Julie Ellard graduated from UC Santa Barbara seven years ago, thinking she might like a career in teaching or writing. But a job as a chef on a private yacht put her on a different path.
"I found it very easy and natural,"she says of her maritime cooking stint. "I really loved being able to take care of people."
A year and a half ago, the 28-year-old started her own business, Dining Details. Julie offers in-home cooking instruction in addition to personal-chef services. She tries to split her time between the two roles. "My job really is to teach people how to enjoy food again, how to be healthy,"she said.
Take some of her salad combinations, for instance. Do you harbor resentment towards greens? What if they're offset by a nice cheese and some crunchy candied nuts? (Julie makes them herself-see below for directions.)
Julie shared the components of some of her favorite salads:
* Asian pears, broiled goat cheese and candied pine nuts over arugula with a champagne vinaigrette
* Sliced strawberries or apples, Gorgonzola cheese and caramelized pecans over spinach with a raspberry vinaigrette
* Raspberries, apples, goat cheese and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds), over baby greens with a truffle vinaigrette
With the nut-and-cheese combos, Julie says, "tried-and-true favorites come through experimenting, more than anything. Think about the flavor of the fruit. Is it more sweet? Is it more sour? I wouldn't want to put a sour fruit with a sour cheese-I'd want to put it with a softer cheese, like a goat cheese."
As for the candied nuts (which, if you're short on time, you can find pre-made at most grocery stores): Heat a non-stick pan until it's medium-hot. Add in nuts and let them heat up, but not to the point of browning. Pour sugar over the nuts until they're barely covered. Keep turning them over medium-high heat until they start to brown and you no longer see the sugar crystals. Remove the pan immediately and allow the nuts to cool on wax paper. Julie cautions to make sure the nuts are browned but not burnt.
Planning a picnic? Julie's best advice is to make the sandwiches on-site. "No one likes soggy sandwiches,"she said. Rather than go with mayonnaise and mustard, try a vinaigrette or simply lemon juice-if you're using fresh ingredients, there's no need to go heavy on sauces and seasonings, she said.
One sandwich she made recently that was a hit with clients put a twist on chicken salad. Julie combined cut-up pieces of roasted chicken with sliced, dried apricots, chopped pistachio nuts, chopped onion sautéed in sage and raw fennel. She added to those ingredients some lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and a product she picked up at Whole Foods called Lemonaise. She put the chicken salad mixture on a croissant with some baby arugula. "They were so good,"she said. "People were just going nuts over them."
Julie's best advice for summer cooking is simple: Go for fresh ingredients. Hit up your local farmers market (see www.sdfarmbureau.org for locations and schedules) or stop by Chino Farms (6123 Calzada Del Bosque, Rancho Santa Fe), Julie's personal favorite. "When you're using these local, seasonal products, they're at their peak of flavor, so you don't really need to dress them up a whole lot,"she said.
Lately, Julie's been exploring the medicinal properties of herbs and spices, like how cilantro can offset the mercury found in tuna. A basic marinade for tuna that she whipped up combined cilantro, lemon juice, shallots, garlic, olive oil and salt.
"Throw that all into a blender until you have a nice, oily paste,"she instructed. Drizzle that over fish or, if you're a vegetarian, some sliced tomatoes. Another of her favorite marinades comprises one peeled and sliced mango, half a cup of olive oil, juice from two limes, two cloves of garlic, two tablespoons of brown sugar and one or two chipotle chilies from a can. Purée the ingredients and season to taste.
Not least, but last on the menu, for dessert, Julie offered some tips to dress up vanilla ice cream:
Let the ice cream soften and add a spice like cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon or allspice, then re-freeze. Or try mixing in some fresh, sliced fruit and a complementary flavored liquor. Or, she said, if that seems a little daunting for the non-chef, just pour it over the top and enjoy.
Julie Ellard's cookbook recommendations:
The Herbal Kitchen by Jerry Traunfeld
The Organic Cook's Bible by Jeff Cox
Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
For more about Julie Ellard's classes, including summertime classes for kids and personal-chef services: www.dining-details.com.