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From Barnes & NobleTodd English at De Gustibus at Macy's
Todd English is a big, athletic guy, and he looks like the type who probably played three or four different sports in high school, so it's a surprise to hear that he spent most of his free time during school working in a restaurant kitchen. But the surprise only lasts until you see him begin to cook. His large frame hunches over the counter or stove, and his hands move with authority and precision as he chops, stirs, or folds ingredients. English came to New York cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's as one of the major attractions in a series of classes called "Great American Chefs." Held in the school's demonstration kitchen on the eighth floor of Macy's giant Herald Square store, English's was among the dozens of two-and-a-half-hour long demonstration classes given by renowned chefs each spring and fall. The audience gets to see every move the chef makes in the specially angled mirror above the cooking area and, best of all, gets to taste each of the dishes on the menu. English demonstrated recipes from his book, The Olives Table.
About Todd English and The Olives Table
English is the executive chef and owner of Olives, an award-winning restaurant in the Boston area, and three branches of the more casual Figs. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, English cooked at La Côte Basque in New York and was executive chef at Boston's Michela's before opening Olives in 1989.
He was named a National Rising Star and, three years later, Best Chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. His cooking is based on intense flavors and bold seasoning, and draws primarily on the peasant traditions of the Mediterranean -- "food from where olives grow," as English says. He credits his Calabrian grandparents with instilling in him romantic fascination with the culture of the Mediterranean, and a love for the food. More than 160 recipes from Olives have been collected in English's first cookbook, The Olives Table. Unlike some books written by formally trained restaurant chefs, The Olives Table is un-intimidating, and perfectly adapted for the home cook. Common ingredients are put together in ways that seem revolutionary but make perfect sense when you taste the finished dishes, such as deep-fried, stuffed green olives, parmesan pudding made with sweet peas, and pan-fried apple tart with basil, lemon, and walnuts. The Olives Table is the kind of book that makes you hungry as you read. The next thing you know, you're at the market loading up a basket with beautiful ingredients so you can race back home to start cooking.
About the Menu
English started us off with three appetizers from the restaurant. "I'm very ambitious in these classes," he said. "I like to give you a lot of recipes and talk about as many as possible." The "Olives Olives" are what appear on the table at the restaurant when you sit down, and their complex, pungent flavor is an accurate hint of what's to come. They're seasoned deliciously with a paste made from orange and lemon zest, garlic, ginger, rosemary, oregano, parsley, fennel seeds, and red pepper. The creamy white bean hummus, English said, was inspired by travels to Morocco and Tunisia. And the sublime roasted oysters -- English's take on the classic Oysters Rockefeller -- were topped with a luscious mixture of mascarpone cheese, sour cream, and chopped radicchio. English emphasizes the importance of using the freshest ingredients available, preferably locally obtainable, and he said he takes constant inspiration from the wonderful seafood of the Northeast. The tortelli of butternut squash that followed was one of the highlights of the class, as was watching English make the silken fresh pasta dough like a true Italian. The squash filling contained ground amaretti cookies -- they lent a lovely sweet, subtly spiced layer of flavor.
At this point in the class, as the main dish of Turkey Scaloppini was served, the rich, flowery white Fortant de France Viognier wine we drank with the opening courses was replaced by the very drinkable but complex Nozzole Chianti Classico. English says he thinks traditional veal scallopini is a little dull, because the veal lacks flavor. His version is enhanced by turkey thigh cutlets rubbed with a savory spice mixture, and the flavor is further punched up with chorizo sausage from Boston's Portuguese neighborhood markets. The creamy polenta served alongside, punctuated with sweet golden raisins, was the perfect contrast. Dessert was an elegant, simple flourless chocolate torte, Torta Caprese, made with ground almonds.
Tips From Todd English
- To open an oyster without damaging the meat, hold it in the palm of one hand, wrapped in a kitchen towel for safety, with the narrow end facing you. Look for groove near the oyster's hinge. Put the tip of a short, firm, blunt knife into the spot, and wiggle until you feel a snap -- "it means the knife is engaged, and the oyster's opening." Then give a quick twist with your wrist, and the top shell pops up. Gently slide the knife under the meat and slice through the muscle holding it to the top shell to detach. Be careful not to tilt it, English said: "You don't want to lose any of the beautiful briny juices."
- Making fresh pasta might seem intimidating, but English convinced the audience that it's really simple. He's passionate about making it in the traditional way. "It's so homey and satisfying. My grandmother taught me how, and now I'm teaching my kids," he said. His key tips: Use your hands, to really feel the texture of the dough. "Flour will only absorb the right amount of egg, so don't worry if you don't end up using the exact measurements in the recipe," he says. To incorporate the egg into the flour, mound the flour in a pile on the counter, then make a well in the middle. Add the eggs to the well, then start stirring them with a fork in a "scrambling" motion. Begin to scramble flour into the eggs from the edges of the well, until eventually most of the pile is incorporated and the resulting dough is too thick to work with a fork. Then begin to knead with your hands, folding over and poking with your finger tips. Use a manual pasta machine to roll out and cut the dough.
- As interested in tradition as English is, he also embraces innovation. He was excited to share with the audience a "revolutionary" trick he's learned to take the endless stirring out of making polenta: He uses semolina instead of cornmeal. "It's much lighter, much quicker, much easier," he said. Semolina is a coarse flour made from hard durum wheat, used most often in pasta making, and readily available in Italian markets. The resulting polenta is not quite as firm as that made with cornmeal, and it seems a bit creamier. Delicious!