As I counted down the days at Black Butte Ranch I felt the urge to go all out when making this special entrée. Not only was this dish vegetarian, but I used as many ingredients from our garden that I could, and since the seasons were beginning to change and get a little cooler I decided to make a risotto, one of my comfort foods. I started by taking a look at the massive amounts of cherry tomatoes that we had in our garden and started to pick them. We had to variety’s, sun-golds and sweet 100’s, sun-golds have a nice golden color to them and have a sweetness reminiscent of honey, the sweet 100’s are a deep red with a strong and sweet tomato flavor that bursts in your mouth. As I finished picking them I noticed an excessive amount of squash blossoms among the prickly vines of our squash plants. We have two different types of squash planted in our garden, butternut and spaghetti, both of which we used seeds that we saved from our squash plants the year prior. Spaghetti squash blossoms are a little bit smaller than the butternut but they will both work for what I am going to do, which at this point was unknown. When picking squash blossoms you want to make sure to pick the male flowers only, male squash blossoms do not produce fruit, or in this case a squash. Male blossoms will have a much longer stem than the female variety and the females will grow vary close to the vine that they grow off of. as the plant gets older sometimes the female flower will be roughly two inches from the base vine, so anything longer than that is a male. After I picked the squash blossoms I ventured over to the herb garden and picked some basil to use as a finishing herb in the risotto.
When we make risotto for the restaurant we cook the rice until it has been 80% cooked, this will keep the rice firm enough to store yet it will finish cooking relatively quickly. It is common for me to cook the rice this same way at home and I can just reheat and finish as needed, you can see the process here, this recipe makes enough risotto 10-12 people, so you may want to cut back on the recipe to accommodate your needs. For this dish you will finish the risotto with equal parts chicken stock and cream, and three tablespoons of cold butter.
As I began to prepare the special I had the wild idea to make a type of burrata, but I did not have the time to make the curds for the mozzarella so I used some pre-formed mozzarella, warmed it, and filled it with fresh ricotta instead of an Italian sweet cream with mozzarella scraps
- I started by making a solution of water salted like you would pasta, then added a little rice vinegar (until you can begin to taste it in the water). Reserve about one cup of the brine for cooling and storing the finished product and put the rest onto the stove over medium heat. Try to maintain a temperature of 180°F.
- Then I placed five pieces of ciliegine mozzarella in a colander and placed it into the solution, and let it sit for 30-40 seconds.
- Be very careful when removing the mozzarella from the water and working with it, it will be very hot, work the mozzarella in your hands to get it to a more consistent shape so it heats more evenly.
- Place it back into the water for another 30-40 seconds. Remove and work it in your hands again to create a smooth and consistent piece of mozzarella.
- Place it back into the solution for about 20 seconds then remove and stretch the mozzarella so it is an even thickness then add two tablespoons of ricotta to the center and close it up, trying to leave no room for air.
- Place the finished cheese in the brine to cool.
After the process of making buratta I made another bold move with my squash blossoms. We had some local quail eggs on hand so I decided to drop a quail egg inside of the squash blossom and then dip the blossom in tempura and fry it. The results were more amazing than the pictures can can actually show.
Once you get the hang of opening a quail egg and the process of battering and frying them it goes very quickly. For best results you should make these just before you serve the risotto, you can par fry them and re-fry them later but it might cook the yolk a little too far.
- To start pick some quality squash blossoms that are complete and don’t have any holes in the petals. If there are small holes the egg white will fill them and stop any leaks, just avoid larger holes.
- Prepare a tempura batter, the best tempura is made with rice flour which you will see the recipe below.
- 3C White Rice Flour
- 2ea Large Egg yolks
- 2C Soda Water
- In a bowl place 1 cup of the rice flour and set aside.
- In a separate bowl place the remaining two cups of flour, soda water, and egg yolks. Mix until just combined.
- Prepare a fryer or a pot of oil and heat to 350°F.
