Booze Adds a Whole New Dimension to Taste Enhancement
STORY BY EMILY MCKENNA
PHOTOS BY BRENT HARREWYN
Wine, beer and spirits are staples in most restaurant kitchens (for marinating, curing, preserving, braising, making sauces and dressings—as well as for the occasional post-service refresher). Knowing this, I hoped that I would have an easy time getting recipes from Vermont chefs featuring Vermont booze. Luckily, this was a cinch.
My challenge was choosing four restaurants whose recipes would showcase four different methods for cooking with alcohol. As I researched and wrote the story, I happily discovered that the restaurants I selected are run by talented, creative and inspired chefs, each with their own individual take on how to cook with local hooch.
The Mad Taco in Waitsfield uses ale brewed in the Mad River Valley to braise chile-marinated chicken for the freshest, most succulent tacos that I have ever eaten. The Common Man in Warren cures salmon with Vermont-distilled vodka and gin, then piles the thinly sliced fish on top of grilled bread with spicy horseradish crème fraîche. Osteria Pane e Salute uses crisp Vermont La Crescent wine, good-quality extravirgin olive oil and a head of cauliflower to create a simple and delicate sauce for pasta. Finally, Guild & Company turns to apple brandy from Flag Hill Farm in Vershire to braise rabbit legs—and to create a bright, refreshing cocktail to serve alongside the final dish.
OSTERIA PANE E SALUTE
Full disclosure: I have not yet dined at this tiny Italian café located in central Vermont. When I was writing my last story for this magazine, baker Gesine Bullock- Prado raved about a recent meal she had eaten here, complimenting the wine list, the food and, especially, the owners, husband-and-wife team Caleb Barber and Deirdre Heekin. This is not the first time I had heard someone praise this restaurant. After talking to Caleb and Deirdre for this piece, I sensed that the trouble I had snagging a table here had less to do with the restaurant’s petite size than with the high quality of the food and the company.
Caleb and Deirdre met as dancers at Middlebury College. After graduation, they moved to New York City, where they continued to dance and work as choreographers. Their careers then took them to Italy, to a little town in eastern Tuscany called Castiglion Fiorentino, where, Caleb says, “Italy happened to us.”
When they first arrived, Caleb and Deirdre missed their friends and family deeply. “It was just the two of us,” says Caleb. Soon enough, they were taken in by a local family and made to feel like a part of the village where they lived, thus initiating what has become a two-decades-long connection to Italy.
“It was a powerful experience for us to be made to feel safe so far from home,” says Caleb. “When we got back to the States, we felt like we’d been shown something special and that we owed it to our adopted Italian family to pass on their generosity. So, in 1996, we opened Pane e Salute to represent the Italian grandmothers who are still feeding and welcoming strangers into their homes and kitchens.”
Pane e Salute, which means bread and health in Italian, began as a bakery. Soon, lunch was added and, then, dinner. This meant that the pair was working all the time. It was too much. Eventually, Caleb and Deirdre, who recently started making local Biodynamic wine under the La Garagista label, cut back to a dinner-only schedule four nights a week. This left them enough time to maintain a serious garden program that supplies most of the restaurant’s produce. It also allows them the flexibility to close the restaurants for two months every year to travel.
When I first spoke to Caleb, who runs the kitchen, he admitted that most of what he prepares involves some ratio of olive oil and white wine. Perhaps this was an exaggeration. Nonetheless, white wine is a staple in his kitchen and appears in many dishes, from braised dandelion greens to roasted pork and ragu.
“It is kind of a constant in the restaurant,” says Caleb. “Wine, especially white wine, adds brightness to a dish. It helps coax the flavor out of ingredients without clouding or distracting.”
His recipe for penne with cauliflower, garlic and white wine epitomizes Caleb’s culinary aesthetic. It seems authentically Italian, spare and incredibly satisfying. Chopped cauliflower is simmered in white wine and many generous glugs of olive oil until the bitter vegetable softens and sweetens and transforms into the simplest condiment for cooked pasta. Typically, this dish is served with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs in place of the grated cheese (Tarentaise or Parmigiano-Reggiano). Caleb says that you could add a knob of pancetta or sausage. This sounds good, but the dish really doesn’t need it.
