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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Best-Laid Plans...

We had big plans.

Michael and I were supposed to spend a glorious week in New York City a year ago this week. We meticulously fashioned our week around attending the James Beard Foundation Awards.  After months of planning, we had a swanky room booked at The Muse on West 46th Street, reservations at Le Bernadin, tickets for three Tony Award Nominated Broadway shows, and prime membership seats for the annual James Beard Foundation Awards and Gala hosted by Tom Colicchio at Avery Fisher Hall. We. Were. Pumped.

To further boost my anticipation for the JBF Awards, Michael had given me copies of all the James Beard Award nominated cookbooks. I had a blast reading and cooking from them while we eagerly awaited our trip. As we counted down the days on our old kitchen chalkboard, we couldn't wait to take a bite out of the Big Apple. I couldn't wait to return to my old stomping grounds. Bliss.

In the blink of an eye, everything changed.  Unfortunate circumstances forced us to abandon our plans and cancel our dream trip to New York. So, there we were. Dazed, confused, and fucked.   It was heartbreaking.

Fast forward to the present. 

We'll probably always be a bit dazed and confused, but we couldn't be happier. So, here we are a year later. It's the week before the James Beard Awards.  Our invitation to the event has long been opened, fawned over, and tossed in the trash. Hell, we knew we couldn't attend this year.  I have one JBF nominated cookbook. Michael gave me Daniel Humm's and Will Guidara's brilliant seasonal cookbook, Eleven Madison Park. Broken down by seasons, it's a beautiful book loaded with  approachable techniques.

Eleven Madison Park.

The first strawberries of the season arrived at our farmers' market last weekend. The small bright berries dotted farmstands throughout the market, but quickly disappeared. I managed to bag 2 quarts of gorgeous Elmwood Farm strawberries before they vanished.  Armed with those juicy gems, I tipped my hat  to the upcoming JBF Awards and spent a glorious day preparing Daniel Humm's inspired Spring Strawberry Gazpacho.

I followed his method to the letter.

Eleven Madison Park
Strawberry Gazpacho
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed but kept whole
1 1/2 cups whole grain bread, crusts removed,
    cut into 1-inch cubes
2 sprigs thyme
6 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered
2 1/4 cups English cucumber, peeled, seeded,
   and diced
1 1/4 cups diced red bell pepper
3/4 cups diced green bell pepper
6 tablespoons tomato juice (I used Elmwood Farm tomato juice)
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoons salt
Tabasco sauce

Heat a small saute pan over medium-high heat.  Coat the bottom with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and add 1 clove of garlic.  When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the bread cubes.  Toss occasionally until the bread begins to color, being careful not to burn.  Add the thyme and continue to toss until the bread is golden brown. Transfer to a larger bowl. Discard the garlic and thyme.
   Add the strawberries, cucumber, peppers, remaining garlic clove, remaining 1/2 cup olive oil, tomato juice, vinegar, and salt to the bowl.  Toss to combine and cover tightly with plastic wrap.  Marinate at room temperature for 3 to 6 hours. Puree the ingredients and their juices in small batches in a blender on high speed until  very smooth.  Strain through a chinois and chill in the refrigerator until very cold.  Taste and season, if necessary, with Tabasco and additional salt and pepper.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed but kept whole
2 cups diced (1/4) inch whole grain bread,
   crust removed
3 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
Same method as above.

Strawberry Confit
16 amall strawberries, hulled and halved lengthwise
1 1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil,
   plus more for storing
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat.  Toss the halved strawberries in the olive oil to coat them lightly.  Place them cut side down on the silicone mat and dust with the confectioners' sugar.  Bake for 1 1/2 hours.  Flip the strawberries and bake them for an additional 30 minutes.  The strawberries should be deep maroon and tender but still hold their shape.  Cool them on the silicone mat before storing in a flat, airtight container that has been coated with olive oil to keep them hydrated.  The confit can be made 3 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.

To Finish
Black Pepper
Strawberry Confit
Fleur de sel
Basil (bush, opal, and flowering varieties)
1/4 pound guanciale, thinly sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil

This was no ordinary chilled sweet strawberry soup. With perfectly balanced layers,  the gazpacho was clean, crisp, and complex. While the pureed strawberries, garlic, cucumbers, and peppers grounded the flavor base, Marquesa de Valdueza olive oil jacked it up with additional fruity underlying depth.

The garnishes were key,  brilliantly bridging the gap between savory and sweet with unabashed verve. Suspended atop the silken puree, petals of purple basil, spicy bush basil, and genovese basil provided subtle anise undertones while aromatic bits of cracked tellicherry peppercorns and fleur de sel popped with stinging heat and crunch. Finished? Nope. The kicker? Almost transparent  ribbons of thinly sliced cured pork cheeks for unexpected lip-smacking fattiness.Yep.

Be still my heart.

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