When’s the last time you went into a restaurant and the chef came out to chat with you? Not once, but multiple times throughout your meal, discussing each dish – where the vegetables were grown, how they were prepared and why. When’s the last time you had some interesting vegetables or herbs that you had grown in your garden or found in a farmer’s market that you didn’t know how – or couldn’t be bothered! – to cook yourself? Did you just take them to the chef of your local restaurant and say, ‘Here, I don’t know what to do with these. Surprise me!’. It’s far from standard restaurant procedure, but it’s what happens every Thursday night throughout the summer at Piacere (Pia-chair-ay) in San Carlos, California.
The Farmer’s Market Challenge (FMC), launched in 2008, is a fantastic concept – so fantastic, in fact, that I can’t figure out why a million other restaurants aren’t doing it and why I hadn’t heard of it before last week. The idea is that each Thursday night guests can make reservations for the FMC, which costs $35 per person, and then they can bring in whatever vegetables, herbs, greens, etc they might have growing in their garden or that they might have found in the farmer’s market – there’s one right outside the restaurant from 4-8pm every Thursday in case you tend to procrastinate. The chef takes your bundles, bags or baskets of goodies in the back and in return you get a number of dishes made from your ingredients also using the Aladdin’s cave that is the chef’s pantry and with the possible additions of meat, fish or cheese. These are shared family style – you’ll be glad of that because there is no way you won’t want to taste everything – and, obviously, the more different things you bring, the more exciting dishes the chef can create for you. They are sure to ask about any allergies or dietary requirements as well as any philosophical objections to any foods.
The chef, Miriam Russell-Wadleigh, can only be described as an artist. She takes whatever you bring and turns it into a three, five, seven, even a ten-dish meal which will only leave you begging for more – my dinner companions for the evening claimed to have had a 14-dish meal on a previous FMC night, but I refuse to believe it if only because they’ll have to take me back to prove it, again and again and again…I digress. Chef Russell-Wadleigh was educated at the California Culinary Institute and has experience as a pastry chef – she let that slip while chatting to us table-side. She was friendly, knowledgeable and totally willing to indulge our foodie curiosity by answering our endless questions and humoring us with chit chat.
There were five of us and we brought two baskets of food stuff. Although it may seem like a lot, there was only a little bit of each thing. You don’t want to overload the chef with tons of stuff. Having a small amount of a bunch of different things will allow her to create a fabulous variety of dishes like she did for us. Our baskets included:
Bok Choy, Beet Greens, Rat Tail Radishes, Mizuna (Pepper Cress), Nasturtium Flowers and Leaves, Pea Shoots, Snow Peas and English Peas, Grape Shoots (the end of the branches with the new leaves and tendrils), Baba Berries, Strawberries, a Lemon, a Lime, Lemon Leaves, Eggs, Bee Pollen, Home-canned Tuna with Basil, Oregano and Rosemary (a friend caught the tuna in Morro Bay), Peppermint, Lemon Balm (Lemon Mint).
Fava Beans, Spring Onions, Morels (foraged from the Sierras just outside Yosemite), Candy Cap Mushrooms, Eggs, local Honey Comb and local Honey (from Campbell), New Potatoes, Purple Potatoes.
I’ll do this in two parts, otherwise I’ll be droning on at you for ages. This first part will focus on the starters Chef Russell-Wadleigh created for us from our baskets of goodies.
First up were these delicate little tacos, made from Nasturtium leaves, scrambled egg, avocado and cilantro salsa and crispy tortilla strips. They were soft and moist little clouds of deliciousness. For those of you who don’t know, Nasturtium are the edible flowers you often see on salads. These are their leaves and they are peppery and fresh, similar to arugula, and very tender. They paired perfectly with the soft egg and the fresh salsa and the tortilla strips added a delightful crunch to round it off.
The second starter was tuna with peas three ways. The tuna was home-cured by our dining companions’ friend in oregano, basil and rosemary and you could really taste all the herbs. It was moist and absolutely delicious. To go with this, the chef gave us peas three ways: at the top of the photo is English peas and pancetta, in the middle is cucumbers with pea tendrils and at the bottom is shredded snow peas with mint.
The third starter was an aged Italian goat’s cheese salad with mizuna, rat tail radishes – with these radishes you can eat the whole seed pods, they are tender and slightly peppery like ordinary radishes – honey comb and a champagne vinaigrette. The slightly sweet sharpness of the vinaigrette balanced beautifully with the tangy goat’s cheese, the sweet, sticky honeycomb, the fresh radishes and the peppery mizuna. I could eat this every day and never get tired of it!
The last and final starter was a tempura of leaves. What a fantastic idea! Included were grape leaves, nasturtium leaves and lemon balm (which comes from the mint family). The sauce was lime juice, mirin, saba and garnished with thinly sliced lemon leaves (which came after the picture was taken). Saba harks back to the Roman times and is the result of cooking selected grape musts over fire and is the traditional ingredient in Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Saba was something I had never come across before on its own, but the fried leaves with the fruity dipping sauce were just amazing, especially the lemon balm!
In the next installment, main courses and dessert! I bet you are dialing the phone to make a reservation right now.