This past month, I had the privilege of photographing the December event hosted by Fresh Starts Chef Events, a project to support Homeward Bound of Marin, a homeless shelter in Marin County, California, providing food, shelter and job training for those in need. December’s Marin County Cooking Class was hosted by Chef John Ash, renowned chef, author, and food and wine educator. He is often referred to as the “Father of Wine Country Cuisine” and is the owner of John Ash & Company, in Santa Rosa, CA. He currently travels the world teaching cooking classes to both home cooks and professionals and is an adjunct instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley. Chef Ash has co-hosted a radio show called the Good Food Hour since 1987 on KSRO (1350 AM) in Northern California and was also the host of two TV shows on the Food Network, back when the network actually taught you how to cook instead of being all about cooking contests, he says. I totally agree. Chef Ash has also written four cookbooks, the fourth of which is entitled, Culinary Birds: The Ultimate Poultry Cookbook, which won a James Beard award in 2014.
John Ash had taught at Fresh Starts Chef Events before, and at the last event, he was even a guest. My husband and I got to sit with him, and ironically, my husband didn’t remember who he was, and I, of course, did not tell him. It was funny hearing them chat and the questions my husband asked him not realizing who he was until later. We had a great time enjoying dinner with Chef Ash and talking with him about his signature dishes and what he cooks at home. I’ll admit I was a bit star struck.
The menu for the evening centered around holiday dishes from around the world which reflects Chef Ash’s many experiences teaching internationally. His first dish was Israeli Hummus with Pita Bread.
I’ve never made my own hummus before because I’m quite lazy and find it easier to pick up pre-made hummus at the market. I did once buy a rather expensive jar of tahini in hopes of one day making hummus, but then ended up throwing the whole jar away as I forgot that it was tucked away in the back of my fridge. Always good intentions.
The hummus was made with chickpeas, garlic tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. It was garnished with sumac (a mediterranean spice that adds a lemony flavor to foods), parsley and cornichon pickles.
Chef Ash shared that the secret to good hummus is making sure to grind it in the food processor as long as 5 minutes, which makes it lighter by imparting more air to it, as well as poaching or toasting the garlic, so that it doesn’t continue to oxidize causing the flavor to get too strong.
Chef Ash remarked that it’s very important to plate dishes well, because they tell a visual story. He was, in fact, a painting major in undergrad, but knew he wasn’t going to make it. He realized that everything he wanted to do with art on a canvas, he could do with food on a plate — and eat it!
The appetizer was followed by a delicious Miso Soup with Clams & Spinach. Miso Soup is made with dashi, which according to Chef Ash, is the chicken stock of Japan.
The soup was also made with white miso (or Shiro miso), which is sweeter and not as salty as other darker types of miso, littleneck clams, spinach leaves, toasted sesame oil and green onions.
He shared that instead of discarding open raw clams, one should squeeze open raw clams to see if they snap shut and are actually still alive and edible.
Chef Ash shared that his new secret ingredient is smoked olive oil (www.smokedolive.com), which adds a great finishing touch to soups.
The students and teaching chefs prepared the same soup in the kitchen for all the guests – 125 – the most guests they’ve ever had. Chef Ash is so well-known in the community that his class was sold out before he even created the menu!
The main course of the evening was Black Cod and Bok Choy in Spicy Coconut Broth, which my husband could not stop raving about. I think this recipe might actually get my husband cooking in the kitchen!
Black cod, otherwise known as sablefish or butterfish, is caught from Northern California to Alaska and is fully sustainable and difficult to overcook. It is a great substitute for chilean sea bass. Chef Ash shared that if he were only able to eat one fish for the rest of his life, it would be black cod. After tasting it, I could see why — high in omega 3 fatty acids, extremely light and moist — delicious! The skin is left on, which keeps the fish from deteriorating while it cooks, and the fillets are cooked skin-side down.
Both the cod and the coconut broth were so good, it was hard to tell which was the star of the plate! The coconut broth was made with chicken stock, coconut milk and laksa paste. Laksa paste is a Malaysian/Southeast Asian curry paste that encompass the “4 flavor gods” — sweet (sugar), sour (lime, tamarind), hot (chiles), salty (fish sauce, soy sauce). It is made of chili garlic sauce, shallots, macadamia nuts, ginger, coriander, fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, sesame oil and coconut milk. It can be kept frozen for up to 3 months and used on many other types of meats and vegetables. I could have probably licked that bowl clean!
Here Chef Ash adds the laksa paste…
followed by the coconut milk…
and finally the browned fish. Like another chef recommended, Chef Ash shared a restaurant secret — use wondra flour for a light, crisp crust.
The dessert of the evening was Lime Posset, which was originally an English drink made of hot milk curdled with ale or wine, sweetened and spiced.
Cream and sugar are whisked together and simmered, followed by the addition of ginger and lime juice, which curdles the mixture. It is then whisked until smooth and refrigerated. I’m a sucker for lemon/lime desserts. This was so good and very simple to make!
Next month, Chef John Ash comes back to teach again with Chef Mei Ibach, featuring a menu of Mycopia gourmet mushrooms (my favorite!), sustainable salmon from Verlasso, artisan cheese from Redwood Hill Farms and wine from Merry Edwards Winery.
In the meantime, since my husband loved this dish so much, here is John Ash’s recipe for Black Cod in Spicy Coconut Broth — enjoy!
Black Cod in Spicy Coconut Broth
Makes 4 servings
4 fillets fresh black cod cut at least 3/4 inch tick (approx 1 1/2 pounds total)
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup coconut milk, well-stirred (preferably Mae Ploy brand)
1/2 cup laksa paste (recipe follows)
4 baby bok choy, steamed until crisp tender and halved
daikon sprouts for garnish
1. Pat cod dry, season lightly with salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 450F.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in ovenproof sauté pan (non-stick) over moderately high heat and quickly sauté the fish on one side until browned.
3. Turn fish over and place pan in hot oven for 4-5 min or until just cooked through.
4. While fish is cooking, heat stock and coconut milk in small saucepan and bring to simmer. Stir in laksa paste and keep warm. Adjust as desired for amount of stock and/or milk and/or paste.
5. When ready to serve, place bok choy in center of shallow soup plate and top with cod. Ladle laksa around, top with sprouts and serve immediately.
2 tablespoons chili garlic sauce
1/3 cup chopped shallots
1/3 cup chopped and toasted macadamia, cashew or blanched almonds
1/4 cup peeled and finely chopped ginger
2 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted and ground
2 tablespoons fish sauce
juice and zest from 2 large limes (1/3 cup juice)
1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 cup coconut milk
1. Add all ingredients to a blender and process for a minute or two or until very smooth and fragrant.
2. Adjust the flavors to your taste. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months.