The moment is here. Summer vegetables are abundant and at their peak flavor. The best way to prepare them is to do almost nothing to them. This was evident at a recent "farm-to-fork" dinner prepared by Barcelona's (barcelonawinebar.com) executive chef Erin Hunt. Hunt recently moved from the Fairfield Barcelona to the New Haven Barcelona in the Omni Hotel on Temple Street, and he still features vegetables from farmer Joel Thompson of Garden to Table in Newtown.
"This dinner represents what we get fresh from the farm," Hunt said. He and his daughter and Thompson picked the vegetables the day before. Hunt loves going to the farm. "It clears my head — and I get the first pick." Thompson grows fruit, vegetables (40 varieties of tomatoes alone!), herbs and flowers, which he provides to restaurants including several of the Barcelona locations, Café Manolo (8 Church Lane, Westport (203) 227-0703, cafemanolo.com) and La Zingara (8 P.T. Barnum Square, Bethel, (203) 744-7500, lazingararistorante.com).
The dinner was intimate; about 10 people, including Thompson, sat at the chef's table outside the big open kitchen. Hunt urged guests to gather around his prep area. "You're going to see that I don't do much of anything with the food," he said. Hunt sticks with classic techniques he learned working for greats like Chef Roger Vergé of Le Moulin de Mougins, the two-Michelin-star restaurant in the South of France.
For an appetizer, Hunt blanched thin green and purple beans in boiling water, shocked them in an ice bath, and then dressed them in imported sherry vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Guests picked up the crisp beans with their fingers, amazed at how delicious they were. Deep-fried corn on the cob, sprinkled with dry, salty cojita cheese, was a hit too.
Striped bass is caught from the shoals off Noank. "The fisherman calls me at 4:30 in the morning. It's like having a secondary alarm clock," Hunt said. Chef Hunt sliced the bass thinly and served it raw, dressed with orange zest, olive oil, lime juice and sea salt, and placed over super-thin slices of cucumber.
Next, the chef did a play on panzanella, bread salad. He seared half-inch thick pieces of swordfish on a hot "plancha," a flattop grill, then served it on top of pea tendrils, pear tomatoes, slivers of fresh onion and fresh croutons, all dressed in sherry vinaigrette. Scallops, seared on the plancha, rested on thin slices of eggplant that had been brushed with olive oil and baked, covered, until creamy soft.
Hunt revels in ingredient-driven cooking and the freedom to create ultra-simple dishes at Barcelona, and the dishes shined at this farm-to-fork dinner. "I can't imagine being a chef at a 'regular restaurant' anymore," he said.
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