That appeared to be true at Fresh Starts Chef Events in Novato, where Chef Tony presented a menu for 100+ fans who are not surprised that Central Market stays open to serve California-Mediterranean comfort food with seasonal, mostly local ingredients.
Chef Tony says he seeks to make “food that reflects the unique history of Petaluma,” including products from his own Muleheart Farm not far from the restaurant. He describes his cuisine as traditional, focused on ingredients rather than trends.
That dedication showed in the antipasto, a plate at each table with salumi made from a pig raised at Muleheart Farm, plus olives and bread.
Chef Tony prepared Winter Citrus Salad with Shaved Fennel, Red Onion & Feta Cheese to start – a “winter tomato salad” since tomatoes are out of season. He makes the vinaigrette first “to give vinegar time do its thing with the shallots” and always soaks the feta cheese in water to reduce salt and transform its texture.
He followed by demonstrating one of Central Market’s most popular dishes — Chicken Bomba with Basil Mashed Potatoes. The recipes were prepared and served for guests by Fresh Starts Culinary Academy students.
The Chicken Bomba recipe grew from Chef Tony’s quandary: diners always seem to want chicken breast on the menu, but you don’t want to have leftover dark meat. The stuffed meatball fit the bill, he says, but created a new problem – extra chicken breasts.
“There’s only one way to make meatballs and that’s with your hands,” he told guests, adding that the secret is wet hands. He added the ricotta cheese filling and baked in a tomato jus.
“I don’t like to cook complicated,” Chef Tony says, a motto manifest in his last dish. The Baked Fuji Apple-Cranberry Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream includes his favorite dessert ingredients – flour, butter, fruit, sugar – something he says “any 8-year-old can make.”
Chef Tony praised the culinary students, who plated the dessert with a twist by adding the flour, sugar and butter as a cookie topper. While he rarely does public events, he adds, he supports Fresh Starts Culinary Academy because “it really is wonderful what they do.”
We can say the same of Tony Najiola and Central Market. — Contributed by Carol Inkellis with photos courtesy of Neely Wang.
Winter Citrus Salad with Fennel, Red Onion & Feta Cheese — Serves 6 -8
For the salad:
3 lbs. navel, Cara Cara or blood oranges (any combination), peeled with pith removed
1 cup shaved fennel, sliced as finely as possible on a mandoline
2 cups wild arugula
½ cup shaved red onion, sliced as finely as possible on a mandoline
½ lb. French feta cheese, soaked in water for 20 minutes to desalinate
For the vinaigrette:
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons chopped oregano
2 teaspoons chopped mint
Salt and pepper, as desired
Slice oranges ½-inch thick and arrange on a large platter with over-lapping slices.
Dress oranges with vinaigrette and allow to marinate for 30 minutes.
Top with red onions and season all with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Toss arugula and fennel with a small amount of vinaigrette, season with salt.
Scatter arugula mixture over oranges.
Top with crumbled feta cheese.