Sierra Mar Restaurant
Wow in Winter: Decorated area chefs share their favorite ways to seize the chill season at home.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
So beguiling is the tomato that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda paid it tribute with a whimsical composition, “Ode to Tomatoes.” Sweet corn has found its way onto the cover of an eponymous book of poems. Summer vegetables have inspired many great people, in the kitchen and out. Winter veggies, not so much. Swiss chard or parsnip evoke as much excitement in me a tasteless, imported, underripe roma.
Believe me, I have tried to embrace the bounty of cooler climes, but my attempts at creative cooking with winter vegetables have come to naught. So I decided it was time to dig deep into their merits and seek expert advice.
First, I turned to Craig von Foerster, executive chef Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn. Von Foerster hasn’t always been a fan of winter vegetables, but his mindset has evolved while adapting to Sierra Mar’s daily changing menu. “Over the years I’ve really learned to appreciate them,” he says.
In the dining room, he often pairs parsnips with a main course that lends itself to sweetness, such as game or pork. After cooking the parsnips he adds a little vanilla bean and purees everything into a mash: “The parsnip flavor is set off very well with vanilla.”
For a tasty and unusual ravioli filling, von Foerster suggests roasting parsnips until soft and then combining it with mascarpone. Add a pinch of nutmeg and salt, and voilà!
You can also take your basic potatoes au gratin recipe and improvise with thinly sliced root vegetables like rutabaga, salsify, or parsnip, he says.
When it comes to cruciferous vegetables, he sings the praises of the new cauliflower varieties. Two natural variations include cheddar and purple. While the flavors are similar to white, cheddar cauliflower is chockful of beta carotene and purple cauliflower has antioxidants similar to red wine.
Von Foerster’s latest passion is pickling purple cauliflower, which holds its color very well when cooked.
“It looks beautiful when served,” he says. “The acidity in the pickling helps keep the colors in so it stays bright.”
The next time you’re preparing broccoli, don’t throw the stems away, says von Foerster. Instead, peel the stems down to the pale center, slice them and toss them with red wine vinaigrette. “It’s a nice texture and has very good flavor.”
Next, I talked to a grower. ALBA (Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association) farmer Eleazar Juarez sells a Technicolor array of cauliflower, beets, and chard at the Pacific Grove and Saturday Salinas farmers markets. He willingly shares his wife Ana’s family recipe for acelgas con papas (chard with potato). Eleazar goes through the motions as he instructs me to cut the chard into ribbons (most people discard the stems but if you peel them and chop them up, they’re tasty too) and the potatoes into a small dice. Then fry chopped onions and serrano chiles in some oil followed by the chard and potatoes. This dish is tasty on its own or bundled in a burrito, says Eleazar.
His son Edgar adds that chopped leeks taste great in chicken soup or beef stew. He also recommends roasting cauliflower in the oven and seasoning with oregano and ground red chiles.
Another chef, Corkscrew Café (55 E Carmel Valley Rd., 659-8888) Executive Chef German Salazar, sautés kale with a little olive oil and splashes in some red wine. Then he sprinkles pine nuts and raisins over. His tip: “Your pan must be very hot!” You can use anything from rainbow, red or green chard, or even chard’s cousin beet greens in this recipe. Crisp fried bacon bits would make a fabulous topping over this simple sauté too.
Salazar also makes a cauliflower or broccoli bisque and enhances the thick creamy soup with spicy poblano peppers and the clean fresh taste of cilantro.
“The peppers add a lot of flavor, both sweet and spicy, and the cilantro evens the flavor out,” he says.
In the end, you’re only limited by your imagination and what’s stocked in your pantry. Look through your cookbooks and innovate using your favorite recipe and the winter vegetable du jour.
One good rule of thumb: Substitute chard or kale for spinach in just about any recipe… but with caution.
Do be careful with red chard, says Sierra Mar’s von Foerster. “It will bleed red into whatever you’re cooking. If you sauté it, wrap it in a paper towel to help it drain off that excess coloring.”
The moment I conjured a sprightly Swiss chard frittata and an offbeat pecorino and walnut kale pesto in my kitchen, winter vegetables were my culinary nemesis no more.
Sierra Mar Restaurant Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, Highway 1, Big Sur • Noon-3pm, 5:30-9pm daily. • 667-2800.