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Thursday, July 5, 2012 11:12 pm

The delights of special dinners

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Some of Springfield’s most exciting and innovative cuisine isn’t found on its restaurants’ regular menus. It’s true that Springfield’s best restaurants’ daily specials for appetizers, entrées or desserts are often composed of locally procured ingredients at the height of their seasonal best. But hands down, the most satisfying way to enjoy their succulent ripeness is to experience the special lunches and/or dinners sponsored by organizations that open them to the public, the restaurants themselves or through the auspices of Lincoln Land Community College’s new culinary facility. Most of those meals are at restaurants, but a few even take place right on the farms where the meal’s ingredients are grown.

Best of all are those offering a prix fixe (set) meal, a multi-course meal that in Springfield at least, denotes an extravaganza. There are several reasons why they’re usually wonderful. First, the menu has been carefully devised to not just showcase a bunch of locally grown stuff, but to present it in such a way that each course logically follows the next. Lighter courses precede more substantial ones, so there’s nothing lingering in your palate to diminish your enjoyment of the plate now before you. If done properly, a set menu should leave you pleasantly full rather than uncomfortably bloated, regardless of the number of courses.

And there are other advantages. Oftentimes the menus come with a relatively inexpensive up-charge for wines, beers or cocktails specifically chosen to complement the food. And for all you bean-counters, these special dinners are almost always exceptionally easy on the wallet. Most of these kinds of dinners I’ve eaten here in Springfield would easily have cost three to four times more in Chicago or St. Louis.

The primary organizations that sponsor local lunches and/or dinners are Slow Food Springfield, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and the Culinary Institute at Lincoln Land Community College, although it really belongs in a category all its own. Slow Food sponsors dinners throughout the year; their six-course Vegetarian Feast, which will be held July 24 at American Harvest, sold out in 10 days. The Slow Food folks will sponsor an on-the-farm lunch at Bear Creek Farms near Kincaid in July as well as host what’s become an annual Heritage Pork Feast at Maldaner’s in the fall.

The Illinois Stewardship Alliance has a well-organized and publicized program that encourages locals to discover the fantastic creations that chefs can concoct using central Illinois’ seasonal, locally-grown foodstuffs. Local Flavors is a series that connects Illinois growers with producers and consumers that opens new markets for farmers’ pristinely fresh goods, and letting consumers taste food that is truly “farm fresh” rather than the vast number of food products misleadingly so labeled, often with cheery pictures of an old-fashioned farm: A wholesome Mom complete with apron and a overalls-clad Dad, with two apple-cheeked kids. Their chickens scratch carefully in the dirt, looking for a tasty worm, while cattle contentedly eat mouthfuls of emerald green grass.

This year, the ISA has extended their Local Flavors meals to two other cities: Decatur and Champaign/Urbana. “The whole thing that drove our Local Flavors series was farmers wanting to market their goods to restaurants,” says ISA’s director, Lindsay Record. The Local Flavors program helped some chefs, such as Ross Issacs’ Sean Keely, to begin purchasing provisions from local purveyors, and others to “up” their commitment.

Maldaner’s chef de cuisine, Michael Higgins, has been a longtime supporter and buyer of local meat and produce. He was the first, and for many years the only, area chef to cultivate relationships with the local farmers who produce much of what appears on Maldaner’s menus. He’s even had farmers grow unusual produce or special varieties of, say, lettuce just for him.

The staff of Lincoln Land’s Culinary Institute is also committed to purchasing as much local foodstuffs as possible. And head instructor, chef Denise Perry, will be preparing a “farm to fork” dinner on July 7 at Jubilee Farm in New Berlin.

Then there are the new kids on the block: Jordan and Aurora Coffey, whose 15-month-old restaurant, American Harvest, centers around using as much local and seasonal foodstuffs as possible. Both Jordan and Aurora are Springfield natives, and Jordan got his start in the restaurant business as a dishwasher at Augie’s Front Burner. The couple ran the café at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, then moved to Chicago where Aurora attended culinary school and Jordan worked in restaurants, most notably the highly regarded OneSixtyBlue.

