Recipes in the latest cookbook by Chef John Ash, a double James Beard Award-winner, explore the “connection to cultivated food and those foods that exist in the wild,” the author says.
Guests at Fresh Starts Chef Events got to taste the connection when Chef John, a visionary in Wine Country cuisine, demonstrated four dishes in a benefit evening to support Fresh Starts Culinary Academy and Homeward Bound of Marin.
Though local stores now stock many foods that once were foraged – for example, fish and weeds like dandelion greens – the food world is still adopting new tastes. Insects were not on the menu, “though it’s the future,” the chef says.
His presentation from the book, “Cooking Wild,” began with Maitake Tempura & Ponzu Dipping Sauce, a revelation to those who think of tempura as greasy and heavy. Chef John coats the mushrooms in corn starch before dipping them in a batter of rice flour for a feathery but satisfying texture.
He offers three rules to frying food: use a clear oil with a high smoke point, such as grapeseed oil; avoid using excess batter or coating on foods; and keep the temperature between 350-375°F, the “sweet spot,” so the food cooks before absorbing too much oil.
Chef John, an adviser to Seafood Watch of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, prepared a second course of Sablefish with Tomatoes, Pine Nuts & Olives. Also known as black cod or butterfish, he calls this sustainable species “the most forgiving fish — you can’t overcook it and it doesn’t get dry.”
He lightly coated the fish with flour—he recommends Wondra—before cooking. He added spinach from Homeward Bound’s on-site garden into the recipe. Belying his early career as a fine arts painter, he plated the fish and other dishes with colorful style.
The main course of Roast Loin of Venison with Blackberry Sage Sauce uses “the saddle” of the animal, which needs to be marinated and roasted only to 118-125°F. While most venison sold by butchers is farm-raised, the meat remains lean with no internal fat and needs careful roasting to avoid drying out.
Chef John quizzed the audience and cleared up a myth about marinades. Marinating adds flavor but does not tenderize meat; on the contrary, if meat marinates too long, he warns the acid denatures the protein, making it “floppy and cardboardy.”
The Maple Flan comes together easily but has tricky moments, such as coating the bottom of the ramekins with caramel without spilling. Like all the dishes, this one was executed with great results by the Fresh Starts Culinary Academy crew.
Fresh Starts Chef Events’ premier sponsor, The Republic of Tea, underwrote food costs and provided iced tea, while Mycopia Mushrooms, Inc. donated the Maitake mushrooms and wines were contributed by Virginia Dare Winery.
“Food is what sustains us,” Chef John says. He thanked the crowd for sustaining shelter and job-training programs Homeward Bound of Marin with their presence. — Contributed by Carol Inkellis with photos courtesy of Neely Wang.
Sablefish with Tomatoes & Olives – Serves 4
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 skinless sablefish (black cod) fillets (about 5 oz. each)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/4 cup dry white wine, such as pinot grigio
2 cups grape tomatoes, halved (quartered if large)
1-1/4 cups shrimp or chicken stock
1/2 cup pitted and slivered Niçoise olives
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1/2 cup lightly toasted pine nuts
Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the fish, season generously with salt and pepper and cook until lightly browned and crusty. Remove fish and set aside.
Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine and let simmer until reduced by half, about 2 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, stock and olives. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Stir in rosemary.
Nestle the fish in the sauce browned side up. Return to a simmer, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until the fish is cooked through and is just starting to flake, about 3 minutes.
Divide fish among 4 shallow soup bowls. Add pine nuts and chives to the sauce and check seasoning. Spoon sauce over the fish and serve immediately.