"Top Chef" winner at the Orange County Fair
(Recipe for MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO'S PEACH BRÛLÉE WITH GREEK YOGURT, CINNAMON CROUTONS & POMEGRANATE MOLASSES follows story)
I felt as if I had entered an alternate universe. Outside the vendors were hawking deep-fried butter and frogs' legs (no worries, dear reader, I had the chicken on a skewer) and inside Michael Voltaggio, last year's winner on Bravo TV's Top Chef, was decomposing a salad, his "vegetable landscape," with over twenty artfully arranged ingredients in a primordial forest tableau- not exactly what you might expect at the Orange County Fair!
Broccoli was blanched, dehydrated and then fried at 400°. "It pops like popcorn," he said. "I hated broccoli as a child, so I recreated it. I'm a big fan of broccoli now."
I love mushrooms in my salad, but I have to admit I've never tried puréeing them and using the purée in cake batter instead of sugar, "a savory cake," and baking the concoction in a tiny log-shaped mold, but if you're creating the forest floor on a plate, you've got to have a log, no? "Mushrooms grow where there's fire," he noted, so he scorched it with a blowtorch.
Voltaggio peeled a baby eggplant, threaded it with a cinnamon stick like a skewer and grilled it. "Cinnamon has a peppery flavor and gives you a whole new food experience. Try it on steak or fish," he recommended.
Roasted beets, grilled spring onions, dehydrated coriander flowers, fried okra battered in chickpea flour - this was no ho-hum, everyday salad!
Tips of tender baby asparagus and fresh peas went in raw. "You don't have to cook the crap out of everything to make it taste good," he advised. Strawberries macerated in rice vinegar and mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine) and melon slices got the vacuum pack treatment.
Oh, you wanted dressing? Try centrifuging buttermilk and freezing the curds with liquid nitrogen - your kids will love the billowing purple smoke - then blending the chips with sherry vinegar, olive oil, Spanish pepper, onion powder, dried lemon peel and salt.
"I don't expect you to do all this at home," he said. (Well, that's a relief!) "But there might be one thing you see today that you can go home and do." (I'm trying the cinnamon stick.)
Voltaggio is noted for his sophisticated cuisine, but in case any readers lack a sous vide immersion circulator or may be fresh out of liquid nitrogen, I asked him for some tips for home cooks who want to add sophistication to their menus.
"Know the sources of your ingredients, where they're coming from, and taste things in their raw state," he advised, "Keep the sugar next to the salt. Slice that tomato and taste it with a little salt, then with a little sugar. Add a little vinegar to brighten things up.
"What I like to do is take familiar flavors that evoke memory and put them together on a plate in a way that you haven't had them before. And never settle. You should want to run around and say to people, 'Hey, you should try this.'"
Last summer Voltaggio created a menu for hollywoodbowlpicnic.com. I think this simple dessert would be a perfect bring-along to Fullerton's summer concerts, which we have been enjoying each Wednesday evening at the Fullerton Sports Complex off Bastenchury.
"Listening to music during service can be a distraction," he said, "but I do sing myself songs in my head to relax during the intensity. One of my go-to songs is 'Let It Be' by the Beatles."
MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO'S PEACH BRÛLÉE WITH GREEK YOGURT, CINNAMON CROUTONS & POMEGRANATE MOLASSES
6 ripe, but firm peaches
1/2 loaf of brioche, cut into small cubes
1/4 cup melted butter
1 tablespoon sugar + more for sprinkling peaches
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Toss bread in a bowl with butter, 1 tablespoon sugar and cinnamon. Place on cookie sheet. Bake until golden brown and crisp. Let cool and store in airtight container until ready to serve.
3. Slice peaches in half. Remove pits. Sprinkle flesh side with sugar. Brown with small blowtorch - the kind used for crême brulée - (broiler is second best) until sugar is brown and caramelized. Place peaches on plate. Add dollops of yogurt around peaches. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses. Sprinkle croutons on top. Serves 6