Salt. It's what separates restaurant cuisine from home cooking. We learned this already from Michael Leviton as we became comfortable dusting our steaks with handfuls of the white crystals. And it was reiterated today when we sautéed, blanched, roasted, and pureed more vegetables with Jeff Fournier. Don't be afraid of salt. "Your blanching water should taste like the ocean," he said. With tasting spoons in hand, we stood by our bubbling pots and threw in fistful after fistful until the water was up to snuff.
Beyond getting salty with it, we covered a ton of cooking techniques. Portabella mushroom caps were sliced into thin rounds on a mandolin, sandwiched between silpats, weighted and baked to make crispy, salty chips. They almost tasted like bacon. Shitake mushrooms were sautéed with mirin (Japanese cooking wine), soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and lime. The result was meaty and bold—I wanted to lick the plate. Cauliflower was blanched 'till golden in curry-infused water, then sautéed with anchovies, capers, garlic, and golden raisins—another explosion of flavor. More cauliflower was cut into steaks, brushed with a mixture of mirin and miso, and roasted. It's amazing how different techniques can reinvent a vegetable.
The ultimate transformation occurred with chef Jeff's signature watermelon steak. It's a technique he developed many years ago when working for Lydia Shire and has remained in various forms on his menu at 51 Lincoln ever since. He walked us through the 3-1/2 hour process that begins with 3-inch thick slabs of fresh watermelon and ends with something that resembles a rare tuna steak. The best way to understand the process is to view the photos with captions below:
We sampled the spiced and seared "steaks" with crumbles of sheep's milk feta which provided the perfect salty contrast to the fruit.
Some of the techniques we learned today were already familiar to me. I roast vegetables by default. And blanching and sautéing is common for decent home cooks. We made heaps of veggies using these methods. We even made pickles! But transforming vegetables into entirely new textures like the mushroom chips and watermelon steak is beyond the realm of typical home cooking. This kind of creativity is what makes people like Jeff Fournier star chefs.