Sometimes it’s such a challenge and a fun exercise too, to design a meal to exacting specifications. For instance, there was the time we were expecting friends over and fortunately, asked them their preferences and restrictions a few days prior.
As it turned out, the friend, her friend and her mother were vegetarians, the daughter ate only chicken among non-vegetarian choices, the husband ate anything at all and the father was a vegetarian and in addition, ate no onions or garlic. The cuisine preferences turned out to be Chinese and Italian. Planning, designing, cooking and serving that meal was likely one of the most fulfilling culinary acts I have since indulged in.
On a recent trip to Sacramento, California, where my first dinner was at Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, a beloved and highly regarded Sacramento restaurant, Chef Mulvaney had put together an entire meal that not only featured walnuts as the centrepiece of every dish, but also showcased local produce. At the same time, this meal was a stark reminder of how India and Indians too must begin stressing on the multifaceted goodness of local produce, as well as an apt illustration of just how one can get really creative with the thread of a single ingredient running through the fabric of an entire meal.
If you take a look at the menu, which Chef Mulvaney graciously signed at my request, you’ll find he’s used different walnut derivatives throughout the four course dinner and prominently at that.
Another lesson that came my way arose from the realisation that I need so much more exposure to fruits and vegetables cooked and eaten without very many additional flavours. The all-round appreciation of natural flavours is a journey that lies ahead of me.
We began with a platter of sliced tomatoes of different varieties, the last of the season, as you must have seen from the menu – sliced and diced and delimited with white onion and cucumber and then drizzled with walnut oil, leaving diners to add the final touch of salt and a scatter of freshly cracked black pepper.
The succulence of the tomatoes, complemented by the mild pungency of the onions and crunch from the sliced cucumber made the first course quite enjoyable. All the more interesting for me were the very different natures of the different varieties of tomatoes in there – meatiness, succulence, tartness, flavour and more. The salad was accompanied by a basket of of some very well made bread, artisan bread in fact, made by the Artisan Bread Company, accompanied by more named produce – Sierra Nevada Butter and Molokai Sea Salt from Hawaii.
Have you ever eaten a slice of fresh bread, slathered with butter and sprinkled with coarse sea salt? It is one of those textures that one never really forgets; soft bread, crusty edges, smooth, creamy butter and the whole interspersed with the delightful crunch lent by the coarsely ground salt.
Moving forward in the same vein, our next course was pasta – Full Belly Potato Ravioli with Caramelised Walnuts. Think about that bit about showcasing ingredients. There’s the soft, al-dente flour casing of the ravioli, the soft and creamy potato filling, some tangy balsamic reduction, shavings of grana padano and then there’s the hard, sweet and crunchy caramelised walnuts, bringing all at once to the dish, sweet, nutty and textural influences.
The tough part of focusing an entire meal around a single ingredient, is the positioning. The ingredient, in whatever shape or form being used, mustn’t have too much competition in the same size/shape, in the same platter. The issue here is the dilution of the diner’s perspective of the ingredient. For instance, in the first course, including almond oil alongside the walnut oil, may not have resulted in the walnut oil being as effectively showcased as it was.
Our Entree, Griddled King Salmon and Walnut Pesto, was served with Sutter County rice and Dwelley’s (a local farmer) beans. Similar to the previous two courses, the use of walnuts in this course too brought a uniqueness to the platter, not supplied by any other ingredient – flavour overtones in the form of a pesto. If you’re not entirely sure of what a pesto comprise, let’s say it is an Italian condiment consisting of a nut, a herb and a hard cheese, the lot ground together, the originals being pine nuts, basil and Parmesan cheese. In Chef Mulvaney’s version, the pine nuts were replaced by walnuts.
So there you have a fine piece of griddle cooked King Salmon, texture and crunch provided by the rice and the beans, the whole flavoured by a dollop of pesto with distinctly wal-nutty undertones.
Finally, dessert – Courtland pears, baked into a tart and topped with crumbled walnut florentine with a twirl of Rooftop honey cream alongside. If you aren’t sure what’s Rooftop honey, it’s the honey Chef Mulvaney produces in-house, from a hive perched on the restaurant’s rooftop!
That’s how Chef Mulvaney went about creating a bespoke meal themed around walnuts. How would you do it? What dishes would you include? Would it be north, south, east, west Indian or would it include dishes from all over India? Vegetarian or non-vegetarian? Cocktails and snacks or a full dinner? Plated or buffet style? Leave a comment below and we may actually make that dinner happen – even cook it with you!