Quality Chocolate

Chris Mirams is our pastry chef at The Picnic and he’s in charge of all our chocolate work. He always says that quality work comes from quality ingredients. When it comes to chocolate that means using Valrhona.

Valrhona has a long and interesting history and it’s an outfit that’s set a benchmark for not just quality of product but for how we think about chocolate. Valrhona was the first chocolate maker to label their product with its percentage (of cocoa solids) and its origin. That origin has become all important and specifically in ensuring chocolate comes from a single origin rather than a rag-bag assortment of where ever was cheapest. Single origin chocolate links the product back to the growers and the plantations, meaning authenticity of product, trace-ability and accountability are all paramount.

The chocolate industry suffers in the way many luxury, high end industries do from exploitation and corruption. Valrhona was the first company to extricate itself from that and begin talking about their product in terms similar to wine and coffee, where it comes from, its credentials, the year it was grown, it’s ‘vintage’.

The iconic black bags of couverture, pellets and pearls are labelled with exotic names like Xocopili 72% and Araquani 72%, Guanaja 70%, Caraibe 66% and Tanariva 33%. They come from plantations in places like Ecuador and Madagascar. There’s a great respect for the people who grow the beans and the places that rely on the chocolate industry as an important part of their economic sustainability.

Valrhona was established in 1922 in France by pastry chef Alberic Guironnet. It’s been through a number of owners since then, taking its most recent name from a blend of Valley and Rhone where it originated. It’s a company with a strong tradition and with quality as its driving value. At The Picnic we choose to use it because of that quality. It means we can make the very best chocolate work. But also we support and respect the way the chocolate we make can be traced back to the people who grew the bean. When you taste our chocolate work you are validating a long history of quality craftsmanship, but also paying homage to the all the people and all their various skills that have worked so hard to make that mouthful possible.

5 Days: 100 Tastes

Inspiration is everywhere. Look carefully and the ride to work can inspire.

To be honest though, five minutes up the expressway is perhaps not quite as inspiring as, say, five days in San Francisco!

Five days, 3 square meals a day, four sides to every square, that’s 60 food offerings with snacks, ‘travellers’ and ‘quick-bites-to-tide-me-over-while-I’m-waiting-in-the-queue’. One hundred tastes of inspiration to bundle up as memories and bring back to the kitchens.

We’re inspiration camels, storing up our supplies for when we need them. We can live off these five days for some time.

It’s not always a given that overseas means awe-inspiring. Sometimes seeing a place in person takes away some of the mystique.

But other times, when you’ve drooled over something delicious on a blog or in a magazine you get to Mecca and it’s as good as it was in your imagination, just with a longer line to get in.

Some highlights:

  1. Sea Urchin on the Commonwealth menu with horseradish tofu, garden herbs, wasabi, haricot vert veloute. Knockout. I mean really…and not something I would normally gravitate towards but boy I will remember this taste for a long time.
  2. Eating this brave came about because when we saw the Commonwealth menu we said to the wait-staff “Give us one of everything”. It was that good. So inspired I will be thinking and talking about this for a while. Watch out!
  3. Bi-Rite food market. Wow! so much choice, so many flavours, so fresh and vibrant. I love this place. Definitely at the top of any San Fran to do list.
  4. Tartine Bakery. Bread that inspires with its texture and lightness and style. There’s no hidden fluff here, the shape of loaves is honest, literally no hot air in there. The taste lifts bread above just being a vehicle for other foods. Something to aspire to.
  5. San Francisco Farmers Market. I love markets anywhere and everywhere but sometimes you find one that blows the rest out of the game. It’s hard to put your finger on what lifts this above others, tangible things like volume and variety. But also indefinable things that feel like they’re linked to vibe or ambiance but just leave you with a warmth inside. A feeling that hangs around like the memory of a great day with great food and great friends.

