Saturday, October 20, 2012

Demo by Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarrino, SPQR

This past week, I attended a cooking demo for the book release of SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, by Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarrino, held in the beautiful Williams-Sonoma demonstration kitchen at their flagship Union Square location.

I've been to many demos there, and I'm always struck by how amazing the kitchen is.  It is obviously outfitted with all the latest and greatest gadgets, but it is also bright and airy, overlooks Union Square, and has mirrors positioned perfectly so you can always see what the chefs are doing.  Definitely the best demonstration space I've seen.

The demo featured both food and wine, just like the book.  Shelley was there to talk about the wine that she generously poured to pair with the food ... and sip beforehand ... and throughout the demo.  She provided a lovely gewürztraminer that was a special treat.  She talked about how she could have paired a red wine, but picked this one instead, as the sweetness matched that of the fruit in the entree.  I'm glad she did, as it matched the mood of the rare warm San Francisco indian summer evening.  She was incredibly warm and friendly, the perfect hostess!

For the food, Chef Accarrino prepared a farro stuffed quail with chestnuts, persimmon, and dandelion greens.  When I saw what he was making, I must admit I was a little sad.  Besides the persimmon, which I'm totally in love with, these don't fall high on my list of favorite ingredients.  Quail egg, sure, but quail itself?  It has always basically been a more annoying version of chicken to me.  Luckily for me, this dish changed my mind.

The demo was very informative and organized, with the chef giving substitution tips, technique pointers, and tons of general information as he went.  He talked about which parts of the dishes you could do ahead of time, and finish at serving time, so you could host a dinner party and still be present.  He also pointed out that if a recipe didn't seem approachable enough, you could just make a few of the components, and not do the entire thing.

The aromoas during the demo were incredible ... does it get any better than garlic, shallots, and butter bubbling away?

I've only been to SPQR once, over a year ago, and I was really sick at the time.  I don't remember much about the experience, besides the fact that our server incorrectly described a dish to us, so what we received was not at all what we thought we were ordering, and I was really upset by it.  I'd like to go back now though, as the chef is clearly incredibly talented and I'd love to see what else he can do!

I'm not much of a cookbook person, but if you are, check out the book.  It has some beautiful photography, and is designed to be part practical cookbook, part coffee table book, and includes a lot of wine pairing information.
Farro Stuffed Quail with Chestnuts, Persimmon, Dandelion Greens.
There was a lot to this dish!  It reminded me of a very sophisticated version of Thanksgiving.  Instead of a stuffed turkey, there was stuffed quail.  Instead of mashed potatoes, there was chestnut puree.  There was just something so comforting and classic about it, even though it was using far more interesting ingredients.

The quail was certainly the hardest ingredient to work with.  I haven't ever attempted to get it at home before, but the chef assured us that you can find it even at Whole Foods.  He was working with a semi-boneless cut, with the ribs and backbone already removed, forming a nice cavity for the stuffing.  He showed us how to fold the wings under to form a stable base for it to set on while it cooked, and how to form it back into a cute shape to serve.  He also browned it in a pan beforehand to get a nice color on it, and then finished it in the oven.

The quail came out beautifully.  The skin was amazingly crisp and buttery, and the meat stayed moist from the stuffing inside.  I still don't love quail, nor the work required to eat around the little bones, but this was really quite nice.

Speaking of the stuffing, the quail was stuffed with a farro and country bread stuffing, a great way to use up leftover grains and day old bread.  The bread also captures juices from the quail as it cooks, soaking up tons of flavor, and keeping the bird moist.  The stuffing also had sofrito (the italian version of a mirepoix, a great thing to always have on hand and use anywhere, recipe included in the book), garlic confitura (garlic slow cooked in oil to bring out the sweetness and mellow it out, resulting in a caramelized and nutty taste, another element to use anywhere, recipe in the book), and our seasonal features: dried persimmon and chestnuts.  He explained how you could sub out the persimmon for other ingredients you liked more or were easier to find, like apricot or cherries.  He also used pre-cooked chestnuts, which you can buy in stores, rather than raw, as those can be a lot of work.

The stuffing was by far my favorite part of the dish.  It was incredibly moist and soft, had a nice crunchiness from the farro, and was just insanely flavorful.  I would have loved a giant bowl of it.  Probably the best stuffing I've ever had!

For the sides, he mostly echoed the flavors from the stuffing.  He stressed how he likes to add more textures and components, but not go overboard on adding too many flavors or too much complexity.

The first side was a salad, made from dandelion greens as a bitter contrast with the sweetness from the fruit and chestnuts.  To mirror the dried persimmon in the stuffing, he compressed persimmon slices, and added them to the salad, along with some bits of dried persimmon.  The compressed persimmon was made using a vacuum sealer, to remove the air in the persimmon and replace it with simple syrup.  You could of course just use fresh persimmon in its place.  I loved the compressed persimmon, but didn't care for the dried bits, as they were a little tough to eat and seemed a little out of place with the other fresh components in the salad.

The salad also contained sautéed chestnuts, again, mirroring a component from the stuffing.  They were ridiculously tasty, cooked in butter rather than olive oil, to give a fantastic nutty brown butter flavor.  Delicious.

There was more chestnut in the puree, my second favorite element of the dish.  He showed us how to make the puree using more liquid that you might actually need in the end, and strain it off, and then add it back in to obtain the viscosity and texture you wanted.  This made it easy to prepare without worrying about getting the ratios correct from the start.  He made the puree using a Vitamix, and like everyone I've ever heard talk about the Vitamix, he loves it.  He highlighted the variable speed control, allowing you to start off slow and then adjust so you could put in hot liquids and not have it splatter all over the place.  And he loves the wand that you can use to push down and stir while mixing.  It was clear that he wasn't trying to sell products or anything, just genuinely loves the machine.  Anyway, the resulting puree was creamy, smooth, and absolutely delicious.

The entire dish came together very well.  The moist quail, the amazing stuffing, the fresh salad, the creamy puree, and the harmony from the chestnuts and persimmon throughout was just perfect.  Like I said, Thanksgiving dinner, but about a million times more sophisticated.  A wonderful fall meal.  I suggest you get the book, make this, and invite me over :)
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