VPR Cafe: The New York City Chef Versus The Vermont Home Cook
Sometimes, the taste of home-cooked goodness doesn’t become obvious until we take a trip outside our comfort zone, maybe to dine out in a different part of the country.
Candace Page, food writer for the Savorvore Section of the Burlington Free Press, recently took a trip to New York City to experience the food there and joined VPR Café to talk about what she’s learned.
“Of course one of the pleasures of New York City, beyond the theater and the museums, is the chance to experience all different kinds of food,” says Page. “I ate a lot of ethnic, Turkish food, Thai food, but it’s interesting — the little epiphanies I had came in two French and one Italian restaurant.”
Panna cotta with rhubarb in New York
Page says that one night, she had an "abstemious" dinner at a high-end French bistro. “After my vegetable soup, I saw on the menu yogurt panna cotta with rhubarb jam. Now, I am rhubarb obsessed and I’ve always been curious about panna cotta without ever having ordered it,” she says, proclaiming that the panna cotta was one of the best things she’d ever tasted. “I just wanted to keep eating it. In fact, I kept taking smaller and smaller bites to make it last.”
"I just wanted to keep eating [the panna cotta]. In fact, I kept taking smaller and smaller bites to make it last." - Candace Page, food writer
But the rhubarb was a disaster, says Page. “The chef had been provided rhubarb that had gotten woody … then he had cooked it with enough sugar and something else – maybe cornstarch – to thicken it so it would look pretty on the pate. ‘Cardboard’ was the word that came to mind while I ate this rhubarb.” she says.
Panna cotta with rhubarb back home
“The big news for me is that panna cotta, in addition to being incredibly delicious, is one of the easiest things I’ve ever made,” says Page. She says she researched a variety of recipes and found that the trick to a good panna cotta is a little bit of powdered gelatin. “Once you have the ingredients, you can make it in 10 minutes. I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to say that mine was as terrific as what I had in New York, but that’s an excuse to keep working on it,” she says.
As for rhubarb, Page says that she has about 15 patches of rhubarb in her backyard, so she definitely knows how to cook the root vegetable. “I thought the answer was not to try to get the rhubarb to gel, but to make a rich rhubarb sauce and serve it with the panna cotta,” she says.
Fresh pea soup in New York
Each morning while she was in New York, Page went to an upscale patisserie around the corner from where she was staying. One morning, she saw that they were serving English pea soup for lunch. “'English peas' is just a phrase that means shelling peas, and they’ve gone out of style, I think, in Vermont anyway. Sugar snap peas and snow peas have replaced them. They are so much less labor intensive, both for the farmer to pick and for the home cook to prepare,” she explains.
Page says that the fresh pea soup she sampled in New York was beautiful. “It was as bright as new leaves on the trees. But, once again, I thought the chef had taken a wrong turn on the way to the plate and put in too much mint and too much cream, which just got in the way of the fresh pea flavor,” she says. Page also concluded that when making fresh pea soup, it’s imperative that the peas are actually fresh and in season. She thinks the ones used in this soup had been imported from a faraway distance or had been frozen, losing some of their sweet flavor.
Fresh pea soup back home
"I came home and called my sister right up to make sure that ... in her huge garden in Colchester that she is concentrating on shelling peas. I am counting in the next month to make my minimalist fresh pea soup."
“I came home and called my sister right up to make sure that … in her huge garden in Colchester that she is concentrating on shelling peas,” says Page. “I am counting in the next month to make my minimalist fresh pea soup. It’s fresh peas, a little bit of onion and a little chicken broth, cooked and pureed. I could eat it every day.”
Asparagus tart in New York
One of the dishes Page had in New York that seemed to really hit the mark was an asparagus quiche she enjoyed in the West Village. “Generally I have tried making asparagus tart, and I have eaten them in restaurants, and I have always found them quite bland … But this time, the chef had roasted the asparagus first, which was something that had never occurred to me,” she says. The result was that the roasted asparagus was almost caramelized, which made it dark and and smoky, Page says. “And I went, ‘Duh, why did I never think of this?’ So I haven’t had a chance to make it yet, but there’s plenty of asparagus at the Burlington Farmers Market and it’s definitely on my list for the coming week.”
So which is better — eating in the city or cooking at home?
Page says her trip to the city reminded her of the wonderful dialog there is between dining out, cooking at home, and the city versus the country. She learns a lot when she eats out, Page says, which she doesn’t get to do often enough at home.
"Restaurant chefs are more creative than I am ... so I learn from them. At the same time, it has reinforced for me how lucky I am to live in Vermont, where we're so close to ingredients like asparagus, peas and rhubarb. We have deep experience in treating them in a way that means they come to the table [tasting] very delicious."
“Restaurant chefs are more creative than I am myself, so I learn from them. At the same time, it has reinforced for me how lucky I am to live in Vermont, where we’re so close to ingredients like asparagus, peas and rhubarb,” says Page. “We have deep experience in treating them in a way that means they come to the table very delicious. They may not be as beautiful as a restaurant dish, but the flavors come through in a truer way.”
Candace Page’s yogurt panna cotta with rhubarb compote
Ingredients for the panna cotta:
- 2 cups Vermont full-fat Greek yogurt
- 1 cup Vermont heavy cream
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 envelope (2¼ teaspoons) powdered gelatin
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
Scatter the gelatin over the two tablespoons of water in a small bowl. Let sit for five minutes (the gelatin will gel). Meanwhile, pour the cream and sugar into a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When bubbles appear around the edge of the pan, remove from the heat, add the gelatin and whisk gently to dissolve the gelatin completely. Put the yogurt in a medium bowl. Whisk in the vanilla if you choose to use it. Slowly whisk the cream mixture into the yogurt.
Lightly oil six small ramekins or custard cups with flavorless oil. Divide the panna cotta among them and chill in the refrigerator for three to four hours. Serve topped with compote, or run a knife around the inside of each cup, unmold the yogurt cream and serve with compote on the side.
Ingredients for the compote:
- 2 cups rhubarb, the redder the better, diced in quarter-inch pieces
- 1/3 cup sugar
Mix the rhubarb and sugar in a heavy saucepan and stir over medium heat until the sugar begins to dissolve. Cover and cook on low heat 7 to 10 minutes until the rhubarb has softened. To reduce it to a thicker sauce, remove cover and continue cooking until the rhubarb disintegrates. Pour into a bowl and chill.
Candace Page’s fresh pea soup
Start to finish: 15 minutes (not including time to pick and shell peas)
Serves: two as a main dish, four as an appetizer
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons onion, diced
- 2 cups shelled tender, fresh green peas
- 1 3/4 cups light chicken stock, or a mix of stock and water
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar (optional)
- Salt to taste
Melt the butter in a pot and add the onion. Cook gently until transparent and soft. Add the peas, chicken broth and sugar (which helps if the peas are a bit old or have lost some of their sweetness through storage).
Simmer until peas are tender. Puree in a blender or food processor. Simmer again briefly, if you wish, for more concentrated flavor.
Here's a dirty little secret: In the absence of home- or Vermont-grown peas, this soup is quite good with high-quality frozen peas and can be made almost in the time it takes to set the table. Either way, fresh pea soup makes an excellent first course that will surprise dinner-party guests, because almost no one makes this soup anymore.