Osteria Pane e Salute
61 Central St.
THE MAD TACO
The Mad Taco does not serve “fine food” in the traditional sense of the term. Food comes out of the kitchen on heavy absorbent paper plates with minimal accompaniments—a few paper towels in place of a napkin, a glass of local beer or a margarita and your choice of 10 or so homemade salsas ranging in spiciness from mild to tear inducing.
The original outpost of this hipster taqueria opened two years ago in a half-empty shopping center in Waitsfield and attracts a hungry, mixed clientele of hippies, skaters, ski bums, local young professionals and soccer moms—and me and my husband at least once a week. Joey Nagy is the food brains and part owner, along with the folks behind the Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, of this growing local restaurant group. A second Mad Taco opened in Montpelier in the beginning of 2012, and earlier this year they took over the kitchen at the Blackback Pub in Waterbury. Joey is a native of Chico, California, who studied classic French cuisine at the New England Culinary Institute but found his culinary voice in the fresh, lively flavors of the Southern California street-style taco.
These are not the tacos that most of us grew up eating. There is no ground beef or turkey, hard shell or stale generic taco seasoning from a packet. Instead, Joey and his team of cooks, many of whom he met in culinary school, compose tacos, burritos and other Mexican-inspired sandwiches using ingredients made entirely from scratch. According to Kit Perrault, one of the managers of the Waitsfield store, they make everything except the cheese and the tortillas, which they source from Maria and Ricardo’s. They make all of their breads, pickles, sour cream and chile sauces (to date they have created 1,000 different sauces) and smoke, braise and barbecue all of the meat and vegetables on the menu in house.
What makes the tacos so deliciously addictive is the high quality of the ingredients and the clear attention that is paid to layering complementary flavors into every bite. Take one of my favorites—the chile-and-beerbraised- chicken tacos—which are the perfect example of this genius flavor pairing at work.
Dark-meat chicken is marinated in a spicy paste made with ancho, guajillo and New Mexico chiles then braised in a mixture of fresh lime juice, garlic, onion and beer (they like Lawson’s Maple Nipple Ale) until it falls off the bone. The shredded chicken is tossed with the reduced braising liquid and piled into chewy, pliable whitecorn tortillas and topped with fresh cilantro, finely diced white onion and cooling house-made crema. The chicken holds on to some of its earthy spiciness, which is offset by the crema, the bite of cilantro and the sharpness of the onion. Fine or not, food has never tasted so good.
The Mad Taco
5101 Main St.
THE COMMON MAN
After a recent meal at the Common Man, located just down the road from the Sugarbush Resort in Warren, my husband commented that the restaurant was alone in holding itself to such high standards. Happy and full from our meal of homemade parsnip ravioli with braised short ribs and gorgonzola, local baby-kale salad with Vermont Creamery Cremont and roasted mushrooms and a deconstructed eggplant Parmesan, we agreed that the Common Man is, hands down, our favorite Vermont restaurant.
Adam Longworth, who runs the kitchen, and Lorien Wroten, who does everything else, purchased the Common Man with the help of two local business partners at the end of 2011 after a failed year searching for their own restaurant. The pair, who are avid mountain bikers, moved to Vermont in 2010 in pursuit of more time to indulge in their sport of passion and to buy a restaurant. Adam had been cooking at the lauded Gotham Bar & Grill, a New York City institution, right before making the move north.
“Unfortunately, when we got here, we fell flat on our face,” admits Adam. “We could not find a restaurant.” So, the pair moved back down to New York City but kept the lease on their home in Fayston. About three months later, Adam and Lorien received news of an opportunity to take over the Common Man. By December 2011, Adam and Lorien were preparing to open for their first dinner service at the Common Man.
