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CITYBEAT FOOD ISSUE: Cooking with a ‘MasterChef’ Junior champ

Posted on August 6, 2015 by a


It had nothing to do with not liking food competition reality shows: I did and do. It had nothing to do with not liking MasterChef. I did, do and had filled out my application for the show, then it occurred to me I’m in no position to quit my day job(s) for a couple of months. No. The reason I hadn’t watched MasterChef Junior was that I thought the level of cooking would make for boredom: Worst Cooks in America, only cuter.

Then I found out San Diegan Nathan Odom had reached MasterChef Junior‘s final. I watched—and I was impressed. His appetizer and entrée were striking, sophisticated.  But it was his dessert—Earl Grey tea tart with blood orange coulis—that put it and him over the top.

I figured there was one way to really get a clear picture of this kid: cook with him.

Saturday morning at Tijuana’s Mercado Hidalgo is always a riot of sight and sound organized in a way only an anarchist could love. It might, on reflection, not have been the best place to meet Nathan and his parents, Rebecca and Beau (who works for CityBeat‘s parent company). My first impression of him—other than the rather substantial haircut he’d received since the show’s filming—was a shyness I’d not expected.

That shyness went away the moment we were dealing with ingredients. Nathan’s eye was drawn to the purslane in one frutería. “What is it?” he asked. “A succulent vegetable with a tart flavor,” I said, “but I haven’t figured out what to do with it.” Nathan looked up at me, barely hiding the suggestion of a grin, and put a bunch of the purslane in my basket. “What are you going to do with it?” I asked. He shrugged and replied: “I donít know.”

That really did not seem to bother him.

From the Mercado Hidalgo we headed south toward Popotla to acquire seafood for our appetizers. One of the enduring appeals of reality television is the sense it gives that we get to know the characters, get to see the real them. After all it’s reality television. It’s unscripted. Cynicism, that comfortable old shoe, told me that was a load. Unscripted? Sure. Reality? Not a bit.

When it comes to Nathan it became apparent the truth was somewhere in between. In many ways this was the same kid I’d seen on the show. He was, as he’d seemed, remarkably composed and well-spoken for his age. But in discussing his fellow competitors it became clear that his reading of interpersonal dynamics was sophisticated. Then again, how many 13-year-olds speak another language fluently (French) and are well on their way to a third (Japanese)? And his Spanish was better than mine.

The appetizer course was Plan A for that purslane: a lightly seared, spankingly fresh fillet of Popotla fish on a bed of puréed purslane. As we walked by table after table of vendors selling gorgeous fish—yellowtail, corvina, halibut, red snapper, sharks and more—we found a gorgeous “white sea bass” (hardly the most precise of descriptors) that looked like a good candidate.

Nathan volunteered to break down the fish, a relief considering it’s one of my dodgier skills in the kitchen. It did not go well: The “white sea bass” had some odd anatomy, bones appearing where they should not be. We ended up with way too few nice filets. Was Nathan fazed? Not a bit. I’ve seen line cooks in high-end restaurants wilt when ingredients or circumstances did not cooperate. Nathan, in contrast, looked up at me and asked: “Do you have any fish stock?”

“No,” I said. “But I have some lobster stock in the freezer.” He touched his hand to his chin, thinking, and in moments the picture in his mind went from Plan A to a very French-style potage d’homard et la poisson avec la pourpier au jicama (lobster and fish soup with purslane and jicama). Nathan blanched the purslane in the lobster stock, puréed it all, added in some of the fish (finely diced) and cooked it down before enriching with a bit of milk, garnishing with batons of jicama and orange zest.

Adding fish after puréeing? Cooking down with milk (not cream) and fish? It should not have worked, but it did. The tartness of the purslane—echoed by the orange zest garnish—cut the richness of the stock. Remarkably, the milk brought it all. It was delicious, nothing short of a triumph. And a triumph born of adversity.

The following morning, Nathan and I walked out to the bluff overlooking the beach, sat and did a post mortem on the meal: what worked, what did less so, what might have been done differently. Afterward, I asked him what—if anything—he planned to do in the culinary world having won MasterChef Junior. It was a question to which I thought I already knew the answer. Again, he surprised me. “Have you heard of the Concours des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France—the MOF?” He asked. I told him I hadn’t.