Aurora and Jordan returned to Springfield for Jordan to become head chef at Augie’s. They intended to stay just a year before moving back to Chicago to gain experience in other kitchens. But Jimmie’s, the restaurant that had been in the space that American Harvest now occupies, closed just as they were starting to pack. Augie Mrozowski offered Jordan and Aurora a deal too good to turn down: They could run the restaurant and create the menu. In fact, as long as the numbers were healthy, they could pretty much do whatever they wanted. “He lets us make our own decisions,” says Jordan. “But we know what he expects of us.”

American Harvest’s regular menu revolves around seasonal cooking and locally produced ingredients, and they participate in the Local Flavors dinners as well as hosting some of Slow Food Springfield’s dinners. But about once a month – always on a Thursday – they offer their own specially themed prix fixe dinners.

Sometimes the theme is pairing food with beer, or wine, or even cocktails. Sometimes it can revolve around a holiday. A recent dinner was devoted to sous chef Khyran Boyd’s memories of growing up in different neighborhoods in New York City.

Jordan and/or Aurora – who is American Harvest’s pastry chef, as well as other tasks as needed – most often are in charge of such special dinners. But they also want to give other cooks in the kitchen a chance to strut their stuff. Boyd himself created and was in charge of executing that New York dinner.
“Each guy gets to do one,” Jordan says. “I’ve worked in so many kitchens where it’s the chef’s way or the highway. We’re all line cooks here.”


RICOTTA GNOCCHI

Jordan and Aurora Coffey say that their Ricotta Gnocchi is an ongoing customer favorite, one so popular it’s become a staple that will always be on the menu in some form or other. It’s those seasonal changes and ingredients that enable their luscious and ethereally light gnocchi to be both a much-loved familiar comfort dish, but also innovative and exciting.

As the Coffeys say,” What changes is the gnocchi’s condiments, which throughout the year showcase local and seasonal ingredients.” Right now, the gnocchi are being served with a condiment of olive-oil-cured cherry tomatoes, summer squashes, pesto, a bit of olive oil and good Parmesan.

•    1/2 (15-16 oz.) carton of ricotta cheese, preferably whole milk
•    4-5 c. all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
•    4 whole eggs
•    2 T. olive oil
•    2 cups freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
•    Salt and pepper to taste
•    Olive oil for coating the cooked gnocchi, optional

Mix all ingredients until they form a thick but still pliable dough. If the dough seems too loose and sticky, add additional flour as needed, no more than a tablespoon or two at a time. Place the dough on a well-floured surface and divide into 6-8 pieces. Roll on the well-floured surface into “ropes” that are approximately 1/2-inch thick.

Cut the gnocchi into rectangular 1 1/2 -inch to 2-inch pillow shapes. As they’re cut, move them back into the flour and toss them very gently to coat.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil on the stove. Add a small handful of salt (preferably Kosher). Toss the gnocchi a last time in the flour, then gently drop them, a few at a time, into the boiling water. After a few minutes, the gnocchi should begin rising to the top of the pot. (If your pot isn’t big enough to hold all the gnocchi in a single layer at the top of the pot, do this in two batches.)

After all the gnocchi have risen to the top of the pot (stir around the bottom of the pot to loosen any that might be stuck down there), let them cook another 30 seconds, then immediately remove them with a slotted spoon. If you’ll be using them immediately, drain them and then gently toss them in a large skillet for a few minutes with the condiment over low heat. (The turned-off-but-still-hot burner on which the gnocchi cooked is often perfect). If re-warming, add to a skillet large enough to hold the gnocchi in a single layer, and warm thoroughly over medium-low heat until they’re completely warmed through. Transfer to a large platter, keep warm while reheating the condiment/topping. Remove the gnocchi from the oven and evenly spread the reheated condiment/sauce evenly over the gnocchis’ surface; serve immediately.

If you’re preparing the gnocchi for later use, after they’ve all risen to the water’s surface and continued cooking for 30 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon. “Shock” (a culinary term that denotes immediately stopping their cooking by placing them in a large bowl filled with water and ice). Toss with enough olive oil to thoroughly coat them and refrigerate for up to a few days. They can also be frozen in a single layer in resealable plastic bags for at least a month. Whether refrigerating or freezing, allow enough time for the gnocchi to come completely to room temperature before proceeding.

Gently reheat the gnocchi in just enough olive oil to completely coat in a large skillet over medium low heat, until they’ve just warmed completely through. Add whatever condiment or seasoning you’ll be using, and proceed as above.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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