I know a lot of people say that and then the drift of what they are saying, despite it's good intentions, comes off as maudlin, treacly, or downright sappy. Good luck and good fortune comes to those who make it, but it certainly helps to have some back-up in your corner to give you the support you need. This I know.
I am lucky to work, cook and create in an environment that allows me as much freedom as I could ever possibly want. Yes, I work in one of the most beautiful places in the world and it's true that my kitchen looks out over what is easily in the Top Five of all views from any restaurant kitchen anywhere. It is also true that I search out, and have brought to me, impeccably beautiful produce, grown locally and organically. The fish and poultry I use in my recipes is locally caught and grown and it's pedigree of freshness is unparalleled. These things contribute to my amazing good fortune.
But what makes the entire equation come together is the support and freedom I get, to do what I do. My boss is my biggest fan and one of my best friends and it is so rare that he has ever told me how or what or when to cook. I've never been great with authority, and I'm sure, NO, I know that much of the stress and many of the problems in previous restaurant incarnations were derived from my clashing with the powers that were. Now I wake up in the morning and there is no knot in the pit of my stomach caused by whatever run-ins I may have upon arriving at work. Rather, I wake up and think about the farm fresh food that will arrive that day and how it will combine with the beautiful things already in my refrigerators. This is a gift and I am so grateful for it.
This past Saturday night I had a small group for dinner and wanted to try out a few new things based on some new ingredients and also on a budding idea or two that I had been mulling over in my mind's palate.
As I do every day, I began by making my dessert for the evening. I had made an extremely rich and flavorful batch of caramelized banana ice cream two days before and wanted to use it for dessert last night. I had discovered the key to the ice cream is to roast the bananas with butter and a mix of dark sugars until they get rich and sticky in the oven, puree them, and build the ice cream on top of that flavor.
There are, I presume, still pastry chefs and restaurants who serve a dessert called, 'Death by Chocolate". I wanted to serve "Life With Bananas", so decided on a caramelized banana tart to pair with the ice cream. I made a batch of caramel, poured it in a pyrex pie dish and laid sliced bananas over the top in a nice pattern. The cake base is simple; banana creamed with butter and more dark sugar, eggs, sour cream and flour. This all goes over the caramelized bananas and gets baked, then turned out, a la an upside down cake. It is simple, but rich and quite delicious. Dessert was in the oven and to my mind, done.
I always start my guests out with a small taste of a chilled soup; a pure expression of flavor that will cool and clear their palates, readying them for the bursts of flavor still to come, but wanted to move beyond where I had been. I had been making a carrot-ginger puree, sort of a traditional combination of flavors and was happy but not fully satisfied with it as a starter. My first addition to it was a spoon of a yellow Thai curry paste to the initial sauteeing of the onions, carrots and ginger as the soup was starting. And I wanted a hint more sweetness, so I began pureeing the soup with orange juice after pouring off a bit of the cooking liquid. This I liked. This was a good direction.
But I also wanted a greater depth of flavor and felt the need to do something about the color.
Beets were the perfect flavor and color to augment the base sweetness of the carrot and I keep gallon jars of roasted beets packed in balsamic vinegar in my refrigerator for salads, so this step was easy. I plopped the equivilent of about four beets into my cooking carrot-ginger liquid and pureed all of it together. The color was a brilliant not-quite-blood red; I loved it.
And today, I had forgotten to bring in oranges for the juice and the pureeing process so I searched the kitchen for something that would work in its stead, something exotic. We make a "frescito", a cool fruit drink for our guests at the Lodge each day and today it happened to be made from maracuya, passion fruit. Perfect. As I ladled the cooked carrot-beet mixture into the juicer, I added hefty glasses of the lightly sweetened passionfruit juice to the mix and let the blender fly. What emerged was a beautiful deep ruby color. It was alive with the scent of ginger and what I can only describe as a floral essence. I stuck my finger into the still hot mix and took a taste. Wow. The maracuya was IT. I chilled a pitcher for service and froze the rest in ziplocs for future diners. Great start.
Next step was the salad. I had garden fresh organic lettuces already cleaned, courtesy of the day crew, but wanted to add a few touches to it that would take it out of the realm of "green salad". I've been getting organic cherry tomatoes, small and brightly flavored, from Marjorie and Bolivar at Diamante Organico, down in the San Salvador valley; and they add a great touch. Angelica and I split these and dressed them with sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, a splash of sherry vinegar to bring up the acid and a drizzle of olive oil. We'd let these sit for a few hours before service so that the dressing would "take".
I have been using a lot of palmito, or hearts of palm, lately and had several lengths still in the refrigerator. It grows right here on our property. But I also had some small kohlrabi, the oddball of the tuber/root family, also from Diamante, that I wanted to do something with. The idea hit me that if I cut both the kohlrabi and the palmito into discs, they would be the same size and almost the same color. The palmito wouldn't need cooking, it has a nice fresh crunch on its own, but to achieve the same texture for the kohlrabi, I'd need to blanch it. I liked the idea of the two white discs, side by side in the salad, looking the same, but tasting quite different.
I wanted some bite and a little color, so I sliced the white part of large green onions into thin white discs as well and now had three sets of white circular vegetables. Color; it needed color, so I fine sliced sweet red bell pepper (chile dulce, here) into thin, thin strips and then cut those into thirds, almost splinter like. I tossed all this with sea salt and pepper while contemplating my dressing. I generally do my palmito salad in fresh mandarina juice (like an orange lime) and olive oil, but I felt like the kohlrabi wanted something a bit more substantial and I decided on an herby-citrusy mayonnaise as the dressing.