- Once hot, carefully open a squash blossom flower and set aside. Open a quail egg, now the best way to approach this is to use a paring knife and cut it across the top (more pointed end). the membrane between the shell and egg is a lot thicker than a chicken egg and can be difficult to crack and pull open. Removing the top allows you to hold the egg in one hand and open the blossom up with the other. I have also found that if you are holding the blossom in one hand and an egg in the other, the blossom will not stay open. You can either recruit some help or try blowing into the flower to open it up while pouring the egg into the center. Try to avoid the stamen as it might break the yolk, so it is best to pour it down the side of the petals.
- once the egg is inside pinch the petals together and while holding it closed roll it around the rice flour, carefully. Then dip the blossom into the tempura and gently place it in the fryer. The hot oil should cook the tempura quick enough to prevent the blossom from opening in the process of cooking.
- Once the blossom shows a hint of browning remove from the oil and set aside and continue to the next one. If you are quick enough you can get a second blossom in the oil as the first one is finished frying.
The end result is just wonderful, a nice set white with a stiff but not hard-cooked yolk.
The next stage of this special was to clean up the cherry tomatoes that I picked. I removed a handful and set them aside to make a tomato sauce that I regretfully did not write a recipe for because it came out very well. I cooked the tomatoes with shallot, olive oil, basil, and garlic in my immersion circulator for 45 minutes then I pureed it and seasoned it. It was nice and rich with a bright tomato flavor and a beautiful orange hue to it.
The remaining tomatoes got an “X” scored in the bottom of them and I prepared a pot of simmering water to blanch them in. Once the water boiled the tomatoes jumped in the hot tub for twenty seconds which then they immediately got transferred to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. As they cooled I began the process of peeling the tomatoes, to some it is tedious and annoying, but to me it is relaxing and gives me a sense of greater satisfaction for my special. If everyone could see the work that goes into a lot of classically prepared food I think there would be a lot more appreciation for the knife cuts that we perform and a beautifully peeled cherry tomato. The tomatoes did not need to be peeled but the texture and the feel of it as you eat it is indescribable.
For a few finishing touches I took the basil from our garden and rolled it up and slice it thin, also known as a chiffonade. I then noticed some black quinoa on our line, so I put some aside to add a little texture and contrast to the risotto. Next I took a piece of Reggiano cheese and grated it on my micro-plane and set that next to my basil. I used some praline pine nuts to garnish, they have a sweet and crunchy texture that lends nicely to the dish. For the pine nuts I used the same process as I did for my candied green coriander. I also cut some cut corn to help add some sweetness. Finally, I mix a few cups of water with an equal amount of cream, this liquid will be used to re-heat and finish my risotto.
Now comes the fun part, assembly, the process above is considered “mise en place”, meaning everything in place. We have all of our components lined up and it is now time to assemble with ease and confidence, this is very important when working in a restaurant to ensure that all of the food can be produced quickly and consistently.
- I started by placing equal parts of chicken stock and cream in a pot with corn, quinoa, and the partially cooked risotto. Once this started to warm up I continued to add liquid as it finished cooking and to adjust the consistency. Once warm i stirred in the chiffonade of basil and checked the seasoning.
- The Risotto then went into a bowl, the buratta was placed in the middle, this would let the cheese warm up a little bit before eating.
- I then drizzled the top with the tomato sauce, place a few cleaned cherry tomatoes from the kitchen garden, added pine nuts, and the tempura squash blossom.
- And now you have a risotto fit to fill you up.
Some people think that a chefs special is old food that is priced cheap to run it out of the kitchen before it goes bad, this is only partially true. Yes, I want to use the tomatoes before they go bad, and yea I had quinoa on my line that was available for use, was it about to go bad, “no”. A chefs special is more often something personal, it is a dish that can truly express the passion and the love that we put into our work, we use the products that are on hand and that spark our imagination.