Monday, August 31, 2009

Summer in a Martini Glass

When Chef told me he wanted me to prepare a dessert for the heirloom tomato celebration we were having in Grange for Slow Food Sacramento on August 30 I thought, wow, what am I going to do with tomatoes in a dessert? I mean technically tomatoes are a fruit and sure, I could do a tomato sorbet, tatin or tart, but I thought it would be fun to do something that incorporated the dominant flavors of late summer - tomatoes, yes, but also peaches, corn and rosemary.

So yesterday I served a dessert to 75 people that contained all those elements - a Summer Heirloom Tomato & Peach Sundae with Sweet Corn Ice Cream, Balsamic Caramel & Rosemary Shortbread. There were six components to the sundae: a fresh peach sauce made with peaches, brown sugar and honey; corn ice cream made with white corn and brown sugar; a compote of fresh diced peaches and tiny sweet tomatoes drizzled with a balsamic caramel made by reducing equal parts balsamic vinegar and brown sugar; a tomato jam made from 9 quarts of tomato juice and pulp from Mr. Stripey tomatoes slowly reduced over 8 hours down to 2 quarts; and fresh yellow corn kernels lightly poached in a sugar syrup. I really wanted to introduce an herbal element to the dish and chose a rosemary shortbread to accompany the sundae. To play up the martini idea I put peach cubes and sweet whole cherry tomatoes on bamboo cocktail picks and inserted them into the ice cream.

The dessert was a big hit with the crowd - they loved it! (It was popular with the staff as well, as you can see from the picture of Peter, our Executive Housekeeper on the right.) I knew all the flavors and textures worked together, but I'll admit it was a little nervewracking serving such an unusual dessert to so many people. I'm glad I took the risk, though. I got a lot of positive comments from the guests and I was able to show them that dessert doesn't always have to be super sweet and chocolatey. The sundae was a delicious taste of summer in a martini glass!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Best Food Event. EVER.

It's taken a few days to come out of the foodie haze I've been in since attending SFChefs.Food.Wine. on August 6-9. It took 2-1/2 years to plan this amazing event and the organizers didn't miss a trick. The weather even cooperated - it was a balmy 72 degrees in San Francisco!

SFChefs was 3-1/2 days filled with the most fantastic food and wine - every participant brought their "A" game. It's hard to think of a top Bay Area restaurant or chef who was not at this event. And I loved that everyone served their food and drink using recycled and compostable plates, utensils and cups - way to go, San Francisco! The daily morning and afternoon seminars that I attended were all great, but two stood out for me. The first was En Vogue Toque, which was a discussion of emerging trends in cuisine, design and service. The panel, which included marketing guru Andrew Freeman, whose firm organized SFChefs, and Jennifer Cox, Joie de Vivre's Director of Culinary, talked about the impact on restaurants of the general public using Twitter, Yelp and blogs to criticize or praise, and in fact that thread ran through discussions at each of the sessions I attended. Instant critics are here, for better or worse, but restaurants can also use social media to their benefit. For instance, I'm able to promote the dessert program and special events at Grange through this blog and Twitter.

The other session I really enjoyed was Culinary Matriarchs, a panel of four female chef icons - Nancy Oaks (Boulevard), Annie Somerville (Greens), Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards et al.) and Patty Unterman (Hayes Street Grill). They talked about their experiences in the industry and how it's evolved over the years. When some of them first started it was difficult to source fresh, local ingredients - now Cindy has acreage at Mustards when she grows a variety of produce for her restaurant and just bought a tractor! Patty lives in an area where she's allowed to have four animals - and she chose chickens for the fresh eggs! They are all dynamic, talented women and it was a pleasure to sit with them for a short time and hear their stories.

Some other highlights: The Back Burner Blues Band (chefs in their chef's whites with electric guitars - that's just hot!), followed by Hubert Keller (my new not-so-secret crush and a genuinely nice guy) spinning records like a NYC DJ, the stunning pastry display created by executive pastry chef Jean-Francois Houdre at the Westin St. Francis, a cooking demo by Laurence Jossel, chef at Nopa and recently named Best Chef by San Francisco magazine, who admitted he was improvising his chili recipe and using a pressure cooker for the very first time. He said, "Let's see what happens." That's a phrase I use often in the kitchen, because, after all, cooking is an adventure.

If the organizers plan to repeat this event next year I'll be one of the first in line to buy tickets. As I said to my husband at some point during the festivities, "If I died and went to heaven this is what it would be like."

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Margaritaville

Here's my new summertime dessert - Margarita Semifreddo with Lemon-Lime Granita, Watermelon Cubes, Sweet Salted Lime Chips, Watermelon Lime Syrup and Candied Watermelon Rind. I started conceptualizing this dessert when I saw our fabulous banquet chef, MJ Jackson, using compressed watermelon slices for a melon and tomato salad. MJ put watermelon slabs in a plastic bag and sealed them under pressure with a Cryovac machine, which is like a big Foodsaver. It forces all of the juices into the watermelon and turns it an incredible shade of red - absolutely beautiful! Since I had already planned to put a frozen dessert on the menu, I started thinking about using the melon as a component for a semifreddo/granita combination. Lime is a great complement to watermelon, so that became the next flavor. Then I thought, what goes with watermelon and lime ... why, tequila, of course, or more specifically, a margarita!

So the margarita flavors became the main component in the semifreddo - it has Hornitos Reposado tequila, Cointreau, lime juice and simple syrup blended with yolks, sugar and cream. The base is a moist citrus sponge cake loaded with orange and lemon rind. The granita is a mix of fresh lemon and lime juices with a sugar syrup - it's so tangy and refreshing! Lime also shows up in the watermelon lime syrup that's drizzled over the watermelon cubes. The chips are made by cutting wonton wrappers into triangles, dipping them into sugar, adding just a sprinkle of kosher salt and baking them. When they come out of the oven they get a drop or two of fresh lime juice squeezed onto them. The final garnish is candied watermelon rind.

I love this dessert - when you eat the granita with the semifreddo it tastes just like a frozen margarita. The fresh watermelon and the crunchy, sweet & salty lime chips are fantastic accompaniments. It's the perfect way to cool down on a hot summer day!