The MOF competition, it turns out, is a quadrennial contest to find “the best craftsmen in France.” Though contested across over 100 different trades ranging from pastry to plumbing it is primarily known as a culinary competition with pâtissier (pastry chef) perhaps the most famous and grueling, requiring years of preparation. There is no financial award given the winner though winning pâtissiers tend to do quite well.

“Pastry,” Nathan said, “is my favorite part of cooking.” Macarons, he explained, are his specialty.  Macarons—not to be confused with “macaroons” (the ground almond or coconut cookies more familiar to Americans)—are French meringue-based cookies sandwiched around a filling such as ganache, buttercream or jams. Devilishly difficult to make, they’re a traditional test of a pâtissier’s skill. The moment Nathan made them on MasterChef Junior may well have been the moment we all should have known he’d win.

In the MOF competition, however, there is no Junior category. It would be easy, based on his age, to doubt Nathan. Based on what I saw, though, it might well be a mistake to count this fearless young man out.


WORLDFARE: Superheroes last meals?

Posted on July 8, 2015 by a

This would definitely not be Aquaman's last meal

One of the quaint rituals of our criminal justice system is that we generally give prisoners facing death the right to choose their last meal. With roots in superstition (symbolized forgiveness that would prevent the condemned man’s ghost returning), religion (an echo of the Last Supper) and guilt, the tradition has a peculiar hold on our imaginations.

Last meals can range from the ordinary (Virginia murder Teresa Lewis’ fried chicken, buttered peas, apple pie and Dr. Pepper) to the symbolic (Iowa kidnap/murderer Victor Fegurer requested a single olive with pit in the hope it would grow into an olive tree), to the downright silly (Velma Barfield’s bag of Cheez Doodles and Coca-Cola). One last meal entered culinary history: the Hangtown fry. A condemned man is said to have requested this omelet as his last meal in the hopes of holding on to a few more days of life because eggs and oysters—exceedingly rare in Gold Rush-era California—had to be shipped 150 miles from San Francisco to Hangtown (Placerville).

With the onset of Comic-Con I wondered what certain superheroes, if captured by villians, would ask for as their last meal? Here are some speculations:

Aquaman would definitely not ask for fish tacos.  And ceviche would be out. 

Demon-spawn half-blood Hellboy explores the nurture-nature debate. Is his true character good, sweet and mild (as he was raised by adopted father Trevor Bruttenholm) or is it that of his blood (half demon and half witch)?  Befitting this central issue, Hellboy’s last meal would almost have to be sweet and sour pork.  

In Spiderman 3Peter Parker—the world’s first teenage superhero—pretty much turned emo. As such maybe his last meal would have been the tears of children, or a bag of chips. Frankly, eating is probably just too damned much work for an emo teen who just wants to go in the corner and cut himself.

V from V for VendettaV also stands for “vegan,” or at least “vegetarian,” and might well order a Portobello mushroom mousse, one like Amanda Cohen’s from Dirt Candy in New York. Of course given V’s Guy Fawkes visage—and heritage—wouldn’t there have to be an explosive element to his last meal? Maybe the fennel compote Cohen pairs with her mushroom mousse could be done, with a little molecular gastronomy magic, such as pop rocks.  

Considering Tank Girl’s punk nature, the fact she frequently finds herself in trouble for random acts of sex, and the fact her boyfriend is a mutant kangaroo, it would stand to reason her last meal would combine all of these:  kangaroo meat Thai’d down in a blazing hot green curry sauce.

The darkness of Caped Crusader Batman, the Dark Knight, is as inseparable from his secret identity as billionaire magnate Bruce Wayne. His last meal would surely reflect that duality. It would have to be something rich, dark and not unlike Mario Batali’s signature beef cheek ravioli dish at Babbo. But maybe Batman would want it taken another step with the ravioli made of squid ink pasta—what could be darker—and the black truffles replaced by righteous white ones.

I’m no superhero, but I’d be happy with that as my last meal on this planet.

WORLD FARE: “Fishing” at Big Laguna Lake

Posted on May 21, 2014 by a

Plated Seared Albacore with Lime-Soy-Sriracha Sauce

My first time was the best. None since has been nearly as good. We were at 11,451 feet at a campsite on Hartenstein Lake at the base of Mount Yale in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. After a 4-mile hike from the Denny Creek Trailhead, we’d just set up camp when Nancy—now my wife—said, “Let’s do it” and pulled out a fishing rod.

