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March, 2009

Chef Marc Mora

By Dennis Linden

This month’s featured dish, Quinoa Crusted Shrimp, was created especially for this article by Chef Marc Mora of Levy Restaurants at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California.

Chef Marc Mora
For Marc, this recipe is all about the diversity of flavors and the variety of methodologies that are used to create a savory dish. On paper, the process looks a bit more complicated than it really is, so don’t be intimidated. Any experienced home chef will find this recipe great fun to prepare, plus the treasure of flavors at the end of Chef Marc's rainbow of interesting ingredients, are well worth the effort. Besides, here’s a chance to finally use that lonely bottle of sake that has been languishing in the liquor cabinet for way too long!

By nature, Chef Mora has a very thoughtful and deliberate approach to cooking. In fact, his recipe submission provided much more than step-by-step instructions of the process and measurements for this specific dish. It was also sprinkled with his culinary philosophy that struck this writer as useful lessons that any home chef should incorporate into his or her own cooking. Therefore, at the bottom of this feature is the how-to “weights & measures” part of the chef’s inventive Quinoa Crusted Shrimp; the rest of this article will try to impart the ingredients of spirit that Chef Mora believes to be as essential to a dish as those that go into a measuring cup.

To start, the chef even provides us with a recipe for approaching a recipe: “Recipes are merely guidelines, suggesting ratios of ingredients to create flavor profiles. They give us a starting point and framework for layering those flavors. I personally read recipes at least three times before starting on a dish for an event here at the Arena. The first time is to understand the contributing flavors and aromas of the dish. The second read focuses on identifying the preparation process that is needed for each component of a dish. The third review always pays close attention to each stage of the recipe, setting up the process in my head before I actually begin so I have a sequential plan. Take chances with ingredients and recipes, but if you are truly uncomfortable with a recipe, don’t do it.”

Besides being comfortable with what one is attempting to prepare, Chef Mora definitely believes in the power of attitude. “If you don’t feel like cooking, then don’t. Negative energy does not have a flavor, but it will affect your food and your table guests,” cautions Marc. “When you invite someone into your home to break bread, you are not only inviting them into your hearth but ultimately into your heart, soul and mind. It sounds a bit trite, but my grandmother taught me long ago that every meal starts with love and openness, how true!”

Chef Marc suggests completing the preparation to begin cooking with a meditation that is one part surgical and three parts monk: “Before you cook, wash your hands thoroughly while dwelling on what outcome you want from the food and your expectations of how that outcome will affect those who will be experiencing the dish or meal. I believe that preparing food is the most intimate thing you can do for another human being.”

Chef Mora comes to his kitchen with the same sense of spirit, whether he is preparing a menu for the Citizens Bank Arena VIP club or, in the case of testing his Quinoa Crusted Shrimp for this feature, an intimate dinner at home with several friends. He practices his craft with a respect that he learned from his grandmother as a child in his family’s kitchen. In fact, Marc credits growing up in a Hispanic household in Southern California, where food was an integral part of everyday life, as still being a part of everything he does in his own kitchen today. Those childhood influences inspired Marc to follow his interest in the culinary arts right out of high school without hesitation. He developed his knowledge of Italian, German, French, Asian and Southwest cuisines through practical experience in various restaurants around the Los Angeles area before landing a position in the Sports and Entertainment industry with Levy Restaurants while still in culinary school. Since then, he has had the opportunity to contribute great food to great events such as the U.S. Tennis Open, Kentucky Derby and Grammy Awards. Currently he is having an admittedly wonderful time as the Executive Chef of Citizens Business Bank Arena. He oversees the planning, preparation and coordination of all the venue’s menus, from the general concession fare to service for the Arena’s private suites and VIP Club.

“Though I am lucky enough to earn a living doing it every day, cooking is still an almost sacred ritual for me. I believe that the soul of each ingredient is found in its flavor, so it needs to be prepared with respect and a purity of process. Using fresh, organic, sustainable and local produce when possible are all contributing factors to capturing the essence of food, or a recipe, as well as optimizing the overall experience for those who will eat it.”

As far as the mindset that should be in place when it is time to actually begin to slice and dice, Chef Mora reminds us that each recipe is a layering process that relies on one’s own sense of good flavor and a willingness to be flexible. “Constantly taste your food all the way through the cooking process. Spices and spicy ingredients should be added sparingly as you go. Cayenne, for instance, builds in intensity, so use hot spices in increments until you have achieved the right balance of flavors. If a dish becomes too spicy, just add a little brown sugar or honey as their molecules coat the capsaicin that causes the heat, reducing it without sweetening the dish. Likewise, to bring out muted flavors in dishes, add just a pinch of salt or a little lemon juice at the very end of the preparation. It’s all about being objective and attuned to the characteristics of your ingredients.”

Along with tasting what one is preparing, Marc also believes in using visual criteria to build a final ingredient list. “Do not make monochromatic food. Find ingredients with color and use them,” urged the chef. “People eat with their eyes and nose first; it’s the body’s security check before anything is allowed in! Flavor is affected by appearance and aroma, so do not underestimate this cause and effect phenomena of our palates. Whether you are cooking for one hundred or just yourself, the visual properties of a dish should always be a consideration.”

One final note before you head into the kitchen to try Chef Marc’s recipe. This dish represents the culmination of a trial and error process that the chef went through; as this feature took shape, so did Chef Mora’s recipe. In fact, it was a live demonstration of the approach to food that he espouses.

