Chef Coral Strong’s Comfort Cooking
For restaurateur Coral Strong, the title of this article should really be Sandwich at Garden Kitchen. Strong is the owner of the small, functional restaurant with a menu that she describes as “upscale casual, but it’s really just comfort food that people recognize.” Strong practically lives at the restaurant, preparing nearly everything from scratch, with a dedication for using locally sourced and organic produce.
The ideas for the restaurant began when Strong realized that there weren’t any restaurants serving what she liked to eat. This is why she makes every consideration to operate her restaurant in a manner that respects her perspective on food. The menu is curated almost daily to make the best use of what is seasonally available and on hand. She purchases the majority of the restaurant’s produce from local farms like Dickinson Farm, Stehly Farms, and Wild Willow Farm. She also rescues produce with Save Good Food. Meats are antibiotic and hormone free as much as possible and, of course, there’s always local and fresh seafood.
Growing up the daughter of a local commercial fisherman, Strong said “We ate seafood five to seven nights a week, and that was the base of our diet. Having things like chicken and beef were extra.” Her mother bought fresh vegetables from the grocery store and cooked on the principle of using what they had. She admits to developing a habit for taco shop drive-thrus and french fries while in her 20s but found herself coming back to her love of vegetables.
Strong was not interested in local organics until she started dating her husband and restaurant co-owner Russ Strong, telling the story of how “he was super into organic, and I would say, this is BS. It’s more expensive; this is ridiculous; this is silly; whatever makes you happy though. I’m going to buy my nonorganic vegetables, and you can buy your organic vegetables.” He belonged to the Be Wise Ranch CSA and persisted in sharing vegetables to cook for dinner. “I said ‘what is this?’ and that was the first time I actually remember being introduced to kale. This was only 10 years ago.”
That’s what hooked her, recalling “He would get these bunches of things that I had never seen because it was outside the scope of what my mother bought. Or, I’d get four bulbs of fennel and had to figure out what you could do with four bulbs of fennel for one couple. It introduced me and opened up my eyes to what was in season and vegetables I had never had before.”
Strong now eats what she describes as the “Garden Kitchen Diet,” jokingly suggesting that she survives on three essentials: coffee, wine and water. Like many chefs, she eats six to seven days at the restaurant, skipping breakfast at home to preserve her palate. She tastes and snacks on sauces and random scraps like carrot ends that won’t make it into a recipe. Sometimes the first thing that hits her stomach is a mayonnaise based dressing at 10 in the morning, admitting “it’s the worst diet in the world.” She finishes almost every day with a large salad to keep her balanced. “Whether I add a protein or not depends on how fat I’m feeling,” she adds with a laugh. And, she still loves her seafood whenever she can have it.
One weekend a month, she takes a day off to “go crazy eating and drinking” at favorite restaurants like The Red Door and Trust, but has had a hard time finding a good sandwich. “My go-to sandwich is really good, dry salami, mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese.” But, for this sandwich, Strong shares a recipe for her famous portobello mushrooms, her favorite thing to eat.
Garden Kitchen 4204 Rolando Blvd. San Diego 619-431-5755
Vegan Portobello Mushroom Sandwich
- Portobello mushrooms
- “Steak” Marinade
- Herb and Cashew “Ricotta Cheese”
- Head of Salanova lettuce
- 1 heirloom tomato
- Fried shallots
- Beet greens pesto
- 1 telera roll (or bread of choice)
Clean desired number of portobello mushrooms with a damp towel. Remove and discard stems. Place mushrooms cap side down in a container with marinade and set aside.
To assemble, grill mushrooms on both sides until cooked thoroughly. Slice telera roll in half and warm slightly on a grill or toast in a pan. Assemble sandwich with Cashew “Ricotta Cheese” on the bottom roll, followed by a grilled mushroom, a few Salanova lettuce leaves, an heirloom tomato slice, fried shallots, and Beet Greens Pesto on the top roll.
Serve with dill pickles on the side.
- 3 cups balsamic vinegar
- 2 cups olive oil
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- ½ cup agave syrup
- 2 tablespoons sea salt
- 3 tablespoons Liquid Aminos
- Combine ingredients in a blender until well incorporated. Pour marinade over mushrooms and let sit for four hours or overnight if time permits. Set aside.
Herb and Cashew “Ricotta Cheese”
- 3 cups raw cashews soaked in hot water at least one hour; drain before using.
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 1 cup nutritional yeast
- 1 tablespoon sea salt (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon each fresh thyme, sage, parsley, and basil
Blend ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Add small amounts of warm water as necessary. Fold in finely chopped herbs. Set aside.
- 5 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- ½ cup canola oil
- Sea salt to taste
Toss shallots in cornstarch until coated. Shake off excess cornstarch. Fry shallots in oil on medium heat until golden brown. Remove shallots, drain on paper towels, and immediately sprinkle with salt. Set aside.
Beet Greens Pesto
- 4 cups beet greens
- 1 cup basil
- ⅓ cup almonds
- ½ cup pine nuts
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- Approximately ⅓ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Blend ingredients in a food processor until smooth, adding oil as necessary. Set aside.
- 6-8 small cucumbers (such as Persian or Salt and Pepper cucumbers), washed thoroughly
- 6 cups white vinegar
- 6 cups water
- 6 tablespoons sea salt
- 12 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 1 bunch fresh dill
Bring vinegar, water, salt, garlic, and dill to a rolling boil, remove from heat and set aside to cool. Put cucumbers and vinegar mixture into a tightly sealed container, allow to cool several hours and refrigerate overnight.