Flavors of the Month 

Top East Bay chefs reveal their hottest new ingredients.

The last chef I cooked under, John Caputo, was a relentless experimenter. Our purveyors were always bringing in new samples -- beluga lentils, forbidden rice, chestnut flour -- which he'd have me cook up for our staff meal (rule one of owning a restaurant: never waste free stuff). Then he'd get inspired. Over the next few months we'd find a couple of different ways to play with the product. This week I called around to see what new ingredients chefs are excited about -- the "it" foods of the season.

"Piment d'espelette is an amazing product," says Steve Jaramillo of Lalime's in Berkeley. "Like paprika, but with lots of flavor, piment d'espelette is from a tiny village in the Basque region of France. It has a more delicate flavor [than Spanish pimenton, which he also uses] and a slight heat." Jaramillo bought the rare dried red peppers he uses at Lalime's when he visited Basque country last fall. Regular folks can buy small containers of ground piment d'espelette at Spanish Table. It's expensive but potent, he says. "We love to sprinkle it on prawns and sauté them, and it's amazing on eggs over easy."

Paul Bertolli of Oakland's Oliveto recently started working with a sauce called colatura di alici, which one of his suppliers brought over from Naples. According to the chef, the sauce is a descendent of garum, the fish sauce at the foundation of Ancient Roman cuisine, just as the Thais now rely on a similar sauce called nam pla. It's made by salting and stacking anchovies in the sun; the clear juices that run off are the colatura di alici. (Unlike the Roman or Thai fish sauces, the modern Italian product isn't fermented, so it has a "less-funky" taste.) "We're using it to season everything from mayonnaise for vitello di tonnato to shellfish dishes," Bertolli says. "It also gives a little fishy extra to fish salads or sauces."

One of the newest products that Mike Zeiter, executive chef of Postino in Lafayette, has been serving is fregula, a Sardinian durum-wheat pasta. It's about the size of orzo, but round -- and toasted. "We've prepared the fregula with cippoline onions, cooked in beef stock, and finished with Parmigiano Reggiano, and served it with veal scaloppine."

Still, this is California, not New York, and most of the chefs claim to be inspired by produce rather than by products. Right now Zeiter is most excited about heirloom tomatoes -- he just received his first case of the year last week. William Weber, sous-chef of Berkeley's Rivoli, was happy to get ahold of a case of sour cherries, which come in only once a year. "They're quite a bit smaller than Bing cherries, and they're sweet but have a grassy, sour taste. We're using them in a jam for the smoked duck."

And Louis Le Gassic of Bay Wolf, Oakland, told me he isn't really interested in trying the hot new product of the moment. "Getting a case of arugula that tastes right, with leaves that aren't wilted or eaten," he says, "is more exciting than what color lentils are going to be next week."

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