It seemed to come naturally. I fumbled a bit with my first cast, but the second went long and deep. Incredibly, the wait did not last long before a beautiful trout exploded out of the water on the end of my line. Even more incredibly, three more followed in short order.

Fishing was not nearly as fruitful the next day, or the one after that, or—frankly—ever again. Basically, I suck at fishing. And so, as we planned our recent trip to the Laguna Campground in East County, we chose to do our “fishing” in town, the old-fashioned way: at the fish mongers’.

My first stop was to see Tommy Gomes at Catalina Offshore Products (5202 Lovelock St. in Linda Vista). Gomes grew up in San Diego’s tuna industry, a third-generation fisherman / fishmonger. His father and grandfather helped build Bumble Bee Tuna and ran commercial fishing boats as part of a fleet that now trawls different waters.

Gomes is, to say the least, a passionate evangelist for his message that fish is not fungible. 

“If you want to buy cheap tilapia or Vietnamese swai from polluted waters, that’s fine,” he says. “But then you have to put it in your body.”

He makes no bones about the fact that Catalina is not the cheapest place in town to buy fish and doesn’t want it to be. He wants to sell fish he wants to eat. That’s why I left Catalina with a fresh pound of gorgeous albacore.

But for smoked fish, my choice was Point Loma Seafoods (2805 Emerson St. in Point Loma). Where Catalina grew out of the commercial-fishing industry, Point Loma Seafoods grew from the sport-fishing trade. It features a sparkling array of fresh fish and prepared seafood sandwiches, soups, salads and cocktails. The lunchtime lines are long. But I was there for the smoked fish. The different types of smoked fish are all quite good, but the “squaw candy”—sweet smoked salmon belly—is outrageous. I left with tuna jerky, a perfect camp snack, meaty and lightly smoked. Yes, it was fish, but it was also definitely jerky.

The question was what to do with that amazing albacore. Simplicity and ease-of-preparation were the guiding principles:


Seared Albacore with Lime-Soy-Sriracha Sauce

Serves two gluttons

· 1 pound spectacularly fresh albacore

· Kosher salt

· Freshly ground pepper

· 1/2 cup lime juice (from approximately 10 key limes)

· 2/3 cup soy sauce

· 2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce (or to taste)

· 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

· Cilantro leaves (for garnish)


Skin the albacore, slicing it in half lengthwise, leaving two thick chunks. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk together the sauce ingredients and taste the results. Adjust the acid-heat-salt balance as desired. Add the oil to sauté pan (or foil-lined camping grill) and heat until extremely hot. Sear the fish on one side until a quarter-inch to a half-inch becomes opaque, about two to three minutes, then flip with a spatula and repeat on the other side. Place each piece of fish on a plate alongside steamed white rice. Drizzle with the sauce and garnish with a cilantro leaf.


This was a wonderfully easy dish to make al fresco. It was even better eating it to the sound of wind whistling through mountain treetops. If I’d worried that my lack of fishing prowess would be a limiting factor in our ability to enjoy fish at Big Laguna Lake, I needn’t have. While swallows flew inches over the lake and ducks floated on it, no fish were visible in its clear waters and none were likely to be pulled out. It was, in retrospect, a good thing we didn’t count on fishing and instead went “fishing” at Catalina Offshore. While nothing beats cooking fish you just pulled out of a mountain lake, Gomes’ albacore certainly came close to that first time.

CULINARY HISTORIANS: Chef/Author Kitty Morse to present “A Taste of the Kasbah”

Posted on January 16, 2014 by a

Kitty Morse

CULINARY HISTORIANS OF SAN DIEGO (CHSD) will present “A Taste of the Kasbah,” featuring

Kitty Morse, noted Moroccan chef, teacher and author, at 10:30 am, Saturday, January 18, in the 9th floor Special Event Suite at the San Diego Central Library, 330 Park Boulevard, San Diego, CA  92101.  Ms. Morse was born in Casablanca, Morocco, of a French mother and British father and emigrated to the U.S. at 17.  While studying for her Master’s Degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she catered Moroccan diffas, or banquets, and went on to teach the intricacies of Moroccan cuisine in cooking schools nationwide.

