Wednesday, June 1, 2011


This week began with the first of many Tuesdays where I am mentoring a young, aspiring chef through a program that pairs underprivileged people with restaurants to help teach them a trade, much like the Farestart organization that we love so much to support.

I can't take credit for the idea; Stacey first employed Nathaniel at our sister restaurant, Geraldine's Counter, as a busser, but asked me to bring him in on Tuesdays to help me on my biggest prep day while teaching him my Jedi culinary ways.

I can't pretend to be able to understand where Nathaniel is coming from or what he's been through; all I know is how important it was for me for the great chefs of my past who took the time to show me the ropes and share their knowledge and insight with me. I felt that if I could spark that same fire of passion for cooking that I have in someone else and help turn their lives around for the better, then why not try??

I wanted to showcase a dish for Nathaniel that would explain what I like to do here at Table 219 - taking those classic Americana dishes and putting them through the wringer of my mind; twisting and turning the idea until it comes out its own, unique dish.

I've had the idea for a shrimp 'n' grits au gratin in my notebook for a while now but I never had the appropriate cooking vessel, until now. At risk of repeating a similar presentation so soon I went with the same dishes that I used for my (future menu staple) wild boar enchiladas two weeks ago. In hindsight, I believe that self-imposed risk was more than worth it.

I first poached medium-sized shrimp with the shells still on in an already flavorful shrimp stock to make sure all of their flavor stay inside. While the shrimp cool and are peeled I used the cooking liquid along with half and half to cook the grits, finishing them with freshly grated Grana Padano, an Italian hard cheese similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano but more subtler and less nutty, perfect for debunking the "no cheese with shellfish" myth. That's right - MYTH!

I fold in freshly chopped chives and parsley that are abundantly available locally before baking the mixture in individual dishes with even more cheese on top until bubbly and delicious. I added a side of grilled sourdough bread that makes for a perfect bridge for the au gratin from dish to mouth!

The only thing missing is the obligatory vegetable, only this time it's something that threatens to outshine the main focus of the dish:

This spring/summer cusp is really the best of both worlds. I used Walla Walla spring onions that I slowly cooked in butter, sweet curry powder and a splash of soy sauce to bring that umami flavor. I used the curry butter to saute local, organic shitaki mushrooms, first of the season yellow corn and vibrant pea shoots to give a beautiful taste of the season with a punch of flavor!! 

To offset the somewhat rich aspect of the au gratin I thought that a light and bubbly cocktail would fit the bill.

With fresh blueberries now coming in from California I wanted to infuse them in vodka, but I didn't have the chance to do it ahead like I normally do, so I used a new technique that I learned which involves quickly chopping the blueberries in a blender with the vodka, funneling the mixture back into a bottle and drawing out the air with a wine pump that creates a vacuum in the bottle normally used to preserve the wine. The technique does in one hour what would normally take at least a week!

To further enhance the blueberriness we muddle a few with ice before adding the infused vodka, Aperol - an Italian aperitif that has a lot of flavors going on like bitter orange, rhubarb and cinchona, the bark that I used as the foundation for my tonic water recipe a couple of months ago. It's the original ingredient in a spritz that's topped with sparkling wine, which led me to this combination.

With Love,