, crumbled
  • 3/4 cup vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 3/4 cup English cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
  • 1/3 cup Kalamata olives, pitted
  • 1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup mint, finely chopped
  • 2 pita breads
(Note: I add grilled chicken chunks to mine, as pictured above.)

  • 1/3 blended oil (75% canola, 25% extra virgin olive oil)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the pita chips: Trim edges off pita, keeping a circle shape; split horizontally into two halves. Cut each half into six triangles; arrange on baking sheet. Toast in oven until golden, dried and crispy, about 12 minutes. Let cool. Break chips into large pieces.

To make the vinaigrette: In a small skillet, over low heat, gently warm oil and garlic until fragrant. IN a medium bowl, whisk together oiland garlic mixture, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, cumin and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

To serve: In a large bowl, combine salad ingredients and about 3/4 of the viniagrette. Toss well, adding more viniagrette as needed to coat the leaves. Serve immediately.

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