Archive for February, 2012
On Saturday February 25, 2012, I worked my last internship dinner at the James Beard House. I was so excited to get my hours completed so that I can get my diploma and move on. But I walked in there a little sad, too, knowing that it would be my last time, at least as a “student.”
This dinner was with Chef Jason Santos of Blue Inc. of Boston, and his theme was Modern Comfort Food. The idea was to take comfort foods, the kind many Americans remember from childhood, and “adultify” them—that is, to give them a modern take.
So, for example, one of the hors d’oeuvres was miniature corn dogs. But these dogs were made of kobe beef, which explains why I didn’t get that hot dog repeat action when I tasted it. I haven’t had a hot dog in more than 20 years, but the chef de cuisine, Brad, handed one to me after they were cooked, and everyone, including Chef Jason, was standing there watching. I felt obligated to taste it. But it wasn’t bad. Anyway, for that hors d’oeuvre, I cut up the hot dogs and skewered them on lollipop sticks, which I’d split in half for little mini munchies. Although, mixing the batter for the dipping of the dogs was the easiest thing I did all night, the frying was probably the most complicated because the Fryolater decided to be difficult on this night. Thankfully, I was not the one doing the frying.
The housemade ketchup was a flavorful sauce that was definitely a notch up from the store stuff. It was a nice balance of acid, sweet, and tomato flavor, and everyone was treated to a jar on their way out (I made sure to grab one for myself, too). The “pot roast” was actually short ribs, doughnuts were filled with fig jam, and…well, I really don’t know what the foie gras was supposed to represent but it was the focal point of a “PB&J”—it was served with a peanut purée, toast crumbs, and strawberry gelée. The Nutella powder on the seared scallops was another nod to childhood delights but served in an entirely new medium.
One hors d’oeuvre that was not on the menu was the deep-fried eggs. These eggs were soft-boiled, just until the whites were set, and I helped to very carefully peel them. This was a difficult task because they were truly just barely set and, therefore, so fragile that they broke open very easily. The other volunteer rolled them in flour, dipped them in beaten eggs, and coated them in panko breadcrumbs, and laid them out on a sheet pan. Later, they got lowered into Fryolater for a crisping. At that point, the hope was that they would not break in the oil. When diners cut into them, they got a yolky treat. Personally, I’m not a fan of runny yolks, but many people are and (I suppose) that was a delightful surprise for them.
I so wanted to try the pretzel rolls with mustard butter, but they all went like hot cakes. They were served as dinner rolls at the table but were made from pretzel dough, and the mustard was in place of butter. Needless to say, they were a big hit. They looked soooo good, too. Damn.
Probably the favorite part of the meal for most people was the soup course. This was Creamy Tomato–Goat’s Milk Soup with Pumpernickel Croutons and Micro-Basil, which was served in Campbell soup cans. No, really. The soup from the cans was dumped and was replaced with the homemade soup. I made the croutons, which I made really small to fit into the cans comfortably. The idea was to put a whimsical twist on an old favorite; people seemed to enjoy the whimsy.
The pre-dessert (which was a new concept for me) was a real throwback to after-school treats with a strawberry milkshake and jelly doughnut, and the dessert course was a holiday memory made up of Sticky Toffee Pudding with Gingerbread and Eggnog Ice Cream.
His wine director is Tricia LaCount, a really sweet person who mixed up some wild elixirs to accompany the menu. The most intriguing of her concoctions was the Amarena Cherry–Infused Vodka with Amarena Cherry and Peanut Butter Powder, which was essentially a liquid peanut butter and jelly sandwich (with a kick, of course). And the lingering flavor in the mouth really was like I’d just eaten a PB&J. I really would’ve loved to try her other drinks—especially the Chocolate Martini with Giant Marshmallow—but she had set up her bar in the atrium, removed from the kitchen, and I just didn’t have the time to chase anything down, so to speak.
And so went my last James Beard event. I walked out happy, proud, relieved, and sad. I really am proud of my work there and despite moments of sheer depression over things that I’d done not quite right, I think I did most things right. I’m going to look back on this experience fondly and, hopefully, as the start of a whole new chapter of my life.
