Era of Good Eatings
6 November 2017
On November 6th, E.A.T., shared a night of edible inquiry at The James Monroe Museum, tucked away between the tidy, old bricks of Fredericksburg, VA. Sitting in the quiet courtyard, we asked the question, “What does it mean for food to have harmony and purpose?” We addressed this question by exploring some of the mechanisms behind flavor pairing, in order to better understand how and why certain flavor combinations just “work.”
Focusing on the “harmony and purpose” of our food was our way of paying homage to James Monroe, whose presidency was characterized by social harmony and a unity of purpose in America immediately following the war of 1812. As an added bonus, our “Era of Good Eatings” was attended by the president and first lady themselves (James & Elizabeth Monroe, as interpreted by Jay Harrison and Heidi Stello, friends of the museum), which imbued the evening with a sense of historical imagination and significance, as we dined on the grounds of property owned by James Monroe.
E.A.T.’s guests filtered into the tented courtyard at The James Monroe Museum and were greeted with a “mango-jalapeño new fashioned,” kicking the evening off with an uncommon, but harmonious flavor pairing: sweet and spicy.
Starting off the meal with a slight bite from the jalapeño, we intended to “wake up” the palates of our guests, a tasty tingle preparing them for the meal ahead. Once everyone had arrived, Colonel Monroe offered a traditional toast – HUZZAH – and the evening got underway.
Chef Will Lacey (Savvy Foods & Yellow Dog Barbecue) provided the culinary talent for the evening, and put together a menu that displayed some of his favorite flavor combinations, as well as some of his more recent culinary discoveries. From start to finish, Chef Lacey’s menu pushed guests to be more consciously aware of the flavors on their plates, and also of the culinary traditions informing his approach to edible “harmony and purpose.”
The first course of the evening emphasized the nuances that exist within a given taste category (i.e. sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami). A Strawberry & Tomato Gazpacho was our vehicle to investigate complexities of sweetness. Separating the aroma and flavor of the strawberry from that of the tomato was an exercise that, while difficult, really “opened up” the gazpacho, like a fine wine.
The ripe strawberries brought a slight caramel-y sweetness coupled with an aromatic sensation similar to freshly cut grass. (As it turns out, scientists have been asking questions of strawberry flavor and aroma for quite some time, and have even begun to pin down some of the specific molecules responsible for our perception of strawberries’ complex flavor and aroma.) The tomatoes, on the other hand, provided a soft, earthy, tart, acidic counterpoint, rounding out the gazpacho with a full, balanced flavor. A pinch of salt and a dash of pepper allowed the distinct sweetness of each fruit to sing even more clearly through contrast.
After this investigation into the nuances of sweetness, our next course was not so much a pairing of flavors, as it was a mash-up of different culinary traditions. Taking two of his favorite cuisines – Mexican and Italian – Chef Lacey prepared an Apple Wood Cold-Smoked Venison Sausage Crostini with Tomatillo-Serrano-Lime Jam and fresh Crema.
The use of fresh vegetables in the jam, and the incorporation of venison into the sausage were Chef Lacey’s “tip of the toque” to the abundance of elegant and simple sauces, and warm rustic flavors that are characteristic of Italian cuisine. The crema and tomatillo, however, were decidedly Mexican influences, bringing to the dish bright and sour bursts of flavor that dappled the venison.
Equally as important to the flavors and culinary influences of this dish was its texture, as the crostini provided a pleasant and crisp counterbalance to the silky jiggle of the crema and jam. More than the intuitive affect that a dish’s texture will have for the diner – making the overall experience more engaging and diverse – the texture of our food can actually affect what we taste and how much. Rougher textures generally enhance our perception of salty and savory flavors, while smooth and soft textures prime us to perceive delicacy and sweetness.
Our next course was designed by chef Lacey to create “bursts” of flavor on the palate, emphasizing differences in earthiness, spiciness, and sweetness. Chef Lacey prepared a Mushroom, Ginger, and Blueberry Stir Fry.
While ginger and mushroom are often incorporated into stir-fry, especially in Asian cuisine; the addition of fresh blueberries added a surprisingly sweet element to the dish that “popped” against the fragrant heat of the ginger. The stir-fry provided another great example of the delights uncovered when sweet and salty flavors are put together.
The most labor-intensive course followed the stir-fry. Chef Lacey prepared his innovative take on “surf ‘n’ turf,” a Seared Lamb, which he cooked in two stages. The first stage of the cooking process infused the lamb with sweet and spicy flavors, as Chef Lacey did a “wet run” of the lamb in white wine, grapes, local honey, and chili powder. This was then seared off and plated with a topping of light anchovies, sage, and capers.
By cooking the lamb first in a wet run of sweeter flavors, Chef Lacey gave the lamb the necessary structure to stand up against the briny, sea-salty inclination of the anchovies and capers. Using sage in the “surf” of this surf ‘n’ turf brought a subtle woody, slightly bitter tang to the dish, similar to the way tannins will round out a fruity wine with a hint of earthiness. Striking a balance between such robust flavors is no easy task, as any one flavor has the potential to overwhelm the others on the palate. Clearly, Chef Lacey had experimented and tweaked his approach to using these powerful flavors, as the evaluations we collected from our guests at the end of the evening almost universally noted that the seared lamb stood out as a high point of the evening overall.
Finally, an unassuming dessert, the humble ice cream sandwich, signaled the end of our experimental meal. This was no ordinary ice cream sandwich, however. Chef Lacey again returned to one of his favorites – Mexican cuisine – creating an Oaxacan Dark Mole Cookie to go along with his homemade Goat Cheese Ice Cream. The nuttiness and smokiness of the mole was woven through the sweet rich goat cheese ice cream. It lingered on the palate just long enough to have you wanting another bite “right away.”
Sated and reflecting on a superb meal, guests filtered out through the wrought iron gate into the cool night. From the edible surprises, to our “historical” guests of honor, to the beautiful grounds on which we spent our evening of culinary exploration, the true “harmony and purpose” of our meal becomes apparent. A meal’s purpose is achieved not through the meticulous balancing of flavors and ingredients, not through the chance to experience unique and beautiful surroundings, but through the connections and conviviality born out of our conversations around the table.
A meal’s purpose has always been, and will always be, to bring people together at that first “social network”: the dining table. The fact that our particular meal happened to be exceptionally executed by a talented chef, and enjoyed on historic grounds connected to one of America’s most influential founding fathers was a bonus that took our shared purpose, and elevated it to a point of serendipity and true pleasure.
Special thanks to The James Monroe Museum for opening up their beautiful and historic space for our evening of culinary exploration. Without them, this event would not have been possible!
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Finally, thank you to, Chef Will Lacey, whose passion for bringing people together, unique culinary vision, and creative approach in the kitchen continue to inspire and energize all those find themselves around his table.
E.A.T. has been lucky enough to work with Chef Lacey many times at this point, and look forward to doing so many more times going forward.
To get a taste of Chef Lacey’s culinary talents for yourself, check out www.savvy-foods.com, where he is creating products that are ethically sourced, deliciously conceived, and specifically designed to enhance our interactions around the table.