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Caught up in the moment

Special to The Times

THIS time of year, a chef in a farmers market is like a kid in a candy store. Among all the stands overflowing with gorgeous produce, chefs’ eyes -- and often their arms -- grow as wide as their imaginations.

Last Wednesday at the Santa Monica farmers market, Ortolan chef Christophe Eme’s arms were indeed open wide, holding zucchini flowers, fava beans and summer savory -- and he was just getting started. That night, the savory and Oregon morels went into a stuffed saddle of rabbit; the zucchini flowers were stuffed and paired with a soft-shelled crab. You could measure the time from market to plate in hours.

“Going to pick out fresh vegetables and herbs at the farmers market gives me inspiration to try new dishes,” says Eme. This sentiment is echoed across town, as the late spring ingredients of the moment show up on menu after menu as suddenly as the new crops themselves.

Ammo chef Amy Sweeney has a forthright take on her market vegetables. She scatters them across thinly rolled pizza dough that gets baked in a very hot oven for a stunning market pizza. Baby zucchinis from Tamai Farms, yellow sungold tomatoes from Harry’s Berries, purple spring onions from Weiser Family Farms and a rain of fresh marjoram, feta and mozzarella roast together into a glorious combination. And it’s incredibly simple too, especially with her trick of making foolproof pizza dough in a food processor. There’s something beautifully sudden about the dish, as if she found what looked the very best that day and brought it to the tables as soon as possible. It’s an adaptable idea too: You can substitute whatever you happen to find at the market that morning.

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At Campanile, chef Mark Peel devotes his Wednesday tasting menu to what’s just in season. Right now he’s stuffing his squash blossoms with morels before deep-frying them, and rolling white asparagus and seared scallops in grape leaves. He’s also particularly fond of nettles from Maggie’s Farm, in season for another month. Peel pairs them with sauteed fluke and fingerling potatoes; he also purees them into a soup topped with chive creme fraiche. “I love the counter-chic of using something that’s a weed,” Peel says gleefully.

Sona chef David Myers has been experimenting with the English peas he finds at Chino Farms. Myers’ English pea soup may take a mountain of peas -- and some very patient people to shuck them -- but the result is a glorious paean to the season; the color is astonishing, a deep vibrant green that almost glows. Myers starts with a stock made by simmering water with shallots and fresh thyme from Coleman Farms. He then purees the blanched peas with the stock, strains it and finishes it with fresh basil and a drizzle of mustard oil.

Myers’ English pea experimentation doesn’t end with soup: He’s making wasabi peas too. Look for them next to his signature lotus chips at Sona’s bar any day now -- just as soon as he’s perfected his recipe.

Joe Miller of Joe’s Restaurant in Venice is pairing Pink Lady apples from Pudwill Farms with crispy chicken, spring onions and smoked chicken jus. Wild arugula from Maggie’s Farms and white asparagus combine to form a salad that accompanies tea-smoked duck; heirloom fingerling potatoes from Weiser Family Farms become thin chips that garnish a dish of Northern halibut over a morel and artichoke stew; ramps get pickled before they’re paired with Scottish salmon.

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At the Hungry Cat, almost every one of chef David Lentz’s dishes these days has something from the markets. Or a lot of things. His pan-roasted halibut comes perched atop garlicky white grits, morels, spring onions and a fragrant and brilliantly green gremolata. And Lentz’s marinated raw gray snapper with wild arugula, Fresno chiles, avocado, fresh mint and cilantro reads like a list of what’s just in at the market.

Worth the effort

GOOD thing Lentz’s restaurant is a stone’s throw away from the Hollywood farmers market. “It’s a lot more work when you get most of your produce from the farmers markets, having to go and load your truck with enough produce for two to three days,” he says, “but the product is superior -- and we’re supporting the farmers.”

And at Literati II in Santa Monica, pastry chef Kimberly Sklar has pounced on the cherries that have just come into the markets. She roasts the Burlat cherries from Barbagelata Farms in a vanilla, brandy and sugar slurry, then she serves them with an almondy polenta cake. The flavors are a spectacular combination -- the faint hint of corn and the almond notes in the polenta play beautifully off the deep rich cherries. Roasting the cherries is a perfect way to finesse the season, as the fruit hasn’t reached its peak yet and the flavors still need a little coaxing.

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“Cherries are the first to arrive of the stone fruit,” Sklar says, “which is just the beginning of so much more to come. This is my favorite time of year.”

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Polenta cake with roasted cherries

Total time: 1 hour

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Serves: 8

Note: From pastry chef Kimberly Sklar of Literati II. At the restaurant she serves this with almond and cherry swirl ice cream.

Polenta cake

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature, plus 1 tablespoon for pan

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1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fine to medium grind cornmeal plus 2 teaspoons for dusting pan

1/2 cup brown sugar, not packed

2 eggs, room temperature

3 egg yolks, room temperature

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1/8 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

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2 teaspoons granulated sugar for dusting

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Use 1 tablespoon butter to grease a 9-inch removable bottom tart pan; dust with 2 teaspoons cornmeal.

2. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until light in color and fluffy, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Scrape the bowl and add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Stir in the almond extract.

