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Volume 39 Issue 6 • June 11-17, 2009
now in our 39th season

Zest of Life

by Jenn Farmer
Sous Chef at Bartlett's Farm

My heart broke a little today, with the memory of cooking with a ghost.  The morning was much like any foggy New England day.  I was feeling a little sleep deprived, and as I made my way to work there was something about the sky that gave me a feeling of déjà vu. But it was the scent of freshly cut herbs and lemon zest that triggered the actual memory. 

It dragged me back to a restaurant that broke my spirit, people who crushed my ego and a passion for food and ingredients that were unsurpassed.  This passion bound us all together.  Eventually it was this passion for food that made me whole again, and now I am much stronger for the experience.

Food can be a very powerful thing.  We need it to nourish our bodies.  It is also an important part of our culture and really affects us mentally.  Celebrations often start with feasts.  When we are ill we crave comfort foods.  It can mean new beginnings and joy.  Food can also be very cruel.  It can make us sick.  Sometimes just the smell of a food can remind us of a bad time in our life.  It can remind us of long-lost loved ones, and, especially, of endings.  It can make you relive the past but without giving you the ability to change it.  It is wonderful and harsh all at once. 

I stepped into the kitchen, out of the almost alive fog.  The sky looked bruised, all purples and blues, like a storm was on the way.  The air was heavy, muggy, and salty.  The bright white kitchen was already bustling, and I was glad for it.  Then the smell of freshly chopped herbs blended with the lemons that were being zested, and a tear came to my eye.  The moment was surreal; it seemed as if the memory wasn’t even mine, but a scene from a long forgotten movie or novel. 

The memory was of a similar day, and the ghost of someone who changed me forever.  Mostly I remember the chaos of the restaurant.  The kitchen was tiny.  The prep for this tiny kitchen was overwhelming to me.  The chef had an amazing palate, and believed in creating food of the highest quality.  The food was outstanding, the best I had ever cooked, seen, or eaten.  So it made sense that I was filled with doubt.  I had some serious shortcomings.  It didn’t help that I had a sense the other cooks were secretly hoping I would fail.  In fact I even started to doubt my own sanity. 

That day I was deep in the weeds (kitchen slang for being way behind), and I was afraid I was going to be fired.  The weather was humid, and the sky dark.  I felt as though I was suffocating in the tiny kitchen and under the pressure.  I had finally finished hand-cutting all the ingredients for the chowder, and was beginning to prepare the fish cakes when it happened.  A very friendly, honest face appeared next to me.  I know he sensed my tension, and frustration.  We stood shoulder to shoulder in my confines.  Our fingers touched as the lemons covered with condensation exchanged hands.  He began to zest the lemons.  I chopped fresh chervil, parsley, and chives.  In that moment I became strong.  Rain began to fall outside, cooling the oppressive air.  I was no longer drowning, and, more importantly, I was no longer alone.  Suddenly anything was possible.  This was truly the turning point for me at this restaurant and in my career.  I no longer thought I was entirely crazy, and I knew I could succeed.  I knew this restaurant could teach me how. 

Now there are days I wish I could return to that day and tell my friend how much that moment meant to me, but he would not believe me.  He no longer sees me the same way as he once did.  He is a ghost of who he once was.  But I realize that who I was back then is just a ghost of who I am now, too.   I feel comfort in one fact, the fact that after I am long gone there will still be fresh herbs and lemon zest.

Zest is the outermost rind of citrus fruits (usually lemons and oranges).  It is valued for the strong citrus flavor it imparts to food.  The skin holds abundance aromatic oils.  Zest can be created easily be peeling or grating the yellow part of a lemon's skin.   To do this a utensil called a zester is often used.  Alternately a sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler can be used.  Peel off only the colored portion of the rind; avoid the white pith because it can be bitter rather than flavorful. Then mince or leave it in strips as the recipe dictates.

Some recipes call for grated zest. You can simply grate the lemon or orange as you would any vegetable, using a hand-held grater. Again, be careful that you are grating only the colored part of the rind.  Some stores sell dried citrus zest, but it is usually not very flavorful or aromatic,  I highly recommend using the real stuff instead. 

Hopefully the following recipe will help create a glorious memory for you.  The recipe is osso bucco with gremolata.  Gremolata is a chopped herb condiment, usually made of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest. Traditionally it is the accompaniment to the Italian braised veal shank dish Ossobuco alla milanese. Gremolata can be served with seafood, pork, or poultry, too.  It really lends a beautiful, aromatic quality to any dish.

The following recipe is actually for sea scallops with gremolata. 

 Sea Scallops with Gremolata & Beurre Blanc Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 lemon and 1 lime, zested
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallot
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1-2 tablespoons cream
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
  • 24 sea scallops (1-1/2pounds), with the tough abductor muscle removed from side of each
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

For the gremolata, stir together parsley, garlic, and zest in a small bowl.  Set aside.  To make the beurre blanc sauce, simmer shallot and bay leaf in lemon juice and wine in a small heavy saucepan until liquid is reduced to about 2 tablespoons.  Remove from heat, and add the cream then whisk in butter 1 tablespoon at a time, adding each new piece before previous one has completely melted.   Pour sauce through a fine sieve into a bowl (discard solids), then return to cleaned pan. Keep the sauce at room temperature while cooking scallops.

Pat scallops dry and season with salt and pepper. In skillet heat oil, over moderately high flame, until it is hot, but not smoking.  Add scallops, turning once, until golden and just cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes total.

Sprinkle scallops with gremolata and serve with sauce. To complete the meal serve the scallops over rice or pasta. 

Serves 4

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