Well kiss my winter-spiced purple grit cakes … The ‘Taste’ is back in town! (Part I)

Well kiss my winter-spiced purple grit cakes … The ‘Taste’ is back in town! (Part I)

■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE

It’s time once again for the “Taste of Boca Grande” to tantalize and titillate our taste buds with strange (and some not-so-strange) and unusual dishes, created by some of the best chefs in the region.

So be prepared to enter the big tent on the grounds of the Boca Bay Pass Club on Monday, Feb. 4 with a big appetite and an inquisitive palate … because it’s about to get real in here with 18 of the best restaurants around serving you the finest food and drink.

As always, the event supports the Harry Chapin Food Bank. Founded in 1983, each year the Food Bank feeds people in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee Counties, to the tune of approximately 28,000 people a week. In 2017-18 the Food Bank distributed 24 million pounds of food and other grocery items, including 6.4 million pounds of fresh produce. That amount of food works out to about 20 million meals for people in need.

The featured entertainment for this year is the Brett Foreman Band, a group that has played for a couple of years now and is a big crowd-pleaser. Brett Foreman has created what many call the “go-to band” in this area, all the way down to Naples.

Tickets are $125 and are available at hcfb.yapsody.com, or by stopping in at BRC Group, LLC (964-8180), Boca Beacon (964-2995), The Boca Bay Pass Club (964-0769), The Boca Grande Club (964-2211), Michael Saunders & Co. (964-2000) or Prime Time Steak & Spirits on Placida Road.

Keep in mind that this is a three-part series. We will do six restaurants each week until the event.

And now, on to our first menus.

The Beach Road Wine Bar & Bistro
1350 Beach Rd, Englewood
Chef Juan Landaverde

Sugar cane spice tuna (saku): Made with their signature sugar cane-spiced rub seared onto a block of Saku tuna and served over a house-made Wasabi mousse and miso-cured red cabbage. Finished with a soy lacquer and tuxedo sesame seeds. Dessert is candied strawberries and their home-baked cheesecake bites, topped with a graham cracker crust.

Saku tuna is considered to be the “filet mignon” of all the tuna and perfect for making sushi, sashimi and tataki, so you can imagine how divine this dish will taste when served with Chef Landaverde’s signature sugar cane rub. Saku tuna normally comes in a block, often frozen, and is kept at -40 Celsius to maintain the integrity of this flaky, fragrant fish. It comes boneless and skinless, with all blood line removed. Saku is commonly served as maguro (the Japanese word for tuna) in sushi bars.

The word “saku” has two meanings: One meaning in Japanese is “to bloom, or flower,” while it also means “block.” It is also a city located in Nagano, Japan, which is located about an hour away from Tokyo.

Saku tuna is normally line caught, as legislation has cracked down considerably in the last decade to phase out net fishing. Most of it is caught in the Western Central Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The delicious flesh of these torpedo-shaped, migratory fish is highly sought. They are handsome fellows who often take up the company of skipjack and bigeye tuna and school with them (which kind of makes them sound gangster in a way).

“Where you going tonight, Saku?”

“Oh, you know. Just hanging out with Little Jimmy and Skipjack on the corner. Bigeye might be coming by later.”

And this brings up an interesting question – why do some fish of different types school together, while others stay strictly within their own kind? According to some, it’s simply a matter of survival. The tastier fish in the ocean realize there is a strength in numbers, not only for protection but for hunting food. Just like humans in high school, approximately 80 percent of fish school at some point in their lives, but while some continue to school enjoy a group aesthetic and co-mingle, others take off on their own and sulk in the corner at parties. These fish often pursue liberal arts degrees.

“Wasabi mousse” sounds like Wasabi is dressing to go out to a fancy debutante ball, and that’s pretty much the truth. The use of heavy cream, lemon juice, salt and occasionally green tea is preferred, mixed with Wasabi powder. Whether it mutes the vicarious bite of the Wasabi is totally up to the chef.

