After watching Patrick O'Connell regale the audience at New York cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's with hilarious stories from his childhood and from his two decades running The Inn at Little Washington with partner Reinhardt Lynch, no one was surprised when he revealed that he grew up wanting to become an actor.
Great Pee-Wee Herman imitation notwithstanding, it's lucky for lovers of great food everywhere that his drama career was sidetracked by the catering business he started in the Shenandoah Valley, which eventually evolved into the sublime establishment known to its many devotees simply as The Inn. But even more entertaining than O'Connell's anecdotes to the audience of gourmands at De Gustibus were the fabulous dishes he demonstrated from his new book, The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook.
About Patrick O'Connell and The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook
Anyone who's tasted O'Connell's complex, impeccably fresh cooking will find it hard to believe he wasn't formally trained. "I learned to cook from books," he said. Now he's written his own. The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook is one of the most beautiful cookbooks to be released in recent yearsit was nominated this year for a James Beard Award for Best Food Photography. Stunning images not only of the finished dishes but also of the Shenandoah countryside and of the fruits and vegetables from the Inn's gardens and nearby farms grace every page.
It's a pleasure to browse through, but cooking from it is even more satisfying. Though there are plenty of simple recipes, many of the dishes are challenging for the home cook; O'Connell's food is refined, with many layers of flavors, and the dishes are always beautifully garnished and presented. O'Connell deliberately wrote the book this way: "I think too many chefs' cookbooks are oversimplified," he said. "It's disappointing when you eat at a wonderful restaurant and you want to replicate a dish you loved exactly. It's impossible to do if it's been simplified too far in a book." So he's taken a different approach for the home cook. Each recipe is broken down into sections, or segments, so that you can do as much or as little as you want. "If you don't want to do the garnish, you can skip it," O'Connell said, "or do just one sauce instead of two. It's really very approachable...even for the novice cook."
About the Menu
O'Connell began the demonstration with a simple but delicious recipe for spiced pecans, which were used to garnish the cheese-course salads that followed the entrée. They were crisp and addictive, seasoned with cumin, brown sugar, and a hint of cayenne. "If they're too spicy for you," he said, "just cut down on the cayenne. It's a matter of taste. There's never any right or wrong about taste." The Miniature Caramelized Onion Tartlets were made with a heavenly croissant dough and filled with savory custard and caramelized onions cooked down nearly to jam. We drank a dry and refreshing sparkling wine, the Domaine Carneros Brut from the French producer Taittinger's vineyard in the Napa Valley, as we nibbled on the pecans and the tartlets. A lovely herbal Sauvignon Blanc from Napa's Cakebread Cellars was poured with the entrée, an elegant grilled poussin served over a lacy potato galette, accompanied by thin green beans dressed simply with nutty browned butter. Marinated in vinegar steeped with blackberries, the flesh of the little chickens had turned a gorgeous purply blue and was full of succulent flavor.
The poussin was followed by what O'Connell called the cheese course: the Miniature "Croque Monsieur" on Field Greens. It turned out to be an incredible disha small wedge of Brie that had been wrapped in filo dough and sautéed until crisp on the outside and deliciously runny within, contrasting perfectly with the cool, lightly dressed fresh greens. The spicy pecans were sprinkled atop. The dessert took the prize for the most visually arresting dish of the evening: the Rhubarb Pizza consisted of a round of flaky, sweet dough topped with sauce (rhubarb/raspberry puree in place of tomato) and thin strips of rhubarb, decorated with thin slices of strawberry to mock pepperoni, dried cherries instead of black olives, and toasted pistachios for green olives. O'Connell suggests bringing the pizza to the table hot, and offering guests a sprinkle of "Parmesan" (really grated white chocolate) as the final touch. Then he slices up the pizza in wedges, just like the real thing, and serves it with a lovely ginger ice cream.
Tips from Patrick O'Connell
- An elegant idea for serving soup from The Inn at Little Washington: a demitasse espresso cup. "We offer a demitasse of soup to begin every meal at the restaurant. It's a wonderful way to get just a taste but to not take the place of a more complex appetizer," O'Connell explained. "I love the idea, and I always like to pass it along to others. It works well for cocktail parties, also: Bring out a tray with little demitasse cups and saucers with a beautiful seasonal souphot, cold, whatever. People can sip it and put it down. It's just the right amount."
- A small bird like a poussin, quail, or game hen is particularly elegant when it's completely deboned first: "You can serve it with a knife and a fork and cut right through it-- people are so delightfully surprised," O'Connell said. Poultry shears and a small sharp knife are the best tools for this delicate job. Lay the bird breast side down and first snip off the wing tips at the second joint. Then use the shears to cut along both sides of the backbone to remove it completely. Flip the bird over, and with the knife, make a small incision along the center of the breastbone, and then remove the breastbone with your fingers. Remove the rib bones from the breast meat by gently running the knife point under the bones. Do the same thing with the thigh bone, keeping the knife point against the bone. You can leave the very last bone in the leg in place. "Your butcher can do this for you too," O'Connell said. The deboned birds lay completely flat, so they cook very quickly and burn easily. O'Connell advises "par-grilling:" grilling briefly to crisp the skin, then finishing in the oven.
- Don't forget to take the time to appreciate the pleasures of working with food. "Food is therapeutic," O'Connell said. "All you have to do when you're having a bad day is touch foodgrab some dough, or take the advice of a ladies' magazine that once said what to do if you're feeling suicidal: bake cookies. When you finish, you will be reconnected, you will feel like a productive human being. You will have basically performed a miraclethat's what the joy of it is."