When you step from the Greenwich Village sidewalk and through the narrow door of the James Beard House, culinary history surrounds you like the rich scent of something delicious. Just beyond the tiny vestibule is the heart of the house, Beard’s kitchen, its modest size and lack of shiny chef toys a contrast to its enormous culinary significance.
Wolfgang Puck has cooked here; so have Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Lidia Bastianich and legions of other chefs — famous and not — since Julia Child led the effort to purchase the late, great chef’s home and establish the James Beard Foundation in 1986. Puck was the first chef to do a dinner at the Beard House; today, the open-to-the-public events are showcases for chef talent from across the country.
The JBF celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and what better to mark the milestone than a special cookbook. “The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best” honors the 21 chefs who have received the top accolade, Outstanding Chef, at the foundation’s annual awards ceremony. With a forward by Martha Stewart and gorgeous photography, this is far more than a cookbook; it tells the story of modern American cuisine through the chefs who have written the plot.
In her introduction, JBF president Susan Ungaro, who lives in River Edge, reflects on the great changes that have happened in the culinary world in the last 25 years, not the least of which have been the Internet and 24-hour food TV, inspiring millions of cooks.
“At the center of all this excitement and enthusiasm for food has been the chef,” she writes. “The original mission of the Beard Foundation was to shine a spotlight on the men and women who prepared the food we loved in celebrated restaurants, both new and old.”
The JBF Awards are often called the Oscars of food, and because some chefs have become celebrities, the comparison is apt. In addition to the big names, the JBF’s programs also spotlight lesser-known chefs who through their hard work contribute to the foundation’s mission. For many of these chefs, such as Ken Trickilo of Liberty House Restaurant in Jersey City, who will cook a “Garden State Spring” dinner there on March 23, the Beard House and its storied kitchen are a meaningful link to “the best of the best.”
BEET SALAD WITH MANGO, FETA, ORANGE AND MINT
From Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan and Gotham Steak in Miami; James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef 2006.
2 each, large red beets and golden beets, washed but not peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
3 navel oranges, peeled and separated into segments
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon minced shallots
4 ounces Greek feta cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes or crumbled into large pieces (approximately 1 cup)
1 ripe mango, cut into ½-inch cubes
Microgreens for garnish
For the vinaigrette:
4½ teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed orange juice
Preheat the oven to 400 F.
In a bowl, toss the beets with the oil and season with salt and pepper. Put the beets in a roasting pan and cover the pan with foil. Roast in the oven until tender, about 1½ hours. (They are done when a sharp, thin-bladed knife can easily pierce through to their center.) Remove the pan from the oven, remove the beets from the pan, and cool to at least room temperature.
While the beets are roasting, make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, balsamic vinegar and orange juice. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel them and cut them into ½-inch cubes. Put the beets in a bowl with 1 cup of the orange segments, the mint and the shallots. Add the vinaigrette, season with salt and pepper, and toss gently.
Transfer the salad to a platter or 4 individual plates.
Arrange the cheese, mango and the remaining orange sections on top of the beet mixture. Garnish with microgreens and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 304 calories (52 percent from fat), 18 grams fat (6 grams saturated, 10 grams monounsaturated), 25 milligrams cholesterol, 7 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 867 milligrams sodium.
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• While the beets are roasting, prepare all of the other ingredients (segment the oranges, mince the shallots etc.) except for the mint, which should be chopped at the last minute to prevent browning.
• To make pith-free orange segments: Start with an unpeeled navel orange. Slice off the stem end and the bottom to expose the orange flesh. Standing the orange on a cutting board and using a paring knife, carefully slice away the peel in strips from one end of the orange to the other, cutting just deep enough to remove the white pith. Hold the peeled orange in the palm of your hand over a bowl to catch the juice, and make angled cuts into the flesh on either side of the membranes between each section to cleanly remove the segments.
• To peel beets: It’s a messy business, but easy. After they are roasted and cool enough to handle, the skins should slip off with just a little pressure from your fingers.
• Microgreens are just that — tiny baby greens, sometimes available in markets like Whole Foods. If they are not available, any small greens will work. I used watercress.