June 25, 2014

Nose-to-Tail Dining at the Beard House with San Francisco's Bluestem Brasserie

On Friday, I attended an especially lively and fun Beard House dinner, full of fizz and crackle. If you've never been to one of these West 12th Street extravaganzas, imagine the book-lined library of a Victorian eccentric who was also partial to mirrored surfaces and pineapple-patterned wallpaper. Then imagine that room crammed with tables, each place setting packed with so many wine glasses and pieces of silverware that you feel like you're at a tableware trade show. That's what dinner at the townhouse once inhabited by American culinary icon James Beard feels like.

What made the night so special were our hosts, paragons of hospitality Adam and Stacy Jed, owners of Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco, and the dinner that their gifted kitchen team, headed by chef Francis Hogan and pastry chef James Ormsby, sent out.

It was a perfect, mild summer evening for drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the garden, and the restaurant's signature Bluestem Smash cocktail, made with St. Germain, vodka, seasonal fruit, mint, lime and sparkling wine, provided the aforementioned fizz. The first crackle came courtesy of morsels of smoked salmon belly, paddlefish caviar, and crème fraîche on, yes, cracklings of salmon skin.

The other notable crunch of the night came on the outer edges of a cleverly conceived dish of slow-cooked Fallon Hills Ranch lamb belly. Like many dishes at Bluestem, this one was inspired by the self-imposed challenge of grass-fed, nose-to-tail whole-animal cooking. When four lambs and two pigs a week are delivered to your kitchen, as they are at Bluestem, what do you do with off cuts that other kitchens might discard? If you're Hogan, you stack lamb bellies six at a time,  rubbing them with olive oil, sea salt and rosemary, then slow cook the pressed blocks for twenty-four hours.  Lamb belly, he explained, is not fatty like that of pork, and only about three-quarters of a centimeter thick. Yet prepared his way and served with a blueberry agrodolce, preserved citrus yogurt and Douglas fir pine-scented Himalayan red rice, the layered, geological-looking lamb belly tasted just a succulent as its porcine counterpart.

I also liked the playful sweet-savory desserts that Hogan and Ormsby came up with. The first was a play on milk and cookies with a trio of goat and sheep's milk cheeses from Pennyroyal Farm in Mendocino sitting in for the milk. A chocolate shortbread Oreo-style cookie was filled with a whipped chevre-style Laychee and red wine-soaked cherries; a plush-rinded camembert-style cheese called Velvet Sister came balanced atop a crispy cornmeal biscotti made with a grassy olive oil, and a mission fig-filled shortbread accompanied a nutty aged goat and sheep's milk cheese called Boont Corners.

Hogan was so happy to be in a state where it's legal to purchase foie gras, that he requested that Ormsby build a second savory-sweet dessert around a torchon of Hudson Valley Foie Gras. He created a"PB and J" constructed of toasted, vanilla-soaked brioche, a peanut-cocoa nib tuile, caramelized white chocolate ganache and the disc of foie gras.

Asked what the difference was between cooking on the West Coast compared to our side of the country, Hogan who grew up in New Jersey and has cooked in restaurants in Philadelphia and Seattle as well, said, "The East Coast is more technique driven, and the West Coast is more ingredient driven--you can source so locally in San Francisco." Grrr. But we have the beauty of the changing seasons here, right? Appetite whetted for all that hyper-local sourcing, I'm counting the weeks before I can make another trip to the Bay Area.

June 18, 2014

At Shelburne Farms in Vermont, Steel Cut Oat Risotto

Can they look more content? Shelburne's Brown Swiss Cows.

This time of year makes me think of Shelburne Farms, the dynamic, progressive farm disguised as an idyllic retreat on the shores of Lake Champlain. It's a picture-perfect getaway as well as a working farm and a not-for-profit dedicated to educating for a sustainable future.

The 1,400 acre Vermont spread is what's left of a sprawling model farm and country retreat of the granddaughter of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and her family. Now overseen by a board composed of educators, environmentalists, farmers and philanthropists, the not-for-profit helped launched the Farm-Based Education Network and is a leader in Vermont’s Farm to School program. It also offers onsite educational programs for young people and professional development sessions on sustainability, food and agriculture.

Peonies in the garden.

While there to attend the farm's annual weekend-long cheese making workshop, Pasture to Palate, I stayed in the Inn at Shelburne Farms, which has been restored to its 19th-century glory with many original furnishings, and is fronted by a formal garden that has likewise been shaped according to Lila Vanderbilt Webb's original design.

The steel cut oat risotto, dressed up with a garden flower. 

What stands out in memory, besides the many delicious Vermont cheeses I tasted, learning the cheddar-making process, and the beauty of the farm and its lovable animals (which children and adults are reminded will eventually feed us), is executive chef David Hugo's beautiful and satisfying steel cut oat risotto.  Hugo, a Vermont native who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked in kitchens from Paris to San Francisco, was named Chef of the Year in April by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

To make this dish, Hugo explains that he cooks two parts oats to one part whole milk risotto style, slowly adding the milk and stirring for about 20 to 25 minutes. He then adds a sauté of onions and bacon, a little more milk, and grated Shelburne Farms clothbound cheddar. The risotto is plated in a bed of sautéed farm-grown spinach, and finished with two poached eggs, also from the farm. You can't get more local, or delicious, than this mashup of Italian technique and farm-grown ingredients.