In 2002, she conducted a Culinary Concert on Moroccan culture and cuisine hosted by Julia Child, as a benefit for the Harry Bell Foundation of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. A featured radio and television guest and presenter, she speaks throughout the country and has given seminars on North African cuisine and culture at the Smithsonian Institution.  Morse is the author of a memoir and nine cookbooks, the latest of which is Mint Tea and Minarets: a Memoir of Morocco with Recipes.

The event is free and open to the public.

Website:  www.kittymorse.com

CONTACT:  barbarapetersen919@gmail.com

ISRAEL: A Peace Offering on the West Bank

Posted on October 23, 2011 by a

Ben Berlinger and I are both American born Jews. We are also both members of the “A Safe Harbor” group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/a_safe_harbor/messages), an internet discussion forum primarily focused on political issues (both American and international) but also touching on numerous other topics such as music, sports, and philosophy. At least at first blush, however, that is pretty much where the similarities between Ben and me end. Oh, if I think a bit I can find some others. We’re both married to professional women and we both have great kids. Oh, and neither of our living rooms is a paragon of neatness.

But it is the differences that have, for the most part, stood out. Ben is to the right of Attila the Hun (who, by some accounts was a bit of a proto-Socialist, sharing – as he did – the pillaging proceeds amongst all his troops). I certainly have described him that way. They were far from the harshest words I’ve directed at Ben. I, on the other hand, fancy myself as left of center but a bit closer to the middle than the Moonbeam Patrol. Of course Ben would appear to think otherwise of me. He’s certainly said as much (and worse) on the list.

I live in California. Ben lives in Israel. While some have referred to Israel as the 51st state (along with, at various times, England, Australia or Canada), I have yet to find maps or documentation backing up such claims. Of course others have referred to the US as additional territory under Israeli control. There is not much proof of that either.

Perhaps, though, it may not be enough to say that Ben lives in Israel. He lives in the West Bank. He lives in a Settlement. It is this – together with his oft-stated approach to issues involving the West Bank, Settlements and Palestinians – that has spurred me to label him “a living, breathing impediment to world peace.” He did not like that. I can appreciate the reasons why.

*          *          *

But when Gwennie – our daughter – made the soccer team for the JCC Maccabi Games in Israel and Nancy and I decided to go as well, I determined to try to sit down with Ben and see if we could find more common ground by conversing together rather than talking across each others’ bows on the list.We exchanged cell phone numbers and made loose plans to get together.

And so it was that after the soccer part of the Israel trip had ended I found myself on the phone with Ben: “I can meet you in Jerusalem,” he offered. We were staying in Tel Aviv at my cousin’s place, so it was a nice suggestion.

“Yes,” I said. “Or perhaps Nancy and I could come out to your place.”

“Really?” Asked Ben. I learned later they don’t get many visitors.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not? I’d like to see for myself what a Settlement really is, instead of just reading stuff and filling in the rest from my imagination.”

“Well, OK,” Ben said. “We don’t exactly have a lot of restaurants and cafes here, so I guess I’ll figure out something to do for lunch.” And with that, Ben gave me directions to Khokav HaShahar (pronounced “co-shahv hahsh-a-har), his Settlement. Khokav HaShahar lies slightly North East of (and about a thousand feet of elevation above) Jericho and, depending on traffic, half an hour from Jerusalem.

It was, in short, nearly as far out in the West Bank as you can go. It is no exaggeration that you can see Jordan from there.


In the days before going to meet Ben we discussed the trip with a number of family and friends ranging from some of my cousins to some of the parents of other girls on Gwennie’s Maccabi team. The most common question was: “Is it safe?” My most common response? “Have you walked across the street in Tel Aviv?”


The second most common question was: “Why would you want to do that?” My answer was essentially the same as I had told Ben. I wanted to see it for myself. Even without getting involved in notions of the existence or political direction of media bias, the simple fact is that the media does an incomplete job, at best (and a rather poor one, at worst), of accurately portraying the West Bank as a whole, or the Settlements in particular. Moreover, inasmuch as the Settlements’ very existence is the issue, there’s been a surfeit of focus on the existential question and little on life in those Settlements. I hoped to go a bit deeper by actually going there.

*          *          *

While Ben’s directions were less than completely clear – or perhaps it was my notes – it was a problem easily fixed by resort to the Google Machine.


From Tel Aviv’s famed beaches to the equally famed (if somewhat infamous) West Bank Wall running along the border between Israel-proper (to the West) and the Palestinian West Bank (to the East), is a distance of about nine miles. Just West of that border Wall runs the Yitzakh Rabin Tollway (6), a sleek and ultra-modern Superhighway traversing much central Israel, from Be’er Sheva north towared Haifa.

