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Archive for March, 2010

The Menu Meeting

The following essay was written for the New Amsterdam Market blog, in preparation for New Amsterdam Market’s upcoming Winter Night Banquet.  The multi-course dinner will be the first in a series of events that will inform and benefit the development of the New Amsterdam Market School of Regional Cookery, envisioned as a place where all New Yorkers can learn to shop for and prepare economical and nutritious meals, season by season.  The meeting described was an effort to collaboratively design the banquet menu.

Our banquet chefs, Sara Jenkins and Odessa Piper, may both be well known for their work in the sustainable food movement, but they are not cut of the same cloth.  You meet the two women and imagine each presiding over a productive kitchen, one with a hefty cleaver, and the other with a magic wand.  Sara chuckles at the idea of lamb testicles, and lays down the law when it comes to Italian olive oil.  Odessa reflects on exquisite hickory nuts and daydreams about flats of fresh ground cherries.  Their personal styles are as different as those of April Bloomfield in New York and Alice Waters in Berkeley.  Yet they are both women, both in the same profession, and this weekend they came together to form the menu for a banquet.

Gathered round a wooden table in the Henry Street Settlement House last Saturday afternoon, we were an intimate crew, warm from the sun-reflecting snow that shown through the building’s high windows.  Robert Lavalva, Cerise Mayo, and the two female chefs, were joined by a cook who once worked in Odessa’s kitchen in Madison, the seafood purveyor who will provide the oysters for the banquet, a local neighbor and a gardener who will both be attending the dinner, the gardener’s daughter (an aspiring writer), a journalist who will be planning the place-settings for the banquet, and me, the Forager at The Spotted Pig.  We listened, as Robert introduced us to the space.

The house was built in the 1890’s, he told us, and the original residents undoubtedly sourced their food from the old Essex Street Market on Essex and Grand Streets, and from the Fulton Street Market where we hope the New Amsterdam Market will come to life.  He read a brief passage from The Market Assistant, a book written by the nineteenth century New York butcher Thomas Devoe.  Devoe described in detail the “large and famous Baron of Beef,” a cut “held in the highest estimation as the crowning dish for the Christmas dinner.”  We found ourselves envisioning our version of this crowning dish…. And the meeting was off!  And the menu began to take shape.

We would begin with oysters.  Sara wanted to use the Maine shrimp from Port Clyde.  Could we get fresh horseradish for the oysters?  Of course.  Would the shrimp need to be peeled?  No, you can eat the whole thing!  Isn’t Maine too far away to call local?  Robert explained his understanding that while Maine is by no means in our region, sustainability in fishing is less about the miles than the species of fish and the manner in which the fish are caught.  Maine would be ok for shrimp.  The horseradish would need to be from New York State.

We envisioned the beginning: we will come in and the piano will be playing and there will be oysters and shrimp.  And then Sara imagined we should have a consommé, filled with all variety of vegetables we can provide.  Cerise had given everyone at the table a preliminary list of available ingredients, and their sources.  Parsley root, potatoes, shallots, carrots, onions, and garlic from Muddy River Farm.  Chard, kale, spinach, and sunchokes from The Rogowski Farm.  Grains and beans from Cayuga Organics, meat from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, cheese from Saxelby Cheesemongers, and black walnuts and wild ginger from the Wild Food Foragers in Vermont.  Early Spring has a bounty to celebrate!  Sara and Odessa rallied back and forth about the vegetables in the consommé, deciding on potatoes, swiss chard, and barley.  Odessa debated how the vegetables should be cut.  Would we have vegetables in the salad as well?  No, because lamb testicles were on our list, and Sara was not about to leave them out.  She wanted to fry them tempura style, serve them with a good cutting vinegar and arugula, or watercress, and maybe black radishes.  Parsley would be appreciated.  Why does no one grow parsley in the winter?  Cerise chimed in that the herb is slow growing and not a particularly profitable use of greenhouse space.  We settled for shaved parsley root.

