Monday, February 28, 2011

FoodTrek: Exploring Origin and Flavor at Cafe Juanita

When you're invited for an opportunity to sample dishes featuring smoky Italian ham and savory Asiago cheese prepared by Chef Holly Smith and her team at Cafe Juanita, you say... YES. Along with a beautiful meal, it was a good reminder for developing a healthy awareness of food origins and appreciating the places from whence they came.

Simple joys of ham and cheese, Speck Alto Adige and Asiago at Cafe Juanita - Photo by Wasabi Prime

When you buy certain regional ingredients, you'll of course notice things like it's not just Parmesan cheese, it's Parmesano-Reggiano, or if you're getting a bottle of bubbly, labels will make the distinction that it's a sparkling wine made in the Champagne style and not actual Champagne, or it's actually the real thing, coming from that particular region of France. Why is this important? Well, some will say it's all about marketing, creating a certain cachet around a region and an additional level of authenticity (and price) because it was made in the original style or location the ingredient had originated from. And I don't think that's a bad thing. In a global economy where we can buy our cheese from Italy, our wine from France, and more likely, the items are made in places unfamiliar to its historic origins, why shouldn't there be a little bit of a premium over provenance? Knowing an ingredient passed a set of quality standards to earn its name, it speaks to the growing mentality of food awareness, that we're actively thinking about what we're eating and wanting the ingredients themselves to have a degree of accountability. Does it mean I'll turn down a Twinkie if offered to me? No, but at least I accept it willingly with the knowledge that I roll the dice of Fate with a mystery cream filling.

This was the overall theme behind the meal prepared with loving hands at Cafe Juanita. The featured items were the smoky Speck or smoked ham from the Alto Adige region of Italy, stamped with the IGP standard (Indicazione Geografica Protetta or Protected Geographical Indication), and Asiago cheese with the seal of DOP - Denominazione di origine protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin. It sounds very official, and not something that adds a lot of flourish to a menu, but what it basically comes down to is that this is how the European Union both recognizes and protects the agricultural community, a practice our own domestic agriculture industry could benefit from. There's no shame in aware they have something special, and they want to be sure everyone knows it. Pat McCarthy from DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine in Seattle was there to present the Speck Alto Adige, explaining what a beautiful and culturally rich ingredient it is, as its origin lies in both Northern Italy and Germany, and its use is widely popular throughout Europe, as well-loved like our own beloved American bacon. Speck Alto Adige is a slowly cured ham, where the thigh of the animal undergoes special selection and several steps over a period of 22 weeks to push and pull the levels of fat, moisture and PH levels that develop. The smoking of the meat is done in cool wood temperatures just under 70 degrees, and it tends to have a more savory, hearty flavor than something unsmoked and more delicate like proscuitto. It can be used to flavor a dish by rendering its fat, much like what we would do with bacon, or it can be sliced thin for charcuterie platters. I liked what Pat said when describing how to slice Speck when serving: "the thickness of two sheets of paper."

Cafe Juanita, you complete me - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The dishes served were artful renditions of both the Speck and Asiago, appreciating it in different ways, from the simplicity of tasting them on their own in charcuterie platters, served with an intense huckleberry preserve, or in main courses where the flavors have a chance to mingle with other ingredients. Chef Holly Smith presented several dishes, including a winter citrus salad of Belgian endive, grapefruit slices and a crisped piece of Speck, sitting on a creamy bed of avocado, all drizzled with a smoked pork fat vinaigrette. This was followed by a rich and hearty risotto made creamy with Asiago, cooked with Barbera wine, giving it a ruddy burgundy blush. It was a skilled pairing of ingredients, showing how the savory smokiness of the Speck can stand out against the richness of avocado and cut through the citric bite of grapefruit. And the risotto was all creamy, dreamy comfort food heaven, with the warmth of the infused wine flavor making it a welcome repast to contrast the light snow you could see falling outside (yes, there was snow!), yet the Asiago didn't disapear, its salty, lightly musty aged flavor distinctively balancing out the richness. It was a really elegant lunch with an equally elegant finish -- no Speck/Asiago infused ice creams or flavored foams. They like to keep it real at Cafe Juanita and that's one of the reasons why I've loved them for years. We were treated to one of their springtime favorites, a vanilla panna cotta with Dr. Pescia's Heather Honey and platters of cloud-like meringue cookies. Their panna cotta is dreamlike, it's so light and smooth, as if somehow the air around it has been trained to suspend the vanilla custard in that little formed shape. A spoonful of that, with the honey that has a little crystalized sugar bite to it, and you're in Blissville for the day. I was in Blissville for an extended stay, as they served up cups of coffee from Herkemer (love their name), which saved my soul as I was on extreme caffeine withdrawal all week. Cafe Juanita, I salute you!

Beautiful day to scare away the winter blah's? Absolutely. And aside from getting a chance to finally meet Chef Holly Smith in person and being able to peek at some of the cool things they're doing at the restaurant, like pressing whole sage leaves in their pasta, it was a memorable reinforcement of the importance of choosing ingredients wisely. We can always use substitutes or default to lesser-caliber things, but if you're looking for genuine flavor that really speaks through the dishes, using quality ingredients is the foundation for a celebrated taste experience.

Winter blues chased away by beautiful food - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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