By the way, Wasabi is known to the Japanese like horseradish is to the Germans. It comes from a thick-rooted, cabbage-type plant and can clear your sinuses from a mile away. Wasabi, like horseradish, contains a chemical called allyl isothiocyanate that makes your tastebuds stand at attention and do their best Robin Williams impression. In truth, most Wasabi served in American restaurants is a mixture of horseradish, mustard and green food coloring. You have to go to a pretty authentic Japanese source to find real Wasabi.

According to a website called sciencemadesimple.co.uk, “The Wasabi receptor responsible for your reaction is known by the catchy name of ‘TRPA1,’ which is a relative of another receptor – ‘TRPV1’ – which responds to the spice in chili peppers. Capsaicin is the chemical inside chilis that gives them spice, and the capsaicin receptor responds to hot temperatures, spice in chili peppers and – weirdly – spider venom!”

It was first used during the Asuka period in Japan (538 – 710 AD), but it was more intensively documented during the Heian period (794 – 1185 AD) when it was found in the Honzo Wamyo, Japan’s oldest encyclopedia of medicinal plants.

Topping the Saku dish is a soy lacquer and tuxedo sesame seeds. Only  the finest sesame seeds dress in their best for “Taste,” and these seeds from Thailand are the belles of the ball. They are a blend of white and black seeds, and the only difference between the two is that the white ones have been hulled.

Boca Bay Pass Club
898 Gulf Blvd., Boca Grande
Chef Michael Klocinski

Thai fried duck breast; ginger sticky rice and coconut red curry sauce; winter-spiced purple grit cake; pecan-calvados sauce and Granny Smith apple espuma.

Here’s the deal: You’re either a duck fan or you’re not. That being said, it’s always best to give duck a try when you can, especially if it’s been awhile. Each chef does duck differently, and you never know … in one dish it might inspire you.

The key to a good piece of fried duck is to make sure the skin is crispy and that most of the fat has been rendered from the meat. Adding Thai spices, maybe a little fish sauce or oyster sauce (or both) and the occasional pepper will balance some of the duck’s less admirable traits.

There are some who would argue that duck is a traditional Thai food, but it just makes sense that it is. The people of Thailand utilize almost every animal that walks on two or four legs (and some insects that walk on six or eight legs) and every plant that grows there in some way, shape or form.

In fact, in the summer of 2014, traffic in Nakhon Pathom came to a standstill as hundreds of thousands of ducks filled the road and surrounding land. No one knew what made the duck uprising occur, but the residents who were late for school and work that morning were described as “seng ped,” which is Thai slang that describes boredom or being “fed up.” The comical nature of this expression is even funnier when you realize the translation means “boring duck.”

We can pretty much guarantee you that Chef Klocinski’s fried duck will be far from boring … but you might very well be tempted to be “fed up” in a different way.

Sticky rice is a very common dish in Thailand and is often paired with a red curry sauce. The use of ginger in the mix is only more of a good thing, as ginger is one of those insane spices that is an amazing aid for digestion, among other things.

Now, about this winter-spiced purple grit cake. It may sound like something sold in a back alley in Amsterdam by a guy with matted hair in a dirty T-shirt  (not that that’s a bad thing), but it’s actually a popular dessert that has no hallucinogenic properties at all. Sorry.

Winter spices are things like star anise, allspice, nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon … think Christmas and you’re on the right track. Did you know that long ago, foods were spiced more in the winter because of a lack of fresh food and produce? According to an article published through Princeton University, “Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat notes in her History of Food that the physician Arnau de Villanova (c. 1240-1311) recommended balancing the four humors of the body by consuming spices ‘proper for winter’ as zesty sauces of ginger, clove, cinnamon, and pepper (Toussaint-Samat, 486). These spices would aid digestion after a heavy winter meal by heightening the effects of ‘hot’ and ‘humid’ properties in roasted meats. To this day, the warming spices advocated by Arnau de Villanova tend to be associated with fall and winter.”

The purple part of the grit cake may very well be from purple corn. If you’re a grain nerd, you’ll be interested to know (or already know, depending on how much of a grain nerd you are) that some farmers have started a field or two of this variety of corn, developed from a variety of ancient maize. It is non-GMO, so don’t worry, and contains antioxidants called anthocyanins that are purported to protect the cells in your body from oxidation, which can help to prevent heart disease and cancer, and can slow down aging. We have blue corn; why not purple?

