THE FOODIE FILES: Spring schooling

By on June 2, 2015

Local ingredients reimagined at the hands of Chef René Stein

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming – After months of the weather doing that teasing thing it does in the spring — a bluebird sighting followed by a snow squall, a sunny day followed by three weeks of rain — I officially declare we are hitting the sweet spot.

Besides craving warm breezes, dry trails, deck dining and long days spent outdoors soaking up every ray of sun, I yearn for a cleansing of the palate this time of year. I want to eat cleaner and embrace every spring vegetable that comes my way. I want innovative ways to enjoy the edible gems of spring — the rhubarb patch in my front yard, local arugula, that first radish. But after years of making the same spring-themed dishes, I needed an infusion of new ideas.

Chef René Stein to the rescue. On that last rainy day before the sun came out in earnest, Stein and I put together a cooking class for friends with spring in mind.

“What do you want to cook?” he asked. “I have a few dishes that scream spring.”

Yes, please.

Stein arrived on the local scene last year straight from his Manhattan restaurant Seasonal, where he maintained a Michelin star for three years. After a gig at the Cakebread Ranch in Thayne last summer, he launched Pioneer Pop-Up, a series of intimate pop-up dinner events featuring what he calls New Mountain Cuisine.

To call Stein’s New Mountain Cuisine local and seasonal would be an understatement. Hyper-seasonal, refined, foraged food grounded in Old West tradition would be more accurate. We contemplated featuring watercress in the cooking class, since wild watercress was going off south of Jackson. But by the time the class rolled around a few days later, it was already on its way out.

However, we did not miss the watercress as we had plenty spring-like ingredients plucked from the ground the day of our cooking class. Rhubarb was cut from a neighbor’s garden. Later, we would peel the blushing stalks and caramelize them for a dessert. While working in the greenhouse of his farm share that day, Stein spotted some pristine dandelions. He popped off the heads and picked the green leaves, both focal points in our Screaming Spring Salad. That same day, I unexpectedly received a package of fiddlehead ferns hand-delivered by a friend traveling from the East coast.

The atmosphere was one of controlled chaos as our cooking class began. We learned a few knife skills and got right to work prepping the ingredients for Stein’s New Mountain Gazpacho — the perfect dish to say goodbye winter, hello spring. We actually made two gazpachos, one red and one green. Beets, apples, celery and garlic were marinated in local Yellowstone salt and cabernet sauvignon vinegar with a touch of Tabasco, and blended with beet juice for a stunningly ruby red gazpacho.

For the Arugula Gazpacho, we marinated cucumber, yellow pepper, tomato, arugula, garlic and Yellowstone salt with local honey and Chardonnay vinegar. Once blended, the gazpachos were chilled.

It may seem odd to serve soup and salad in the same bowl, but that’s exactly how we learned to build our Screaming Spring Salad. Chilled Arugula Gazpacho was placed in the bottom of a bowl, followed by handfuls of bite-sized torn greens tossed with Honey Vinaigrette.

Those dandelion heads Stein had plucked earlier in the day? He pickled them in vinegar, sugar and water, a mildly acidic solution so as not to mask the delicate flavor of the blossoms. The pickled dandelions added texture and crunch to the salads, and the acidity brought the creamy green gazpacho and the sweet honey dressing into perfect balance.

For our main course, we cooked farro in the style of risotto, using carrot juice instead of broth. Just like a traditional risotto, the carrot juice is added little by little, and allowed to reduce and thicken as it is absorbed by the farro. The dish was finished with good butter, parmesan, and vinegar, and served topped with sautéed fiddlehead ferns.

150603Food-1When Stein suggested we serve rhubarb for dessert, I confessed to not being a fan of the tart, stringy perennial. Rhubarb joins buckwheat and sorrel in the Knotweed family — edibles with strong personalities that can be difficult to tame in the kitchen. For dessert we prepared rhubarb two ways. First we peeled raw rhubarb, cut it into slender sticks, and rolled it in sugar and Tasmanian pepper. We ate it with our hands, just like carrot sticks. The second rhubarb dish involved poaching rhubarb in a pool of caramel, deglazed with white wine.

Did Stein’s rhubarb win me over? You bet. By peeling the stalks first, the stringy texture is no longer a problem. I could have easily polished off an entire plate of raw rhubarb sticks rolled in sugar, but I loved the wine-poached rhubarb even more. The perfectly sweet and tart rhubarb was plated, topped with a buttermilk vanilla foam sauce, and sprinkled with sorrel powder (sorrel leaves dried and pulverized). Sorrel and rhubarb on the same plate: Each pesky knotweed perfectly tamed by Stein’s brilliant technique.

What else did we learn by sharing the prep table with a Michelin starred chef? The wonders of xanthan gum, a neutral tasting thickener that gives sauces a magically smooth texture, how to make a very chef-like foam out of anything using gelatin sheets and a whip creamer and the mysterious, clove-like flavor of Tasmanian pepper. We also learned how to make crème fraiche by adding buttermilk to heavy cream and letting it sour at room temperature and how to make gorgeous slices of radish by cutting only from the middle and including a sprig of the green stem.

After all, the food should be just as beautiful as it is delicious. “The eye always eats with you,” Stein said.

Chef Stein has graciously given me permission to share these spring recipes. Find them at www.JacksonHoleFoodie.com.


About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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