Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fall Flavors at Lunch

This week I was called upon to cook a special lunch for the owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards.  It seems that the relationship between the catering company I work for and the Winery has become a bit tenuous and some derision had been cast in our direction regarding the quality of the food we had been serving there.  And that was where I came in; new chef, new guy, new ideas, new food.

I have been creating a few seasonal menus for Jean, the owner of Willabys, and she in turn has been sending them out to prospective clients.  And so it was with restrained joy that when the menu for the aforementioned luncheon came into my hands it was one that spoke particularly and directly to my affinity for the flavors of Fall.

The salad was not such a seasonal choice, but still a good one:
 Grilled and Chilled Hearts of Romaine w/Shaved Asiago, Toasted Almonds and Green Goddess Dressing

  I first saw romaine hearts grilled in Berkeley by Chef Daniel Malzhan at the Dakota Grill in the late 80's and have hung on to it as an effective treatment of the oft boring crisp head of romaine for lo, these many years.

  The head is cleaned, halved, brushed with olive oil and simply grilled, cut side down, until the innermost leaves brown and wilt slightly.  It can then be rechilled until serving.  I love shaving rather that shredding the cheese; the long sheets of Asiago lend a fine architectural and dimensional look to the salad.  The sliced, skin-on almonds get toasted for crunch and texture and then there is the Green Goddess Dressing.  While none of that is the essence of "Fall-ish", at least if felt like Fall when I went outside, fired up the grill put the proper markings on the lettuce halves and the leaves swirled.

Green Goddess is a dressing on the rebound these days.  It was devised in San Francisco in the 20's by Chef Philip Roemer to celebrate a play that was passing through the City, named, appropriately, The Green Goddess.  It is mayonnaise based, which may explain it having fallen from fashion for a time, but it is, when laden with the proper and fresh green herbs wonderfully zesty.

The classic recipe calls for a mince of chervil, chives, tarragon, black pepper and the all important capers and anchovy to be blended to the (presumably) homemade mayonnaise, but turns and twists on the original can be taken.  I like to add both parsley and green onions (chives not being as readily available on a daily basis in our part of the world) and I occasionally have been known to substitute basil for the tarragon.  In any case, the blend is lovely; rich, green and creamy, particularly with the addition of a bit of sour cream to take the denseness out of the mayonnaise.

The rest of the menu said nearly everything about Fall that I like:
Roast Cider Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Pear Chutney.
Fall Squash Gratin, and,
Braised Greens

I had seen some locally made cider vinegars that had some unusual flavorings, and I thought this might be a nice time to try one out.  I had already made the chutney (see previous blog entry for the recipe) with a fair amount of ginger so I decided to use the one that was ginger flavored to carry through on a theme.  These are vinegars meant for consumption (as a digestif, or health aid, I can only presume), but I figured it would work wonderfully as a marinade, if used half and half with some local apple cider.  I added some shallots, grated ginger and a splash of oil, and poured it over the pork.  I let that sit for 24 hours.

I also wanted to serve the pork with a stock based sauce to both moisten it and make it so the chutney was not the sole flavoring agent.  I had trimmed fat, silver skin and a little meat from the tenderloin before it went into the marinade, and these I browned with some cooked chunks of bacon (I wanted a little smoky/salty thing going on).  Once the meat was brown and the bacon had rendered a small amount of fat, I deglazed the pan with another good splash of the ginger-flavored vinegar and then put in a cup of veal stock.  This I allowed to come to a boil and then I dropped the heat to let it reduce slowly and cooked it down to about half a cup.

The second part of the menu, the gratin, would be fun.  I love making (and eating!) gratins and I hadn't made one with fall/winter squash in some time.  I chose butternut, as it's grown right near us at Lake Labish by Schlechter Farms and has just come off the vine; nothing could be more local or seasonal.

  The first thing I did, naturally, was peel and cube the squash (3/4" if you're measuring) and toss the cubes in a bowl with some olive oil and S&P.  I roasted if for about 20 minutes at 350, just to soften a bit, with some whole cloves of garlic and a dice of onion.  When that came out of the oven, I tossed it with just a bit of heavy cream and some crumbled goat cheese and put it into the casserole.  I made a topping of garlicky bread crumbs, toasted hazelnuts and parmesan and sprinkled it over the top.

My greens selection was a bit limited, Oregon not being a hotbed of Southern cooking, but chard is in season here and I was able to get red and white.  A simple tearing of the leaves off the spines got it ready to cook.  I was ready to come back the next day and take everything to the winery for some "a la minute" cooking.

 The next day the wind was howling through the Willamette Valley and the winery, perched up on top of the ridge overlooking the Valley was a chilly, chilly place.  The first thing I did upon arriving was crank up the convection oven to get some heat in their open drafty kitchen and popped the gratin in the oven.

I heated a heavy saute pan on the burners with a bit of oil and once it was good and hot I dried off the pork tenderloin and plopped it into the pan, not just to brown, but to caramelize some of that marinade.  When it was nice and crisp on one side I turned it and put it into the 400 degree oven to join the gratin.

I plated the salad, that was easy; I halved the romaine half so it was a quarter, spooned the Green Goddess over and around it, propped the shavings of Asiago up in strategic places and sprinkled the toasted almonds over the top and then put the crostini off to one side.  Nice. That was easy.

While the pork t-loin and the gratin were cooking I heated olive oil in a medium sized sauce pan, added some garlic and when it was just cooked, added the wet (from washing) torn chard leaves.  I sprinkled in a bit of salt and pepper, lowered the heat and covered the pan.  Keeping it simple.

I took the foil top off the gratin to allow the top to brown and took the pork loin out of the oven, covered it with foil and allowed it to "repose".  I deglazed the pork roasting pan with yet a bit more of the ginger-flavored cider vinegar and added the reduction I had made the previous day.  It smelled so good mixing with the caramelized flavors from the pork loin.  And at this point I took the salads to the dining room, introduced myself and served the first course.

Back in the kitchen the chard was nicely wilted and the gratin was bubbling under its crisp topping.  All the was left was to plate it all.  The a nice rectangular slice of the gratin, topping intact, went at the top of the plate and the drained greens in the middle.  I sliced the pork loin into nine nice medallions and arranged them on the three plates in an overlapping curve around the greens.  A dollop of the pear chutney went on the top of the middle medallion and a gentle pour of the rich reduced sauce went around and over and under.  Yes, it was lunchtime.

The table got kind of quiet when I served the entrees, except for one hushed, "Beautiful".  While they ate I returned to the kitchen and plated my All Oregon dessert; half a peeled and sliced (perfectly ripe!) Bosc pair, a sprinkling of Oregon Blue cheese, candied Oregon hazelnuts, and a squirt or two of locally made Oregon blackberry honey.  Such a lovely combination.

When I went back out the plates were clean and I delivered the simple dessert.  That was it, no hanging around.  I packed it up and hied back to the kitchen.  I had to come back that same evening with dinner for 30, but that was another meal and a story for another time.  (And by the way, I heard later that the bigwigs at the winery had LOVED the lunch.)

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Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.