Espuma is a Spanish word that means “froth” or “foam” created through the use of a siphon bottle. Believe it or not, culinarians being the peculiar lot they are, have several ways of attaining froth … the least of which is by angering the head chef. Either way, when you use a siphon to create your froth, you don’t need to use egg, but instead you use air that has been incorporated into your liquid of choice.

Calvados sauce is made from calvados brandy, which should be “naturally reminiscent of apples and pears.” The longer it is aged, the more pearish and applish it gets. Paired with the Granny Smith apple espuma, you are going to expect a very robust apple taste with this dish.

Boca Grande Club
5000 Gasparilla Rd., Boca Grande
Chef Greg Foos

Cool and spicy Thai shrimp salad with Napa cabbage wonton; crisp Wasabi peas with Kaiware sprouts; sticky barbecue duck confit sliders, pickled veggies and pomegranate aioli.

Chef Greg is going all out for this year’s “Taste” with some very imaginative and, for many, new dishes. We aren’t sure what the secret ingredients are that make his Thai shrimp cool and spicy, but we can talk a little about the Napa cabbage wonton.

Napa cabbage originated near Beijing, China, not California. It is very commonly used in Asian food and came to Europe in the 20th century. Its scientific name is Brassica rapa and is from the Pekinesis group of plants. That’s sort of like the dog, yes, but with less snorting issues and more nutritional value. In Australia it is referred to as “wombok,” which should definitely not be confused with a wombat, the short-legged, muscled marsupial that is also from Australia.

Wasabi peas are amazing. You can’t eat just one, but if you eat the whole bag of the dried variety you feel like dying for about half a day. They sell bags of them at Hudson’s, so I know this for a fact. Chef will be serving them with Kaiware sprouts, which are newborn daikon radishes. They are often used in Japanese cuisine, and they tend to have a very powerful radish flavor. It is believed that the Japanese started using Kaiware sprouts in the Heian period, but it was considered a “luxury” food, as each one was hand-planted. Once commercial hydroponics took off in the 1960s, it was much easier to grow these sprouts en masse, and everyone started to enjoy them.

They are rich in vitamins and minerals and are supposed to help mucous membranes function properly. Also, the pungency you notice on your tongue when you eat them is unique just to the Kaiware radish sprout, as it contains isothiocyanate. It is also known to increase your appetite, so keep that in mind at “Taste.”

In case you didn’t know, you can’t beat a duck slider, and adding a little barbecue sauce to the mix only makes it better. But what is duck confit? The difference between a confit and deep-fried duck is temperature. Frying typically takes place at a temperature of 325 to 450 degrees, while confit is created at a lower temperature of 200 degrees or less. Both methods require oil, though. Confit (kon-FEE) is a French word derived from “confire,” which means “to preserve.” This can apply to meat, fruit or vegetables, by the way. It is a slow preservation method that requires the chef to cook the food in a liquid that doesn’t create an optimal environment for bacterial growth. For meat, this often means it is cooked in pure fat. After it is cooked, it is packed in a container and submerged in the liquid. A properly confited duck can, theoretically, last for weeks if stored in a cool, dry atmosphere.

Chefs nowadays don’t necessarily use the confit method for preservation, but rather for a full, rich taste that comes from the fat that surrounded it when cooked.

The duck will be served with pickled vegetables and pomegranate aioli, which is very interesting. Some people believe that every pomegranate fruit has exactly 613 seeds (still not proven for obvious reasons) and it is believed to be one of the first cultivated fruits. It is native to the Middle East and the Himalayas but is revered all over the world as a life-giving, healthy food. There were even a few scattered in King Tut’s tomb when he died.

Your confit provided by Chef Foos will be paired with a pomegranate aioli, which is a mayonnaise-based condiment seasoned with garlic and, in this case, with pomegranate juice. It should prove to be amazing.

Eagle Grille and Miller’s Dockside
220 Harbor Dr., Boca Grande
Chef Antonio Olivero

New Zealand mussels sautéed with tarragon beurre blanc; large prawns in a saffron pomodoro sauce.

