Friday, December 24, 2010

Chef's Table

For what will be most likely my final blog post of 2010, I wanted to post some photos of a recent Chef's Table. We hold these each Thursday at 6pm at the table in our back bar next to the kitchen. We only seat a maximum of 8 diners each week. Five to six courses paired with wines for $60: a deal no matter how you slice it and even more of a deal once you consider the labor.

Arancino of Porcini Risotto. Isn't this a gorgeous photo? First, thanks to Billie Clifton of Sunflower Cottage for all the beautiful herbs, greens, and flowers this winter. We made balls of wickedly good and creamy porcini risotto, rolled them in panko, and deep fried them for an addictively good amuse bouche. We made some extras for chef snackies. I loved the contrast between the crunchy crust and the sinfully creamy interior.

Fall Salad. This is a salad I came up with several years ago and it has featured on our late fall and early winter menus ever since, such a hit with customers it is. I don't like to repeat dishes that are on our dinner menu on our tasting menus, but this salad is so good that I want everyone to try it. This salad popped into my head at the farmers market one bleak Saturday when I needed a salad for that night's menu and nothing green was to be found. In classic Asian fashion, this salad has sweet and crunch from the Asian pears, salt and spice from the pecans, and earthy creaminess from the butternut squash. It's all bound with an apple cider reduction and topped with earthy Bull's Blood beets. I love this salad.

Winter Bounty. There may not be a vast selection of items at the farmers market in December, but we can do some cool things with what there is. This is a napoleon featuring three layers of parsnip latkes sandwiching layers of mustard greens and cavolo nero, standing in a pool of butternut squash cream. This dish is enough to make me turn vegetarian. All the flavors play together so well.

Cassoulet. This menu so far has been tamely vegetarian. Time to turn on the meat! This is pork and beans amped up with copious quantities of duck fat and house-cured duck confit. We made this cassoulet with Steuben Yellow Eye Beans, an heirloom variety that keeps it shape while becoming sinfully creamy inside. The French only wish they had this bean for their cassoulets. We make our cassoulet with amazing Virginia sausages and smoked slab bacon, keeping it as local as we can and keeping the local cardiologists in funds.

Pork, Pork, Pork. Did I mention that I could happily be a vegetarian except for one small problem? Pork products. Yep, I'd walk five miles for a taste of pork confit. This is a mini-homage to my friend the pig and one that hopped into my mind a couple of days ago while eyeing the pan of leftover ossobuco of pork from our company Christmas party. What if we debone the osso, reshape it into disks, wrap it in prosciutto, crisp it in a pan, and serve it in a bowl of smoky pork jus? What if indeed! This is one sexy pork dish, with its crown of sausage and duck fat-roasted brussels sprouts!

Apple Crumble. I'm not a dessert guy. Give me another glass of wine and a piece of cheese and some fruit after dinner and I'm really happy. So my desserts tend to be more savory, less sweet, and fruit-driven. And I guess 2010 has been the year of deconstructed, scattered desserts for me. If you look back at my dessert photos over the year, there seems to be a theme. Traditional apple crumble has been selling like hotcakes this fall and winter. This is a reworking in which the apples, the apple cider glaze, the crumble topping, and the vanilla bean gelato have all been pulled apart and reassembled. The crumble topping is in the form of a cookie, the result of another what-if. What if we bake the crumble topping too long? Sometimes good things come of curiosity!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cavolo Nero

We've been serving a lot of cavolo nero recently, mainly because it's the season and because, finally, a local grower is supplying it to us. Cavolo nero is Italian for black cabbage, but in English, it's often known as Tuscan black kale, lacinato kale, or less frequently dinosaur kale.

Although this green is hard to find, it is easy to recognize with its long narrow dark black-green leaves with the distinctive leathery appearance. It's only leathery in appearance: the leaves of cavolo nero are as tender as any kale and the stems are significantly more tender than standard curly kale. But the big payoff for this kale is the flavor: customers universally love it. It has a big, meaty flavor that makes it easily my favorite winter green.

To prepare cavolo nero, we slice it into thin ribbons from top of the leave to the bottom. We may discard a couple inches of the bottom if the stem gets a little tough. Our favorite way of cooking it is the simplest: we warm some extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper in a sauté pan. Then we blanch the kale ribbons in simmering water for 45 to 60 seconds, drain them, and add them to the oil and garlic. Onto the plate they go after a quick toss. For our recent wine dinner, we used half duck fat and half butter instead of olive oil for a wholly decadent treat.

I also like the way this kale stands up in soups. For me, it is the must-have green in ribollita or any white bean soup. And it's an excellent, but different, stand-in for tronchuda in caldo verde.

I can't tell you where to find cavolo nero, but if you ever spot some, take it home. I predict it will quickly become one of your favorite greens.