Known for his modern American cuisine that combines Mediterranean influences (thanks to a stint in Spain) with classic French technique, chef Craig Strong has been experimenting with gardens and vegetables since he was a child. One of eight children, he has fond memories of tending his family’s vegetable garden that was his to manage. Raised in San Diego, he took inspiration from his mother and grandmother to first experiment with the tomatoes and zucchini he grew. His love of cooking led him at 19, to L’Academie de Cuisine and from there to numerous noteworthy culinary positions. Today, as executive chef of Studio, the accolade-studded restaurant at Montage Laguna Beach, Strong carries on his love of cooking, of the land, and of using the freshest ingredients he can find.
“I have been going to local farmers markets for many years, and I have developed close relationships with my farmers,” he says. “Supporting local farmers is a win-win situation for everyone. It supports the local economy, which is good for the farmers, and the produce doesn’t have to travel far, which is better for the environment.” Strong works with a farm in San Clemente, that’s a mere 15 minutes from the restaurant. Fresh produce is picked and delivered the same day. “They have started growing some vegetables just for me,” he explains. “They grow organically, so I know that they are passionately doing things the right way, and they take good care of their products. I love sharing this produce with my guests and creating a memorable dining experience for them.”
We recently dined at Studio, where Strong prepared an inspired vegan tasting menu. Here he shares his recipes for one our favorite dishes, along with delicious vegan cooking tips.
Easy Vegan Cooking Tips
Chef Strong shares some practical ways in which you can add more vegetables to your meals and cooking methods.
1) Go online and find local farms in your area. Many of them will put together a weekly basket of their picks. You can sign up for whatever program they offer, which will inspire you to use new produce and try new vegan dishes.
2) Many sauces are thickened with cream and butter. A healthier option is to use vegetables like potatoes that create texture and then add olive oil for flavor.
3) To get the most out of your vegetables, understand the role that each plays to develop deep flavors and balance in a dish. Great chefs understand this. For instance, recipes that call for onions to be sweated are trying to develop the sweet note in a savory dish. Then add wine, vinegar, or lemon juice for the sour taste. I have noticed novice cooks who rush the sweating stage and therefore not fully developing the sweetness of the onions. Their dishes don’t have long finishes of a good sweet/sour balance.
4) Plant a garden! If you don’t have the space where you live, research community gardens in your area. Laguna Beach offers a great community garden and sells plots where you pay for the space per month.
Tempura Squash Blossom with Romesco Sauce
12 squash blossoms
¼ cup romesco sauce
1 cup rice flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups ice water
Sea salt, to taste
6 cups canola oil, for frying
Mix all ingredients together, except the canola oil. Heat oil to 375 degrees F. Dip blossoms and fry 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and season with sea salt.
10 roma tomatoes
1 head garlic
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 ounce toasted hazelnuts
1 ounce Marcona toasted almonds
2 Nyora peppers rehydrated
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Sea salt, to taste
Rub garlic, onion, and tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Place onto sheet pan and bake in oven 400 degrees F° for 1 hour until roasted. Peel tomatoes and onion. Remove garlic from skin. Place all remaining ingredients in blender and puree. Season with salt. To plate, drizzle plate with Romesco sauce and place squash blossoms on top. You may serve with micro greens.