As soon as you hear the words “New Zealand” you think of kiwis, Maori war hakas and hobbits. But do you think of mussels? Apparently if you’ve had the green-lipped variety found only in that southern hemisphere location, you do.

The New Zealand green-lipped mussel is a highly prized seagoing morsel. They are also known as “smileys,” which makes sense if they taste as good as people say they do, and are marketed under the trademark name “greenshell.” They are certainly beautiful, with their vibrant shell colors, and their taste is reported to be a bit milder than the blue or black mussels we are used to. As with any mussel, it’s best to pull their beards off prior to cooking, and make sure you check their shells prior to putting them in the pot. If you try to close them and they don’t stay closed or will not close, toss them.

These particular mussels, Perna canaliculus, have been used in medicine for arthritis, asthma, cancer and sore muscles. The greenshell industry in New Zealand produces more than 140,000 tons annually and is valued each year in excess of NZ$250 million which … sounds like a lot? It actually converts to about $170 million in U.S. currency.

Now here’s something interesting: Wild mussel populations rely on something called “spat,” which attaches itself to seaweed on the beach. Ninety Mile Beach in northern New Zealand is a prime spat-collecting location, as nowhere else are there such large amounts of mussel-covered seaweed. It is reported that this beach alone is responsible for about 80 percent of the seed mussels needed for the country’s mussel production.

We could go on all day about spat; it’s fascinating. Sometimes the New Zealand mussel farmers must wait years before the spat is back in the seaweed, and there are things called “spatfall” events that are affected by El Nino and can seriously delay mussel production because of insufficient seeding.

So, what’s up with tarragon beurre blanc? It sounds a bit like a small white donkey wearing a blanket with the name of a musketeer, but in fact that is not what it is (that would also mean your French is pretty bad). It’s a butter sauce with onions and vinegar and often accompanies seafood, so add tarragon to that. Tarragon is a shrubby herb from Asia that is a member of the lettuce family, and it apparently tastes very good raw.

Chef Olivero is also bringing the big guns in, the large prawns. Attack of the Giant Prawns is actually a great movie and I highly recommend it, but I digress, as Chef Olivero is serving large, not giant, prawns. There is a difference between shrimp and prawns that is visible only to the nerdy eye, as they both have 10 legs and have exoskeletons, but shrimp are Pleocyemata and prawns belong to the Dendrobranchiata suborder. Prawns stand up straight; shrimp are hunchbacks. Their pincers are different as well, but you wouldn’t know that unless you are shaking hands with them.

As a side note, there is a company in the United Kingdom that sells what they call “Al Caprawns,” which can weigh up to half a pound each and can be up to 10 inches long. They will be served with a pomodoro sauce, which is smooth and thick, unlike marinara, which is more watery and chunkier. Pomodoro sauce is usually simmered for quite a long time – hours, maybe – which turns it a deeper, darker red.

We always like to talk about saffron, as it’s our favorite spice in the whole world. The word means “yellow” and comes from the Arabic word “zafaran.” The better the quality of saffron, the deeper the color red. It has an aroma that many describe as smelling like honey, and its taste is very fine, with just a hint of musk. It takes 80,000 pounds of saffron plant to produce one pound of saffron, and it costs anywhere from $500 to $5,000 wholesale.

In the Middle Ages, the people of Nuremberg allegedly loved their saffron so much that anyone who “adulterated” it by combining it with less special ingredients was burned alive. Because this is an offering from Chef Olivero, there will be no such worries.

Farlow’s on the Water
2080 S. McCall Rd., Englewood
Chef John Mazza

Watermelon Tuna—fresh Ahi tuna over coconut ginger rice and

served with a watermelon gazpacho and a hint of coconut; St. Croix Cranberry chicken salad— their house specialty cranberry chicken salad served in phyllo cups and topped with

candied pecans; pina colada cheesecake —pineapple cheesecake with a pina colada caramel sauce garnished with an expressed orange peel.