Kobe Corn Dogs with Housemade Ketchup
Deviled Eggs with Tuna Tartare and Olive Tapenade
Buttermilk-Fried Chicken Fingers
The Anorexic Model — Pierre Ferrand Cognac with Lychee Bubbles, St. Germain, and Berry Garnish
For the Table — Pretzel Rolls and Mustard Butter
Caesar Salad with Crispy Egg, White Anchovies, Crème Fraîche Dressing, and Pickled Onions
Krupp Brothers Chardonnay 2009
Pan-Seared Scallops with Slab Bacon, Tabasco-Soaked Cherries, Nutella Powder, and Maple Aïoli
Krupp Brothers Black Bart’s Bride 2007
Creamy Tomato—Goat’s Milk Soup with Pumpernickel Croutons and Micro-Basil
Krupp Brothers Black Bart’s Bounty Syrah 2007
Foie Gras PB&J with Peanut Purée, Toast Crumbs, and Strawberry Gelée
I Know I Jamm Jamm — Amarena Cherry—Infused Vodka with Amarena Cherry and Peanut Butter Powder
Pot Roast with Carrot Purée, Blue Potatoes, Onion Ring Salad, and Horseradish
Krupp Brothers The Doctor 2007
Milkshake—Fig Jelly Doughnuts with Vanilla Bean Mascarpone
Sticky Toffee Pudding with Gingerbread, Eggnog Ice Cream, and Micro-Celery
Blonde Afro Puff — Chocolate Martini with Giant Marshmallow
Today is National Banana Bread Day. I love banana bread. It’s filling, satisfying, comforting, and just plain delicious. Plus, when you have those bananas that are just too ripe to eat, instead of tossing them, they can go right into a batter for bread.
We owe the existence of banana bread to the introduction of baking powder to the average household kitchen. Banana bread is in a class of baked goods called quick breads. This basically means that the dough doesn’t have to rise from yeast—it is leavened by a chemical leavener, thereby making it a “quick” bread to bake.
Baking soda is also used for quick rising, but it requires an acid to activate it, such as buttermilk, vinegar, or lemon juice. Baking powder is a chemical leavener that contains both baking soda and an acid. Variants of baking powder were being made in the early 1800s but the types we are familiar with today became more widely used in the late 1800s. By the time World War II rolled around, it was in common use. The use of bananas in bread came about for a simple reason: so money wasn’t wasted on overripe produce during the difficult war years. You can read some more interesting history on Wikipedia.
Because there are people in my life who are gluten free, I make a lot of gluten-free goodies. The banana bread recipe below is adapted from my favorite gluten-free baking book, Gluten-Free Baking by Rebecca Reilly. I added my own touches to it (including the coconut) and it makes for a delicious, not-too-sweet breakfast bread or snack. I forgot to check on mine, so it got darker than it should have, but it was tasty just the same. Enjoy!
Gluten-Free Banana Bread
Adapted from Gluten-Free Baking by Rebecca Reilly
3/4 soy flour
1/2 cup potato starch
1/4 cup rice flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
1/3 cup coconut oil (or other oil)
2/3 cup palm sugar
1/2 cup mashed banana
1 cup desiccated coconut*
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan.
2. Mix dry ingredients (up to the eggs) in a large bowl. Make a well in the dry ingredients.
3. Mix eggs, oil, sugar, banana, and 1/2 cup coconut; pour into the well. Stir until blended.
4. Spoon batter in to loaf pan. Sprinkle the remaining coconut over the top.
5. Bake until a toothpick comes out dry but with some crumbs attached, about 40 minutes.
* Shredded, unsweetened coconut.
Day 9: Chef Ron Eyester, Rosebud, Atlanta, GA
Day 9 of my internship was non-stop. I began working almost immediately and it seemed like I never stopped. There was no break to speak of, although food was brought in to munch on as we worked.
Chef Ron Esyester has a little bit of a reputation. He created an alter ego for Twittering and called himself “The Angry Chef.” It was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek vehicle for venting his frustrations with the biz. Eatocracy, CNN’s food blog, invited him to do a blog, called “Six ways customers tick off chefs,” and he was skewered by commenters who did everything from calling him names to sending him death threats.
I asked him if he really tells off his customers. He said, “I’m not afraid to let customers know what’s on my mind. I’m of the belief that the customer is not always right. But I do believe that a guest is a guest.” (I hope he realizes that I was just kidding by asking him that!)
But that doesn’t seem to really be him. In fact, I didn’t find him to be angry at all. On the contrary, he was very even-tempered and quite patient with me, even when I wasn’t sure about how to do something. And he’s quite involved in philanthropic activities: he volunteers at local schools, serves on the board of a local farmer’s market, and donates meals to firefighters on Thanksgiving.
But he definitely marches to the beat of his own drummer. He infuses his work with humor and a tongue-in-cheekery that reflects his non-traditional path in the culinary world: he didn’t go to culinary school—he went to The Citadel, a military college, and received a degree in Literature. And when another volunteer and I called him “Chef,” as we were taught to do in school, he told us to just called him Ron, that he couldn’t stand the whole “Chef” thing. In fact, everyone to him is “brother” or “sister,” as in, “How’s that salad coming, sister?” and “Can you take care of this for me, brother?” His menu is an example of his down-to-earth style: the beverage selection is called “stuff to drink,” the eggs on the brunch menu is “stuff with eggs,” and the favorites list on the brunch menu is “stuff regulars eat.” The pricing of the available wines are described as “cheap,” “decent,” and “good.” He is a believer in locavore eating, something he picked up from his former boss, Scott Crawford, who came to assist him the night of the Beatles dinner.
