O.C. visit from an I.C., for a little elegant do-gooderism

Last month OC was visited by an IC, Iron Chef Michael Symon, and another IC’s former sous chef, now a show host in her own right, Anne Burrell. The Food Network stars were at Zov’s Tustin flagship for a Good Cause. The  first of two events was an elegant tasting menu for a handful of lucky people, one of whom was mag Senior Editor Chris Christensen. I am so glad I convinced her to give ToOC a little taste of what goes on in an Iron Chef’s orbit. Plus, bonus recipes!


He doesn’t need an introduction. He’s got the laugh, the one Anthony Bourdain dubs “crazy-ass” and Michael Ruhlman calls out in “The Soul of a Chef,” a low-pitch rumble that unfolds into a lyrical madman cackle that announces Michael Symon is in the room.

Before I can pop another hors d’oeuvre into my mouth, I’m off to find him. You can’t help yourself. His rock-star status as a chef alone is worth seeking him out. But he also comes off as just a really nice guy. It’s what rivets you to “Iron Chef” and any number of Food Network shows he either stars in or appears on during any given season. And why Zov Karamardian, host of this sold-out party—her most recent $500-a-plate James Beard Foundation benefit—invited him and fellow Food Network chef Anne Burrell to her two-day party in the name of good eats and charity. This dinner, and tomorrow’s lunch-and-cooking demo, will raise about $30,000 on top of the tens of thousand Zov’s already garnered for the foundation, and it will go toward a scholarship fund in her name.

Tonight’s fairly intimate gathering takes place on the patio of her Tustin restaurant, amid potted trees and twinkling lights. And the two—Burrell with her spiky bleach-blond hair and endless summer tan, and Symon in jeans, and gray-blue plaid newsboy cap—are rubbing shoulders with about 40 of Zov’s friends, restaurant regulars, and press. By the time I arrive, the party is a couple of Champagne pours ahead of me, so I make that beeline for Symon.

“I eat 7,000 calories a day, so I have to work out,” he says, explaining how he stays so trim. “I run 5 to 8 miles a day. I’m not gonna be where there is food and not eat. It’s just not gonna happen,” he adds, adjusting his cap. “I have to wear this because I don’t have any hair. But hair is overrated.” He laughs, feigning envy of pal Burrell’s thick mane.

The shirttail sticking out beneath his loose navy V-neck, and his comfy tennis shoes say this is a good-time appearance—no sweat-‘o-the-brow, beat-the-clock cooking required, just some casual sippin’, and dippin’ into Zov’s zucchini fritters with gravlax, soujouk popovers, and tenderloin-‘n’-tapenade crostini with the OC locals. Call it a respite—well, if it weren’t for that nasty air travel—from his break-neck lifestyle.

“If I had to pick just one thing I could do, it would be to cook in my restaurant,” he says. “But “Iron Chef‚” is a close second because there are a lot of similarities and pressures. I love to teach and I love to cook.” Symon’s wife, Liz, and his team of trusted employees and chefs, some who’ve been with him as long as 17 years, are key to his success and his sanity, he says. Along with the stepson he raised from the age of 2. Kyle is 23, and a musician “who’s done the [Vans] Warped Tour twice now,” he notes with typical pride.

When I tell Symon he doesn’t look old enough to have a son that age, he credits his Greek and Sicilian genes, a heritage that’s also given him an appreciation of food and its ability to bring people together, something he learned as a kid around the dinner table. OK, this man really is a nice guy—easy and fun, surprisingly approachable, and quick to compliment Burrell and her accomplishments along with the hair. I’m wishing for more face time, like, “Wanna cut out, get a beer somewhere and talk food?”

