Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Globe Trotting

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, or at least in the way that most people make them. The type of resolutions that I like to make improve my life in a different way. For example: this year I have resolved to try as many different independent coffee shops and pizzerias as I can. Not the healthiest of choices, but I bet that I'm in the 99th percentile of resolutions achieved for 2011.

At least I have my ongoing resolution to become a better chef as a redeeming value. In the last year I've made good on my resolution, studying the lesser-known flavors of the world - from Scandinavia to Kashmir and Indonesia, anything beyond the trendy cuisines that you'll find on nearly every corner these days.

I came across this one recipe for an authentic Sri Lankan curry paste that really helped me understand the way countries influence each other, like a beautiful game of connect the dots across the map. As I contemplated this week's special this recipe came up, and I felt that it would fit perfect with some seasonal ingredients and a different technique that I've been wanting to try.

The curry paste recipe consisted of coriander, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, coconut flakes, and dried chiles among other things (including dried, ground rice), so I stayed true to it but used some Latin American chile instead, like the Ancho and New Mexico variety because both are large, signifying a mild heat but with a lot of flavor.

I don't offer many chicken dishes for a reason; most chefs believe it to be a "throw away dish", something you do to appease the indecisive or apprehensive, so I can stretch the boundaries by using the Sri Lankan curry paste as a marinade to liven up the generic stereotype. Since I already get HUGE chicken breasts for our brunch menu I realized that I could split them lengthwise and trim them to a perfect portion size before pounding with a meat mallet. I rolled up the meat with the paste and twisted the ends tightly to expedite the marination process while awaiting your order.

For the "starch" component I decided on what I consider the "trifecta" of chef influence. Michel Richard, one of the most influential chefs of our time and considered the Godfather of modern Californian cuisine, publicized a technique that he created by cutting potatoes into the size of rice and cooking them like risotto, a technique later expanded on by one of my early influences, Ming Tsai, who implemented the technique with sweet potatoes to suit his "East meets West" culinary POV. The "trifecta" is finalized when I realize that while Chef Tsai's version is rich in possibilities, the sweet potato lacked enough starch to simulate a true risotto, so I meticulously cut sweet potato into long julienned strips with a mandolin and then chopped them with a knife into the "rice" sized shapes. I cooked the leftover pieces in coconut milk, some light beef stock and a touch of saffron-infused honey to build on both the Middle Eastern flavors of the chicken as well as accentuating the sweetness of the "yam". Once cooled I pureed the mixture into a smooth paste and stirred it into the raw "rice", giving me the right texture and mouth feel but not any of the heaviness attributed to traditional risotto.

Since I'm using a spicy component with the chile paste and a sweet component with the "risotto", there's no other choice but to add some bitter greens to bridge the dish and balance the flavors. Being in this season and in this region, there's no better option than the mixed organic braising greens from the local Willie Greens Farm that I love to lean on for any complimenting element to my dishes. I know that I sound like a commercial for them, but there really isn't a local farm that offers as wide of a variety of organic vegetables as they do. I would mention it more if I wasn't so worried about being repetitious...

I simmered the winter greens mix on top of chopped onions and garlic that had already been softened in olive oil to allow the natural water to leach out and steam itself, concentrating the flavor even more, bringing the dish into a perfect Zen-like balance.
Whenever I ask my produce purveyor "What's new?" this time of year I get the same ol' answer..."Beets, turnips, kale, and citrus." Sounds pretty standard, until he reminds me about Meyer lemons.

Meyer lemons are a cross between a mandarin orange and a traditional lemon, yielding a sweeter lemon with a darker, thinner skin, but there is a short window when this fruit is available. While I figure out other potentials for this hybrid I might as well go with the "why didn't I think of that" idea: a Meyer Lemon Margarita.

See? The winter doesn't have to be all cloud and gloom. There's a burst of sunshine with every sip!!

With Love,