3. Sift the flour, remaining corn meal, baking powder and salt together and fold into the mixture.

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4. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the sugar evenly on top. Bake for 20 to 24 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Roasted cherries and assembly

4 cups or 1 1/2 pounds Bing

cherries

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2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise and seeds scraped and reserved

1/4 cup brandy

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1 tablespoon cornstarch (mixed with 1 tablespoon water)

Polenta cake

1 cup whipped cream

1. Wash, stem and pit the cherries; set aside. When the cake is removed from the oven, increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

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2. In a bowl, combine the brown sugar, sugar, vanilla bean, brandy and the cornstarch slurry. Whisk until combined.

3. Fold in the cherries and place in an 11-by-7-inch glass baking dish. Bake until the cherries are tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Stir after baking 5 minutes.

4. To serve, slice the cake and place on a dessert plate. Spoon cherries and sauce on top of the cake. Add a spoonful of whipped cream and serve.

Each serving: 381 calories; 5 grams protein; 42 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 20 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 181 mg. cholesterol; 182 mg. sodium.

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Market vegetable pizza

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Serves: 8

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Note: From chef Amy Sweeney at Ammo in Los Angeles

Pizza dough

1 ( 1/4 ounce) package active dry yeast

1 cup warm water (100 to 110 degrees)

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1 teaspoon honey

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 teaspoon

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

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1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and honey. Let sit in a warm spot for 10 minutes until the yeast becomes active. Stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil.

2. Combine the flour and salt in a food processor. Add the yeast mixture and pulse to combine. Process until the dough forms a ball and becomes smooth and elastic, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.

3. Use the remaining teaspoon of oil to lightly oil a large bowl. Place the dough in the oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes. Divide into 4 balls.

Pizza

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Pizza dough

Cornmeal for dusting

12 to 16 baby zucchini, sliced on the diagonal lengthwise into 1/8 -inch thick pieces

1 pound baby Sungold tomatoes (about 48), halved

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16 red spring onions, ends trimmed; using 3 to 4 inches of the white and pale green part of onion, cut into several thin, lengthwise slices

1/2 to 3/4 cup fresh marjoram leaves

8ounces feta cheese, crumbled

8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, shredded

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1. Place a pizza stone (if using) on the middle rack of the oven and heat the oven to 500 degrees. Roll out 1 ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface to a 10- to 11-inch circle.

2. Sprinkle a pizza peel or pizza pan with cornmeal, then place pizza dough on it. Sprinkle one-fourth of the mozzarella onto the dough, then add one-fourth of the zucchini, tomatoes, onions, feta and marjoram. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

3. Bake for 13 to15 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Continue with assembling and baking the remaining pizzas.

Each serving: 370 calories; 16 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 48 mg. cholesterol; 483 mg. sodium.

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Pan-roasted halibut with grits, morels and spring onions

Total time: About 2 hours

Servings: 4

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Notes: From David Lentz of the Hungry Cat in Hollywood

Grits

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups water

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2 garlic cloves, sliced

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup coarse grind grits

1. Bring the cream, water and garlic just to a boil. Turn off heat and infuse for 20 minutes. Strain out the garlic, rinse out the pan and add the cream mixture back to the pan.

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2. Add the salt and bring to a boil. Slowly stir in the grits, reduce the heat and simmer until the grits are tender and cooked through, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Add up to 1 cup water when grits get too thick. Cooking time will depend on the type of grits used.

Gremolata

1 cup parsley leaves

2 garlic cloves

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1 teaspoon lemon zest

2 tablespoons olive oil

Finely chop the parsley, garlic and lemon zest together. Place in a small bowl, stir in the olive oil, cover and set aside.

Halibut and assembly

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2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided

4 spring onions, root trimmed and the 3 to 4 inches of the white and pale green part cut into quarters lengthwise

Salt

Freshly ground black

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pepper

1 1/4 cups vegetable stock,

divided

2 tablespoons ( 1/4 stick) butter, divided

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3/4 pound fresh morels, stems trimmed, cut in half if large

1/4 cup sherry

1 1/4 pounds 3/4 to 1-inch thick halibut fillet, cut into equal portions

Grits

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Gremolata

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat a small oven-proof saute pan with 1 teaspoon olive oil. Add the onions to the hot pan and toss with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until the onions are just starting to caramelize, 2 to 3 minutes. Add three-fourths cup vegetable stock and 1 tablespoon butter, stir to combine. Cover the pan and roast in the oven 30 minutes until the stock has reduced. Remove from the oven and set aside.

2. Rinse the morels in a bowl of cold water, drain and gently pat dry. Heat a large saute pan over high heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms have released their liquid and the pan is dry, about 6 to 7 minutes.

3. Deglaze the pan with the sherry and cook until the pan is dry. Add one-half cup vegetable stock and reduce by half. Stir in 1 tablespoon butter and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the reserved spring onions. Set the pan aside and keep warm.

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4. Remove the halibut from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Sprinkle the fillets with salt and pepper. Heat a large non-stick pan with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the fillets and cook for 4 minutes, until the fish has good caramelization. Turn over and cook 1 to 2 minutes until cooked through. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish. Remove from the pan and keep warm.

5. Divide the grits among 4 serving plates. Place the halibut on top of the grits. Spoon one-fourth of the mushrooms-onion mixture over each piece of fish, followed by a spoonful of gremolata, and serve.

Each serving: 948 calories; 39 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 69 grams fat; 34 grams saturated fat; 223 mg. cholesterol; 869 mg. sodium.


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