But it’s not to be. We hear the call to our five-course feast, and we scatter to our tables. The dishes arrive at a leisurely pace, accompanied by Zov’s favorite wines. A 2009 Bergerie de L’Hortus with paper-thin cured beef, arugula, pear, and shaved truffles, and 2009 Boutari Moschofilero from Greece, with fried halumi, heirloom tomatoes, and crispy capers. We’re treated to two(!) entrees: perfectly cooked branzino, served alongside favas, caramelized cauliflower, artichokes, and jasmine rice confetti, with Bernard Moreau Bourgogne Blanc that tastes as clean and light as the fish. But my favorite pairing is the roast rack of lamb that’s dressed with a saffron pearl couscous laced with bits of fennel, tomato, perfectly cooked fingerling potatoes sliced thin as coins, and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds, served with 2004 Chateau, Ksara Red from Lebanon that is a deep cherry color, dry and delicious, with an elegant texture.

I’m too full to enjoy the homey brandied apple parfait with its melting Tahitian vanilla ice cream and drizzle of caramel sauce. The rich and buttery R.L. Buller Australian Muscat, with hints of spice and marmalade, is dessert enough for me.

As we manage the last few bites, Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro introduces the visiting chefs. Burrell was long known as Mario Batali’s sous chef on “Iron Chef,” and now hosts “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef.” I hadn’t the chance to chat with her at cocktails, but just as I approach after dinner, she’s whisked away by her ride to the hotel, no doubt to rest up for the next day’s cooking demo where she’ll join Symon and Zov. Barbara Fairchild, former editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine, which is relocating to New York and preparing for a makeover with Adam Rapoport, GQ’s former Style editor at the helm, is skedded to host. Would love to ask Fairchild her thoughts on that news but, drat, I can’t make it.

But I did manage to rustle up a few of the recipes they were to demo, plus Zov’s divine zucchini fritters, adapted from her new self-published cookbook, “Simply Zov” ($39). As O.C.’s beloved chef notes in her lovely book, which I guarantee I will be cooking with forever, the savory little fritters can also be stuffed into pita bread with fresh tomato slices, avocados, and crumbled feta. Can you say summer?

Also, stay tuned for Michael Symon’s Crispy Gnocchi with Morels and Spring Peas, and Burrell’s Chicken Milanese with Escarole Salad and Pickled Red Onions. May I suggest filing these recipes under “keepers?” After all, look at their pedigrees.—Chris Christensen, Senior Editor

Zucchini Fritters With Gravlax

So simple and fun to make, these fritters work as tasty appetizers, a satisfying snack or even a meatless main course. Arrange them on a platter alongside Greek-style yogurt.—Zov Karamardian

(Makes 12 fritters)

3 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), coarsely grated (about 3 cups)
4 large eggs, beaten lightly to blend
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ cup minced green onions
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons minced fresh chives
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (or more) panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
6 tablespoons (about) olive oil
6 ounces thinly sliced gravlax
1 cup Greek-style yogurt
Dill springs, for garnish

Wrap grated zucchini in a paper towel and wring to remove excess liquid. Whisk eggs in a large bowl to blend. Add zucchini, parsley, green onions, mint, chives, dill, garlic, lemon zest, salt and pepper, and stir until all ingredients are combined. Stir in 1 cup of  panko. Let stand 1 minute; if mixture is too wet, add more panko 1 tablespoon at a time.
Using about 1/4 cup zucchini mixture for each, form 12 patties that are about 3 inches in diameter.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a heavy, large skillet over medium-low heat. Lay 4 patties in hot pan, making sure fritters are spaced a few inches apart. Cook until patties are firm and begin to turn golden brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes, being careful not to burn them. Using a spatula, turn fritters over and cook until brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Transfer fritters to baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining fritters, adding more oil as needed.

Place fritters on a flat platter, top each with gravlax and a dollop of yogurt. Garnish with dill sprigs and serve.

NOTE: Serve fritters hot or at room temperature. When frying them, don’t crowd the pan; they need room to expand. Make sure to drain the zucchini thoroughly. If mixture is wet, it will create foam in the oil and the fritters won’t brown evenly. You can substitute cocktail shrimp or lump crabmeat for the gravlax, and sour cream for the yogurt.

Adapted from “Simply Zov.”

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