Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Creative Process of Crafting a Menu

Last Friday I got a call from a friend and colleague who works at the Yale Sustainable Food Program asking if I'd like to cook lunch on their farm the following Tuesday for visiting chef Jorge Rausch and 15 guests. While I have been trying to say "No" a lot more often, this sounded fun and inspiring, so I said "Yes".  As soon as a meal or event is proposed, my brain starts storming with menu ideas and inspirations.  It's involuntary, constant, and I'm pretty sure genetic, given the glorious habits on both sides of my family to talk incessantly about food and menu planning.

For this menu, I started by looking up Chef Jorge Rausch, who I'm sad to admit I did not know about before this event.  He happens to be the cousin of a chef friend of mine in New Haven, CT,  Avi Sazpro, owner of Roia, but more famously, he is the Columbian chef/owner of one of South America's 50 best restaurants and a pioneer on eating lion fish, an invasive species that is destroying coral reefs in the Caribbean.

My first menu planning instinct was to think about local invasive species and how I might incorporate them into the menu. However, I am not an expert in plant or animal invasives, and while I am aware of a few of them (primarily through my friend Bun Lai's work as the Chef and owner of Miya's Sushi restaurant), I didn't have easy access to (or much time to go foraging for ) these plants, seaweeds or crabs/fish. Additionally the cooking and refrigeration facilities in the open-air farm kitchen are very limited, so I decided to do a vegetarian lunch to avoid complicating the food handling logistics, so fish and crabs were out.

My next thought was to work with indigenous ingredients such as corn or corn meal which are used through all of the Americas in distinct ways. Columbian cuisine is well known for their various types of arepas or cornmeal pancakes, and a northeastern version of this would be a Johnny Cake, which could be a great inspiration for a menu.  After thinking this through, I vetoed it for two reasons:
1. Despite some searching, I have not found many corn varieties being grown that are native to this state, and have also not found any indigenous corn varieties being dried and ground for corn meal.
2. Arepas are a living evolving and varied cuisine in and of themselves in Columbia, and across many parts of Southern and Central America. While I don't doubt that I could do something deliciously fun with their Johnny Cake counterpart for lunch, without an indigenous corn variety or special traditional recipe, this menu component seemed like a replication of something more popular in the chef's home cuisine than a real reflection of indigenous cuisine from Connecticut.

Next, my food loving brain jumped into my own personal food history, both ancestral and through lived experience and I started imagining Jewish (both ashkenazi and sephardi) foods done with seasonal ingredients (apples and honey for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday for example), maybe an assortment of recipes representing the predominant cultural groups on New Haven (African, Puerto Rican, Italian etc...) but it felt nearly impossible to chose which cultural groups to represent and then which recipes to riff off of.

So then I started to listen to the underlying obvious menu that was arising when I thought about the farms we would be sourcing ingredients from, the confines of the kitchen, the predicted 80+ degree "fall" weather for that day and my own desire for fun, flavor, texture and color with little surprises to entice diners, but not distract them from the purpose of the lunch: to gather together to commune and learn over a good meal in a beautiful natural setting.  After a little more contemplation I realized a seasonal "farm to table" based meal, with some of my own cultural influences was actually a perfect example of the current state of American cooking and just the right thing to prepare for our visiting guest chef.

I decided on a cold soup, with both an early fall and jewish twist - beets (rather than a tomato based gazpacho) and a little chili pepper added for delicious heat, signaling more the middle eastern and sephardi Jewish cuisine, mixed with a borscht type soup more reflective of ashkenazi recipes. However, the soup was topped with roasted corn, a nod to the all important corn crops of this hemisphere, and some pickled red onions for contrast both in flavor and texture.

 I couldn't resist making my favorite nut and seed based bread, and including farmer's cheese, another nod to my eastern european jewish roots. Two versions of the cheese were served, one cheese I made from fresh milk and topped with roasted tomatoes and garlic, the other I purchased and topped with locally raised honey I infused with black pepper and fresh rosemary (I sort of a sucker for condiments and encouraging people to taste, sample, spread...and work a bit for their meal).

For dessert, I scooped up the last few damson prune plums I could find, even though we were on the cusp of apple season, and used them to make another dish I often associate with my Jewish heritage, but is actually common across Europe, a plum tart. For this version, I added cornmeal to the crust for fun and a bit of lemon zest, sugar and a sprinkle of cornstarch under the fruit, to sure up the juicy filling so it would be easy to pass and serve during the conversational meal.

It was an incredibly satisfying meal to serve.  The weather was gorgeous, the farm and out door kitchen glorious, the number of people very manageable, and the ingredients were fresh, delicious and inspiring.  It felt like a gift from my heart to share this food and my seasonal inspiration with a very hard working chef visiting our country, and big table of very appreciative and hungry students. Inspiration well executed, delicious food and a full heart, menu planning gone wonderfully right.

Final menu:
Chilled Beet Soup with Roasted corn and pickled red onions
Pumpkins seed and walnut bread
Farmer's Cheese two ways
  w/ roasted tomatoes&
  w/ rosemary black pepper honey
Plum Tarts with flaky cornmeal crust

Chilled Beet Soup
8 servings

3 Leeks (or white onions)
1/3 Celery root, peeled and diced (about 1 cup diced)
2 Carrots
3 Medium potatoes
4 Pounds beets (about 9 beets)
1/4 Fresh red chili pepper
8 Cups water
Salt to taste
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon Butter (optional)

Whey (from the making fresh farmers' cheese is optional)
If not using whey, use the juice of half to one whole lemon, to taste after soup has cooled. 
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rub beets with oil, place them in a baking dish. Cover with foil or a top and bake until tender, (you can test by inserting a sharp knife into them). The time for this can range from 40 minutes to over an hour depending on the size of the beets. (You could also peel beets, chop and simmer with the other root vegetables later in the recipe if you would prefer). 
  2. Let the beets cool until you can handle them. Use your hands or a dish towel you don't mind turning pink to rub the skins off, use a knife to trim root end off.  Cut beets into large pieces.
  3. While beets are cooking, sauté leeks, celery root, carrots and chopped chili pepper in a few tablespoons of olive oil (and butter if you like) until leeks are tender and translucent. Add eight cups of water, potatoes, salt, simmer until potatoes are soft. Add chopped beets, simmer 10 minutes more. Puree soup until smooth. Optional: Return to heat and simmer 5 minutes longer and puree again to make it even smoother. Adjust seasoning to taste. 
  4. Chill. Serve cold or at room temperature with roasted corn and pickled red onions, recipes below. 
Simple Condiments
Roasted Corn with Herbs: Shuck the husks and silks from the corn. Roast over an open flame, or even on an electric coil burner, turning as the kernels brown or char slightly. Cool enough to handle, and cut kernels from the cob with a sharp knife. Toss with a drizzle of oilve oil and any herbs you like. I used Marjoram and thyme because they were growing outside my back door....

Quick Pickled Red Onions: Slice one red onion in thin half circles. Press into a jar with a lid. Fill jar half way with a light color vinegar, white is fine, and another quarter of the way with water. Add salt and or sugar to taste, about 1 teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons sugar (adjust this to taste). Put top on and shake well till sugar and salt are dissolved. Let sit for 15 minutes or longer, shaking periodically. Onions will turn bright pink. They can be held in the fridge for 2 weeks.

Me, Chef Jorge Rausch, Farmer Jeremy Oldfield (Yale Farm)

1 comment:

  1. always great to read your blog, and I loved hearing about your process here :)