 

 

 

FLAVOUR NOSTALGIA

Some flavours stay with you for a long time. And when those flavours bring memories along for the ride, one bite can really take you back. Food is a time-machine! So this is a taste of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, one of my first Californian restaurant experiences. That was 23 years ago. I still use this recipe today.

Zuni was iconic: ground-breaking Californian cuisine of its day. It was the golden age of Cali cuisine and a time when braver restaurants were doing away with flavours stolen from other places and instead letting locals speak for themselves, that is local growers, local tastes, local combinations.

I lent my copy of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook to someone years ago and never got it back. Luckily I had this scrawled in a notebook!

Zuni Cafe Caesar Salad

Serves 4 to 6

This recipe is adapted from “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers.

  • 2 salt-packed anchovies, filleted, rinsed, dried, chopped
  • 1/2 tablespoon (generous) minced garlic
  • 1/2 tablespoon (scant) red wine vinegar
  • 2/3 cup + 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • – Pinch sea salt
  • – Freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 pound chewy, rustic French or Italian bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
  • 2 cold large eggs, well beaten
  • – Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons), or to taste
  • 2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 hearts of romaine lettuce, cored, leaves left whole, chilled

Instructions: Preheat the oven to 160°.

Combine half of the anchovies and garlic in a bowl. Add the vinegar, the 2/3 cup olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Let stand for 20 minutes.

Toss the bread cubes with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spread on a cookie sheet and bake until golden, about 10 minutes.

At serving time, slowly whisk the oil mixture into the eggs to form an emulsion. Add the remaining anchovies and garlic, the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of the cheese.

Thoroughly toss the lettuce leaves with the dressing, being careful not to bruise them. Taste for salt and add, if necessary.

Divide the salad among chilled serving plates. Add the croutons, dust with more freshly ground pepper and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

All for fermenting

We’ve talked before about how kitchens are extending themselves into supply, to create this beautiful loop of grow, make, cook, serve. Another in that ilk is Bar Tartine in San Francisco. There the buzz is about making each part of the offering from scratch, whether it’s the lard or the paprika, or the bread, which alone is worth a visit. The chefs are Nic Balla and Cortney Burns and the flavours and textures reflect the heritage of both – Eastern European and Asian. That may seem muddled but it works well together because of a kind of peasant honesty and warmth.

The really big deal at Bar Tartine in terms of DIY is fermentation. That’s the truly inspiring element. There’s hints here of both the Hungarian and the Japanese influences as fermentation is a staple in both food cultures. From an historic point fermentation is age-old and comes out of necessity, links strongly to harvest-cycles and has huge health benefits. But it’s also a dynamic way to bring a particular punch to dishes and a flavour profile that’s hard to find in any other way.

Kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, even yoghurt, are all ferments incorporated into dishes. If you include some pickles and chutneys, and even the right kinds of bread – read sourdough – there’s a lot of fermenting going on in our own kitchens too. And yes it’s de rigueur to ferment but those original reasons for doing so are still valid and vital: it makes harvested food last right through the year, it cuts down on waste and makes the most of what you have at hand, and it’s very very good for your insides, whether you’re a rave-reviews restaurant or a home cook.

Chad Robertson, who took the beautiful photographs for the Bar Tartine cookbook, took this pic of pickles too.

Take it to the People

I’ve told you before I’m over talking about food. I think about it all the time. Not in a self-satisfied way, but in a ‘sharing, caring, dishing delish up to others’ way. But I don’t want to talk about it.

Reading about it is another thing altogether.

There are some folks out there in Foodland who are making words and pictures as delectable as their dishes. Diner Journal from Marlow and Sons is beautifully constructed and deserves its place on the Foodieodicals magazine menu.

Marlow is Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth who, 16 years ago, set up Diner in Brooklyn, then a plethora of other steadfastly New York eateries. Each one has its own thing going on but there’s a theme that resonates beneath the whole suite and bubbles up in the pages of Diner Journal.

Clean, fresh, good, simple. No muss, no fuss.