He’s very into music and got this idea from a Jerry Garcia dinner he did a couple of years ago. In fact, he has different ideas for combining music and food. To him, they are often (if not always) intertwined. For example, he found himself so well prepared, that he had time to devised an extra hors d’oeuvre—a soup shooter, which he concocted from the poaching liquid from the haddock (see menu below). He called this “Beatles Bisque,” and commented that it’s like an encore after a concert—a little extra something. We had music going in the kitchen all day long, from (of course) the Beatles to the Band to James Brown. One of the JBF staff who came in said, “It’s like a jam session in here.” I sang my way through dinner that night.
By the end of the night, I was showing my work on my physical being: I was covered in chocolate from the dessert and smelled fishy. One of the things he had me do was to make a roux, which I whisked into an oyster soup, which got on my hands; I trimmed and chopped scallops; later, I removed the little suction cups from the tentacles of several octopi; then, I chopped anchovies; and during dinner service, I poured the impromptu “Beatles Bisque.” By the time I left the JB House, I had a somewhat oceanic aroma about me. I think a couple of cats tried to follow me home.
On the other hand, oysters and chocolate are considered aphrodisiacs, so it could have been a worse combination.
I’ve never heard of anyone removing the suction cups from octopus tentacles, and that was definitely a new experience. My favorite task that evening was cutting up and cooking mushrooms. But I’m talking about a HUGE pot of mushrooms. The pot I used was a rondeau, which a child could take a bath in. Seriously. The mushrooms were for the Braised Mushroom Manicotti with Lightly Pickled Leeks, Lamb Jus, and Midnight Moon Cheese, and it was a combination of cremini, king, shiitake, enoke, and trumpet mushrooms, plus a black mushroom that I had never seen before (and neglected to ask about). They were foraged and were mixed with leaves, twigs, and rocks that I had to pick out. But what a gorgeous mixture of fungus! Part of the dessert was a pistachio cream, which I made using the fabulous Vitamix blender (one of my fantasy toys). It was so smooth and delicious, I fell in love with it. It’s going to be my new dessert topper. You can see more photos HERE.
You say you want a revolution? Well, you know… Okay, I don’t know where I’m going with this Beatles song reference, so here’s the menu:
Beatles Tribute Dinner
I Am the Walrus — Scallion-Baked Eggs with Milk-Poached Haddock and Cornflake Crostini
Eleanor Rigby — Carolina Rice Fritters with Dates and Curried Honey
Penny Lane — Fish’n’Chips with Potato Gaufrettes, Onion Crème Fraîche, and White Anchovies
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away — Spaghetti and Nantucket Cape Scallop Egg Roll
Lamberti Extra Dry Prosecco NV
Octopus’s Garden — Chilled Octopus with Baby Fennel, White Beans, Borage Cress, and Citrus–Oyster Vinaigrette
Conti Formentini Pinot Grigio 2010
Magical Mystery Tour — Braised Mushroom Manicotti with Lightly Pickled Leeks, Lamb Jus, and Midnight Moon Cheese
La Scolca Pinot Nero 2008
And Your Bird Can Sing — English Tea–Braised White Oak Pastures Chicken with Georgia Grits, Olives, and Natural Jus
Museum Tempranillo Crianza 2008
Piggies — Crispy Pork Cutlet with Mean Mr. Mustard–Bacon Sauerkraut and Lemon and Honey–Marinated Dried Apricots
Hugel Riesling 2009
The Ballad of John and Yoko — Buttermilk–Chocolate Cake with Pistachio Purée and High Road Craft White Chocolate–Toffee Crunch Ice Cream
Churchill’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Porto NV
Savoring Spain with Chef Ryan Poli
Day 8 of my Internship at James Beard was spent “Savoring Spain” with Chef Ryan Poli from Tavernita restaurant in Chicago.
Working with a different chef and crew each time has given me a broad view of attitudes and atmosphere in different circles, and it’s been very interesting. You can get a general sense of what it’s like to work with that chef because a person is usually the same at work as they are at home.
Of course, how a crew behaves at the James Beard House can be different than how it behaves in its own environment because it’s a special occasion for a chef to do a dinner at the JBH. A spotlight shines on them that they don’t have on them every day (even if they are a celebrity chef) and everyone who attends is focused on the food in a way that the average diner is not. Not to mention that the press is always at these dinners: representatives from such publications as Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and at one time, Gourmet. Interviews take place, photos are taken, and the food is reviewed.