I chopped Italian parsley coarsely, along with a handful of garlic chives and put them in the Cuisinart along with a whole egg and a yolk to base the mayo on. I added the juice of four mandarinas, a dash of chilero (a habanero-vinegar table sauce we make), S&P, and set the machine to whirling. I like the green color and knew it would make a lovely pale colored dressing. With the machine on, I slowly added a blend of half olive oil and half corn oil to build the sauce, and could feel it thicken in the machine as the sauce crept of the side of the mixing bowl. I added a bit of warm water to keep it from getting too thick, I checked for acid and salt, and added a bit more mandarina and another shake of sea salt. Both the kohlrabi and the palmito were very mild, and the hit of salt and acid would bring up their flavors.
I stopped the machine and scooped out the mayonnaise. I like the pale green color and the balance of flavors were going to work great with the salad. I put a couple of spoons of the dressing into the kohlrabi-palmito mix and worked it in with my hands. I plunged a teaspoon in for a quick taste and loved it. The crunch was there, a bit of sweetness from the red pepper was evident, and the mayo lifted it and brightened it just enough. It would make an excellent third party to the softness of the organic lettuces and the vinegary tartness of the cherry tomatoes. Two courses down and onto the chickens.
I've been buying nice big organic chickens from Mauren and Ademar, a Tico couple who also grow vegetables for me, and they are a great product. I made a trip up to the farm before I began buying them, as I wanted to see what the birds eat, and was quite satisfied to see them snacking on the trimmings from the lettuces and greens, along with their corn. I buy four chickens once a week and break them down into legs for braising and breasts for roasting. Angelica and I treat ourselves to the wings and I freeze the livers for pate.
Tonight I would roast the breasts and as I did my old-school butchering I pondered my sauce and side options. I wanted to use risotto as a starch base, but was pondering the best way to lift it out of its Italian heritage, while not obscuring it's creamy goodness. I knew that I was going in a mango/citrus/ginger flavor with the chicken sauce so I wanted the flavor beneath it to compliment and augment it nicely. Ideas, I had ideas. I finished the chickens wrapped the legs and chose four fat breasts for roasting. I would get nearly two orders out of one breast they were so plump.
I started work on the chicken sauce while still pondering the risotto question. I pureed four mangoes and put them in a stainless sauce pot along with a cup of mandarina juice, a fist full of grated ginger, a splash of the habanero based "chilero" and a cup of tapa dulce, our local cane sugar. I let this simmer while I worked on the risotto. I had decided on a ginger-curry flavor for it, so with the diced onion I always start risotto with, I added a tablespoon of grated ginger, some diced red bell pepper and a small spoon of yellow Thai curry paste. I had put on a pot of a light chicken stock to boil and when it came up to heat, I stirred the risotto into the cooked onion-ginger mix and made sure to coat the grains of rice with the cooking oil. I added a ladle of the boiling stock and stirred well. I added and stirred, added and stirred until the risotto was still slightly crunchy. I threw in a small handful of diced green onions, removed the rice from the heat and spread it evenly over a sheet pan to cool.
The cooking mango mixture had reached a syrupy point and was quite aromatic. I took it off the heat and pushed it through a fine mesh wire sieve. This would be the flavor base of my sauce and would also make a great glaze for roasted fish or chicken at another meal. This was my "Salsa de la Jungla".
To make the sauce I'd serve with the chicken that night I peeled and diced another two mangos (can you tell it's mango season?) and put them in the blender along with another cup of mandarina juice. I blended these together and added a stiff spoonful of the my cooked mango mix, a generous pour of canned coconut milk, another splash of "chilero" and a handful of chopped cilantro. I stopped the machine and tasted. Hmm, I liked it. Nice heat, good ginger flavor; sweet and spicy, just what I was looking for. I would mix this into the intensified chicken stock that would come out of the oven with the roasted chicken breasts, to heat it up and finish the sauce. I browned the chicken breasts on the skin side, ladled in the stock and put them in the oven to finish cooking.
Angelica had cleaned the mix of organic braising greens; seven or eight kinds, again from Diamante Oraganico, and had also blanched of several lengths of Chinese long beans. I would steam these with garlic and ginger to complete the flavor profile of the entree plate. I want the flavors of my vegetables to stand out on their own, but also be complimentary flavors to the plate as a whole. The chicken, sauce, risotto and vegetables all should play an equal part in making the plate a success.
Our small group trooped in and the soups went out along with pitchers of the passion fruit frescito. The bowls of soup came back empty almost immediately. I had the chicken breasts in the oven with a bit of stock, to heat them so we began to plate the salads. The lettuces we dressed lightly in a bit of a balsamic emulsion, we piled the cherry tomatoes left and right, and presented the kohlrabi-palmito salad in front, as the centerpiece. The salad looked great, and one taste of the kohlrabi-palmito mix told me it was a winner.
Immediately after serving the salads I set up a slicing station for the chicken breasts. I would slice and present the chicken over the risotto, as the breasts were far too big for one serving.
I heated the gingered risotto in a little chicken stock, took a taste, and placed a mound at the front of the plate. I draped the greens over the back half of it and Angelica put several knotted long beans behind it. I sliced the chicken breast in medallions and placed them half over the risotto and half over the greens. A ladle of the brilliant yellow mango sauce went over the top along with a sprinkling of snipped garlic chives. Stunning and nicely aromatic. I was happy with everything on this plate.
Dinner was a lingering affair; the night was warm, the lights on the ocean sparkling and our guests called me over to ask about the meal and offer compliments. Geinier, my boss, had powered through his and offered his own style of compliment as well. I waited patiently until the plates came back and then plated up a wedge of the dripping caramely banana tart. Over the tart I spooned a dollop of the rich ice cream and out they went. We turned to the kitchen and it was nearly already clean. I put away and wrapped a few dishes, plated food for my staff and smiled that smile. I knew it was a good; no, perhaps a great meal. I am a lucky man and a grateful Chef.