Thursday, August 16, 2007

Notes from a Bonafide Food Snob

“Better is a meal of herbs where love is, than a fatted ox and hatred therewith.”
Proverbs 15:17

Tomato Bruschetta with Garlic, Basil and Villa Manodori Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Toasted Garlic Rubbed Peasant Bread

Farro with Chanterelle Mushrooms, English Peas
Oven Roasted Tomatoes and Basil Pesto

Salad of Just Picked Haricot Verts, Baby Paddy Pan Squash,
Redicchio, Homemade Herbed Ricotta Cheese and Lemon-Herb Vinaigrette

Pork Saltambocca – Pork Tenderloin Medalions Pounded Thin
Wrapped with Proscutto and Fresh Sage Leaves with a White Wine Sauce

Plate of Local Michigan Fruits including Musk Melon, Peaches,
Nectarines, Blue and Black Berries

Selection of Italian Cookies and Chocolates:
Pignoli Cookies, Florentines and Mocha Biscotti
Dark Chocolate and Orange Flower Truffles

Perhaps it’s the vibe from all my comrades working the Mediterranean season along the Italian Riviera that inspired me, or perhaps just the amazing selection of fresh produce as we hit peak season here in Northern Michigan.

We have 10 tomato plants in the garden and every day for the past week I have been out picking tomatoes in a race against the deer! Cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, grape tomatoes and yellow tomatoes (we’ll have to do some heirlooms next year)… Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes! I’ve made fresh tomato sauce and panzanella salad and yesterday I was inspired to make my own oven-dried tomatoes. Two full trays of tomatoes and over 10 hours in the dehydrator and they still weren’t completely dry – but were they ever delicious! But what the fresh tomatoes were really screaming for was Bruschetta. I diced the ripest of the bunch and made a garlic paste with fresh, organic garlic from the local farm stand (fresh garlic makes all the difference in the world – completely devoid of the harsh and astringent quality of the dried out stuff on the grocery store shelves, it is instead warm and strong and well rounded). I tossed the tomatoes and garlic with Maldon Sea Salt, fresh ground pepper, Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar and Castella’s Olive Oil (from Provence, and one of my favorite olive oils). Villa Manodori is a small production Balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy and has been one of my favorite pantry items for years now. It’s pricey, but still well under what other authentic Balsamic will run and well worth the splurge as nothing can quite compare to a fresh picked, juicy, red tomato still warm from the sun, sprinkled with the big, crunchy, flaky crystals of Maldon Sea Salt, a drizzle of a fruity olive oil and this thick, perfectly sweet and perfectly acidic vinegar. When I first got turned on to good Balsamic and coughed up $50 for an 8 oz. bottles (some bottles can cost over $200, for 4 oz,), I was plagued with guilt, for about 5 minutes. I would drizzle it modestly over my salads or on a piece of fish, or over fresh, in-season strawberries with vanilla ice-cream. But nobody can accuse me of being modest now. I’m a bonafide Balsamic snob. I wouldn’t be caught dead reaching for a bottle of grocery store balsamic glazes, cheap balsamic that’s been boiled down with sugar and corn syrup to a thick sludge, that have popped up in gourmet stores nationwide in the past few years, or, heaven forbid, cook down a bottle of that tart, thin, insidious swill being passed off in your grocery store as Balsamic. Believe me, if a 10 oz. bottle costs $4.99, it ain’t real balsamic.

I served the bruschetta with toasted peasant bread that I rubbed with a garlic clove – a step definitely worth the effort as even just a quick rub with the clove imparts a nice, garlicky bite to the bread without it being over-bearing.

Faro is another ingredient that I quite enjoy working with. In boring English, you’ll find it in the health food store bulk bin as “spelt”. In the gourmet food stores you’ll find it sold by an Italian distributor and labled “Faro”, which sounds so much more gourmet and therefore retails for twice as much money. Either way you buy yours, soak it over night before you cook it. Faro has a wonderful nutty quality to it, it is very toothsome and the grain almost bursts in your mouth as you chew. If you prefer, it can be cooked just like risotto; slowly stirred to release the starches and then finished with parmesan cheese. It is a great replacement for Arborio rice for people who are trying to be more health conscious (faro is a whole grain and is high in fiber, b-12, complex carbs and protein and can also be eaten by people that are sensitive to glutens or have wheat allergies). I simmered my faro in white wine and chicken stock, and then drained it, let it cool and tossed it with fresh pesto (basil from the garden, of course. Pine nuts and lots of olive oil, but no parmesan cheese), sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and fresh English peas. The inspiration for this dish actually came from The Four Seasons restaurant – a beacon to the power lunching masses in Midtown Manhattan. The Four Seasons used to offer a $25 lunch which including a half-dozen oysters and their faro of the day – a treat my friend Camille and I have turned into religion every time I visit New York City, although sadly and much to our chagrin, it was recently discontinued (though our tradition lives on). I tried to ask Julian how he could let the chef get rid of my favorite lunch, but he was too busy on his cell phone trying to marry me off to one of his Lebanese friends in Los Angeles. Next time. I’ll get to the bottom of this…

But I digress, where was I going with this?

The “Just Picked” haricot verts came from my friend Tammy’s garden. She brought them as a gift when she came to serve for the dinner party. They were the most beautiful, deep green beans I have ever seen! She handed them to me and said, “I’m sure you have the menu planned already, but…”. But nothing, how could I not serve them? Raw, they were perfectly sweet and crisp. I almost wanted to serve them that way, but some peoples appreciation of food can only go so far – and so I decided on just a quick blanch; tender and crisp and bright green – certainly “raw” by English standards, and down right blasphemous by French...

The inspiration for the Pork Saltambocca came from my favorite restaurant Al Di La in Park Slope, Brooklyn and also the abundance of fresh sage growing in the herb garden.

And lastly, dessert. Well, one of the things that I love about what I do is the immediate gratification – people walking into the kitchen and saying, “oh, that was so good”, etc., etc. But it pains me when people rub their bellies and say, “I’m getting fat because of you, Cristina”. And so, instead of a plated dessert I put out a large fruit platter loaded with everything the season here has to offer; ripe local musk melon, local berries, local peaches and apricots along with homemade orange-flower dark chocolate truffles rolled in cocoa powder, and homemade Italian cookies including mocha biscotti, pignoli nut cookies and almond Florentines.

Everyone seemed to linger over this meal, conversation flowed around the table and people helped themselves to more food. Dessert let everyone linger more and take their time – which was exactly the desired effect. I feel like Tita in “Like Water for Chocolate”, only my food doesn’t make people cry. At least not out of sadness…

1 comment:

tammy said...

true success = dining vs eating

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