Craig Strong shares his version of backyard paradise at home in Laguna.
By Ashley Probst and Laguna Beach Magazine Staff
When not whipping up creative dishes in the kitchen at Hotel Laguna, acclaimed local chef Craig Strong enjoys cooking in the backyard and dining alfresco with family at his home in Laguna Beach, which includes a multilevel outdoor space as well as a garden with fruit trees, herbs and vegetables.
As executive chef at Laguna Beach Co., which includes Larsen restaurant at Hotel Laguna, Strong has a full gourmet kitchen available to him. But when cooking outside at home, his go-to appliance is a Big Green Egg barbecue. This ceramic cooking vessel uses lump charcoal, which infuses his food with a smoky flavor, and has an air ventilation system that helps maintain an even temperature.
“It’s a very slow and steady heat, which picks up the flavor of the drippings on the charcoal,” Strong says. “Or you lift the lid and let the heat rise as it gets really hot—it can get up to 500 degrees. I can cook a pizza on it, so you can have almost a wood-fired pizza on the same piece of equipment.”
Strong tends to opt for a family-style dining experience and one of his favorite meals to make is paella, which is traditionally cooked over an open fire using locally sourced meat and seafood. “In the old days, it would be rabbit and snails and shrimp, maybe. Nowadays, people use more chicken and mussels and clams and shrimp, and sometimes lobster,” Strong explains, noting the Spanish rice dish suits California’s Mediterranean climate.
As the sun starts to go down, guests may utilize one of many ways to keep warm, such as outdoor heaters, cozy blankets and a fire pit. Strong says that starting up the latter almost always leads to his daughter asking to have s’mores for dessert. But regardless of what’s served, cooking and dining outdoors is always a pleasure for him and his family.
“I just think that Southern California is one of those areas that is very conducive to outdoor dining and … [we should] take advantage of this beautiful state that we live in,” he says. “Laguna Beach has beautiful weather most of the year and it’s great to get outside and mix it up, so it’s something I like to do at home as often as possible.”
Shrimp, Chicken and Chorizo Paella
This traditional Spanish rice dish is sure to be a hit at your next outdoor dinner.
3 large white onions, finely diced
1/4 cup garlic, minced
1 cup olive oil
8 ounces canned diced tomatoes
4 ounces canned tomato sauce
4 fresh bay leaves
1 tablespoon paprika
1 pinch saffron
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
10 chicken thighs
3 cups Bomba rice
6-7 cups chicken stock
1 cup Spanish chorizo, diced
2 cups peas
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
20 lemon wedges
Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper, then saute in oil until brown. Remove and reserve excess oil. Saute shrimp in oil for 1 minute, then remove and reserve excess oil again. Next, begin making the sofrito, a type of sauce that forms the foundation for the paella: On low heat, saute onions and garlic in olive oil until soft and tender. Add diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, bay leaves, paprika and saffron. Simmer slowly for deep flavor, stirring occasionally until a thick paste forms. Next, add rice, salt and pepper, then stir for 1 minute. Add 4 cups of chicken stock and increase heat to medium, stirring for 5 minutes.
Arrange chicken and chorizo evenly on top. Pour 2 more cups of stock evenly and reduce heat to low. Continue cooking for 15 minutes. Taste rice to test seasoning and tenderness; if needed, add the remaining cup of stock. Arrange shrimp evenly, then sprinkle peas and parsley over the paella. Let stand for 5 minutes, then garnish with lemon wedges and serve.
Courtesy of Laguna Beach Co. Executive Chef Craig Strong