First published in The Cordova Times, 9/14/2012
Nine in the morning came a bit early last Thursday. It was chilly and overcast on my walk down Lake Avenue, but when I arrived at The Little Chapel kitchen I was greeted warmly by our visiting chefs, Marge Perry and David Bonom. I found an apron, (and I was the first to soil one too, with a splash of melted chocolate), put up my hair, and and set to work. “Did you secure your board?” Marge asked. I hadn’t, since I didn’t know what she meant. A damp paper towel underneath a big cutting board keeps it from sliding around the counter while you work. Erica Thompson arrived soon after I did and joined the desert team. We melted chocolate, and we beat eggs—we marveled at how the butter we were using made the chocolate and the filo dough act funny. The next day, Marge told us she had had a eureka moment back in the hotel realizing the butter must have a higher water content than what she is used to using. (Note to self: fat makes butter better). More volunteers arrived—Jen Pickett and Beth Poole who washed and dried and chopped vegetables. We ended the day with a fridge full of our industriousness, and with not one dish completed. But that was the plan: two days to prep and cook, leaving Saturday to finish and arrange, heat and plate and make the things that couldn’t be done ahead.
Marge and David are married partners as well as co-chefs in our mushroom adventure, and it wasn’t long before we got to experience their good natured ribbing of one another. Marge calls David “EBO” which stands for “Extremely Bald One.” David, who grew up in Queens, NY and has the accent to prove it, is quick with a silly pun, and just as quick with the romantic story of how he and Marge met at Red Lobster.
I was expecting to learn, but I was surprised both by how much I learned and by how skilled Marge and David are at teaching. I love being in the position of student because along with it comes that blessed freedom to not know how to do everything—to be forgiven for small mistakes like chopping the chives too large, or leaving an egg unbeaten. Working with Marge and David, you get cheerfully teased for mistakes, and you get patiently taught helpful techniques. Here are some things I know now that I didn’t know before three days in the kitchen with Marge:
- How to make Filo Cups—the delicious crispy outsides of our Fungus Festival desert come from a sheet of dough crumpled just-so in a muffin tin. After making more than 80 of them with Erica Thompson (who got the zen of filo faster than I did), I am much better than when I started.
- How to slice/chop/dice with a chef’s knife much more efficiently than before. Marge and David were both generous with cooking techniques and tips. At one point in my frustration at trying to get those chives just right, Marge, who teaches in New York at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE), asked if she could guide my hand with hers. A few moments of hands-on attention, and things got easier.
- Don’t get between a chef and her knife. Oh, I knew better than to use a chef’s personal knife, but I didn’t realize that if my hand absentmindedly went for a knife that was innocently lying on the table, that chef’s attention would be instantly attracted to me. Of course I wasn’t going to use your knife. I have this lovely one right here.
- For goodness sakes, hold your knife at waist level with the point down if you have to walk across the kitchen. And DO NOT gesture with said knife. Oops.
- How to make your own mascarpone when (surprise!) you can’t find any on local grocery store shelves. From our own local chef, Mikal Berry. With a mixer, combine 1 part sweet cream butter to 4 parts cream cheese). Use as for mascarpone in any recipe.
If you watch cooking shows on television you might have the impression that New York chefs are creative, hard working people with big egos and short tempers. I didn’t see a temper flare all week, beyond a classic over-the-glasses mom stare, when I maybe got caught sneaking a tiny crumb of cake that was actually already broken and unusable anyway. Ahem.
Marge Perry has all the creativity and glamour of a TV chef and she brings with it the kindness, patience, and charm of a skilled teacher. Lucky for us, she also brought along Chef David Bonom. And guess what? These real-life chefs are just like the rest of us—they love good food regardless of context—home cooking, or lunch from a taco bus or a pizza trailer. I got the feeling that Marge and David enjoyed Cordova as much as we enjoyed having them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re cooking with us again someday.
If you were at Saturday’s Fungus Festival dinner, you got a heaping warm serving of rich, luxurious truffled polenta. Now even if you weren’t there, you can try it at home with this recipe. Black truffle butter is not something we have easy access to–the bit on the silent auction table finally sold for near $100! The truffle oil can be left out if you can’t get it, and good fresh butter and a few tablespoons of some finely minced and sautéed mushrooms of your choice would make a yummy substitute for the truffle butter.
Creamy Truffled Polenta
By Chef David Bonom
3 cups milk
2 cups half & half
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups dry polenta
1/2 cup cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons black truffle butter
2 tablespoons truffle oil
1/3 cup grated good quality Parmesan cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano
Combine the milk, half and half, and salt and in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
Bring to a boil and add the polenta in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly. Reduce
the heat to medium-low and cook the polenta, stirring often, until mixture is thick and
creamy, 25-30 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cream cheese, truffle butter,
and truffle oil, stirring until the butter and cream cheese melt. Stir in the Parmesan cheese
until well combined. Serve immediately or reheat in a saucepan over medium heat,
adding a little milk and stirring until hot and creamy.
Makes about 8 cups (6-8 servings)
Note: If available, you can substitute quick cooking polenta, which will reduce the
cooking time to 5-8 minutes. For a slightly less rich version leave out the half & half and
use 5 cups of milk.
Update: 9/30/2012 — Chef Marge has written her own report of the Fungus Festival weekend on her blog.