There was a sense of nervousness in the air that I felt the moment I walked in to work with the Tavernita crew, and much of the day was spent working in silence. There was shop talk and a little bantering, but for the most part, everyone was focused on their task. Chef Ryan checked and re-checked his mise en place for every single dish and I could see the focus in his eyes.
I’m not sure where the anxiety was coming from—I’m sure he’s been in the spotlight before. But he seemed to know exactly what he was doing and I had no doubt that it would all come off well in the end. Even when trying to figure out the plating, he seemed to have a vision that he managed to express, even if everything wasn’t exactly as he had planned.
Working at the James Beard House, I feel the way Steve Martin and Alec Balwin must feel hosting Saturday Night Live: I know the behind-the-scenes crew, even though the “on air” talent changes; I know how the stage feels; and I know where the bathrooms are. Therefore, I had no qualms telling him not to worry, that it would all come together. I’ve seen moments of panic, anxiety, and frustration, but, always, the dinners come out marvelous and the diners walk out exhilarated. Dinner on this night was no exception. Everyone walked out with the usual look of sated euphoria and compliments to the chef. And with a sigh of relief from Chef Ryan.
I don’t do oysters so I can’t comment on those, but the croquettes—a round mouthful of a crispy coating with an incredibly smooth, creamy interior—and the Pintxos de Escalivada (roasted peppers and eggplant on grilled bread) were quintessential Spanish tapas fare. The patatas bravas were Chef Ryan’s spin on the classic Spanish dish, which is usually potatoes cut into chunks, fried, and topped with a spicy tomato-based sauce. Chef Ryan’s version turned the potatoes into little cylinder-shaped cups and filled with two sauces: a spicy chile sauce and a garlic aioli (unless I’m getting my sauces mixed up). One pop into the mouth and you got all flavors coming together to make one composite burst. (The cape gooseberries that went with the gin-and-tonic drink for this course was delicious—sweet-tart with a slight hint of tomato.)
I didn’t try the octopus either, but it was visually stunning. They cooked it sous vide (a slow, low-temp bath) and then grilled them for that smoky flavor and bright color. Arranged on the plates, it was a work of art. And one of these days, I’m going to have to try making crispy artichokes. Delicious!
People were duly impressed with the leche frita (fried milk) and many people asked how that was done. I wasn’t in on the process from the beginning, but the “milk” is made into a custard, which is allowed to set in the refrigerator. Then it is cut into rectangles, breaded, and fried. It had a appealing texture and a mild custard-y flavor that was enhanced by almond ice cream, almond crumble, and dulce de leche. People were fascinated by it.
More photos HERE.
Here’s the menu:
Pickled Oyster Cocktails
Ibérico Ham Croquettes
Pintxos de Escalivada (Roasted Vegetables on Grilled Bread)
Housemade Sweet Vermouth
Winter Gin and Tonic > Death’s Door Gin with Clementine, Cape Gooseberries, and Winter Spices
Fluke Crudo with Artichokes, Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts
Arabako Txakolina Xarmant Txakoli 2010
Beet–Artichoke Salad with Arugula, Cabrales Blue Cheese, Crispy Artichokes, and Pickled Shallots
Burgáns Albariño 2010
Octopus with Fennel, Orange, and Olive Tapenade
CVNE Viña Real Reserva Rioja Crianza 2007
Rib-Eye with Potatoes, Sweet-and-Sour Fennel, and Habanero Chile Butter
D. Ventura Viña do Burato Mencia Lurra Garnacha 2009
Fried Milk Pudding with Almond Ice Cream, Almond Crumble, and Dulce de Leche
Lustau Solera Reserva San Emilio Pedro Ximénez Sherry NV
Day 7 of my internship at the James Beard House was called “Champagne Elegance” and was headed by Chef Todd Hogan, Executive Chef of Indigo in Roswell, GA. Chef Todd’s menu was a French-inspired blend of easy-to-love modern classics, such as fava bean hummus, to more daring plates, such as Corn-Dusted Smelts with Lemon Aïoli (almost whole except for the head and tail) and Veal Rib-Eye with Bacon–Onion Marmalade, Fiddlehead Ferns, and Fried Chanterelles.
Chef Todd’s demeanor throughout the day was calm, cool, and collected. Even when I screwed up. Which made sense after he told me that he had been an instructor at Johnson & Wales University, one of the best culinary schools in the U.S.