Looking over the Wall from the West the overwhelming impression is of a mass of humanity hemmed in by that Wall. The Minarets and crowded towns, one after another with barely a break between them, seemed to be signs of another society, one separated from Israel for Israelis’ protection. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the image of a prison, and an overcrowded one at that. It was a perspective that Nancy and I had clearly seen as we’d driven north on the 6 a week before.

But our trip eastward on the 5, an East-West Superhighway running from Herzliya – a major suburb just north of Tel Aviv – deep into the West Bank showed a very different face of the West Bank. While there were occasional population and commerce centers, for the most part it was a sparsely populated area.

This was not a situation of copious olive groves being cut down for no reason. Nor was it that which it had seemed to be from the other side of the Wall: an indigenous Palestinian population literally popping at the seams of the Wall. It might be easy to suggest that these roads were routed to paint just that picture, but it is not as if these roads are frequented by tourists. And the vistas visible from these roads make clear the picture is pretty much the same for the foreseeable distance.

What it was, however, was the picture of an underdeveloped land without a lot of obvious source for ambition. The towns seemed modest, at best, and the countryside did not seem to be hopping in natural resources, not that there was evidence of exploitation efforts.

My easy answers to doubters notwithstanding, our decision to make the trip similarly notwithstanding, I was not without doubts myself. The thought did cross my mind that if something went wrong on the trip it might go from not good to very bad … and do so very quickly. But our trip up the Ayalon (Tel Aviv’s North-South freeway artery) to Herzliya took only slightly less time than our trip east on the 5. Several roundabouts and jogs later, the smaller roads got us to Kokhav HaShahar

Only a few turns and we were into a community that did not in any way whatsoever resemble what I had expected. It was one part gated community, one party military encampment…and yet neither. Clearly nobody was getting in there through the front gate unwanted. And yet it was not exactly an American upscale suburban faux paradise.

What it looked like – and what it may, indeed, be – is a military encampment somewhere along the yet-to-be-completed process of becoming the closest thing it could become to an American upscale suburban faux paradise….set in the middle of a really, highly contested desert. And the word for the day (and maybe the year, decade or – perhaps – century) is: incomplete.


After several false starts we found Ben unloading his car after a trip to the grocery store in Jerusalem. and followed him into his house, a relatively new two story structure that – in and of itself – was not so different from something that might be found in any American suburb. I’ve seen neater living rooms (even my own from time to time). But, frankly, I’ve seen messier…this week.

What it was, first and foremost, was a living room that spoke to a value: kids come first. Ben’s house – and Khokav HaShahar as a whole – was fundamentally different from the classic WASPy American suburb in at least one way: it was not a place where children were meant to be seen but not heard. In fact, it was a place owned by the children…their parents were only fortunate to live in the children’s world.

And the village practiced what it preached. Ben’s four kids were something on the low end for a village that averaged ten per household. This is not an inconsiderable point in the debate over the settlements. Where should those kids go to live when they grow up? Must they leave their villages? If you say no you have to realize you are supporting additional construction. It’s a matter of, to put it lightly, some controversy in a country that pioneered the “Occupy” protests with an occupation of Tel Aviv’s famed Boulevard Rothschild to protest the high cost of living, in general, and of housing, in particular…protests that lasted most of the summer.

This – and nearly every other aspect of life other than politics – was the subject of conversation. And as we talked, Ben cooked. He cooked as a father used to cooking for his children. It would only be hours later – when his wife, Yael, came home and spilled the beans — that I learned that this was not only the first time that Ben had cooked for company, the first time he had cooked lasagna, but (some percentage of puffery aside) the first time that he had cooked….ever.

Lasagna? Why would I be impressed by lasagna? I’ve had lasagna more times than I can count – made it more than once – but clearly never, ever ordered it in a restaurant.

And yet, Ben’s lasagna was more than a dish, wasn’t it? It was – for that living and breathing impediment to peace (or so I’d called him) – something of a peace offering. It forced me to reevaluate more than one thing about Ben and what he had to say.