Again, home chefs take note. First, he submitted a rough draft of his initial thoughts within a few hours of being presented with the list of seasonal items that we ask our guest chefs to work with for each of these features. At that point, the recipe was really only “mental flavors” as he had not yet actually prepared the dish. After our first interview, which focused mostly on what ingredients he needed from us and what he was looking for in flavors, Marc prepared the dish for a private dinner party at his home. This generated a revised recipe submission, which the chef suggested be the version used by this writer for yet another taste test. That second preparation brought more discussion that honed a few details and solved an ingredient issue; that dialog further influenced the recipe’s final ingredient list and protocol. As for the spirit that must be a part of every form, Chef Mora played around with all the parts until he found their “soul” and came up with this wholly original dish that is so complete, it is truly a one plate meal; no side dish or dessert need apply!

The creative process is what sets us apart from the rest of the creatures on this planet. Though Chef Marc Mora’s talent is obviously a natural gift, the spirit he brings to every dish he creates, menu he designs or special event that he coordinates, is forged with a listening heart. We at Melissa’s have always counted Levy Restaurants as one of our most valued partners in the business of providing quality service to the Sports and Entertainment sector. Getting to work with and learn from a committed professional like Chef Marc Mora is one of the perks of this business.

QUINOA CRUSTED SHRIMP With Asian Slaw on Lotus Root Chips
QUINOA CRUSTED SHRIMP With Asian Slaw on Lotus Root Chips
Serves: 5-6

Day One: Asian Slaw

Ingredients:

1 Organic Mango, firm ripe
½ Organic Cantaloupe, firm ripe
2 Organic Fuji Apple
1 Daikon Radish
1 Chayote Squash
½ Jicama, medium size
5 Red Radishes
4 Shishito Peppers, fine julienne
2 Pixie Tangerines
2 cups Pixie Tangerine
Simple Syrup [see recipe below]
2 Tbsp. Seasoned Rice Wine Vinegar

For the simple syrup, dissolve 2 cups of granulated sugar in 2 cups of water. Add the juice of two tangerines as well as the peels and steep on a low flame for 8 hours. Let syrup cool before using on slaw. Julienne all the fruits and vegetables into 2½ inch matchsticks; the idea being for the slaw to resemble a pile of equally sized noodles. Combine all ingredients into a large bowl; lightly toss with rice vinegar and 3 Tbsp. of the cooled syrup. Refrigerate overnight, which will allow the flavors to greatly intensify.

Lotus Root Chips

Ingredients:

3 Lotus Root bulbs or Organic Garnet Yams
3 Tbsp. Mirin

Slice Lotus root very thin (approx 1/8” thick), wash and pat dry, marinate in Mirin in the refrigerator overnight.

Note: A Garnet Yam (red skin/orange interior) makes the best option if Lotus Root is not available. However, be diligent in the search for Lotus Root as its unique flavor really adds the “wow” factor to this dish.

Day Two (serving day): Chip Making

Lotus chips: Heat oil to 350° and deep fry. The sugars in the Mirin soaked chips (Lotus or yam) need to be managed with care during the deep frying process; remove them immediately from the hot oil when a very light beige color begins to appear. While this will seem too early, the chips will continue to cook (and brown) while resting. Yam chips: blanch in frying oil quickly, freeze, deep fry, then toss with fleur de sel (fine sea salt) and ground ginger before serving.

Quinoa Crusted Shrimp

Ingredients:

4 large shrimp or prawns (per person), peeled, deveined w/tail on [see SEAFOOD WATCH]
6 Pixie Tangerines, zest
4 cups of cooked & cooled Quinoa (if you have red and white Quinoa, 2 cups of each, kept separate)
6 egg whites, whisk slightly to blend
4 cups Rice Flour in a shallow dish
1 can Coconut milk (10.5 oz)

Shrimp Skewers

Blend zest into the cold Quinoa. With the pointed end of the skewer, run each shrimp through from head end to tail, straightening them out completely; each should look like a shrimp on a stick with a handle. In order, first dip each shrimp in the coconut milk, then dredge in rice flour, coat thoroughly with egg white and roll in Quinoa. (If you were able to obtain both colors of Quinoa, serve both to each per person). Deep fry until golden brown, being careful not to overcook or they will be too tough. Serve immediately or keep warm in oven if necessary. Tips: Soak the skewers in warm water for twenty minutes, pat dry, and then lightly coat or spray them with a good vegetable oil before using. Do not use Pam® cooking spray as it will introduce another flavor to the dish. Also, allow enough prep time to cool the Quinoa before rolling the skewer. Chill it in the refrigerator if need be; hot Quinoa will cook the egg whites and not adhere to the shrimp.

Sake Glaze

Ingredients:

1 cup Sake
Remaining Tangerine Syrup
¼ cup Pixie Tangerine peel (two -- fine julienne)

Reduce 1 cup of Sake to ½ cup. Reduce ½ cup of syrup to ¼ cup. Blend reductions together and add the peels.

PLATING:
Slaw should be only slightly chilled for best flavor; shrimp should be removed from skewers. Place two overlapping chips slightly off center of plate. Form a small tipi-shaped tower of slaw in the center of the plate. Place the shrimp, tail up, on the slaw at different points. Drizzle with the tangerine-sake glaze. Garnish with a few more chips, drizzling a creative swirl of glaze of them as well.