Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cooking Demo by Craig Stoll, Delfina

My Saturday mornings are all about food.  I start with shopping at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, and then often attend cooking demos.  The Ferry Building always has one at 11am, and then sometimes a second one at 11:45am.  They are usually less formal, and focus on seasonal cooking, particularly on sourcing all of the ingredients from the market.  Williams-Sonoma often hosts a guest chef at 12pm, and their demos tend to be much longer and more involved, and take advantage of their huge demo kitchen.  Macy's has them at 2pm, sponsored by Kaiser, and they focus on healthy cooking.  The format and quality of the demos is pretty varied, ranging from 20 minutes to 2 hours, from local Michelin starred chefs, to culinary instructors, to visiting authors on book tours.  Sometimes the food is amazing, sometimes it is pretty crappy.  Some of the best cooks are horrible speakers, and some of the worst food comes from the most personable chefs.  You never really know what to expect.

I love going to the demos.  I've learned a lot of technique along the way, but I mostly love it for the unique opportunity to find out more about local restaurants, as most of the demos are done by local chefs.  I've discovered a number of great restaurants through the demos.  Or when I already know of the chef, it is a great chance to ask them questions and learn more about their work.  It can also be really delicious.  How often do you get food actually prepared by the executive chef of a restaurant, in a small batch, served immediately?  There is something to be said for the freshness of things without the delay of fancy plating, waiting for servers, etc.  The very best donuts I've ever had in my life have come from cooking demos, as donuts fresh out of the fryer just can't be beat.

I don't generally write up reviews of the demos, as it doesn't seem as relevant to anyone else, as you can't read my review and then go to the demo yourself.  Sure, you can check out the restaurant, but it doesn't quite seem as useful.

But sometimes, a demo is so great, I can't resist writing it up.  And this is one of those cases.  The demo was the complete package: an engaging chef, incredibly informative, generous samples of ridiculously good food, and recipes that are simple enough that I could actually conceive of making them at home myself.  You can't ask for more.

It was at Bloomingdale's, where I have never attended a demo before.  I actually didn't know they had them, until I was walking through the other day, and saw the sign, advertising Chef Craig Stoll's upcoming demonstration.  I immediately recognized his name, as the chef from Delfina.

Yes, Delfina.  The restaurant you always think of, but then realize you'll never get into.  Sometimes you "settle" and visit the pizzeria next door, but even that involves an epic wait, usually on the freezing Mission sidewalk.  I haven't been to Delfina in a few years, although every time I think of it, I want to go.  And I still haven't made it into Locanda yet either, which I really want to do, as their pastas sound amazing.  When I was in the hospital a year or so ago in Pac Heights, we ordered take out from the pizzeria there a few times, and that was quite the treat.  Everyone else had hospital food, and I had Delfina meatballs.  Mmm!

Anyway, I digress.  I was interested in what he'd be cooking, excited to see a chef of his calibre.  When I took my seat and glanced at the recipe booklet, I was thrilled.  Chef Stoll wasn't just doing one dish, he was making a 3 course meal of all of Delfina's greatest hits!  So not only was I going to see a great chef in action and hopefully learn a few things, I was going to get to eat some of Delfina's most famous dishes, AND take home the recipes for them.  Even if it meant spending a few hours of the sunny Saturday afternoon inside, this seemed like a great way to do it.

The demo was, hands down, the most engaging and entertaining one I've ever been to.  To be honest, I sometimes get a little bored, and generally wind up multi-tasking while I'm there.  My mind didn't drift for a second during this demo.  The chef shared so much knowledge, about cooking technique and ingredients, working so many tips naturally into his dialogue.  I've watched The Next Food Network Star on tv, and the coaches are always telling them to share facts and details but do so without sounding scripted, and this is exactly what he did.  And then he intermingled funny personal stories too.  He never sounded forced, and seemed so comfortable speaking in front of us.  Seriously, so much better than anyone I ever saw on that show!

He told us funny stories, like about why he choose to become a chef.  He reminded us that back then, there was no Food Network, no celebrity chefs.  It wasn't a sexy job, it was just going to a trade school.    So why do it?  Well, he was in high school.  And when he worked as a dishwasher, they treated him like an adult, even gave him beer.  And he cooked for a girl, and found it to be the best way to get girlfriends.  Done and done!

