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Monday, June 3, 2013

Cooking for Solutions Leads a Foodie's Weekend in Paradise

The Twelfth Annual Cooking For Solutions is a Grand Culinary Celebration in Monterey, CA
I have always wanted to attend the Cooking For Solutions event but this year my wish finally came true thanks to Kaycee McKenzie's organized trip with her culinary club, Joyful Table. My expectations were high but I was still blown away by every aspect of this gathering of food fanatics and conscience consumers.  Little did I know that this great event would be just the beginning of a foodie's dream weekend of non-stop noshing in deliciousness. Gourmet food and beverages that are also good for the planet and soul brings celebrity chefs, artisan food purveyors and food lovers together for this three day festival at the beautiful Monterey Bay Aquarium. My first picture here isn't even of food but one of the many billion dollar views that is the backdrop for this spectacular food fest.

Protecting this delicate natural resource is one of the missions of the Monterey Bay Aquarium
One of the very first booths I visited was the Seafood Watch. Their slogan is "Can the oceans keep up with the hunt?" Perhaps because the oceans are so vast there is a misconception that they are impervious to human activity. The truth is that no part of the ocean is unaffected by us and nothing impacts that ecosystem more than fishing. I met this really friendly guy at the Seafood Watch booth named Santi and our paths kept crossing all day long. He gave me a DVD of the Seafood Watch story and was really amused when I told him that I have a VHS copy at home. It proves just how long the Seafood Watch program has been around and working hard to protect this delicate ecosystem. The program has also kept up with the times offering a great smart phone app in addition to
their original handy reference cards for your wallet.

Q: Why is this man smiling? A: His job helps save the seas. 
There was so much to see all at once that I nearly went into an option overload. Outside is the Great Tide Pool Deck where the main demo kitchen was ready with the amazing Monterey Bay as a backdrop. Watching celebrity chefs doing live demos doesn't get much better than this.

I was just about the start perusing the many rows of food booths when I heard that Chef Art Smith was ready for a demo on the Great Tide Pool Deck.  I have been a big Art Smith fan since meeting him at the Life Kitchen restaurant opening in 2011 when I blogged about this exciting new dining concept. Art Smith is one of the original consulting chefs at LYFE Kitchens. Art has a highly infectious laugh and he entertained us while preparing a grilled shrimp dish on an Asian salad.

Chef Art Smith was totally in his element having fun with food.
Slightly spicy grilled shrimp on a fresh salad courtesy of Chef Art Smith.
Whole Foods is a major sponsor of this event so many of the brands were familiar to me as I am a frequent customer of several of their stores in Santa Cruz, Los Gatos and Sacramento.

I was like a kid in a candy shop when Art Smith's demo wrapped up. There were so many booths that I couldn't make up my mind which direction to head. The vegetarian sushi booth wasn't a bad start.

Cucumber, Carrot and Avocado Rolls from Whole Foods.

Lev's Original Kombucha
California Lavash sheet readying for a sweet wrap
One of my favorite bites of the whole event was this sweet pinwheel. I use lavash quite often but only for savory snacks. The fresh berries, yogurt and crunchy granola all gave this little bite big flavors.

Dessert Pinwheel with all the right stuff
I was registered for two salons which were special presentations in the conference rooms at the aquarium. The first was by California premium freshwater fish ranch, Passmore Ranch. After hearing his presentation on sustainable fish owner Michael Passmore had us all eager to get our hands on his white sturgeon, black bass, striped bass, catfish, silver carp, trout and caviar. However, we will have to wait until he is able to deliver because for now his customers are only some of the country's best chefs. As Michael spoke Chef Jeff Rogers did a variety of preparations with Passmore Ranch fish.

Michael Passmore (left) tells their story as Chef Jeff Rogers (right) prepares their goods.
One of several Passmore Ranch fish prepared by Chef Rogers
Lucky us to get this tasty sample of Passmore Ranch Catfish
Vandy and Michael Passmore keep their family farming tradition alive at Passmore Ranch
The other great salon I enjoyed was presented by Trinchero Family Wines. Susan Smith gave our sense of smell a good workout with a lesson called Mastering Wine Aromas.

Susan Smith, Director of Customer Relations at Trinchero Family Wines in St. Helena, CA
Ordinary aromas that become challenging to identify just by nose.
Susan used this really cool Aroma Wheel we spun to pick mystery aromas. Many of them are so common that it was really surprising that we could not readily identify them. There was also huge differences of opinion within the teams which shows how really subjective sense of smell can be.

