Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Oleana & Siena Farms

Demo day with Ana Sortun of Oleana! I wasn't sure what to expect because I was familiar with Oleana's flavor profile and menu, so I was surprised to see the recipes for today having a distinctly Middle Eastern slant. Although I had lots of Turkish and Armenian friends in college, we never really ate it much because it wasn't easy to find in Boston. I guess we just missed Ana's opening of Oleana back then. So, I wasn't very familiar with the foods, but I knew they were all heavily spiced and used a specific combination of spices and oils that may people would have never thought to put together, which I thought would make for an exciting meal.

It was also great to see her bring in produce from her and her husband's farm. I've noticed that a lot of the chefs that have come in say that we should all be trying to buy locally, but most are happy to just give Kevin a shopping list and not really consider where their produce and meats were coming from. I was really pleased to see a chef who really did walk the talk and brought in some of her own produce to really demonstrate the difference.

Ana started the afternoon with a discussion about the new and different ingredients we'd be seeing today, for example, argan oil, and how they apply and a little bit of the history behind it. She also touched on why she loved Middle Eastern food and her philosophy behind it was that you can make food taste good using fats like cream and butter, or you can add flavors using spices and herbs. She preferred the idea of adding flavorings because you can eat food and not feel uncomfortably full and unpleasant afterwards, a full flavor without the fatty feel. I completely agree with her, sometimes I want to eat a cheeseburger, but I don't have one because I want to avoid the unpleasant feeling afterwards. However, I'm not a fan of really intensely spiced foods, so while I completely agree with her theory, I don't necessarily agree with her choice as an alternative.

We had a fairly extensive menu today so we were split according to the demands of the recipe. I was on beet salad duty, with a little help from Catherine. The beet salad used very thinly sliced roasted candy cane beets from Ana's farm, arranged on a plate, drizzled with a dressing and served with quenelles of flavored goat cheese and chopped cilantro.

Catherine whipped together the fresh goat cheese, sliced almonds, diced dried apricots and minced scallions that will be served on top of the beets and dressing. While the beets were roasting in the oven, I made the dressing for the salad with sherry vinegar, lemon juice, honey, finely minced shallots and garlic, extra virgin olive oil, argan oil* and rose harissa**.

The harissa was a really thick, intensely flavored paste that had a thick layer of deep red oil resting on top of it when I opened the jar. I couldn't believe how much of it I was using, especially because one drop of it was already a lot of flavoring. In fact, because the harissa and sherry vinegar was quite strong, I needed to add in extra honey to help balance it out.

When the beets were ready and slightly cooled, we took a towel to them and started taking off the dirty skin. Ana explained that its best done warm to hot because once the beets got too cold the skins wouldn't fall off as easily anymore. Then, it was on to slicing the beets on the mandolin. I'm always happy when I can use the mandolin. I think it's because growing up in a household of Chinese food, there weren't a lot of opportunities to use cool, dangerous looking gadgets, so I'm sort of making up for lost time. The one problem with the mandolin, however, was that it would loosen after a few slices and need to be readjusted. When the beets were sliced they looked really nice, because the color hadn't bled so much that you couldn't see the original colors. Each disk actually looked like a little rose patterned stamp and seemed almost appealing to me (I don't like beets one bit).

Once all the mise-en-place was done, Ana showed me how she wanted the beets plated with the dressing, goat cheese and cilantro. We arranged the beets around the plate, slightly overlapping each slice onto the previous one. I think the color and the arrangement on the plate actually looked beautiful, something like an unusual rainbow rose:

Once it was done, we drizzled it with a bit of the harissa vinagrette, then placed quenelles of goat cheese around the plate and scattered some chopped cilantro on top:

As much as I love Ana, I still don't think I like beets. Independently, I liked the goat cheese and I thought the dressing, although strong, was really nice. I don't know that I liked all of the food together, either. It seemed like there might have been too much going on because there was a strong, robust flavor coming from the dressing and the goat cheese and the beets and the cilantro and it felt like they were combating each other a bit in my mouth. I liked pop flavors, but I think this dish might have been a touch too busy for me.

The other groups worked on the other courses served starting with some watermelon radishes served with a Middle Eastern condiment, cacik:

I didn't get to taste this because it went out while I was plating the beets. A lot of people mentioned that Ana put a surprising amount of the cacik the the radishes, but that even though the taste of the cacik was intense, it went well with the peppery radish flavor.

The beef kofte with green tomato, butternut squash and leeks was probably the biggest surprise of the evening for me. The seasons that were added to the beef made it taste like lamb! Maybe it was just the spices used were spices I generally taste when I eat lamb, but I couldn't help but feel like the little meatballs were made out of lamb, even though I knew they were from beef. I think these meatballs were really good, I liked the flavor a lot. I think the butternut squash, leek and tomato sauce that went with it was a little unusual because of the sweetness from the squash. I also thought it didn't seem to match the rest of the meal visually, because the first two courses had been so vibrant and intensely flavored.

I also found it interesting that it was served over crisped up flat bread and not with it. It didn't taste bad at all, but it was an fun twist on how to incorporate a starch into the meal, instead of falling back on bread or rice or something. This dish actually introduced us to another seasoning, pomegranate molasses, which was drizzled over the dish just before it was served. It gave a really nice sweet and tangy kick to the dish, lightening it up and making it seem fresher, they way mint, lemon or cilantro can do for dishes in other cuisines. I liked the lightness and really thought it changed the whole flavor concept of the dish. Really lovely.

The dessert was a kind of nut turnover with a simple dough and filled with pistachio paste called a pistachio katmer that was pan fried just before service and served with marscapone cheese. Just like the other dishes, it had a very intense flavor right off the bat, but the addition of orange blossom water actually killed the dish for me. After the initial first taste mellowed, it gave way to the orange blossom water, which I love... just not to eat. It made me feel like I was eating perfume and didn't feel right at all in my mouth and on my tongue. The taste of it really confused my palette.

It actually reminded me a bit of baklava, another pastry/nut dessert item. I think I like baklava more because it has the same initial burst of nutty flavor, but doesn't have a strange (to me) after taste.

I really enjoyed working with Ana, I think she had some really interesting food philosophies and I respected her style of cooking, even if I didn't like the specific flavors she used. I think she's been one of the few chefs that have come in and really shown us what they're about and how they're sticking to their beliefs day after day.

Today made me think about food in a different way and I appreciate Ana's motivating force.

* Argan oil is an oil produced from the fruits of the Argan (Argania spinosa) a species of tree endemic to the calcareous semi-desert of southwestern Morocco. The most labour intensive part of oil-extraction is removal of the soft pulp (used as animal feed) and the cracking by hand, between two stones, of the hard nut. The seeds are then removed and gently roasted. This roasting accounts for part of the oil's distinctive, nutty flavour. The traditional technique for oil extraction is to grind the roasted seeds to paste, with a little water, in a stone rotary quern. The paste is then squeezed between hands to extract the oil.

** Harissa is an Algerian, Libyan and Tunisian hot red sauce or paste made from chili peppers (often smoked) and garlic, often with coriander, cumin, and/or olive oil. It may also contain tomatoes. It somewhat resembles sambal and chili sauce. One well-known and expensive variety, "rose harissa" also includes rose petals. It can be used as an ingredient or a condiment.