Chef Mark Stark and his wife, Terri, at Bravas in Healdsburg

   Santa Rosa’s “other” celebrity chef  Mark  Stark has been getting a lot of exposure lately. First, he was nominated by the James Beard Foundation in the category of Best Restauranteur  (but didn’t win).  Then he was chosen to cater the  auction dinner for the  B. R. Cohn Fall Music Festival set for Sept. 20 to 22 at the Glen Ellen winery    (Little known fact: Stark was a band geek in high school.)  

   More recently, he was asked to speak to the graduates of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. The Maryland native  graduated from the CIA’s Hyde Park campus in 1984 and began his culinary career in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a pastry cook at the Four Seasons. He went on to work in Seattle for six years before settling in the Bay Area.

   His advice to CIA graduates? Avoid mediocrity.

     “ My definition of mediocre is something or someone that has the ability to be great, but missed the mark because of lack of commitment,” Stark said. “I’d rather reach for the chandeliers and fall flat than to be ordinary.”

    Here’s one of my favorite recipes from Stark, who now owns five restaurants plus a catering company  in Sonoma County. In the spring, the refreshing flavor of grilled fish, paired with scallions, cherry tomatoes, chiles and cilantro, is hard to beat.   You can find achiote paste at Latin markets.   

    Grilled Mahi Mahi Tacos with  Cherry Tomatoes and Avocado Salsa
    Makes 4 servings
    For the fish:
    1 pound Mahi Mahi fillet
    2 bunches spring onions or scallions
    4 tablespoons achiote paste
    3 tablespoons tangerine olive oil
    For cherry tomatoes:
    1 pint sweet cherry tomatoes
    1 Serrano chile
    1 lime
    1 tablespoon tangerine olive oil
    Salt and pepper
    For avocado salsa:
    2 ripe avocados
    2 limes
    A few drops of hot sauce
    1/2 bunch cilantro
    1/4 cup sour cream
    For tacos:
    1 bulb fennel thinly shaved
    2 cups baby arugula
    1 tablespoon tangerine olive oil
    Salt and pepper
    1/2 cup crumbled mild feta or goat cheese
    8 tortillas, hand made from La Tortilla Factory
    For the fish: Portion the mahi mahi into 8 equal portions and place in a shallow dish. Trim some of the green tops of the onions, making them about 6 inches long, save the trimmings for the avocado salsa. Split the onions lengthwise one or two times depending on the size. Place the trimmed onions with the fish. Mix the tangerine oil with the achiote paste until smooth, coat the fish portions and the onions. Refrigerate and marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.
    For the tomatoes: Split all the cherry tomatoes and place in a bowl. Slice the Serrano chile into thin rings and add to the tomatoes. Squeeze the lime juice over the tomatos, add the oil and season. Refrigerate until needed.
    For the avocado salsa: Split the avocados and scoop the pulp into a blender. Add the juice from the 2 limes, the cilantro, hot sauce to taste and the sour cream. Add the reserved green onion tops. Season with salt and blend until smooth,(use a little milk to thin if needed). Refrigerate until needed.
    To serve: Fire up a hot grill. Remove the mahi mahi and onions from the marinade and season with a little salt and pepper.
    Place on a hot grill and cook to the desired temperature (medium rare works for mahi mahi.) Grill the onions until lightly charred and wilted. Remove the fish and onions to a warm spot to rest.
    While the fish is cooking, mix the shaved fennel with the arugula, olive oil, salt and pepper.
    Place the tomatoes and salsa in serving bowls.
    Place the tortillas on the warm grill to heat through, then wrap in a towel.
    Spread a warm tortilla with the avocado salsa, then layer with the fennel salad, grilled mahi mahi and onions, tomatoes, then sprinkle with the feta cheese.

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