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Food & Wine Festival
Lunch & Learn Program
Saturday, October 8, 2005
Chef John Ash
Author of "John Ash Cooking One on One"
John Ash & Co. Restaurant, Santa Rose, California
Tomato Soup with Fragrant Rice and Cilantro Pesto
Wine: Bonterra Viognier, 2003
Shrimp Cakes with Avocado and Tomatillo Salsa
Wine: Bonterra Roussane, 2004
of Beef with Pecorino Cheese, Fried Capers and Balsamic Vinegar
Wine: Bonterra McNab Ranch Bio-Dynamic Red, 2002
Walnut Cake with Whipped Mascarpone Cheese and Raspberry Coulis
Wine: Bonterra Muscat, 2003
Lunch and Learn
Senior Editor, ALL EARS®
I hadn't attended a Lunch and Learn event at Epcot's Food & Wine Festival since 2003, so was looking forward to the October 9 experience with Chef John Ash, a well-known and respected cookbook author and food and wine educator. Upon further investigation, I had learned that Chef Ash is an avid proponent of "ethical agriculture," and that, coupled with the fact that the wines to be featured during his event were organic wines from Bonterra Vineyards, made me curious to learn more. These facts also convinced my husband and son that they didn't want to attend the event with me -- simply hearing the word "organic" was enough to conjure images of tofu and bean sprouts, which decidedly turned them off. Unluckily for them, they couldn't have been more wrong about the menu -- they missed a fun and informative program, not to mention an excellent meal.
So I ventured off alone to the "Chef's Showplace" at the Odyssey in Epcot for the 10:30 a.m. Lunch and Learn. The once-fast food restaurant now exclusively houses special events such as this, and it was attractively designed for this teaching experience. Tables were positioned around the elevated demo kitchen, which featured not only mirrors above the chef's appliances, but video monitors on either side so that every movement the chef made could be seen from every seat in the house. Tables were set with six places each, with all seats facing the stage. In addition to water, places were set with iced tea, pristine white china, and polished silverware.
As she has done for the past few years, nutritionist and author Pam Smith hosted the event and introduced Chef Ash and Ken Back, the representative from Bonterra.
Back kicked off the program with a brief description of the area of California in which Bonterra is located (Mendocino County, north of Napa Valley), as well as the roots of the Bonterra philosophy on organic wine production. Chef Ash followed, quickly establishing a rapport with the audience with his friendly, somewhat irreverent style.
As he began preparing the first course, Curried Tomato Soup with Fragrant Rice and Cilantro Pesto, he talked about curries, which he defined as merely blends of various herbs and spices. In addition to the traditional "madras" or Indian curry that we're familiar with, he pointed out that dry rubs and jerk seasoning also qualify. He went on to surprise us by claiming that often using the best ingredients does not always mean fresh. For the soup, for example, fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter would most likely be inferior in quality and flavor -- he suggested using a premium brand of canned tomatoes instead.
While the "Lunch" portion of this event was undoubtedly a highlight, I'm sure that attendees "Learned" quite a bit as I did. Chef Ash repeatedly explained his reasoning for various techniques. The first nuggets came as he prepared the soup, and he emphasized the importance of toasting spices to bring out the flavor and blanching greens like cilantro or parsley when making pesto to "set" the color, as well as poaching, boiling or toasting garlic before using it to stabilize the flavor and make it sweeter. He also peppered his instruction with trivia and factoids, keeping the atmosphere lively and interactive.
The wine paired with the soup, Bonterra Viognier, 2003 (about $21/bottle), was an aromatic, yet dry, white, somewhat like a chardonnay, but with undertones of apricot or peach. It paired well with the spiciness of the soup and seemed to bring out the fragrance of the jasmine rice used in the dish.
Back then launched into a somewhat lengthy discussion of what goes into organic grape growing as Chef Ash began his preparations for the second course, Rock Shrimp Cakes with Avocado and Tomatillo Salsa. It was quite interesting to learn of Bonterra's "balanced vineyard" approach, as Back described how they also grow plants like clover, legumes, and poppies, in the vineyard to attract helpful insects, such as wasps and spiders which love to eat destructive thrips. These other plants also help fertilize the soil in the winter when they are plowed under. They also post birdhouses around the vineyard to attract birds, which keep the insects in check. Ash echoed the importance of maintaining such "ethical agriculture," and also talked at length about Seafood Watch, part of an organization called the Monterey Bay Aquarium that attempts to raise consumer awareness about the importance of buying seafood from sustainable sources.
After tossing some tomatilloes into the audience and explaining their characteristics (acidic, almost astringent when raw, more citrus-flavored when cooked), Ash answered some questions about the course and then had it brought to the tables. The shrimp cakes (which Chef Ash assured us could just as easily have been crab or some other fish cakes) we sampled were flavorful, and not overly burdened with bread crumbs, as so many fish cakes tend to be at restaurants. As Chef Ash explained, he used the now-popular Panko bread crumbs -- a light Japanese bread crumb that he proclaimed, "the only you should ever use." The dish was paired with Bonterra Roussanne, 2004 (about $22/bottle), another light, dry white, but slightly more floral than the Viognier, with a definite hint of oak, as well.
As Back continued his talk about Bonterra's commitment to bio-dynamic farming (even the labels on the bottles are organic), Ash forged ahead with the main course, Tagliata of Beef with Pecorino Cheese, Fried Capers and Balsamic Vinegar. The beef in this dish was sliced to expose more surface area upon which to drizzle the syrupy balsamic vinegar reduction. Ash continued to entertain the audience with bits of wisdom as he worked, claiming that fried capers "will change your life," especially if you, as he suggested, "sprinkle them on your beloved some night." After exhorting the attendees to always, always, always, "let the meat rest" before cutting it, Ash presented this meat dish, which was savory and sweet at the same time, accentuated by the tang of the sheep's milk cheese and the tart arugula upon which it was displayed. And while I can't vouch for sprinkling fried capers on your beloved, I will admit that I never expected them to provide so much flavor. Paired with Bonterra McNab Ranch Bio-Dynamic Red, 2002 (not available in stores yet) this dish was a real winner that I can't wait to try at home -- perhaps even with pork or chicken, as Chef Ash suggested. Ash also directed us to try the beef as it was first presented to us, followed by a sip of the wine. Next we were to squeeze the lemon wedge provided over the beef, then try the wine. He promised us an "epiphany," as we discovered how the lemon brought the acidity of the dish more in line with the acidity of the wine. While I can't call it an epiphany, I will say that the difference was marked -- the guy knew what he was talking about. The wine, by the way, has not yet been produced in sufficient quanitities to sell in stores, but it was a wonderful blend of merlot (70%), cabernet sauvignon (15%) and petite syrah (15%) -- I will definitely watch for its general release.
All good things must come to an end, and so we came to the final course of our Lunch and Learn program -- a Flourless Walnut Cake with Whipped Mascarpone and Raspberry Coulis, paired with Bonterra Muscat, 2003 (about $20/bottle). I'm no fan of dessert wines, but the sweetness of the dense cake, which Chef Ash described as a "fallen souffle," balanced almost perfectly with the sweet muscat -- I didn't leave a drop or a morsel behind.
Once again, the Lunch and Learn program proved to be well worth the $75 (plus tax) price tag, providing not only a very delicious meal and the chance to sample some terrific wines, but an educational and entertaining culinary experience.
information about Bonterra Vineyards and their philosophy on organic grape
For more information on Chef John Ash:
For more information on Seafood Watch and how to become an advocate for environmentally friendly seafood: