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An Early Spring Tasting

Recently, I haven’t posted the entirety of a Chef’s Whim tasting on the blog, mainly because it has been winter and we have been numbingly bored with the ingredients on hand during the cold and barren months. But now that spring is just arriving here in the very northernmost part of Virginia, we are really excited to be working with ingredients to which we have been looking forward for months.

When Tony and I devise a tasting menu each day, we start with a list of ingredients on hand that excite us and for months, there has been precious little to get our juices flowing. But finally, we have morels, asparagus, chives and chive blooms, baby local mesclun, ramps, local shiitakes, rhubarb, and anise hyssop. Finally, we have some new colors on our palette and we can start painting in color once again! I like this tasting menu because it is unambiguously about what is available during the first week of May, whereas many of our winter menus could have been done at any point between Thanksgiving and the end of March.

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Scallop Crudo with Lemon Zest, EVOO, Salt, and Blood Sorrel

I don’t know why but recently, the quality of our scallops has been way above our usual excellent standard and so I have been showing them off as simply as possible. This is invariably most guests’ favorite course of their tasting when we do it. There is something magical about thinly sliced scallops with extra virgin olive oil, lemon zest, and crunchy salt. We use hand-made salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works just south of Charleston WV on the Kanawha River. This is some of the brightest and cleanest salt you will ever taste and it really helps elevate this dish. My adage about scallops: “The more you cook scallops, the worse they are.”

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Half-Cooked Steelhead Trout

I am always torn about salmon and salmonids such as this Steelhead Trout. I love the skin really crispy and am partial to the flesh closer to raw. One of my favorite sushi presentations is a salmon skin hand roll which is the best of both worlds for me. For our trout, I decided to hard sear the skin side so that it is cracker-crisp, yet stop the cooking so that the top side remains raw. I then garnished it with the tiniest of baby mesclun, crispy paper-thin slivers of local hothouse cucumbers, micro-greens, blood sorrel, and chive blooms. This dish screams “Spring!” at me.

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Asparagus “Soup” with Poached Duck Egg, Grilled Ramp, Charred Asparagus, and Crispy Shiitakes

And then moving right into the early spring season, we are just getting deliveries of asparagus, ramps, and shiitakes, all from local growers and foragers. And the ducks are laying so many eggs now that we don’t know what to do with them all! That is a terrible problem to have! Duck eggs are so incredibly rich that once you eat one, you never want to go back to chicken eggs. Unfortunately, the ducks go barren around Labor Day in the fall and don’t kick off again until the very early spring. Duck eggs make me so happy that I want everyone to experience them and we are always looking for ways to showcase their incredible goodness. And this dish came from asking myself how I could enrich asparagus soup with duck eggs without losing the essential goodness of the egg and so we draped the soup over a poached egg and garnished with the other vegetables. I’ve got to say that charring raw asparagus on a really hot grill is a win.

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Chicken Liver with Sweet and Sour Brussels Sprouts and Morels

People are needlessly scared of liver: most of those who tasted this dish loved it. There were some haters as well. I wish we had some rabbit livers instead of chicken livers (rabbit livers are to chicken livers as duck eggs are to chicken eggs), but our rabbits are just too small right now. Coins of both big blond morels and brussels sprouts find themselves in a white balsamic vinegar and sugar sweet-and-sour sauce, draped over pan-fried chicken livers. The acidic sweet-and-sour sauce really helps cut through the richness of the livers and makes a delightful dish, if you are open-minded enough to try it.

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Rhubarb and Cranberry Sorbet

Before the final big savory course, we generally serve an intermezzo of sorbet to give customers a chance to sit back from their food and wine and rejuvenate their palates, so our sorbets tend to be on the acidic and savory side of the spectrum. When I first saw rhubarb at the farmers market, I knew that I wanted to use its natural tartness as the acidic backbone of our intermezzo sorbet. The sorbet is made from rhubarb simple syrup, cranberry juice, and cranberry bitters. Just as a dash of bitters wakes up a cocktail, so does it wake up a sorbet.

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“Porchetta” of Pork Tenderloin; Risotto Milanese

I’m just going to say it: porchetta is one of my favorite foods and I make amazing porchetta. Unfortunately, to make it right involves several days and most of a small hog. Still, I decided in “what-if” mode to see what I could make out of a small piece of pork tenderloin and how close of a facsimile of porchetta I could make in a couple of hours. Plenty decent, it turns out. I trimmed out the barrel of a pork tenderloin, butterflied it, and salted it for an hour our so, to mimic the cure that I put on pork belly before converting it to porchetta. After rinsing the salt off, I rubbed both sides of the tenderloin with minced garlic and fennel pollen, the predominant flavors in my porchetta cure.

Then I sliced some of our fabulous bacon to wrap around the outside, to help hold the roulade together and to mimic the fat layer of the belly that we usually use in porchetta. I generally make a forcemeat stuffing of hog trimmings, a loose sausage of sorts. Because porchetta slow roasts for hours, there are no worries about the stuffing cooking through. However, for pork tenderloin, which doesn’t have any fat to speak of, I didn’t want to cook the tenderloin all the way through and there would be no way to cook a stuffing without overcooking the surrounding tenderloin. So, I roasted a pork shoulder and used pulled, cooked shoulder and asparagus to stuff the faux porchetta.

The end result you see above is damn fine eats and does a very fair job of mimicking porchetta, conveying the idea at least without needing days and days of preparation. I am very happy with this dish.

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Searing the “Porchetta”

Here you see the faux porchetta in its raw state, in the pan to be roll seared before going into the oven for about 15-20 minutes to just get hot through to the center.

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Deconstructed Anise Hyssop and Rhubarb Cheese Cake

I was out in my back yard last week surveying the herb beds when I noticed how beautifully the anise hyssop, a much underrated herb, is coming along. Its light anise scent/flavor is really fresh and delightful and I love to use it in desserts. I am especially fond of it with both lemon and rhubarb and so I decided to do a dessert that showcases all three flavors. I have been playing recently with cheese cakes. My big problem with cheese cake is that by the time the cake is set in the oven and chilled in the refrigerator and ready for service, the bottom crust is invariably soggy. Mushy graham crust is tasty enough but I miss the crunch of the freshly baked and unfilled crust, so I have taken to making my cheese cake batter without eggs so that it can be served raw and baking the crust on a sheet tray so that it is essentially a large, but not sweet, cookie.

So the dish that you see is cheesecake mousse flavored with lemon and anise hyssop, crème anglaise, anise hyssop syrup, graham crust, rhubarb compote, pickled rhubarb (à la bread and butter pickles), and anise hyssop. It seems to me that this is fair representation of the ingredients we have on hand right now.

This tasting was a lot of fun for us because it was our first chance to use new ingredients since last fall. It only makes us look forward to locust blooms, strawberries, cherries, peas, favas, and other items that late spring brings us.

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