He also told us a little about the history of Delfina, about how it was their vision to create a neighborhood restaurant, a place for friends to come eat a good meal, and allow him and his wife to not need to work for anyone else.  They felt that during the week, someone should be able to get a good simple plate of pasta without it costing too much.  And on the weekend, if they wanted to get dressed up and go all out, they could do that too.  Clearly, he was onto something, as Delfina is always so busy!

He also talked about social media, particularly about Yelp in the early days.  Delfina Pizzeria was known for the t-shirts the staff members wore, which contained snippets from some of their worst Yelp reviews.  He said this was their way of dealing with it, else they'd obsess over every single review and be really brought down by them.  He acknowledged that candid reviews can be really useful, as his friends come and dine and only tell him the good things.

While he spoke and prepared the dishes, his sous chef was on the side preparing the food in larger quantities for us, using components that "by the magic of television" were ready faster than the real required cook times.

The really stunning thing for me was how simple these famous recipes are.  The ingredient lists are short.  The cooking times and processes are not that involved.  I honestly think I could make these, and, while I sure love to eat, I'm not that great in the kitchen.  Chef Stoll stressed how good cooking can be about just taking high quality ingredients and treating them right.  I left the demo more inspired to try to follow the recipes than I've ever been before.  Seriously, get this man a TV show, or, at least, a cookbook.  He has some serious skills to share with the world, and a great personality to back it up.

Now, I really want to go back to Delfina.  And definitely to make it to Locanda!
Insalata di Campo | radicchio, frisee, arugula, pancetta, walnuts, Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinaigrette.  $10 at restaurant.
The first dish was a simple salad.  Just some bitter greens, in a vinaigrette, with some nuts and cheese.  Everywhere has this on their menu, right?  So what makes this special?

He credits the success of the dish to two things.  The first is the great vinaigrette.  It is made by macerating shallots in the vinegar to start.  I didn't realize the difference in the terms marinate and macerate until he pointed them out.  When you marinate, you are trying to pull the flavor into the thing you are marinating.  When you macerate, you are pulling out.  In this case, you are want the amazing flavor of shallots in the vinaigrette.  (And we all know from reading Kitchen Confidential that shallots are one of the keys to success.)  The other important element of the vinaigrette is the salt, amping up the flavor by adding far more than you'd expect.  He also talked about the different grades of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, pointing out that it isn't that one grade is "better" than another, just that they are different, and there are different times and places for different types.  Just like you wouldn't use a crazy expensive finishing oil for cooking, you wouldn't use a super aged balsamic here.

For the greens, he used a mix of radicchio for the bitterness and color, frisee for some crunch, and both baby and wild arugula.  In the winter, he said he would throw in all sorts of other greens.

The other key to this dish is the treatment of the pancetta and the walnuts.  They are done to order.  They do not pre-chop the walnuts and just toss them in at order time, but rather toast and chop them at last minute, so they can release all of their oils into the salad.  Same with the pancetta.  They don't just cook the pancetta all in one big batch early on, but rather are continuously cooking small batches all evening, and again, are chopping it to order so that it releases the oils and you get them in your salad.  And why chop it, rather than giving you a nice big chunk?  So that you get the pancetta in every bite.

One other tip we got was to use a vegetable peeler to shave the cheese.  I've always tried to use a cheese grater, and can rarely make lovely curls with it.  A plain old veggie peeler is how they do it!

This salad was really quite good.  Yes, it was a simple salad, there is no denying that.  But the greens were crisp and just the right amount of bitter.  And the whole thing had just the perfect amount of salt, in both the vinaigrette and then enhanced by the pancetta.  And just like he said, having a tiny piece of pancetta in nearly every bite really did make all the difference.  I'm not usually a big salad person, as it seems like a waste of stomach space, but I eagerly finished this!
Spaghetti | plum tomatoes, garlic, chili flake, extra virgin olive oil.  $9 at restaurant.
Next we moved on to Delfina's most famous dish: the spaghetti.  Everyone knows this as the best spaghetti in the city.  Chef Stoll joked that it has its own fan club.  And the shocking thing is ... this is a very simple dish, only a handful of ingredients.  The sauce is insanely simple: olive oil, garlic, basil, and tomatoes, canned ones at that.  Salt and pepper.  The pasta is just dried pasta.  And then it is topped with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.  That's it.  No frills.