I was put to the task of slices gaufrettes on the mandoline. (Graufette is just a fancy French name for waffle fries. Well, technically, gaufrettes are dessert waffles, something like Italian pizzelles. Gaufrettes pommes de terre are waffle fries— pommes de terre being “potatoes.”) Anyway, Chef was concerned about the size and shape of the potatoes so he had one of his crew slice the potatoes while I laid them out on a sheet pan and then helped brush each one with browned butter. They were then put in the oven to crisp up like chips. Unfortunately, they baked unevenly and some of them burned. Chef decided that they were burning where the butter was dabbed on (as opposed to being brushed on).
I’m not entirely convinced that this was my fault. First, I wasn’t the only one brushing on the butter; second, the gaufrettes were so thin and fragile that to run the brush across them without destroying them was almost impossible; third, one tray burned entirely—and quite evenly—which means they were just in too long. Whatever the case was, I felt terrible and I apologized, because I was a part of the whole thing. But Chef just said to stop with the butter and to spray the rest of the potatoes with cooking spray, which helped them bake more evenly.
The next task I was given was to make sweet potato pancakes. The pancakes in my first batch were too fat. Then they were too small. Then the grill got really hot and they started to burn. Then I was flattening them too much. It seemed that I just couldn’t get them right. Enough of them came out well, but I was getting pretty frustrated there for a while. On the plus side, I used a flat-top grill for the first time and learned how to cool it down when it gets too hot.
This evening proved my theory that you can do something a million times, but it’s when they’re watching that you screw up. C’est la vie.
On a sad note, Chef Todd’s restaurant, Indigo, sustained a fire recently. Hogan considered the possibility of canceling his James Beard gig but decided that they needed to soldier on and do something that would make them feel good. I said, “And here I come along and screw up the sweet potato pancakes.” They were very nice about it, and Chef Deborah Willyard, Chef Todd’s assistant for the day, told me to “Stop that!” It’s a life-long habit I have of beating myself up, and I’m working on stopping it. (Chef Deborah, by the way, has a catering business in Marietta, GA, called Blue Dragonfly Catering. I love the name and told her so.)
One nice aspect of the evening was that one of my classmates, Elena, came to have dinner with her boyfriend. It was really nice to see her and I was glad to cook for one of my peeps. Once again, I’m hoping to get some professional photos, but for now, here’s my gallery.
Here’s the menu:
Hot-Smoked Lamb Loin with Sweet Potato Cake and Spicy Tomato Jam
Corn-Dusted Smelts with Lemon Aïoli
Fava Bean Hummus with Black Truffle Pâté
Housemade Duck Prosciutto with Blackberry Conserve and Bleu de Chèvre
Iron Horse Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay 2008
Duck Confit–Goat Cheese Napoleon with Crispy Potato Gaufrettes and Meyer Lemon–Infused 25-Star Balsamic Glaze
Iron Horse Vineyards Russian Cuvée 2006
Double Beef and Thyme Consommé with Short Rib–Butternut Squash Dumpling
Iron Horse Vineyards Classic Vintage Brut 2006
Baby Arugula with Warm Walnut Morbier, Dried Apricots, Red Onions, and Orange Blossom–White Balsamic Glacé
Iron Horse Vineyards Wedding Cuvée 2007
Veal Rib-Eye with Bacon–Onion Marmalade, Fiddlehead Ferns, and Fried Chanterelles
Iron Horse Vineyards Ocean Reserve 2005
Farmhouse Pear Tarte Tatin with Drunken Fig Gelato
Drambuie Caramel Milkshake
I enjoy meandering through the aisles of Asian markets because there is always something new that I’ve never seen before, and I will often purchase something without even knowing how it’s used, just out of curiosity.
So, I was in an Asian supermarket the other day, browsing the fare, as usual. I was in the spice section and saw a plastic package with some reddish stuff in it. I had a suspicion of what it was supposed to be, so I picked it up. Sure enough, it was labeled “saffron.” One ounce for a whopping 99 cents! I had to take a picture of it because I couldn’t believe my eyes. And the picture doesn’t do it justice. This is the skunky, dusty looking stuff that they were trying to pass off as saffron.
Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of saffron knows that there is no way you can get it—any amount—for 99 cents. Those with a little more advanced knowledge of the spice know that it simply does not look like this. I can’t even imagine what, in reality, this stuff actually was.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Market prices vary but 1 gram of saffron can cost anywhere from $10 (on the cheap side) to $75 for Spanish La Mancha. Kalustyan’s in NYC sells 1-ounce jars of Persian Saffron for $200. Amazing that this store was able to magically sell 1 ounce of saffron for 99 cents. They probably took a miniscule amount of saffron dust, mixed it with other stuff, and called it saffron.