Like Lucky Peach. Pages of yum. Real content. Things you never knew you needed to know, then suddenly find fascinating and essential to life. Each issue says lots about one thing, sees one thing from lots of angles. Instant expert with every issue.

Lucky Peach’s current infatuation with ramen makes me hungry for it. As obsessed as they are. Karen Leibowitz’s history of the noodle is fun and fact-packed. I’m there with her, licking umami soup from my chin.

Capturing vibe on the page makes butterfly collectors out of foodies. They run the risk of flattening the textures, diluting the tastes, knocking the life out of ingredients. Some publications then over-correct, injecting saccharine colour into shots and tingeing the prose purple. Diner Journal brings readers into the Marlow fold through pages of vibe-only content. They don’t tell you they’re cool – they don’t even show you – they take you by the hand and lead you there.

It is not enough for Marlow to take over New York street by street, they are also creating damn good propaganda to carry their philosophy of food to the people. Marlow and Sons, et al, may be very New York but through Diner Journal we all get the chance to rub up against the vibe.

Bedrock

Look at this: Union Square Market Map

Drool, right?

It’s seeping potential. Imagine the eats you could make with all this.

Union Square Market, NY: Hand painted rustic signs, that really are rustic, not just ‘designed’ to look that way. Awnings. Baskets. Blackboards. Plumes of carrot tops. Goose eggs. Rooftop honey. Blueberries. Flags proudly proclaiming ‘Organic’.

I would like to transport myself there twice a week, for forever. It’s actually open four times a week but I have things to do here so it’d be a co-share arrangement.

And when I float home across the ether I’ll bring back a bag of goodies from ABC Carpet and Home.

It’s my favourite place and it’s right next to my other favourite place so it’s like a Mecca of goodness.

Part of the ABC of A.B.C. is to make home a sacred space. “Beauty, experience and magic”.

Geographically, it seems so distant from my home in Hawke’s Bay. Is it possible to have a home and a home-away-from-home so far from each other? One rational, emotional, practical; one spiritual, romantic, fantastical. The tunnel between the two would pop out in the market. We’re both market towns, HB and NY. Rural folks bring their produce to the centre and urbanites gratefully buy. It’s a meeting of people and cultures, energies and sensibilities, food and drink.

I could drill through bedrock to get there. The portal: our own markets here in Hawke’s Bay. The idea that all over the world people are growing stuff, selling it, exchanging product and chatter, and cash, then people are taking that stuff home and cooking it, sharing it, eating it. That is trade at its most raw, pure. Ancient and honest. Money made from hard work and solid principals. And a meal made from the same.

Bring the rainbow

Simple food, prepared well outstrips flashy fluffing with a pile of fancy fare. And the simplest of all is the humble vegetable. VEDGE is a vegan restaurant in Philadelphia and what they do with vegetables would garner the envy of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he of the ultimate veg-head Vertumnus.

Vegetables are beautiful.

Meat comes in two colours: blood and blah. Vegetables bring the rainbow. “Eat your greens,” mothers tell their issue, “Eat your oranges, your reds, your purples, your yellows, AND your greens!”

VEDGE is the baby of Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby who have captured their restaurant in a cookbook, also called VEDGE. “100 plates that redefine vegetable cooking,” they say.

The ideas are simple enough to be easily dismissed. But there’s an aftertaste that makes you linger longing for more. Look again at that roasted carrot, come closer and see what’s been done with those Brussels sprouts.

Dinner hosts shrink at the thought of a vegan coming to tea. “No eggs?!” “No cheese?!” “A single serving of nut loaf?” But VEDGE offers so many inspired ideas the whole table will soon be devouring vegetables.

Few people raise meat to eat in their own back yards. But vegetables are so do-able. There’s such variety there, not just in type but in specifics. Take tomatoes: cherry, roma, yellow, plum, bush, brandywine and beefsteak. All ready to go, cheap to grow and offering up a hundred different meals.

