January 20, 2015 – Did you know that seawater makes a perfect poaching broth for fish? Or that common weeds like stinging nettles and sour grass can be coaxed into fine restaurant-quality dishes?
Participants in the first Forager’s Kitchen cooking class last weekend—organized by Edible Monterey Bay magazine—learned the secrets of cooking with often overlooked local ingredients that are readily available to anyone who takes the time to wander through the redwood forests or along rocky beaches.
The cooking class was part of the three-day Big Sur Foragers Festival held annually to benefit the Big Sur Health Center. This year’s festival raised more than $35,000 to support the health center over the next year.
More than 500 people took part in exciting festival activities that also included foraging hikes, an epic dinner by State Bird Provisions chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, the popular Fungus-Face Off pitting local chefs against each other in a contest of imaginations run wild and a brunch and silent auction at Big Sur Lodge.
Winner of the People’s Choice award went to chef Tim Wood and his team from Carmel Valley Ranch for a dish pairing chanterelles, black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms with short ribs on a garlic crostini with sea salt and red radishes. The judges’ pick for overall winner was chef Tony Baker of Montrio Bistro in Monterey for his black trumpet mushroom tart topped with dock candy cap jelly, foie gras parfait, a bit of Baker’s bacon and pine needle syrup. (See full list of winners here)
The Forager’s Kitchen class, held Sunday at the Big Sur Lodge conference center, included chef Jason Cogley of Aubergine, chef Brad Briske of La Balena and chef James Anderson of Affina, all from Carmel, and pastry chef Yulanda Santos of Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn and chef Jacob Burrell of Big Sur Bakery. Participants were divided into five rotating small groups so that everyone had a chance to observe up close, ask questions and interact with each of the experts.
And thanks to the generosity of Cima Collina, Heller Estate Organic Vineyards, J & L Wines and Wine Warehouse, there was plenty of wine to sip as we learned.
Here are some of the secrets I gleaned in between bites of their delicious preparations:
Jacob Burrell – Cooking with Seawater – The chef at Big Sur Bakery took seawater from Pfeiffer Beach and boiled it for five minutes to kill off any impurities, then strained it through a cloth napkin before putting it to work as a completely natural cooking medium. He added a clove of garlic and two bay leaves, then used some of the seawater to boil golf ball-sized new potatoes that emerged perfectly seasoned with a thin covering of tiny Monterey Bay sea salt crystals. He used another pot of seawater to steam open fresh mussels and to poach fillets of ocean perch. Logically, it turns out that using seawater helps shellfish and fish retain the light, pure taste of the sea—which is easy to lose with heavier preparations.
Burrell also explained that when he worked at Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos they often made their own finishing salt, starting with ten gallons of seawater harvested from the Monterey Bay and simmering it down for three days. After the seawater reached a slurry state, it was spread out on sheet pans to dry and allow big salt crystals to form. Big salt crystals add a pleasing crunchy texture to the top of a dish, Burrell explained.
James Anderson – Cooking with Wild Mushrooms – The chef at the trendy new Affina restaurant in Carmel explained his goal in preparing wild mushrooms is to avoid steaming them and making them slimy. So he uses a generous amount of olive oil and butter in the sauté skillet and takes care to cook them in small batches. “If you can’t see the bottom of the pan it’s too crowded,” he said, warning never to salt mushrooms while cooking, as this draws out moisture and would poach them.
Anderson prepared a creamy Wild Mushroom Risotto using chanterelles, hedgehog and black trumpet mushrooms and Laura Chenel goat cheese. After sautéing the mushrooms he splashed them with a little sherry vinegar, added more olive oil and set them aside to marinate before using them atop the risotto.
He also revealed his trick for making 20 or more labor-intensive risottos each night in a busy restaurant kitchen. He cooks the rice, risotto-style, for about 18 minutes and then spreads it out on sheet pans to dry and store until the evening. When it’s time to make the risotto, the cooking time is reduced to finish the elegant dish is reduced to less than five minutes.
Justin Cogley – Cooking with Seaweed – Chef Justin and his staff at Aubergine like to forage for sea vegetables in the rocky outcroppings between Carmel and Point Lobos. (See EMB’s winter issue)
He made fennel and seaweed jam for the class, similar in texture to a tapenade but not as salty and with subtler sea flavors, used as a bed for grilled fish or chicken. It was accompanied by tiny red sea grapes that were a revelation, each miniscule capsule bursting with the taste of a fresh sea breeze.
Due to big swells chef Justin couldn’t get out on the rocks before class to forage for the Turkish towel seaweed and sea lettuce he often uses at the restaurant, so he substituted an exotic Japanese plant called tonburi. It comes from the seedpods of a type of cypress bush and is sometimes called “land caviar” because of its grainy and delightful texture.
Brad Briske – Cooking with Stinging Nettles – Chef Brad said nettles can be used in any dish that usually calls for spinach. They are mild and earthy in taste, but must be handled with gloves because tiny hairs on the underside of the leaves can sting. Once cooked or dehydrated (for tea), the sting goes away and nettles become a delicious source of minerals and iron.
He made a plate of nettle gnocchi, similar to dishes served at the Cal-Tuscan La Balena restaurant. Nettle puree was used in the dough, turning it a beautiful shade of green, and handfuls of fresh nettles were thrown into the creamy final preparation.
The secret to chef Brad’s perfectly-formed, light gnocchi was using ricotta cheese instead of riced potatoes and then sautéing the tiny pillows of dough in a frying pan to “harden them up” a little before finishing the cooking process in a cream sauce. Absolutely irresistible!
Yulanda Santos – Cooking with sorrel – Foraging for her ingredients under the redwoods and along streams in Palo Colorado, chef Yulanda showed us how to make a refreshing dessert with redwood sorrel or the common sour grass oxalis blooming right now all over the Monterey Bay area.
She simply blended a couple of ounces of chopped sorrel with simple syrup and poured the mixture into a metal container. She froze it five hours and then used a fork to scrape ice crystals off the top to form into little balls of granita.
Chef Yulanda served the redwood sorrel granita in a cup with vanilla ice cream, the sweet and sour granita providing a pleasing contrast of taste and texture. And she decorated it with an adorable (and completely edible) yellow sour grass flower—ending our class on a very sweet note.
Many chefs believe that your palate and your brain get bored with a dish after the first three bites, James Anderson told the class, which explains the propensity for small portions and lots of small plates in the finest restaurants.
The technique certainly worked at the Forager’s Kitchen: The class provided a complete meal of small bites of creative ideas and unexpected flavors—blowing away the participants.
Plans are already underway for a second edition of the class during the Foragers Festival next year. Don’t miss it!
Photos courtesy Camilla M. Mann.