Mixed-up Menu Trends

JB Every month or so I look forward to receiving the "events publication" from the James Beard House in New York City. Part booklet, part magazine, not only is it a gastronomic "look-see" into the minds of chefs and what they're thinking, but also a good indication of what may be cropping up on menus in your own zip code. Keeping in mind that cooking at the Beard House requires a certain amount of performance art and culinary high-wire acts, the offerings are complex and sometimes over-the-top. Yet, I'm fascinated by the ingredients I've never heard of (yes, I just admitted that), grateful for a new technique or idea, and sometimes baffled by some of the crazy-mixed up combinations.

Nonetheless, a read of the menus to be cooked by myriad chefs from all over the country provides an "instagram" sweep of America's culinary landscape. There's almost a dinner every day at the Beard House, with chefs telling their stories through the narrative of the menu, somewhere in the USA.

First, the ingredients: You'll be seeing mutton, geoduck, banana leaves, lamb tongues, mantequilla enojada (I must look this up), beef heart, gizzards, lotus leaf, finger limes, lotus root, barberries, nettles, cara cara oranges, red verjus, headcheese, shimeji mushrooms, green strawberries, buttermilk, sugar cane, scrapple, lamb neck.

A few new ideas: There's "lambcetta" (I imagine that's a riff on pancetta but who knows), white barbecue sauce, cold fried chicken torchon, cider aspic, black sesame panna cotta with yuzu, sweet chestnut-filled ravioli with warm English custard, brisket bourguignon (with lamb belly confit and quinoa).

Some nice menu language: Foraged mushrooms of the moment, fresh-churned butter, Chocolate Study=Soft, Crunchy, and Nutty.

Most curious? Coffee malt crème and soda bread parfait with frozen parsnips.

I am struck by the lack of cheese in the dishes or their presence on the menus. Instead most menus were chock-full of mystery words and only a handful showed a kind of elegant restraint. It was refreshing to see the word "fumet."

What does it all mean? Some of the wanton (not wonton!) creativity that began in the 1970s was expressed on menus in language that read like shopping lists, where every ingredient in a dish was revealed. The trend continues today. And while it is a way for chefs to differentiate themselves from others, the menus have a sense of gastronomic sameness -- with little sense of place, identity or ethnicity. This is merely an observation and not a judgment for it is what we have come to expect of our chefs and their menus. "Wow me," we say. And for the most part, this is what the chefs are doing. Frozen parsnips, anyone?

If you're lucky enough to be in New York in March or April, or anytime really, you should try one of the Beard House dinners. You'll be dropping into a wondrous food community and share a bit of the past... and the future.

A Wild & Wonderful Israeli Dinner

Erez Komarovksy has it all: He revolutionized the food of Israel with his catering company "The Futurist Kitchen" (based on the avant-garde cookbook of the Italian writer F. T. Marinetti) and emboldened Israel's "bread culture" with the country's first sour dough bakery.  He studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, learned at the knee of a Kaiseki master in Japan, and lived in San Francisco for five years during the heyday of the California cuisine "movement."  Although influenced by the world's tapestry of cooking, including that of his Polish mother (whose chicken soup was the basis of an extraordinary potage he served at the Beard House -- more about that later), Erez redefined the meaning of Israeli food at the restaurant he opened adjacent to his first bread shop "Lehem Erez."  It was at about this time that I wrote an article for the New York Times about the beginning of this "new cuisine" or Israel's own burgeoning culinary movement.  I affectionately called it Med-Rim cooking and later wrote about Cuisine Baladi -- the cooking of the land (the culinary equivalent, as I see it, of "terroir."  A word the wine industry uses to describe the air, soil, typography and micro-environment which influences the qualities of a wine.)

Today, Erez lives and breathes this notion.  After 10 years at his bakery, he moved to the upper Galilee, to a village overlooking olive groves near the Lebanese border.  There he established the Galilee Cooking School where his improvisational classes are based on foraging in the hills, plucking vegetables from his organic garden, using olive oil from the surrounding villages and cooking in the personal, intimate setting of his home.  (As I'm writing this I am already dreaming of going!)  His food is inspired by indigenous ingredients and local traditions -- Muslim, Druze and Christian, as well as the Jewish traditions that inform Israel's melting pot.  Erez's pot is filled with the wild and wonderful -- wild asparagus, wild mushrooms, and Biblical hyssop which also grows in the wild.

At his sold-out dinner at the James Beard House last Saturday, guests were able to experience Erez's personal cuisine and taste the deeply satisfying flavors of Israel -- both ancient and modern.  "A Very Israeli Soup" as the menu stated was filled with artichokes, lima beans, and Jerusalem artichokes floating in a pool of rich chicken broth (yes, that of his Polish mother -- "you take a chicken," Erez said, "take five carrots, onions....) was simply divine.  As was the stuffed spelt challah that was eaten within moments, an exuberant local lamb dish, charred to perfection, and served with Biblical wheat (freekeh).  A lovely Iraqi onion with lamb and tamarind stuffing, baby peppers brought from Israel, a wonderful garnet fish tartare inked by beet juice, fresh goat ricotta served with apricots and air-dried-then-marinated olives.

Dessert shone with radical simplicity-- with "Red Fruits &  Almond Milk"  and a horn of plenty -- his "Grandmother's Yeast Cake."  All of this washed down with intelligently-paired wines from the award-winning Yarden vineyards of Israel -- from an off-dry Gewruztraminer to a sweet Gerwurz to accompany the cake -- in between? Sauvignon blanc, merlot, and syrah.

It's not easy to orchestrate such a meal in the small kitchen at the Beard House.  I know.  I have cooked three dinners there in my day.  So Erez and his staff did their prep at the wonderful Israeli-inspired restaurant, Taboon, located on 10th avenue and 51st Street.  At Taboon one can also sample the depth's of Israel's culinary awakening.

I will see you there.  At Matat, Chef Erez's cooking school in the Galilee, or one Monday night at Taboon, for food, music and a taste of Israel.