Tuesday, November 8, 2011

TASTING; Or, How We Sell From the Kitchen

One of the interesting (to me, anyway) and occasionally entertaining things I do in my job as Chef of a catering company, is present tasting meals/plates to prospective clients. Recently I've had the occasion to present two of these meals, which in many ways, demonstrated the differences in the way these mini-events can go.

Over the last several months in my new-ish position, I have written numerous menus representing the different seasons, different price points, different styles and blends of all three. Generally our prospective client will take a look at these menus and make some choices that appeal to them. Or, they will say, "We want a simple menu that is going to appeal to everyone, including Uncle Ralph, Aunt Maxine, and all the scampering children". There are also times that they will have some very strong ideas of their own about what they want for their blessed event. We, being caterers (and wanting their business), will, of course, bend over backwards to accommodate their needs.

Last Friday we did a tasting for the parents of a Salem woman who had just flown in from Chicago (where, incidentally, it was warmer than it was in Salem). We encountered some interesting problems in feeding them their "tastes", in that they were in the middle of a feeding frenzy that had begun over in the Willamette wine country town of Dundee for lunch and was going to carry on into dinner. Our tasting with them fell somewhere in the middle of "full" and "overload".

Additionally I was faced with the interesting task of presenting a tasting of summer foods for what would be a summer wedding in the middle of a late Fall afternoon when it was 38 degrees in downtown Salem. Our guests wanted to taste a grill-smoked salmon in a summery sauce of roasted red peppers and sweet grilled corn; gnocchi (?) in that summer style "Caprese", with heirloom tomatoes, garden fresh basil and mozzarella; and, oh yes, a "Classic Ratatouille" of summer vegetables.

Through the miracle of West Coast markets, clever freezing a few months ago and my "find" of a farm stand that had the last of their heirloom tomatoes still hanging around, I was able to put out two plates, one for either parent, of the three items requested. But they would be going to dinner in just over an hour, and had eaten lunch late. They choked down a few bites, decided it would be all right for their daughter's wedding and asked a lot of questions about how the meal would be delivered, whether or not it would be cooked on site and how it would be served. But they did agree on the menu.

My second tasting was two days later with a "plate" time of noon on a rainy Sunday morning. It was chilly once again, and wet as well, but this menu was one that fit perfectly into the season. I would roast filets of local fresh salmon and serve it with a Pommery (grainy) mustard beurre blanc, to be served with local wild rice. There would be a bacon wrapped roast chicken breast served with a wild mushroom cream sauce. And lastly, Pinot Noir braised short-ribs. The second and third entrees would both be served with a celery root-yukon gold puree. This was food after my own heart which worked out perfectly, as this was a menu I had written.

I soaked the wild rice the evening in advance so that it would be ready to cook when I arrived in the morning and decided, since wild rice is a little daunting (not to mention one dimensional) on its own, to serve it half and half with barley. I love the combination of the grass and the grain. I also browned and braised the short-ribs with the wine, onions, lots of garlic, carrots and parsnips the night before. They would be so much better after having rested in their braising liquid overnight.

I had picked up some beautiful and huge chanterelles from a forager in Silverton, the town nearest where I live, and the first thing I did when I arrived Sunday morning was to cut them in thick slices and saute them slowly with a big chunk of butter. I cut a couple of branches of fresh thyme from one of our herb pots and added them to the saute pan; thyme throws in a nice subtle flavor in combination with the chanterelles.

Next I peeled two gnarly knobs of celery root and a couple of yukon gold potatoes. I cut them into 2 inch cubes, put them in salted water and quickly brought them to a boil. It occurred to me that I probably would need a bain marie to hold the puree, the rice/barley mix and the sauces until my tasters arrived, so I boiled water and poured it into a 4" hotel pan. While this was heating I put the pan of short ribs in their sauce into the oven to bring up to heat slowly. They already had that "fallin' off the bone" look to them.

I seared off the chicken breasts and wrapped them with partially cooked bacon strips and I cut the salmon into five ounce filets. By this time the potatoes and celery root had become tender so I mashed them with butter and added some cream and a pinch of salt. I love the flavor of this puree and I equally love how easily it comes together. I scooped the puree into a small stainless insert pan and placed it into the bain marie with a bit of clear wrap over the top to keep it moist.

I started the beurre blanc by reducing a cup of sauvignon blanc along with a splash of apple cider vinegar and a drop or two of sherry vinegar. Normally I would use a vinegar with a bit less character, but since I was going to flavoring the sauce with the Pommery mustard, I wanted it to have enough body to carry the flavors through.

Once the wine had reduced to practically nothing I added a dash of heavy cream and reduced that to the bottom of the pan before adding the chilled butter, a couple of chunks at a time. I stirred in a couple of teaspoons of the mustard, checked the flavor and added the sauce to a container in the bain marie.

Our guests were due to arrive at noon so at 11:45 the chicken and the salmon joined the short ribs in the oven. I got out three of our square white plates (the better to show the colors of the food) and laid them out. The call came down that only the woman guest would be joining us. It turned out that her boyfriend/fiance was working nearly 24 hours a day during the grape harvest and had chosen to sleep in rather than eat. Understandable.

I plated the food, angling the salmon up onto the wild rice/barley mix with a spoonful of the beurre blanc over it; dolloped the puree on two of the plates and then arranged the chicken with it's fat slices of chanterelle and the short ribs and the chunks of vegetable on top of the yellowish puree. Scott, my boss's husband was watching me with his eyes wide open and I said, "Just like food porn" to him as I took pictures of the arranged plates and he could only nod.

I arranged the plates on the table in front of our client and loved her reaction to the way the food looked (and smelled). "My fiance is going to be SO sorry he missed this" were the first words out of her mouth. I did my brief spiel and went back downstairs to clean up. It turned out the second words out of her mouth (after she had taken two bites of the salmon) were, "Where do I sign?" And that's the way it's supposed to work.

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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.