Over the past two years I have been hosting seasonal dinners at 61 Local in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. The formation of each meal has become somewhat of an instinctual impulse to me, and allows me to create something that I enjoy doing for the feeling and the flavor of the experience. There is something so honest and transparent about cooking, where the chef is behind the line and using food as a medium to communicate with their guests. Each ingredient and the way it is prepared speaks to the diners, and pretension is left at the door. I curate my dinners in the same way as I teach my classes; I want the food and drink to be accessible, I want the process and the sourcing to be explained, and I want you to be a part of that experience and exploration. Seasonality and locality breeds fresh ingredients and regional awareness.
Thinking back on the epitome of delicious dinners I have experienced, I am transported back to Cherasco in Piedmont, Italy. I was in that northern section of Italy for the biennal Slow Food Cheese Festival, and after three intensive days of cheese tasting and a meticulously curated formal dinner, my mother, friend Janice, and I were ready to branch outside the city of Bra where all of the festivities were taking place. Cherasco is a small, medieval comune with a handful of restaurants. We had been told the Osteria was excellent, and wandered into its understated doors. Strong, round wooden tables and chairs covered the small dining room. The people were dressed casually, and the menu was dictated to us in Italian, which we awkwardly translated, before making our choices.
The food we were served was fresh and simple, such as a raviolo stuffed with fresh sheep milk ricotta, a vibrant orange farm egg, and shaved Alba truffle. The ingredients were mesmerizing and manipulated only enough to enrich the accompaniments. Four courses, including dessert, came to 50 Euros a person, a fair and affordable price for a spectacularly local meal.
As we finished dessert, the chef came out of the kitchen in a green apron and proceeded to the porch where he sat with a few elderly people chatting. It felt like we had just eaten dinner at his home, and there was a sense of neighborly familiarity to the experience.
It is always my goal to replicate a similar experience in some capacity through my House Made Cheese Dinners. When I feel like each of my guests are treated to the same revelations I had after that meal in Italy, that’s when I’ll know I’m on the right track.
Cheese in the City Supper: House Made Cheeses, Summer Fare, and Regional Wines
July 19, 2015
The evening started out with a large plating of Union Square farmers market cherries that had been pitted and stuffed with house made buttermilk cheese. The stuffed cherries were baked just enough to become plump and slightly melt the cheese inside. Cracked black pepper added a subtle kick to the amuse bouche. I kept the cherry stems intact so that each diner could pluck one off the plate as they arrived and waited for dinner to begin.
The first course was a classic pairing of vegetal beer battered squash blossoms stuffed with house made mozzarella curd, and served with quick sauteed summer squash and lemon basil. This dish is one of those obvious crowd-pleasers, as when the words “fried” and “cheese” fall into the same sentence, the people come running.
The second course was deeper in flavor, with roasted balsamic peaches, beefsteak tomatoes, spicy microgreens, and house made burrata cheese. The light roasting of the peaches and the acidity of the balsamic paired increased the nuanced flavor of the beefsteaks, which were at the peak of their ripeness. It is intended that after this course the diner becomes inextricably immersed in the experience, and the aromas and textures of the food must keep them satiated.
I like to keep the dinners predominantly vegetarian so I can showcase the season’s produce at its peak. It is only for the entree that I’ll provide meat and for this event, it was porchetta. As a vegetarian replacement for the porchetta, I made beet steaks that were roasted, peeled, cut, and then sauteed in butter with shallots and thyme. They rested on a bed of roasted carrot puree and house made creme fraiche, and were served with a variety of fresh shell beans.
The dessert was a simple Macedonian trifle with house made mascarpone. The fresh farmers market berries were macerated with New York Riesling wine, sugar, and chocolate mint. The macarpone was whipped with cream and sugar, and then layered and garnished with mint.
The set up for the dinners is communal. It provides both the option of dining with friends and the opportunity to meet someone new. The ambiance is relaxed and the plating happens before their eyes. Between each course, I’ll make a quick announcement about the dish: a short explanation about the technique used to make the cheese component and the reasoning behind the pairing process. And then I let the flavors finish the conversation and take you where you need to go. Then we dig in and enjoy the simplest pleasure of a shared meal together.