The conversation, the crafting of this menu, mixed together our pools of knowledge with refreshing simplicity.  We all learned and contributed from our individual perspectives on farming and seasonality, professional cooking and plate presentation, urban histories and rural traditions.  Robert humbly asked what, in fact, was a consommé?  Clarified stock, Sara answered simply.  It was originally an Italian food for the sick, she explained.  Adding vegetables is really an American slant.

Everybody knows a ribeye, Sara declared, so she suggested a beef shank for the meat course.  The shin of the animal, less familiar, not very tender, in need of slow cooking.  Sara had tasted a plate in Italy: beef shank with lightly cooked, lightly pickled vegetables, quickly blanched in a hot brine.  This would be her chance to try making it herself.  She could use the oven at Porchetta.  The vegetables would be carrots, onions, celery root, and green garlic.  She could put the bone from the shank to good use, to make the consommé.

The discussion continued with Odessa musing on the rich nuttiness of Jerusalem artichokes and the contrasting sweetness of parsnips, and Sara describing her memories of lamb testicles – she used to eat them with her Mexican kitchen crew, braised with tomatoes and chilis, when they were getting lambs at her restaurant.  The banquet guests would be the perfect audience for this food, otherwise too outlandish for even a New York restaurant menu.  Melissa, who will be helping with the place settings, raised the question of what should be plated, and what would best be served family style.  The soup will be difficult to carry, so Sara suggested that the broth be poured at the table over the vegetables in each guest’s bowl.  The gardener volunteered her homegrown chamomile for tea.  The gardener’s daughter wondered whether we might include Cayuga’s grains.  We defined Freekah, complete with Robert’s explanation of how the early wheat used to be burned in the fields, creating an unintended pleasant, toasted flavor.  We wondered if green garlic would be ready in two weeks, if watercress will yet be growing at the stream heads.

We forged ahead with Cerise explaining Anne Saxelby’s suggestions for the cheese course: either the fresh goat cheeses that will just be coming into season, or a single cheese in it’s seasonal variations, to demonstrate the effect of the seasons on the flavor of the milk.  Odessa piped up in favor of the seasonal demonstration, before realizing that local honey was available, which she immediately wanted to serve with a fresh goat cheese.  Regardless, we knew Anne would present the cheese with her ever-evolving charismatic knowledge of local cheese making.

Odessa already had her dessert imagined.  Heirloom apples halved, deseeded, roasted with maple sugar, wrapped in phyllo dough articulated with hickory nuts.  Could we have local brandy?  Raw cider?  Had we invited any artisan chocolate makers?  In fact, the Mast Brothers will be making a chocolate especially for the meal, with black walnuts from the Vermont foragers.  Odessa expressed her love-hate relationship with black walnuts, but forged on with her chocolate ideas.  Could we get frozen fruit?  We could dip the fruit in chocolate…we could entooomb it in chocolate!  We settled for the apples, and the chocolate already arranged.

And we reviewed the menu from the beginning.

OYSTERS

From Long Island, with fresh horseradish, shucked on ice.

SHRIMP

Whole, from Maine.

SOUP

A consommé made from the beef shank bone, with parsley root, potato, swiss chard, spinach, and barley, the broth poured at the table.

SALAD

Tempura lamb testicles with watercress, black radishes,

A mustard and squash oil dressing.

MEAT

Beef shank braised with lightly pickled carrots, onions, celery root, and green garlic.

NAVY BEANS

From the Finger Lakes.

ROASTED WINTER VEGETABLES

All of the wide variety available.

CHEESE

A fresh goat’s milk with honey.

DESSERT

Baked heirloom apples with maple sugar and hickory nuts

CHOCOLATE

Made with black walnuts.

The cheese and bread we’d been eating at the table suddenly left us hungry for this beautiful meal.  And we around the table smiled shyly with the pleasure of early accomplishment, with the excitement of the event just two weeks away, and the many preparations still to be made.  “Well,” Robert concluded simply, “I think we have a banquet!”  And we all couldn’t help but agree.

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