Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Following Chef Tuohy

This week I had the lovely opportunity to Follow the Chef, as in, Chef Tuohy of The Grange. This is a educational lunch that The Grange hosts every Wednesday while the farmers market is available in Cesar Chavez park.

This is a great dining bargain for a delicious lunch at only $35. How the day rolls out is that you meet at the restaurant at 11:00 and have introductions to the chef. Each attendee gets a recyclable shopping bag with the hotel and restaurant's name. The chef leads your group across the street and proceeds to go around the market counter clockwise looking for the day's best produce. He gives advice, tips, and education about the farmers as you sample what is fresh for the day. At about noon you return to the restaurant and wait for your four course meal focusing on what he bought for the day. You can expect to be finished close to 2:00.

I had been a little worried due to our crazy weather and a prediction of possible rain. Luckily the clouds were friendly and we managed to snag bits of sunshine and remain dry during the day.

Chef Tuohy is well known for using local and fresh produce. That's why this tour is perfect for him. He gets to just cross the street on Wednesdays and get things directly from the farmers.

As we started our circle it was pleasant to see Tuohy's excitement at what was fresh to market this week. As it is spring with this crazy, cool weather, each week brings out a new crop. Today was the first time he found blueberries, nectarines, and a couple other items at the Wednesday market. One of the first tables was a blueberry vendor from I-5 in Dunnigan. They grow about a dozen different blueberry varieties and today they had a blend of three. We sampled very large, plump, and flavorful berries. The vendor explained that the cool weather has been good for the blueberries because they've been allowed time to develop more sugar. Chef bought a large container for $10.

We then came to a vendor that had quite a variety of vegetables. Chef pointed out the white radishes and was soon holding a bouquet of three bunches which he purchased. This vendor also had some baby fennel with small tender bulbs versus the large bulbs one usually sees. Chef bought four bunches of these and we did end up having a bit of that in our meal later.

When the other food bloggers had done this lunch a few weeks ago they all raved about the blackberry honey. I am not a honey fan. I just use it when it's called for in a recipe or in my morning oatmeal. But after the raves I had heard I had to try the blackberry. It was AWESOME! It was so good that I had to buy a small bottle. That will be stashed away for desserts only.

We came across big bunches of garbanzo bushes with the young, green pods attached. Now garbanzos are another thing I'm not fan of unless they are pureed up for hummus. Chef talked about how he likes to season them in a hot skillet so that the steam in the pods cooks the pea inside. Then he'll just sit and eat them as a snack. I plucked a pod off, opened it up and popped the green pea in my mouth. Not bad. Just shows you that you can not like a veggie prepped one way, but like it another way.

Another case, fava beans. We are getting to the end of fava bean season. I've never cared for those either as they remind me of lima beans, which I always picked out of the frozen mixed veggies I grew up with. But Chef prepared them as part of our entree later and I did enjoy them there.

All the vendors knew the chef and about his weekly tours. Some had tasters ready for us. We sampled cherries, peaches, blueberries, honey, and more. Most were on a first name basis with the chef. At one booth the vendor had six cartons of squash blossoms ready and waiting for him. He was so excited and asked that he be constantly supplied with them. We all hoped that the blossoms would later end up on our lunch table, but we were disappointed. At an apricot vendor's stall we were given the explanation of how pluots and apriums are created by either grafting, pollination, or both. He also told us that the reason you look for the rosy, darker color on apriums and apricots is because that shows that it got some of that sweet plum DNA in it to add more flavor.

We headed back to the hotel and sat at the table to chat about more things food while lunch was prepared. Our group had consisted almost entirely of retirees. This was a group of neighbors who live in Sun City, Roseville. They all go out for little gourmet outings. Besides myself, there was another young couple there. Wine was apparently included with the meal and so they were all offered a white or a red. I, of course, passed and was given a nice cherry spritzer instead.

Our appetizer was simple with toasted baguette slices with some goat cheese, chopped mushrooms, and a drizzle of olive oil. After that I was happily munching on bread with the lavender butter as we waited for the next course.

Out came a three beet salad with some Oregon blue cheese and the sprigs of fennel. Beets are something I have next to no experience with since we did not have them when I was growing up. They are something I need to experiment more with like I did with figs last year. And I don't like blue cheese. (By this time you are wondering what I do like that was gonna be served today.) This was a fresh and tangy salad that was complimented perfectly with the blue cheese. Even though I don't like it, I know that sometimes the flavors work well together, so I took tiny bits of cheese with my beets and found the combination tasty indeed.

Our main course was salmon atop a light ragout of asparagus, artichokes, snap peas, fava beans, morel mushrooms, and pancetta bits in a light lemon and white wine sauce. This was also very nice and refreshing and I did enjoy how the fava beans were cooked here. OK, so maybe I can be truly converted.

Finally we came to a dessert by pastry chef, Elaine Baker, where we were treated to two sides. On one side were two cherry fritters served with a creme anglaise. Each fritter had a cherry inside. On the other side of the plate was a spoonful of chocolate mousse with some small cake cubes and some candied cherries. The disappointment here - it was all gone too soon. I declared I wanted seconds. Oh, well. I was taking a long lunch from work and had to head quickly back to the office.

If you see my old Grange reviews you'll see they've been kind of hit and miss. I must admit, though, that the food tastes better when you have a little experience about where it came from. The meal was quite enjoyable when you looked down and were able to pick out some of the things we had just seen the chef buy across the street.

Since Tuohy really does focus on what's local and in season, I can see doing another tour mid-summer and again in the fall. What fun to see what he would come up with each time!

Learn more about the tour here.
Read Chef Tuohy's blog here.
Read Elaine Baker's (pastry chef) blog here.
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