 Lasagna of Spinach with Kale and Three Mushrooms

Lasagna of Spinach with Kale and Three Mushrooms


For the Pasta

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups semolina flour
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 pinch salt

For the Tomato Sauce

  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 large (or 2 small) carrot, diced
  • 1 large fennel bulb, diced
  • 1 can of tomatoes, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1 bay leaf
  • several sprigs of thyme and rosemary
  • 1 can tomato paste

For the Mushroom Filling

  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small handful of dried Porcini mushrooms, rehydrated
  • 1 Portobello mushroom, sliced
  • 10 Crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • For the Kale Filling
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 bunches, kale (Italian, Russian or whatever looks best)
  • 1 pound mozzarella cheese, grated
  • Kosher salt and black pepper

For Garnish and Misc. Use

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Pecorino Romano Cheese, for grating

         1.     Begin Making the Pasta Dough. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with its dough 5hook, mix the pasta ingredients and knead into smooth, soft dough. Roll the pasta into softball sized balls, wrap the balls in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour.

         2.          Make the Tomato Sauce. Place the onion, carrot and fennel in a large sauce pan and sweat over low heat until they have given up their liquid. Increase the heat to high, add the tomatoes and season with salt to bring out their natural sweetness. Add the garlic and cook for one to two minutes until a whiff of the garlicky goodness reaches your nose. Add the wine and herbs and cook for ten minutes. Add the tomato paste and reduce by half or to a sauce consistency.

          3.          Finish the Making the Pasta. Bring a large pot of oiled water to a boil. As it begins to heat (enough to make it slightly uncomfortable to insert a finger) add salt. Using the mixer’s pasta attachment, a pasta machine, or hand, elbow grease and a rolling pin, Stretch the layer of pasta to a thickness of less then 1/16 of an inch (on a pasta machine, take it to its last notch). Cut the sheets into dimensions to match your baking pan. Add the pasta sheets to your water and cook for about two minutes until just short of the “al dente” point. Remove the pasta from the water and drain.

          4.          Make the Mushroom Filling. Place the onions in a sauté pan with the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. When the onions are translucent, add the mushrooms and sauté until they lose their water and the liquid is all but eliminated.

          5.          Make the Kale Filling. Place the onions in a sauté pan with the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. When the onions are translucent, add the kale and sauté until the kale loses most of its testure.

          6.          Assemble the Lasagna. Preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Oil the bottom of the lasagna pan with a tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil. Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of pasta sheets. Cover the pasta sheets with a layer of the mushroom filling. Cover that with a layer of the kale. Cover that with a layer of cheese. Cover that with a layer of sauce. Cover that with a layer of the pasta and repeat the layers one more time. Finish with layers of pasta, then sauce. Sprinkle cheese lightly over the top of the sauce.

          7.          Bake the Lasagna. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes or until the lasagna sheets are tender and the top is golden.

PASSOVER: “Gefilte Fish” of Grouper with Fava Bean Purée and Pickled Green Onions

Posted on April 15, 2011 by a

“Gefilte Fish.” It is a joke that very nearly tells itself, and a bad one at that. Goyim may not know what a Gefilte Fish is but they have a pretty good idea that it is more of an abomination than a Shiksa in a gay Tel Aviv bathhouse. For Jews it is two words that strike fear – and no small amount of loathing – into the heart of the cook charged with preparing the Seder meal.

SAN DIEGO: Mu Shu Duck

Posted on April 5, 2011 by a

If it was Sunday night it was the New Moon Chinese Restaurant.  I would order the Mu Shu, my sister would order the Hot & Sour Soup and my parents did what passed for experimentation at “Chinese” restaurants in San Diego in the 70s:  ordering something different every time.  The evening would generally conclude with a “Help!  Help! I’m a prisoner in a Chinese Fortune Cookie factory” joke and we would be back for more in a week.

The New Moon is long gone as are most of the Chinese restaurants of that day and age:  Kip’s, Land of China and many others.  One of the few I remember from the time that can still be found is the Gen Lai Sen Seafood Restaurant on the East Village side of downtown San Diego.


While Gen Lai Sen was a little different from many of its contemporaries, most of the Chinese Restaurants of the day were more Chinese-American in nature than they were purveyors of genuine Chinese fare.  It was much the same as classic “Italian-American” food that bears only a passing resemblance to the cuisine of Tuscany, Piedmont or Sicily. 