The adulteration of saffron is an age-old felony, ever since the luxury item was introduced to Europe by the Arabs in the 7th or 8th century (and probably long before that, too). The reason it’s so expensive is that harvesting it is labor-intensive. Each strand is one of only a few stigmas of a crocus flower. The stigmas are hand-picked and dried and it takes about 75,000 flowers tomake one pound of dried saffron.
In Italian, saffron is called zafferano; in French it is zafran. All three words come from the Arabic word za’faaran, meaning “yellow,” which is the color saffron imbues in food. This color is prized throughout the world—for example, in India, Buddhists wear saffron-colored robes.
Greek mythology tells us that a mortal man named Crocos fell in love with the nymph named Smilax, but she did not return his love, and for some odd reason of the Greek mythology kind, he was turned into a purple crocus flower.
Saffron has been used throughout history in numerous ways: it was used as currency; it was used to scent the baths and public halls of both Greece and Rome; Cleopatra used it in her make-up; and it’s been used for medicinal purposes. And the story of risotto alla Milanese, the classic Italian rice dish? Legend has it that that a jilted lover wanted to ruin the wedding of his ex-love and her fiancé by throwing saffron into the risotto to be served at the reception. The groom, a glass maker for Milan’s Duomo who loved to add saffron to his glass pastes for color; throwing saffron into the wedding risotto was the jilted lover’s attempt at mocking the couple. Of course, it ended up being a hit.
In the Middle Ages, saffron was more valuable that gold. One pound of it could be traded for a plow horse, and anyone passing off diluted saffron was burned at the stake. It is mentioned in the Bible, the Iliad, ancient Egyptian papyruses, and in the writings of the Greek historian Pliny. On Crete, there is a fresco that dates to 1700 B.C. on the palace at Knossos showing a worker gathering saffron. Saffron has been used for medicinal purposes and to make perfume and dye. Ancient Greeks used it to perfume the public baths. Romans drank saffron before alcoholic binges to ward off hangovers and then slept on saffron-stuffed pillows for a good night’s sleep. The Phoenicians used it to flavor love cakes, shaped like moons, and dedicated them to Astoreth, the goddess of fertility. It is said that Cleopatra used saffron as make-up. In Asia, saffron represented hospitality, while in India, people marked themselves with it to denote their wealthy status. At one time, it was thought that saffron was a remedy for, and could prevent, the plague. Called “vegetable gold” in some parts of the world, it is used in modern aromatherapy to increase energy. [This paragraph from What, No Meat? Traditional Italian Cooking the Vegetarian Way]
Rules for purchasing saffron:
- Never buy powered saffron. This is usually cut with inferior products. Only buy threads. Which leads to…
- Don’t buy packages that look as if some of the threads have been crushed to a powder.
- Threads should be a vibrant red.
- Threads should feel dry and crush easily.
- It should smell somewhat floral. Do not buy it if it smells moldy.
Here is my recipe for Risotto alla Milanese. Enjoy!
Risotto alla Milanese
Copyright © Roberta Roberti. All rights reserved.
From What, No Meat? Traditional Italian Cooking the Vegetarian Way
5 cups hot vegetable stock
1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron strands
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, minced
2 cups Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
Salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/3 cup grated parmigiano
Keep the stock simmering in a saucepot over very low heat. Take 2 or 3 tablespoons of the stock, place it in a small bowl, and steep the saffron in it. Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rice and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the rice is translucent around the edges, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook for another 3 minutes.
Add ½ cup (about a large ladleful) of the stock to the rice mixture, stir it in, and let it be absorbed by the rice. Continue adding stock, ½ cup at a time and stirring it in. Allow each addition to become absorbed before adding more. Stir occasionally. After the second or third addition, add the saffron infusion, salt, and pepper.
After 4 or 5 additions, begin testing the risotto for doneness. Stop adding liquid when the rice is creamy and tender, yet firm to the bite. If there is not enough broth, add hot water to the stock pan and bring it to a boil. Add the water to the risotto, a little at a time, until the rice is cooked. Total cooking time should be 20 to 30 minutes.
When the risotto is cooked, remove it from the heat and stir in the cheese. Spoon it into individual serving bowls and serve immediately.
Leftovers can be used for rice balls or stuffing. Store tightly sealed in the refrigerator 3 to 5 days.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Gluten-Free Italian Indulgence
Chef: Fortunato Nicotra, Executive Chef of Felidia in NYC
On February 1, 2012, I did day 5 of my internship at the James Beard House. I assisted Chef Fortunato Nicotro, Executive Chef at Felidia, Lidia Bastianich’s restaurant in NYC.
