Growing Up & Branching Out

As I progressed in the development of my menu project, something seemingly unrelated, yet altogether more important, became apparent to me: that the end of July, 2012—the point at which the project would be due—would mark the end of a near decade living with my sister, as adults, tackling New York as comrades.

I point this out because my menu focused on heightened versions of the foods of our youth. Taking the recipes learned from my mother or grandmother and twisting them into restaurant worthy dishes was a study in reflection. First in reminiscence of the time spent eating those dishes, how they shaped the chef to be. Second, seeing the analogy of how the lessons learned in adolescence mold us into the people we become. And so I hosted a dinner party, to showcase the things I’ve learned in culinary school and, more significantly, to say goodbye to a time that was.

The night started with a last-minute canapé. What else can you do when faced with such gorgeously sweet watermelons at the Greenmarket? A quick Pinterest search revealed a delicious solution: watermelon cubes with a hollowed top, filled with balsamic reduction (1 cup of balsamic + ¼ cup sugar, reduced by a third), and garnished with basil.

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     My mother’s classic 7-Layer Salad

First on the menu: 7-Component Salad. Based on the American classic 7-Layer Salad, I took the elements from the salad specific to my mother’s version—a favorite of my 12 year-old self—and rearranged them into a dish composed of seven elements: baby romaine, pea & celery timbale, bacon lardon, fresh sliced water chestnuts, and parmesan, all crowned with a deviled egg and held together by a mayonnaise-based dressing. To accompany the dish I prepared a cherry-rosé spritzer, complete with a homemade maraschino cherry (adult cherry limeade anyone?). A light and easy way to start the meal, by making this a composed salad, each ingredient was allowed to stand out on the plate. Similarly light, the spritzer didn’t compete with any of the salad’s ingredients and kept the course refreshing.

Next up, soup. A recent conversation with a classmate revealed to me the disparity of feelings toward the green bean. She thought people didn’t like them because they’re so oft overcooked. I feel that people don’t like them because they’re so oft undercooked. I suppose to each his or her own; but, if you want

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Cookin’ up a mess a
beans, circa 1995

some good, Southern green beans you’ll start by caramelizing sweet onions in a cast-iron pan and then braising them, along with the beans, until the liquid has evaporated and the beans are slightly scorched. This method lends the beans an almost grilled flavor. I took this dish a step further by then pureeing the scorched beans with homemade vegetable stock and chilling the resulting soup—after all, I always preferred to eat those beans a day later, straight out of the fridge. The flavor is saturated with green bean unctuousness, a slightly sweet tinge from the onions, spice from copious black pepper and a hint of smokiness from the char. Topped with crunchy, buttery cornbread croutons, the soup is a delectable improvement on such a simple side dish. To pair, Broadbent Vinho Verde. A Portuguese white wine, the nose of citrus is a great complement to the aforementioned unctuousness of the soup and the grassy element pulls out that “green” flavor of the beans. In addition, Vinho Verde’s are infused with a splash of CO2 & the effervescence of the wine lifts the palate out of the deep, creamy soup and washes off the tongue so that you can fully enjoy the next bite.

 The main course of my project was inspired by a true Southern staple: the BBQ platter. While I do enjoy

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Big John’s BBQ Platter: unfortunately, not the original—the new owner got rid of the curly fries!!! At least the BBQ hasn’t changed.

making a faux Memphis pork butt in my NYC apartment, I wanted to create a dish that could stand up to fancier fare, but still lend a similar, satisfying flavor profile. Thus, tangy slaw, baked beans, curly fries and a mess of pulled pork became a pork loin & beer-braised cabbage roulade with cider gastrique, an heirloom bean salad and pommes rissoles, shaped with a melon baller to mimic the curl of those much adored fries of myriad 4th’s of July & uncountable family reunions. The pairing for this course was easy: Unibroue Ephemere Apple, a Canadian white ale brewed with apple must. The nose of this ale gives off a whiff of green apple—a natural pairing with pork—and it has the dry, cleansing sip of a hefeweisen, perfect for a hot summer day and for cutting through the rich porky-tomatoey gastrique.

To finish the meal, a tart. Reminiscent of a particular chain’s strawberry pie, I lifted a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen to create a dessert showcasing my favorite fruit—the one I remember gathering by the bushel—dark, juicy blackberries. While I might have preferred a pâté sucrée for this recipe, I instead made the only crust that could survive a NYC apartment in July, pâté sablée. Like the berries themselves, the pie was both tart and sweet, held together by homemade preserves, just slightly set with

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A tale of two pies: Shoney’s Strawberry is a classic American crust piled high with juicy fresh berries bound by gelatin & cornstarch. My mother’s Lemon Icebox is a “custard” pie set in a graham cracker crust. Two summer staples, millions of memories.

gelatin. As an accompaniment, I made burnt lemon ice cream. The ice cream was meant to invoke another much loved dessert: Lemon Icebox Pie. Made with sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, lemon jell-o and fresh lemon juice set in a graham cracker crust, I echoed the pie’s flavor and lightness by first making a caramel of the lemon juice and part of the sugar. Taking this step adds depth to the lemon flavor, but it also evokes the flavor of that graham cracker crust. I then incorporated the dairy and tempered just two egg yolks to add richness but to avoid an ice cream too dense. Left to cure overnight, the next day I whisked in a small amount of gelatin. Meant to prevent any possible iciness, I suppose the gelatin’s main purpose was to pay homage to the dessert’s inspiration. The drink here was a mint julep prepared with a fresh mint tea and Riverboat Rye whiskey. Another light, refreshing drink—with just a bit of tipsy—the bourbon played off the caramel in the ice cream and the toastiness of the pie crust. The mint, of course, provided a new presentation for the much maligned garnish of the dessert plate and kept the refreshment factor flowing.

The evening concluded with toasts of dreams pursued and goals achieved. Memories had snaked their way into conversation and we’d laughed more than once at the expense of our younger selves. But as has been said, “all good things come to an end;” so, once the meal was over and the anecdotes had been told, I hugged my sister as she & her fiancé stepped out the door to head off to their new apartment. This, however, was not an embrace to say goodbye; merely one that said, “Thank you & I’ll see you next weekend.”

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6 comments

  1. This brought back a lot of memories for me, Joe, of deliberately schorched green beans, “Willie’s” lemon pies, and memories of your mom learning to cook…and turning out to be such a good one!

    Love your blog!

  2. I absolutely love this! I am so incredibly proud of you and amazed by your accomplishments! You were always meant to do amazing things! I wish you the best of luck in whatever life holds in store for you.

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