There were a lot of reasons for this.  First and foremost amongst those reasons may have been immigration patterns.  The first wave of Chinese immigration into this country occurred in the nineteenth century.  Waves of Chinese immigrants were essential to this country at the time, building railroads, digging mines and engaging in other types of hard physical labor.  These workers were fed by other Cantonese immigrants who set up “chow chows” and other simple restaurants. 

But in 1882 this Chinese immigration came to a grinding halt with the Chinese Exclusion Act.  And with the immigration the flow of knowledge, culinary skill and demand slowed.  By the middle of the twentieth century “Chinese” food in the United States revolved around a series of staple Chinese-American dishes that, at times, bore only a passing resemblance to genuine Chinese food:  Wonton, Egg Drop and Hot & Sour Soups, Fried Rice, Egg Foo Young, Moo Goo Gai Pan, Chow Mein, Chop Suey and the like.

But things were about to change.  In the space of seven years two momentous events occurred:  the Immigration Act of 1965, which reopened America’s doors to Chinese, and President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.  In the years since then America has come to understand that Chinese cuisine is at least distinct, different and as regionalized as the cuisines of any European country.  From the grand Dim Sum parlors and Mandarin palaces to the fiery flavors of Hunan and Szechuan, America has developed an understanding and hankering for genuine Chinese food.

Lost somewhere in this process of discovery and in the fog of time is the Chinese-American food so prevalent in the middle part of the 20th Century.  Most of its purveyors are gone, and those who still ply that trade are graying at the temples and fraying at the edges.   When, at last, they do disappear something of value will be lost.  Perhaps it was not genuine Chinese food but it was something in and of itself. 


And for me, at the New Moon Chinese Restaurant on those Sunday nights it was, indeed, the Mu Shu.  Sometimes I would order the pork with which the dish is usually associated.  But sometimes, depending on what my parents ordered, it might be chicken or even beef.  On this Sunday night we would make it with duck.  While duck breasts sound more luxurious we find the legs more deeply flavored.  In lieu of the genuine Chinese-style pancake wrappers we chose to adapt crepes to the purpose.




For the Wrappers:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½  cups milk
  • Large pinch of salt
  • About 2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil for cooking

For the Filling:

  •  3 duck legs
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 ½ cups of shredded cabbage (green or napa)
  • 1 cup julienned carrot
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 6 button mushrooms, sliced
  • ¼ cup dried black fungus, rehydrated
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons Xao Shing wine (or dry sherry)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch or arrowroot
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • Hoisin sauce

1.     Marinate and cook the Duck Legs.  Marinate the duck legs in the soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and ginger for two hours (or overnight).  Preheat the oven to 375° F.  Remove the duck legs from the marinade and pat dry.  Roast the duck legs until it reaches your desired level of doneness (about 1 ½ hours for medium rare to two hours for well done).  When it is cool enough to do so, shred the duck leg meat.  

2.       Make the Crepe Wrappers.  In the bowl of a food processor fitted with an “S” blade, mix together the flour, milk, eggs, and salt and blend for at least 1 minute.   Using a kitchen brush, apply a light coating of oil to the bottom of a griddle or sauté pan (preferably NOT a nonstick pan) over medium heat.  Wait 2-3 minutes for the pan to become hot, with evenly-distributed heat.  Pour the batter onto the griddle or pan, using approximately 1/8 cup for each crepe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly (the batter should be quite thin).  Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side.  Do not be too concerned if the first one sticks to the pan – a nearly necessary ritual sacrifice to the crepe gods.

3.       Make the Filling.  Heat the wok over medium-high to high heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil, swirling along the sides. When the oil is hot, add beaten eggs and scramble until they are quite firm. Remove the eggs from the wok. Clean out the wok.  Add two tablespoons of oil to the wok and, when hot, add the cabbage, carrots and scallions and cook for two minutes (until the cabbage just starts to wilt).  Remove the vegetables.  Add another tablespoon of oil to the wok and, when hot, add the mushrooms and dry fungus for two minutes.  Add the Xao Shing wine, soy sauce and sesame oil to the wok and bring to temperature.  Combine the cornstarch and water and temper with a bit of the wine mixture.   Add the slurry and all the filling ingredients.

4.       Assemble the Dish.  Spread about a teaspoon of Hoisin Sauce on each crepe wrapper and spoon about two tablespoons of the filling in the center of the wrapper.  Roll the Mu Shu as desired.  I prefer jellyroll style, but it’s a matter of personal preference.