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Crutches and Vegetables: A Vegan Tasting

I don’t think most chefs realize how much we depend on the crutches of butter, cream, and cheese to pull off our menus. Dairy is a quick way to smooth out and enrich sauces, to convey mouthfeel, and to make guests feel comforted. I know that I don’t think about how much I depend upon dairy until I get smacked in the head by the reality of a vegan tasting menu, of which we do perhaps a half a dozen a year, at the request of customers.

We look at doing a vegan menu as an intellectual exercise that really pushes our boundaries and forces us to re-examine who we are as cooks. And so we put a lot of hard work both mental and physical into our latest vegan tasting and came up with some nice dishes that we might actually do again some day as part of our standard dinner menu. This tasting, like all our tastings, began with a list of ingredients that are seasonal right now and evolved from thoughts about how to best showcase those ingredients. Comments below the photos.

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Chips and Dip

The first course called “Chips and Dip” was the final course that we designed for the menu. We were looking for a fun starter and I had two separate ideas written down: sweet potatoes and poblanos, and seven-layer dip. Distilling these ideas we came up with these sweet potato chips and three dips: refried local black beans, mashed potatoes and roasted poblanos, and lime sweet potatoes. The whole thing is surrounded by a lime-cilantro vinaigrette to supply needed acidity. We are so fortunate to have growers for everything we needed for this dish except the lime.

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Panzanella

It might be the first of October, but we are not ready to say goodbye to tomatoes just yet. Just one more hurrah before we go into the long 10-month tomatoless period. This dish really is as simple as it looks and as such, there isn’t anywhere for us to hide. The tomatoes have to be perfect to carry this dish and it took me a long time at the farmers market to find exactly the right tomatoes: we really are at the end of their season. Other garnishes are basil oil, micro-basil, and tomato vinaigrette.

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Corn Risotto with Chanterelles

The fall chanterelle mushrooms are really coming on strong now. For me, there is something magic about the combination of corn and chanterelles. Sadly our corn is done for the year, except we were so lucky to have just two ears left in the cooler. I am glad we could share it with our guests. While risotto is one of those dishes that really wants some butter and cream to make it what it is, a broth-only version can be amazingly good.

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Red-Cooked Turnips

This dish of red-cooked turnips, fried rice, sesame chile oil, sesame seeds, pickled mustard stems, and green onions was really a no-brainer for us. We have been looking forward to braising season again so that we can get back to the classic Chinese red-cooked dishes in which we braise things in soy sauce, bean paste, rice wine, sugar, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, garlic and so forth. This dish was born of our love for the best part of any red-cooked meat dish, the soft lumps of braised daikon left at the bottom of the bowl!

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Apple Butter, Apple Cider, Maple Syrup, Chipotle Sorbet

For the palate cleanser course, we wanted to make a fall statement and here in apple country, what better way to do it than with apples? I infused apple butter, apple cider, maple syrup, and the barest hint of chipotle adobo for a half an hour and then strained everything and put it in the sorbet machine. The apple butter, apple cider, and maple syrup all come from the same local farm. The sorbet was fantastic with a mouthfeel that really made you consider whether or not it contained cream. The chipotle added a very subtle note of smoke and the barest suggestion of spice at the back of the throat; if I didn’t tell you it was there, you would not guess it was.

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Ribollita

Ribollita, that classic Tuscan bean, vegetable, and bread stew, is a cucina povera (peasant cooking) dish that comes to mind each fall as the first harvest of the cavolo nero (black Tuscan kale) coincides with the later harvests of our local bird egg beans. We inverted the sense of this dish by pulling the bread and the kale out of th stew and serving the whole on a bruschetta lavishly drowned in extra virgin olive oil. These bird egg beans are incredibly meaty and are a staff favorite here at the restaurant.

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Paw Paw Pancakes, Apple, Chestnut, Sweet Potato

Finally, our dessert course was an intellectual exercise in making pancakes without eggs. We considered what we had on hand (sweet potatoes, chestnuts, paw paws, apples, and hickory syrup) in composing this dish. The plate comprises paw paw and cornmeal pancakes, apple butter, brûléed apple, sweet potato sauce made with coconut milk instead of cream, and a pickled chestnut. Garnishes are a spiced red wine syrup and locally made hickory bark syrup.

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