The home cook versus a trained chef. There are thousands of reasons that separate these two knife-wielding gourmands in the kitchen. And I'm not even talking about dicing technique, the battle scarred hands or the colorful vocabulary. I'm thinking more about the dozens of small things that only chefs can learn from years spent in kitchens developing and preparing dishes hundreds of times under the pressure of executing them perfectly for customers, that forces insight and knowledge.
The Clarke Culinary Center in Norwalk is giving us entree into the world of the trained chef, allowing voyeuristic home cooks throughout southern Connecticut the chance to watch, smell, taste and touch alongside some of the best chefs in the area. This series launched in September 2009 and features some of the most talented and well-known chefs in our area including Matt Storch of Match in Norwalk; Fritz Knipschildt of Knipschildt Chocolatier; Andy Husbands of Tremont 647; Ming Tsai, Food Network personality and owner of Blue Ginger; and Jean-Louis Gerin, owner of Jean-Louis; Regina Dvorak, the Clarke Corporate Chef, and the Chefs at Barcelona Restaurant Group.
On a recent weekday evening I visited the Clarke Culinary Center, a gigantic space of ten thousand square feet with about a dozen of live kitchens, to join the class led by Chef Matt Storch, executive chef and co-owner of Match in South Norwalk. Titled "Bounties of the Market," the class was inspired by the local produce just beginning to rear their fiddleheads in Connecticut.
A bowl filled with freshly shucked peas, piles of fava bean pods, beets, neat rows of ramps and fiddlehead ferns were waiting patiently to be escorted to their dates with various pots and pans to be paired with a range of some amazing looking protein. Chef Storch came prepared to impress with lamb chops, prosciotto and some screamingly fresh wild striped bass that had been caught just that previous day. The dozen or so of us attending also came prepared with ample appetites, eager to glean some tips for our own home culinary adventures.
"Start with beautiful, raw, local food. Use ingredients you can identify. And taste when you shop."
These three bits of advice came in rapid fire from Chef Storch as he finalized his kitchen prep and segued into our theme for the evening. Spring is a time when we transition from roasting in our cozy kitchens to firing up our grills en plein air. A welcome transition for both the home cook as well as the items you'll find at your local farmers market. "Raw peas, this simple vegetable is the perfect appetizer in spring, " Chef Storch said as he passed around the bowl of pea pods for us to taste and help shuck.
A 400 degree oven was quickly met with a pile of oiled beets for the next 45 minutes. As he assigned us various tasks our busy hands compelled us to listen in and watch as the pieces of our first course came into focus. Semolina flour, whole milk and heft pats of butter turned into a silken polenta that became the base for our first dish, Raw Asparagus Salad with Warm Truffle Polenta (recipe below). This began with about four tbsp of butter, a full quart of milk and two cups of semolina flour. Yes ladies, use the whole milk and don't skimp on the butter. A quick taste and onto the next dish and next string of rapid fire techniques, tips and tricks.
"Acid is a chef's secret. Always have a lemon or lime laying around."
After our first course, next up was an up close and personal date with everyone's favorite protein, pork. Using both slab bacon and proscioutto for the next dish, the class took a decidedly meaty turn. The slab bacon was sliced, baked and met with onions and peas for our next course of Spring Peas with Bacon and Pecorino. The proscioutto was baked on parchment in a 400 degree oven "for a while" until it crisped making it an ideal amuse bouche or accompaniement for an entree. The peas, bacon and pecorino were paired with mint, proscioutto for a double dose of pork and lemon.
"Always kosher salt. I finish my dishes with Maldon."
Two delicious appetizers were down, now two promising entrees to go. Chef Storch segued the class into the entrees by first extolling the virtues of a clean and seasoned grill as he assembled the next dishes: Wild Striped Bass with Spring Hash and Citrus; Spring Lamb, Goat Cheese and Mint.
First the fresh wild striped bass and the grill were primed with oil. An old dish towel with olive oil was swiped on the grates as Chef Storch took each piece of fish and strummed the grates with one side to prime the grates once again with oil. This double-duty approach will guarantee your fish will not stick.
"Leave your fish alone and let it speak to you."
For starters, stop looking at your watch and fix your gaze on the fish itself which will practically lift itself off the grates when it's ready to be flipped. Seriously, it spoke to us so we listened, and flipped. The spring hash to accompany the fish was assembled as we waited for the fish to sing. Chef Storch combined a bevy of blanched vegetables including peas, favas, potatos, asparagus, ramps and fiddlehead ferns into a large saute pan, seasoned with sprigs of thyme. The fish served atop the hash was finished with citrus and olive oil.
Fish done, lamb to go. And Lamp chops on the grill are one way to ensure a well attended dinner party. These gorgeous looking cuts of lamb loin chops marinated in herbs and oil reminded us why we own a grill in the first place. Perfection.
"Always let the meat rest. The juices need to redistribute."
As the lamb hung out on the grill, Chef Storch took out his oven roasted beets, peeling them by using an old dishtowel, then sauteed and blended to use as a base for a beet and balsamic dressing.
A mint puree as the finishing touch to this decadent entree.
The Clarke Culinary Center is a playground for Connecticut foodies. With many live spaces, events and classes to experience with personalities like Chef Storch, it makes sense for this to be a destination for large-scale food industry events to small private gatherings, private parties, and corporate retreats.
For more information on The Clarke Culinary Center Cooking Classes, visit their web site.
Raw Asparagus Salad with Warm Truffle Polenta
Serves Family of 6
1 bunch Thick asparagus spears
2 each Lemons (juiced)
¼ cup Olive oil
1 chunk Parmesan reggiano
1/8 oz Truffle or truffle peelings
2 Tbls Truffle oil
2 cups Milk
2 oz Butter
1 cup Semolina
1 bunch Leeks
Peel the asparagus from the butt to the tip with a standard peeler.
Heat the milk in a saucepot with plenty of room because the milk will steep
over the edge of the pot.
Season the milk with salt and pepper, and add a little butter.
Add in a bit of semolina and whisk (remember you will not be able to tell how thick the polenta is until it starts to boil.) Add a bit more semolina until you reach your
desired thickness, let the polenta simmer for 10 minutes.
Dress the peeled asparagus with lemon, olive oil, truffle oil, parmesan, and shaved truffle.
Dice the leeks and dust with flour and fry.
Add a touch of truffle oil into the polenta and pour onto the service platter.
Top the polenta with the asparagus salad and then a bit more parmesan reggiano.