It was the most interesting day for me thus far. First, I signed into the volunteer log book as usual. The log book has a column for the chef/event, for the volunteer’s name and signature, time in/out, and one for the volunteer’s school. I saw that another volunteer had already signed it and in the school column, it said “NG.” That meant Natural Gourmet. I haven’t seen another NGI student at JBH—most of the volunteers are either from ICE or FCI (Institute for Culinary Education and French Culinary Institute). When she walked back in, I introduced myself and found out that she graduated a couple of years ago and is now doing well with a catering and home-delivery business. (Shout out to Amy!) She lives in Western New York State and just happened to be in NYC this particular weekend and decided to volunteer.
Then, the chef and his crew arrived a short while later and as they came in, I immediately recognized one of them. She was another NGI alumnus, who graduated a few months ago, and I had helped out with her Friday Night Dinner. (Report on that FND HERE.) She interned at Felidia, which turned into a job. How about that for a coincidence? So, not only were there 3 NGI graduates there (when I was usually the only one), but one was a member of the chef’s crew, and I had actually worked on her Friday Night Dinner. I mean, I could have worked any Friday Night Dinner over the course of 11 months, and I happened to choose that person’s FND, and then encounter this person on a JBH shift of my choosing. What a small, weird world it is. (Shout out to Debbie!)
That was pretty cool. But my night became even more dramatic when, just prior to the guests arriving, two women walked in and leaned against the counter. Since all guests have to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining room, I really didn’t pay attention. I was busy spooning broccoli rabe into little shot glasses. I looked up briefly and one of the women smiled and said, “Hello.” I said, “Hello” and continued with my task. A moment later, I looked up again and it dawned on me that the other woman was Lidia Bastianich. I almost lost my broccoli rabe. Holy crap. Then I realized that the woman who had said “Hello” was her daughter, Tanya. And me without a camera! Doh!
They stood there and watched for a while as Amy and I helped the chef de cuisine (whose name I, unfortunately, missed) make little parfait hors d’oeuvres of ricotta, broccoli rabe, and saba. Lidia was watching me so I was as precise as I could possibly be. She and her daughter then went up to the private dining room and the rush of guests began.
I cut up burrata for a burrata and tomato salad. Burrata in Italian means “buttered,” and it is so named because it is made up of an exterior shell of mozzarella filled with a mixture of soft mozzarella and cream, making the texture buttery. I also sliced and speared salami with little wooden forks, dabbed homemade mustard with mustard seeds on them, and topped them with a homemade salsa of some sort (it looked like apple or pear and some root vegetables). I arranged them on a rectangular platter, the center of which Chef adorned with thinly shaved Grana Padano (my favorite grating cheese).
As usual, I didn’t get to sample everything because first priority is plating for the guests. If there’s anything left over, the staff gets to eat it. Unfortunately, there isn’t always food leftover, or it disappears before I get to grab some.
I absolutely wanted to try the Butternut Squash-Chocolate Ravioli with Butter-Sage Sauce, so I kept an eye on it. When all the servings were plated, there was plenty left for us, and I dove right in. The ravioli were absolutely divine. You would never have known that they were gluten-free. The dough was tender and fluffy, but firm enough to hold the filling, which was a delicious squash puree. The sauce was probably a thousand calories but it was luxurious. The tops of the ravioli got a generous dusting of ground pistachios. It was an extremely indulgent dish.
During the introduction/Q&A part of the evening (when everyone makes their appearance in the dining room for a round of applause from the guests), someone asked about the ravioli. Chef Fortunato talked about the process of coming up with a good gluten-free pasta that was superior to the stuff you find in the markets, but I don’t think he actually said what combination of flours they used. I think one of them was rice. I’d love to get my hands on the recipe. (Hint, hint, Chef Fortunato.)
I also tasted the beef duo of Braised Flatiron and Steak Tagliata, which were both tender and so flavorful, and I loved the Mashed Spinach and Potatoes. They were fluffy and smooth and delicious.
The cookie plates were adorable, and there were also little chocolate cakes adorned on the plate with a pistachio brittle that was worthy of a plate of their own. I never seem to be able to taste the ice cream at any of these dinners.
When dessert had been served, we were ushered up to the fourth floor, where Lidia and her guests awaited in the private dining room. I was so excited to be standing there in front of Lidia, who had obviously enjoyed the meal. The meal I helped plate! (Still getting over that.) On her way out a while later, she stated that everyone had done a great job. Of course, it was meant mostly for the main crew, but she did look at me, too, and I decided to bask in it anyway.
Chef Fortunato was really nice to me and I found his giddiness at the end of the night endearing.
I truly wish I’d remembered my camera. My phone camera is completely inadequate. However, the evening’s official photographer is a great person. I had met her a couple of events ago and I will be asking her for photos of both events. I’ll put a link here when the photos are available.
I really, really need a new camera.