Farlow’s is always one of the favorites at Taste, and this year’s offering sounds particularly mouth watering. Chef Mazzo did a great job of explaining his dish above, so we will go into the finer details in this selection.

Let’s talk gazpacho. Cold soup often sounds less-than-ideal to many people, but in fact it has been enjoyed by the Spanish for many, many years. In hot weather it is considered to be one of the most refreshing and cool dishes.

The origins of the word are hazy, as some say it came from a Greek word for a collection box in a church, while others say it might be an Arabic word. In Hebrew the word “gazaz” means to “break things into little pieces,” so that could be it as well. Lastly, some say it is Latin and derives from the word “caspa,” which also means “fragments or little pieces.”

In the 8th century the Andalusian area of Spain was taken over by Ottomans and Moors, and they brought a soup with them called “Ajo Blanco,” or “white garlic,” and it is made of bread, crushed almonds, garlic, water, olive oil, salt and occasionally vinegar.

Christopher Columbus brought back cucumbers, tomatoes and different peppers back to his homeland when he returned from his travels, and it is believed the gazpacho we know today is because of his findings.

St. Croix chicken salad is one of those house specialties that when you mention it, people often groan with pleasure. The island has been called a “foodie’s dream come true,” as the people’s history there is filled with magical lives that revolved around spicy, exotic dishes.

Their culture revolves around hospitality. In an article written for a web site called thecooksbook.com a tour guide from St. Croix was explaining what visitors could expect when they visited the island. It is perfect.

She said, “You will taste the food based on the land, you will taste the food based on the history, and you will taste the food based on the diversity of the people in the kitchens.”

One of of three land masses that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix has belonged to at least six other countries, so their culture is amazingly diverse. Their soil is rich and fertile, their reef system around the island provides bountiful seafood … everything in the atmosphere and environment of St. Croix promotes good, healthy food. The sweet but spicy flavor of the Caribbean comes through in this dish, and people love it.

Chef John is completing his table with a dessert of piña colada cheesecake with a caramel finishing sauce.

Pineapple rum drinks have been a crowd pleaser since the 19th century, when a Puerto Rican pirate named Roberto Cofresi used to combine coconut, pineapple and white rum and gave it to his ship’s crew in the spirit of boosting their morale (good man, good man). In 1950 it was reported by the New York Times that drinks in the West Indies included a Cuban specialty called the piña colada, and according good old Wikipedia, the first piña colada was made in 1954 by a man named Ramón “Monchito” Marrero worked with a bartender at the Caribe Hilton to make a perfect Puerto Rican drink. In 1978 his dream came to fruition when Puerto Rico named the piña colada as its national drink.

The taste of the drink mixed with the taste of the smooth, rich cheesecake is going to be very impressive, no doubt.

Fusion Restaurant
5800 Gasparilla Rd., Boca Grande
Chef Alex King

Tuna poke, scallop ceviche and steak ceviche.

This is a ceviche festival, to be sure. Chef Alex is bringing you his best in the form of tuna, scallops and steak, all brought together under one citrusy umbrella.

As you probably know, ceviche is a way to finish your entree by curing it in citris juices like lemon or lime, then spicing it with chilis or other tastebud-awakening seasonings. Sometimes onion, salt and cilantro are added.

This Latin flavoring came about from South America, where it is also called “seviche” or “cebiche,” depending on which part of South America it originates from. No matter how it’s spelled though, it is always about taking a raw piece of meat (almost always fish) and using the acid of citrus fruits instead of heat to “cook” it.

Whether you’re in Mexico, Central or South America or the United States of America, you will find chefs who consider perfecting their ceviche as a form of religion.

One of the most recognizable names that is synonymous with ceviche is Chef Norman Van Aken. His résumé includes operating the restaurant Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando and the directorship of restaurants at Miami’s Culinary Institute, if that tells you anything.

He remembers the first time he tasted ceviche was the conch salad he ordered in Key West in the mid-1970s. From there he had countless conversations revolving around the history of the method of making it, and how many different ways there are to make it. Wars have been fought over ceviche, ladies and gentlemen.

See next week’s edition of the Boca Beacon for Part II of Taste.