Embrace the vegetable, make it the hero on the plate, invite some veg heads to tea and show them your moves. If you get it right with the vege you may even find you have no room left for the meat.

 

 

Squash toast

Just when I think I’ve tasted too much, smelt too much, thought too much and talked too much about food I find something that reminds me that some simple food needs so little to make it perfect.

Recently, as blood thirsty children loosely disguised as Halloweeners traipsed around the neighbourhood in search of sugar, I found a sweet little recipe for squash toast. So perfect when there’s hollowed out pumpkins lit from within on the porch but so wrong when we’re six months from traditional ‘harvest’ season.

Smitten Kitchen blogs her edible adventures from a tiny kitchen in New York City. She calls herself fearless. And attempts mastery of some complex things, restaurant standard but prepared by a mum in the city with a toddler at her ankle. “Comfort food stepped up a bit”, she says.

This squash toast recipe originates from Jean-Georges Vongerichten via ABC Kitchen NYC – miles away from Smitten Kitchen in equipment, combined experience and skill. The recipe comes out of Jean-Georges’ commitment to keep things simple and tasty. His food is not weighed down by tradition and he looks to the East for inspiration. Heavy stocks and creams are replaced by vegetable juices, fruit essences and light broths. Herbs, fruits, veges. And he keeps things true in another way too: no pesticides, insecticides, antibiotics, hormones. His restaurants may have grown up to be some of the big players in the game but his happy place is a simple kitchen, and his favourite food more likely to be found at a Thai street-food cart than on an a la carte menu.

A recipe for squash toast has sent me on a yummy little journey through different kitchens. A recipe can become an heirloom, a keepsake, a gift, a memento, a snapshot. From the huge kitchen of ABC to the tiny one of Smitten, a recipe becomes a portal through which a love of simple deliciousness can travel from one cook to the next.

I like what Alice likes

“an ideal reality … where eating together nourished the spirit as well as the body since the food was raised, harvested, hunted, fished and gathered by people sustaining and sustained by each other and by the earth itself.” Alice Waters

Alice Waters began her Californian restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. Inspired by fresh French market fare, and coming out of a 1950s childhood of frozen, fast and convenience foods Alice wanted to prepare and share local and fresh to her friends and patrons.

She says, “I was just looking for taste and I found organic and I found local”.

I understand that search and discovery process. We live in a market town, in the food bowl of New Zealand. You don’t have to go far to find food fresh out of the ground, off the tree, on the vine. We’re lucky but we don’t always see that.

On a gap year Alice lived in France and what she ate there inspired the rest of her life with food.

She “lived at the bottom of a market street” and “took everything in by osmosis”. Her search for fresh real ingredients was on.

I feel that here. But let’s face it, it’s not much of a search. What’s in season is at road-side stalls, the Farmer’s Market, farm, garden and orchard gates. Quite literally in our own back yards. Fast food here is fast because it’s fresh and convenient because it’s right there, on your door step.

Alice says her food is inspired by “What’s in my garden, what’s at the market, what is beautiful, what has a kind of life in it.”

In my kitchens that’s the vibe too. It’s real value. And that’s not a money thing, it’s the value of food and quality. Alice talks about the environment she came out of to establish Chez Panisse, “The cook was not valued and the farmer was not valued. It was just sameness.” I get that. When you eat from my kitchens you eat value, and you can taste it. Soil that is valued, growers who are valued, environment and animals and plants that are valued.

Fresh and pure ingredients and a market that is good, clean and fair to everyone involved.

And customers who are valued too. My kitchens are an extension of my home and I welcome people with the same warmth, generosity and attention to detail.

I am inspired so much by what’s around me, it’s the reason I live in Hawke’s Bay, and I hope the inspiration is passed on to the diner through the food.

Alice calls it “Environmental harmony and delicious flavour”. Harmony and flavour – what more could you ask for.

See more Alice here

Hear more Alice here

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