So why on earth is this so notable?

Let's start with the base of the sauce, the tomatoes.  They use canned tomatoes, always, even at the peak of tomato season.  He explained that fresh and canned tomatoes are just different things, one isn't better than the other, they just have different uses.  And for this sauce, canned tomatoes it is.  They also always use Californian tomatoes.  Every year, they do a blind taste test of tomatoes, tasting at least 25 different tomatoes from all over the world, and every year, they always pick Californian ones, like Di Napoli.  They also always use whole plum tomatoes, and break them down by hand.

Another notable thing is that this sauce has garlic, but it doesn't hit you over the head with it.  Italian food so often just blows out your palate by loading it up with garlic.  Not here.  He did mention one thing about garlic that I never knew.  When the garlic has a little green shoot in it, you should remove that.  Whoops, I've always added it!

The pasta is a similar story to the sauce.  They make plenty of fresh pasta at Delfina, and all the pasta at Locanda, including the dry pasta, is made fresh.  But for the spaghetti, they use a dried spaghetti (Rustichella d'Abruzzo to be exact).  And just like the tomatoes, he explained that dried vs fresh isn't a question of one being better than the other, just different.

When it comes to serving it, he gave some tips for ensuring that the sauce doesn't run off the pasta, but rather coats it.  They never ladle sauce on to the top of the pasta, always toss it, and cook it the last few minutes together.  This allows the pasta to soak up more of the sauce and for the pasta to release starches into the sauce so that it sticks better.  You don't want to wind up with a pile of sauce on the plate at the end.

The sauce was very rich from all of the oil.  Not only did it coat the pasta, it felt like it coated the inside of my mouth a little, which I didn't entirely like.  It clung to the pasta in a way I've never seen before, and he was right, there wasn't a leftover drop on the plate when I was done.  The spaghetti was the perfect vessel for the sauce, a little thicker than standard spaghetti I think, but it held the sauce very well.  The sauce was simple, there wasn't a ton of flavor.  It wasn't really something I'd rave about, as I like more going on in my sauce, but for a simple plate of spaghetti, this was indeed very good.  It also really made me want a glass of red wine!
Lemon-Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Berries.  $9 at restaurant.
And to finish, we were in for a serious treat: Delfina's famous Lemon-Buttermilk Panna Cotta!  I adore panna cotta, which is why my blog even has a label for it.  I hadn't ever had Delfina's before, although I've known about it, and have really wanted to go get it a number of times.

The panna cotta is another staple on the menu.  The flavoring and accompaniments vary with the seasons, but the base stays the same.  New pastry chefs are required to keep this dish around, as it too has its own fan club.

And again, a panna cotta is a fairly simple classic.  You can dress it up with all sorts of toppings, but what Delfina is known for is just the basic panna cotta.

Again we ask, what makes this so special?

Chef Stoll thinks that it is the combination of the lemon juice and buttermilk that they use, which give it a special tang and acidity.  I learned a few things during this part of the demo as well.  I have never made panna cotta before, and knew that it means "cooked cream, but didn't realize that it isn't really cooked.  It is set with gelatin in the fridge.  "Buttermilk jello" would be a better name for the dish.  He also shared the technique of using aluminum tins as molds, so that when you go to unmold it, you can just puncture a hole in the bottom to release the suction.

The panna cotta was absolutely delicious.  The buttermilk really comes through.  Again, just like he said, it was that tang that elevated this above any other panna cotta I've ever had.  It was deliciously creamy, although I think it wasn't quite set, as it got a tiny bit runny when I took a spoonful.  We had it topped with a sauce made from raspberries and blackberries, very sweet, but a good contrast with the tangy, citrusy, panna cotta.

Probably the best panna cotta I've ever had.  I'll join its fan club.  And now that I have the recipe, I'm going to seriously consider making it myself.  Dish of the demo for me, but we could have predicted that, right?
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