Burrata and Tomatoes with Balsamic Vinegar
Bagna Cauda with Vegetables
Ricotta, Broccoli Rabe, and Saba
Flor Prosecco NV
Mediterranean Shrimp Salad with Toscanello Beans, Marinated Anchovies, and Tuna and Branzino Carpaccio
Bastianich Adriatico Friulano 2010
Butternut Squash–Chocolate Ravioli with Butter–Sage Sauce
Bastianich Vespa Bianco 2009
Vacche Rosse Parmigiano-Reggiano Risotto with Pear and Celery
Bastianich Vespa Bianco 2009
Beef Duo: Braised Flatiron and Steak Tagliata with Mashed Spinach and Potatoes and Braised Red Cabbage
Benanti Rovittello 2005
Poached Quince, Almond, and Frangipane Tart with Bourbon–Maple Syrup Ice Cream
Benanti Il Musico Moscato Passito NV
Chef: Scott Romano
Chef Scott Romano (who’s from New Jersey, by the way), worked with JBF Award winner
Charlie Palmer (Charlie Palmer at the Joule/Dallas) and Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and he specializes in steakhouse cuisine. (I suppose it helps that he lives and works in Texas.) Consequently, day 4 was a carnivore’s dream.
The day started later than usual, as the chef and the food didn’t arrive until about 2 p.m., but once we got started, things moved at a pretty quick pace. Chef Romano first wanted me to finely chop shallots, but I wasn’t getting them as small as he wanted, which did wonders for my inferiority complex about my knife skills—I just don’t have the finesse required to do that very fine knife work.
So, they set me to work at the deli slicer, slicing up duck ham, which is duck cured to taste and look like ham, and when I sliced it, it looked kind of like bacon (see photo above). The deli machine scared the crap out of me—memories of a friend slicing her hand open on a deli slicer many years ago kept flashing through my head. Plus, I knew from one of the Blackberry Farm chefs that the machine (which belongs to the JB House) is a pretty crappy one. But I was very careful.
The machine was not cutting smoothly, the holder (to protect your hand) didn’t fit properly, and as the slices were coming out on the other side, the blade was sucking them back up and eating them. It drove me crazy. I had to get to as much of the meat as I could. They needed 80 orders, 3 slices per order, and I was running out of pieces big enough to use. It took me forever to slice out enough portions. At the 40-order mark, I had been working a couple of hours, and I only had 2 hours left to get all 80 portions. I needed to speed it up. So, I took a small hotel pan (what they call a “ninth”), stuck my hand in it, and pushed the meat onto the blade with it. This allowed me to press the meat evenly across and get the meat close to the blade without slicing my fingers off. In the end, I just about got enough servings.
By the time the family meal was served, I was starving, frustrated, and about to kill someone. I stuffed my face with pasta and salad and got back to work. Although I never did get to taste the duck ham (or many of the menu items), what I did taste was excellent. The bison got overcooked but I thought it was still quite tender and flavorful from the rub.
The Malva bread pudding was the child of pastry chef Anika. When I was first introduced to her, I thought I heard “Monica”, so that’s what I was calling her for most of the night. So, Chef Anika, if you’re reading this, I apologize. The recipe for the bread pudding was a traditional African one, which she duplicated exactly, and it was delicious. It had the right balance of sweetness and crunch from a dusting of toasted, minced nuts (I think they were either hazelnuts or almonds).
I didn’t have many opportunities to take photos but I asked the photographer to send me a link to the official photos, which he did So, thank you, Geoff Mottram. Photo album HERE.
Here’s the menu:
Foie Gras Pavés with Apple Compote and Potato Crisps
Ale-Glazed and Jalapeño–Stuffed Quail with Prosciutto
Wild Boar Arancini with Orange–Shallot Marmalade
Parmesan Soufflés with Housemade Pancetta
Bone Marrow with Duxelles and Truffles
Schramsberg Brut Rosé 2008
Red Oak Leaf Salad with Duck Ham, Brioche Croutons, and Balsamic Brown Butter
Darcie Kent Vineyards Rava Blackjack Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2009
Ricotta–Mascarpone Agnolotti with Shiitake Velouté, Brown Butter Hazelnuts, and Fiore Sardo
RouteStock Cellars Route 99W Pinot Noir 2009
Arctic Char with Salumi-Braised Beans and Brown Butter Cauliflower
Migration Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2010
Rabbit Saltimbocca with Farro Risotto and Sage
Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée 2007
Bison Filet with Honey-Glazed Turnips, Braised Potatoes, and Armagnac Reduction
Ramey Wine Cellars Syrah 2008
Malva Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream
Blandy’s Alvada 5-Year-Old Rich Madeira NV