January 12, 2011 | 12:13 am
Posted by Chef Todd Aarons
I often receive the question ,” how do you come up with the ideas for your dishes?”. I don’t believe I’m reinventing the wheel just interpreting elements of food or flavor combinations that many of my predecessors revealed to the world way before I was even born. Just don’t tell my mom, she still likes to think of me as her genius son. In my journeys I have logged either in my taste memory, mind or a more reliable notebook thousands of experiences, not just food ones, that have inspired future dishes I have or will compose one day. I revisit that notebook and sometimes I throw away an idea that was obviously born after a very heavy wine laden dinner but for the most part it’s the breeding ground that hopefully will come to fruition by utilizing the skills I have acquired.
Here is a story of a soup that has recently reappeared on my menu. March,1996 Ortimino Tuscany Italy. A once skinnier and younger aspiring chef takes the wrong bus because in that fine Italian manner there is more than one bus station in Firenze and they all go to similar sounding places. Ortimino could be mistaken with the desired Artimino for instance. I should have looked at every little town on the Tuscan map just to make sure. Have you ever seen a detailed map of Tuscany? It’s like reading a signed birthday card which was passed around an office of 100 people all clamoring for empty space to write. So the Italian lesson is” who cares if you will be two days late to your stage, your bosses are Italian as well and they understand. After trustfully getting off the bus in the middle of scenic rolling hills, middle of nowhere, I walked a few kilometers with backpack on my shoulders and hips to what I thought could be Ristorante Da Delfina believing that I was in Artimino. I reached a small unassuming trattoria with the looks of an everyday haunt for the locals. This couldn’t be the five star ristorante that I had corresponded with in my letters. Neon signs blinking and all, I had to go inside to confirm my suspicion. In my shall we say newly acquired tongue of Italian and after a good game of international charades with the proprietor we decided I was in the wrong restaurant and town. I had been living in Italy for 6 months prior to this and if there was one thing I learned it was that everybody and every hole in the wall cooked food that closely beats any sexual encounter you may have had. This being the truth I sat down to partake in some fine Ortiminian style cuisine. The soup an Almond and onion puree thinned with chicken stock, savory herbs like marjoram and oregano gently sailing on top releasing all their fresh perfume as the hot soup bellowed steam. Wafer thin toasted crostini saturated with homemade olive oil adorned a side plate. Very inspiring entry into my notebook that would not be forgotten.
Lets fast forward a bit to New York City, 1998. One day while I was out with my great friend and fellow kitchen comrade Caroline Fidanza, Now part owner and chef of Saltie in Williamsburg Brooklyn, having our usual pre dinner service luncheon , we stopped in to our familiar used book store not far from the restaurant. I found a unique Italian cookbook, Florentines, A Tuscan Feast by Lorenza De’Medici with beautiful still life paintings from 17th century artist, Giovanna Garzoni. Inside this book lies the recipe Crema di Cipolle alle Mandorle, onion and almond soup the same one that once restored my resilience along my Italian odyssey. The book had brought back the vivid experience I had eating that rich almond thickened broth, a perfect winter soup especially because of the scarcity of the farmers market during the winter months. I was then the chef of the upstairs dining room at Savoy in lower Madhatty and responsible for the market Prix Fixe menu at the time. I decided to try my first manifestation of this soup, which I have come to refer to as Ortimino soup. I decided to make it as authentic as possible with the sweet flavors of caramelized onion and richness of blanched almonds all pureed up into a smooth unctuous potage.
Present day, as a much older wiser chef I have been dissecting components of dishes and plating them in a manner that the diner can visually recognize the ingredients. Revealing each element, the diner can make the realization for themselves the harmony of eating them together. It is amazing the fact that you can have the same flavor profile and by rethinking technique and presentation have a completely different experience.
Blanched almonds are without their skins and these are the ones I use for this soup. I cook them whole in a flavorful chicken stock while caramelizing julienned onions until they are brown like nut brown ale. The almonds are then pureed with the chicken stock until white in color and have a tahini type smooth texture. This is mixed back to the remaining hot chicken broth. The onions are inoculated with fresh thyme and savory while doused with a Sauvignon blanc to flambé. A pile of these onions act as an island in the middle of the soup bowl while the hot almond laden broth is poured around it. The addition of, and I don’t know why it just seemed right to me, caraway seed in toasted rye bread croutons finish my modern day interpretation of Ortimino soup and make it uniquely mine. You should also try your hand at it and make this famous Renaissance soup your own. For the recipe visit my blog at http://www.cheftoddaarons.com
Visit Saltie at http://www.saltieny.com
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