After a great lunch in the new Monterey Bay Aquarium restaurant, Cindy's Waterfront, we sampled more food booth offerings and then had a wine and cheese reception at the hotel. By then you would have thought that more food would have been not that high on our agenda but dinner awaited us at one of the best restaurants in town, Passionfish. No doubt this trip was a truly a foodie's fantasy come true.

701 Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove, CA (831-655-3311)
In keeping with our theme of sustainability at the Monterey Bay Aquarium we had the pleasure of tasting the works of Chef Ted Walters. Ted and his wife Cindy helped launch the sustainable food movement in Monterey County. Ted was kind enough to come out and visit our table in the middle of a very busy Saturday night.

Chef Owner Ted Walters
The biggest problem we had at Passionfish was just deciding. Three appetizers caught our eyes right off the bat and not a single one disappointed. An entree size portion of this Gnocchi could have easily made me happy for the rest of the night.

Ricotta Gnocchi/tomato brown butter/arugula – $8.00
  Another regular item on their STARTERS menu we found irresistible are the Asparagus fries.

Asparagus fries with sesame aioli – $8.00

The Sea Scallop starter was loaded with flavors and textures but they all worked together beautifully.

Sea Scallop/caper-raisin-walnut relish/artichoke risotto cake – $8.00
Listed as a salad on their menu this Dungeness Crab and Avocado stack is large enough to be an entree itself or shared by two. I am a big fan of this combination so I order it often. I have to say their ginger vinaigrette made it among the very best I've ever tasted.

Dungeness Crab and Avocado salad/spicy ginger vinaigrette – $16.00

Perfectly grilled Rainbow Trout arrived at our table with the bones removed and ready to melt in our mouths. How great is it to see trout as a regular menu item!

Rainbow Trout/basil stuffed/red wine braised vegetables – $18.00
Passionfish is not just a fish restaurant. Among their slow cooked meats is one of their signature dishes Spoonable 12 hour lamb breast which is so tender you can really eat it with a spoon.

Spoonable 12 hour Lamb Breast/Meyer Lemon Tajine/Goat cheese – $18.00
Even vegetarians have something to shout about at Passionfish. I tried their Warm whole grain "tabouli" and it was one of the most delicious non-meat entrees I've ever had. The crunch from the almonds and the freshness of the English Peas add so many layers of texture and flavors here.

Warm "Tabouli"/Orange spice gastrique/English Peas/chard/almonds – $16.00
The first item on their dessert menu is an all-time favorite of mine so I didn't look any further than the Banana Bread Pudding. For me it simply hit every base in the bread pudding ball park. This dessert was the end of our great meal but only the beginning of my trips back to experience more Passionfish.

Banana Bread Pudding with Madeira caramel sauce and a dollop of whipped cream – $6.00 
The final lap on our Cooking For Solutions trip was up the coast to another local landmark, Phil's Fish Market for lunch on Sunday. Phil's is famous for their Cioppino and was even featured on Bobby Flay's Throwdown show on The Food Network. For over 25 years Phil's has drawn huge crowds to the tiny little town of Moss Landing. It was a logical spot to wrap up our weekend of culinary indulgence on the Central Coast.

A landmark eatery at 700 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing, CA (831-633-2152)
The line was long to place your order although it moved quickly. However, it did not move quick enough past the bar for me to miss the outrageously good looking Bloody Mary that the bartenders were cranking out. After all, it was Sunday and close enough to brunch for me to try one.

Just the right spices makes Phil's Mary a must.
Another no-brainer that jumped right out of a very impressive menu was the Crab Roll. Served with fries and great cole slaw it paired perfectly with my Bloody Mary. This trip was not my first hayride at Phil's but certainly won't be my last.

So most people including seasoned foodies might have called it a day after this glorious weekend of noshing. I would have too except that we were just so close to Castroville and it just happened to be the weekend of the annual Artichoke Festival. Artichokes are truly one of my favorite foods and I had never been to this event honoring them at their Capital City.

Artichoke Center of the World and the opening of their season in May
We were way too full to partake in most of the offerings but our downfall was catching this sign. A little dessert in the spirit of the great 'Choke was just what the doctor ordered after lunch at Phil's.

What's not to love about mating artichokes and cupcakes?
Both sweet and savory sort of like carrot cake. A nice finale to the weekend of fantastic food.
Big thanks to Joyful Table for a remarkable weekend of culinary adventure. I met so many great people who are genuinely passionate about food. I have a favorite new restaurant in Passionfish. I look forward to returning to Monterey because so many there people support ocean friendly seafood.