The magic moment didn’t come for chef Polly Lappetito during her 10 years working as a commercial fisherman on a boat in Alaska. Nor did it arrive when she became the cook on the huge trawler. (She sought out the ship’s kitchen “to get out of the cold,” she says.)
The Meals That Made Them
An occasional series by Ruth Tobias and Louisa Kasdon about American chefs and the meals that changed their lives.
“I’d just started working at the CIA, just a few years into my professional career. I’d been trained on all these whoop-de-doo sauces, Napoleons and complex garnishes. On my day off, I decided to go to Chez Panisse for lunch. The day was lovely, the windows were a little open, and I could smell something burning in the kitchen. I ordered the cardoons. Why? I’d never had cardoons, maybe I’d heard about them? But maybe not. They came to me served simply, shining with a drizzle of olive oil and a few shavings of cheese. I looked at this simple plate, bit in to the cardoons, and said, ‘Oh my God. This is why I cook.’
“It was utterly delicious. Utterly perfect. Utterly without hoopla. I knew, even though I’d never tasted one before I knew that this was exactly what a cardoon should taste like. Perfectly cooked with beautiful, fruity olive oil. It was transformative for me. As a young cook, you are always prodding yourself to make things that are fancy, memorable. And this dish was exactly the opposite. Perfection in its simplicity. ‘Less is more’ was never so clear to me as at that meal.
“The ironic thing is that I’ve never been able to duplicate it. I’ve never been able master cardoons. I try, but I don’t get the same effect. I make tributes to this dish — a perfect pear on a plate, a gorgeous tomato served with olive oil and a little salt — but I’ve never achieved the same exquisite result. Maybe it was the day, the breeze, the excitement of a first-timer at Chez Panisse. It was pure magic.”
Salad of Local Artichokes
Chef Lappetito thinks her roasted artichoke salad is the closest dish in her repertoire to that wonderful plate of perfect cardoons.
Ingredients (for one plate)
- Season baby artichokes with salt and pepper and warm in a medium hot oven until heated through and just beginning to crisp.
- Remove from oven, transfer to bowl and toss with grated Parmesan and chiffonade of mint, watercress and extra virgin olive oil.
- Place 1 tablespoon aioli in the center of the plate.
- Place the artichoke mixture in the center of the aioli.
- Drizzle the salad with the bagna cauda.
For the olive oil poaching liquid for artichoke:
- To clean baby artichokes remove any tough outer leaves, until only the tender light green leaves remain. Hold in acidulated water until ready to use.
- When ready to cook, remove artichokes from acidulated water and transfer to a large pot.
- Pour in olive oil just to cover and add remaining ingredients.
- Bring slowly to a simmer and gently cook until artichokes are just tender.
- Remove from heat.
- Strain off oil, discarding lemon, bay, garlic, thyme.
- Reserve oil for another use, or for cooking more artichokes.
- Cool the artichokes on a sheet tray.
- Cut in half, when ready to use.
For the bagna càuda:
- Melt anchovies in olive oil over low heat and add garlic and lemon pulp.
- Bring to a gentle simmer and allow cook to 2 minutes, remove from heat and letting continue to steep 10 minutes.
- Fold in remaining ingredients, adjust seasoning.
For the lemon pepper aioli:
- In a bowl of a food processor combine the egg yolks, water, half the lemon juice and salt.
- Combine the two olive oils.
- With the motor running slowly add the olive oils, starting with a few drops and slowly increasing the pour until all of the oil is incorporated.
- Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Adjust to taste with more fresh lemon juice.
Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of letstalkaboutfood.com. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.
Photo: Chef Polly Lappetito. Credit: Faith Echtermeyer