"This is what you do on your days off?" asked Craig Hutchinson, chef de cuisine at Ribelle. He looked at me incredulously as I pressed the eggplant with all my might, which was probably no where near strong enough for his standards. The box of eggplant was the size of a suitcase. It was salted overnight before being fried for caponata. Squeezing the water out of it one handful at a time was my kitchen initiation project.
Ribelle is a breath of fresh air in the stifling Boston food scene. Most farm-to-table Boston restaurants have delightfully polished service, dietary restriction and picky eater friendly menus, and nicely plated, but timidly seasoned food. But in comes Tim Maslow and takes our restaurant scene by storm. In my opinion, Tim's forte, at both Strip-T's and the more polished Ribelle, is vegetables. They are not a garnish, not an afterthought, not a safe vegetarian option, and definitely not repentance food. They are masterfully handled to show off their natural beauty, and then showered with luxury rarely bestowed on produce. The refreshing salad of sprouts and herbs sits atop sumac honey butter. If you've never had a salad with butter, you don't know what you are missing. The emerald ruffles of flash charred kale are drizzled with oyster cream and topped with crunchy quinoa. The caponata is sweet, tangy, and dense, every drop of wateriness removed leaving only the luscious eggplant with the richness and depth to rival a bone marrow or sweetbreads. The bitterness of charred chicories is tamed by a whisper of cured ham grated on a microplane.
While lingering oven coffee at one of our many Ribelle meals, I suddenly realized what my next learning experience was going to be. I was not going to go to Turkey or Mexico to take more tourist cooking classes that I find so infuriating. I was going to do whatever it takes to spend a few days at Ribelle. These internships are not usually easy to arrange, but to my surprise Tim answered the first e-mail I sent him and graciously agreed to let me chop some vegetables and torment his fabulous crew with my never-ending questions. I didn't exactly put it in those terms. Maybe that's why he agreed.
Why on earth I do these restaurant internships is puzzling not only to my students, but also to the restaurant staff, and sometimes even to me. The students want to know if the restaurants are not nervous about giving away their "secrets." I usually compare it to the Boston symphony worrying about giving away the score of Beethoven's 5th symphony with conductor's notes. Good cooks don't have secrets, they have skills. If you get skills like that, you can cook their food. Craig asked me if he should expect half of their menu to show up in my classes. I think he was kidding. What home cook is going to smoke, braise, dehydrate, and then deep fry pig skin just to get a garnish for their pasta!
Ribelle cooks jump through many hoops to produce that idealized rusticity we are so fond of. My job is to translate their culinary poetry into the language of home cooks without losing its essence. Not all restaurant cooking is translatable. Even Nabokov couldn't translate Pushkin into English and he was a master of both languages. That's like translating Alinea into home cooking. Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should. But Shakespeare's white verse is delightful in other languages, particularly in a masterful translation. So is the cooking of restaurants like Ribelle carefully translated to use the equipment present in a typical home kitchen. For example, the octopus at Ribelle is cooked sous-vide at 185F for 8 hours. There are many reasons why this would not be the best method in 99.9% of home kitchens. But it inspired me to try cooking octopus in oil in 200F oven for 3-4 hours. The results were every bit as succulent as at Ribelle.
The kale dish seemed deceptively simple, so that's where I decided to start. At Ribelle, the cooks put kale into a hot skillet for a few minutes without stirring. Finish with salt and sherry vinegar. The bottom ends up charred and crisp and the top juicy and bright green. After having trouble achieving the same effect at home, I asked Jen Yang for advice. Jen, the line cook who makes dozens of plates of this delightful kale every night at Ribelle, said she had trouble with it at home too. A home burner just doesn't give you enough heat, she said. This gave me an idea. I preheated the oven to 500F. Started kale in a preheated pan on the stove top and popped it into 500F oven for 2 minutes. This provided that infernal ambient heat the restaurant cooks rely on, and I managed to turn the top of kale emerald green and juicy without letting it wilt. After figuring out the foundation, I set to work on the garnishes. I replaced oyster cream with garlic cream (no shucking skill required) and deep-fried quinoa with toasted bread crumbs (no deep-frying required).
There are many other ideas I am still digesting from the 24 hours I spent at Ribelle. Meanwhile, hope you enjoy this kale recipe.
Kale with Garlic Cream and Toasted Bread Crumbs
Inspired by a dish at Ribelle in Brookline
Garlic Cream (can be done several days ahead and refrigerated)
1 cup heavy cream, plus more as needed
8 garlic cloves, peeled, cut in half, green center removed (if any)
- Place 1 cup of cream and garlic into a small saucepan or skillet (small enough so that the garlic is completely covered by cream). Simmer on low heat until garlic is fork tender, about 15-30 minutes.
- Take off heat, and cool slightly. Puree until smooth in a regular or an immersion blender. If you don't have enough garlic cream to cover the blade of the blender, add more cream as necessary for effective pureeing. I usually puree in a 2 cup glass pyrex cup. It holds my immersion blender snugly, and makes it easy to drizzle the cream over kale.
Toasted Bread Crumbs
1 slice high quality rustic stale bread, crust removed (or use panko bread crumbs)
1-2 Tbsp butter (depending on the size of the bread slice)
- Mince the bread into small crumbs.
- Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the crumbs and cook stirring occasionally until evenly golden brown.
1 bunch kale, stemmed, cleaned, and dried
2 Tbsp high heat oil (grapeseed and safflower are good choices)
Sherry vinegar in a squeeze bottle
- Preheat the oven to 500F with a rack set in the bottom of the oven.*
- Cut kale leaves into bite size pieces (roughly 2 inches on each side).
- Set a 12 inch skillet with oil over high heat. When just starting to smoke, add the kale. Do not stir! Cook for 1 minute and pop in the oven just until the top leaves turn bright green, about 2 minutes.
- Sprinkle with salt, drizzle with sherry vinegar and toss gently and quickly. Immediately remove to a serving plate. Drizzle with warm garlic cream and sprinkle with bread crumbs.
* If preheating the oven to 500F is inconvenient, you can cook the kale on the stove top for 1 minute, then cover the skillet, turn off the heat and let it sit for 2 minutes before proceeding to step 4.