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Eat At Joe's: Isaac Cook specializes in an array of hot-cooked soups.

Cook's Kitchen

Chef at Trader Joe's puts an unusual spin on in-store sampling

By Janet Blaser

Next time you're at Trader Joe's, head toward the cheery green awning in the back of the store. That's where you'll find all sorts of yummy samples, including hot cooked soups and entrees made fresh on the spot from original recipes created by our own Isaac Cook. (Yes, that's really his last name.)

Now, sampling at stores is nothing new, but having an actual chef cook on the spot is a little unusual. I've known Isaac since he was a cook at Gabriella Sandwich Shop in downtown Santa Cruz, where for almost three years he consistently charmed customers with a lethal combination of good manners, a quick wit, food and cooking expertise and what used to be exquisite sandwiches, soups and salads.

Then, one day Isaac surfaced at Trader Joe's, calling out a greeting from behind the milk cartons inside the dairy case. Now he's cooking again, and I, for one, am happy to be able to enjoy the fruits of his labor--and learn his secrets, too.

Isaac's no slouch in the kitchen--we're talkin' gourmet dishes like Butternut, Carrot and Sage Soup, Corn Chowder, Thai Beef Salad, and Pork Loin with Sweet Potato/Ginger/Orange Purée and Caramelized Apples. He hands out recipes for everything he makes, and since at least 95 percent of the ingredients come from Trader Joe's, you've got no excuse not to try them yourself. You can find Isaac cooking from 9am to 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Trader Joe's, 3555 Clares St., Capitola.

NUTS TO YOU: Out at the Aptos Farmers' Market, a plethora of autumn goodies has appeared. Besides persimmons, kiwis and apples, this year's crop of nuts from Minazzoli Farms is generating a buzz of excitement. Those of you who've been to this market know Fred and especially JoAnn, who's notable for her rhinestone tiara and wacky name tags. Their family farm, near Stockton, is about 90 acres, with 55 in walnuts, 10 in almonds, four in grapes and the rest in assorted stone fruits and chestnuts (which, by the way, can be found at their booth merrily roasting on a sort-of open fire). They've been with the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers' Markets since 1992.

Although my favorite of their flavored nuts has been the Butter Toffee Almonds, the new Cinnamon Honey Walnuts are running a close second. But the big news this year is the Sesame Glazed Walnuts--big, hearty halves coated in a decadent sweet and crunchy sesame-sugar glaze. They're perfect for eating out of your hand, but even better for sprinkling on a spinach salad. Available in 1-pound bags for $6, these sold out last week in just a few hours. Fred promises he'll bring more this week, but if I were you, I'd plan to be there early and stock up for the holidays. The market is open from 7am to noon in the Cabrillo College parking garage on Soquel Drive in Aptos, and you'll find Minazzoli Farms at the end of the top row near the buildings.

GOODBYE GOOFY GRAPE: When my landlord starts leaving me urgent messages about Pearl Alley Bistro moving, I know something's up. So I wasted no time in popping my head into Pearl Alley's little downstairs kitchen to ask what was going on. Turns out--relax, Bob--the Santa Cruz landmark isn't moving (and probably never will, barring an act of God) but owners Marc Westberg and Mark Curtis have already drawn up plans for a 180-seat, two-floored steak and seafood grill, barely a stone's throw away.

No, not on Pacific Avenue--Marc's particularly interested in old and historical buildings, and so he purchased that big, "goofy grape"-colored Victorian on Cedar Street at the intersection of Cathcart for his newest venture--515 Cedar, to be exact ...

Marc showed me the plans and gave me a walk-through, and it will be a wonderful transformation. The bottom level will be home to three sunny dining rooms and a built-to-order kitchen, with an open stairwell leading to the second floor. Upstairs, a freestanding bar flanked by a wine room will open into a U-shaped dining room; at one end, a sunken lounge with booths and a fireplace; at the other, a spacious rooftop patio for outdoor dining.

This floor will also have a small, private banquet room, done in the dark woods and cozy intimacy of a contemporary steakhouse. Now, all of this remains to be seen, but Marc is a visionary and has years of experience in restaurant design and consulting. He figures the new place--no name yet--should be open by mid-August, just in time for his birthday party. And yes, he assured me the exterior will be painted in a more tasteful color scheme.

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From the November 27-December 4, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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