After some initial pushback from locals who resisted any changes to the beloved 40-year-old spot, Adam and Lorien feel like they are finally coming into their own. “We are excited for this ski season,” says Adam. “We have made so many positive changes to the restaurant, and it feels more and more like our own.”
They gut-renovated the kitchen and purchased custom-made maple bowls. (“I have wanted to do a really cool Caesar salad for a long time,” admits Adam.) They repaved the parking lot and hung new artwork—photographs of his grandmother’s dairy in East Braintree stretched onto canvas and mounted on pieces of wood from her barn. “People are starting to recognize what we are doing,” says Adam. “They are starting to realize how committed we are to the restaurant.”
When I asked Adam about the transition from a big, New York City restaurant to the Common Man, he admitted that it took some time to adjust. “As a cook, I am always at war with myself,” he says. “I realized that cooking rustic food is just as hard as cooking food that is not considered rustic,” he says. “I have thrown out that idea altogether. Whatever you do, the flavors on the plate have to be clean, and everything has to be prepared perfectly. Now, when I develop a new dish, I ask: ‘Can I scale this back? Can I cut out four steps?’ The answer is, almost always, yes. And our food tastes cleaner because of it.”
Case in point: Adam’s Vermont-spirit-cured salmon bruschetta. Adam takes fresh salmon and cures it for four days in a mixture of fresh, chopped herbs, dried spices, citrus and a splash each of Vermont Spirit’s Vermont Gold Vodka and Caledonia Spirits’ Bar Hill Gin. The prep work is minimal—you basically just mix everything together and pile it on top of the salmon to cure—and wait for the salt, sugar and spices to work their culinary magic.
The Common Man
3209 German Flats Rd.
GUILD & COMPANY STEAKHOUSE
When I reached out to the Farmhouse Group— which owns the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, El Cortijo and Guild & Company Steakhouse—for a recipe incorporating Vermont spirits, I got a recipe that was a virtual showcase of everything Vermont does well in food and drink. One recipe from the group’s executive chef and partner Phillip Clayton included nine Vermont ingredients—rabbit from Rabbit Tracks Farm, watermelon radishes and parsnips from Jericho Settlers’ Farm, apples from Champlain Orchards and apple brandy from Flag Hill Farm. It gave me a sneak peek into his, and the restaurant’s, food philosophy.
“The strength in my food comes from the integrity of the ingredients I use,” says Phillip. “We buy great ingredients, which are abundant here in Vermont, and apply the right techniques to feature them in the best possible light. The dishes that I put on the menu are not about my personal creativity. Rather, they are about how I can serve the products we source.”
When I asked Phillip why he submitted a recipe for rabbit (not the most popular protein at the supermarket), he said that it is one of his personal favorite ingredients. “It is delicious and very healthy. Plus, it is raised here in Vermont, and you can use the entire thing, including the livers for pâté and the bones for stock. And, brandy and rabbit are a great match.”
He reiterated his commitment to using Vermont ingredients when we talked about the philosophy behind Guild & Company.
“We felt that there was a need for this sort of restaurant in the area. Anyone who eats at Guild will immediately recognize the trappings of a classic steakhouse (dryaged New York strips and ribeyes with accompanying Bearnaise, Bordelaise and blue-cheese sauce options) as well as elements of the contemporary farm-to-table movement (savory crêpes stuffed with local vegetables and porchetta made with Vermont pork). We also wanted to create an outlet to support the Vermont beef industry, which is definitely in an up-and-coming stage right now. My partners and I felt like it was a good time to showcase what Vermont has to offer in terms of beef and other local products.”
The commitment to local does not stop on the plate. Guild & Company’s cocktail-program manager, Michael Buonocore, says that he wants to turn Guild into a “serious drinking destination” serving classic, seasonal and locally minded drinks.
“Just as the kitchen staff aims to create seasonal dishes inspired by local traditions, the bar makes it a priority to honor local producers and Vermont’s rich history.”
Guild & Company Steakhouse
1633 Williston Rd.