It Warms the Hearth – Comfort cooking at Simone’s in Warren
Joe Simone is standing in his open kitchen at Simone’s, the restaurant that he owns with his brother John, talking to a bar full of curious (and hungry) students. “What really interests me is that you take these recipes home and feel inspired to cook more fresh, hopefully local and organic recipes for your family and friends,” he explains. Though he’ll be teaching us recipes representative of the restaurant’s menu at “My Forno is Your Forno,” our class for the evening, Joe is pretty clear that we won’t be precisely recreating them at home. The difference: about $30,000, which is what the high-heat forno oven at Simone’s cost to install, and which they use for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Instead, we’ll be watching him and his staff cook, asking questions, and drinking carefully paired wines from Barrington’s Grapes & Grains while we sample tonight’s “lessons.”
First up is pizza, fresh out of the forno. Joe gives us two recipes for pizza dough. One is the more complicated recipe they use at Simone’s, which takes two days to prep, and one is a much simpler version. We sample the easier version as a pizza margherita and a white pizza with mushrooms, and agree that the simple version is plenty delicious on its own. “I’m proud to teach people to make easy things. If they’re not easy, you’re not going to want to make them at home,” he says. The simplicity continues with another appetizer of Roasted Spring Vegetables with Romesco sauce, a slightly spicy condiment from Spain. What’s nice is that Joe shows us what he’s making for the evening, and then suggests several substitutions, and other uses for the rest of the romesco sauce (like on sandwiches for lunch). The flavors are so robust that we’re all surprised at how easy the sauce is to make. “It’s all about simple food and respecting the ingredients,” Joe explains. “I will put this up against anyone’s fancy dish.” The same goes with the aioli he prepares for the Oven Roasted Cioppino – really, who would ever think that making mayonnaise at home is easy? – and the Spicy Eggplant Ragu over Polenta. It all tastes complicated, but the preparations are incredibly simple. There isn’t a thing in the recipe book Joe sends us home with that doesn’t seem easily tackled on a weeknight.
Joe has a distinctly local perspective on where our food should be coming from. He regularly references the bread he loves from Seven Stars Bakery in Rumford, the produce that’s best from Seekonk’s Four Town Farm, the high quality of the beef from Smithfield’s Blackbird Farm and chicken from Baffoni’s in Johnston. “We really want to bridge the gap between the producer and the guest,” he says. “We want to know who grows everything we’re serving. If you come in for dinner, there’s a very real chance that the clams were in Narragansett Bay this morning.” But, his influences are more worldly than that. Joe is a native Rhode Islander who honed his culinary chops (no pun intended) in Europe, Nantucket and the West Coast. He regularly drops little tidbits of his global taste into the conversation, explaining how the eggplant is inspired by the best thing he ever ate in Turkey, how the grits he uses come from his friend Hoppin’ John in the Appalachian Mountains, how the cioppino we’re eating is a traditionally San Franciscan dish, but that this recipe owes a lot to the bouillabaisse at his favorite restaurant in Marseille.
Maybe it’s the Rose and Sangiovese we’ve been sampling with the dishes, but by the end of the class, we’re all feeling inspired, asking Joe questions about how to adapt these recipes to our own tastes – especially how he managed to make eggplant so delicious, since most of us aren’t fans. He’s generous with his time, and his chef’s secrets (the trick is to press the eggplant overnight and get out the bitter juice). For Joe, it isn’t about having Simone’s food at home. “My goal is that you have recipes to take home that you feel comfortable trying and adapting to your own tastes,” he says. A week later, I made the eggplant for a dinner party, and it was just as easy as it seemed at the class. That’s delicious.
World Cuisine, Close to Home – International flavors at Newport Cooks in Middletown
Unless today is your first day in Rhode Island, you’ve heard something positive about Bristol’s DeWolf Tavern – usually something about chef/owner Sai Viswanath, and his unique approach to integrating Indian flavors into classic New England cuisine. Driving down to Middletown to Chef Sai’s workshop at Newport Cooks on the first sunny, warm day of the season, I’ll admit that I had seafood on the brain – more specifically, that Lobster Popover from the DeWolf menu, which will inspire a Boston Tea Party-level revolution if it’s ever retired from service.
When I arrive at Newport Cooks, though, I’m immediately greeted not by a seafood smell, but by an intoxicatingly Eastern one. “I’m going to be teaching you to cook the flatbreads that I’ve seen my mother cook many times,” Chef Sai says. I grab a glass of wine and a recipe book, and settle in for an evening of Indian Flatbread and Chutneys.
Newport Cooks is a teaching kitchen in Middletown run by Mary Weaver, who’s an accomplished culinarian in her own right, teaching classes to both adults and kids on topics ranging anywhere from “Simple Homemade Italian: Fettuccine, Gnocchi, Red Sauce & Pesto” to “I Love to Bake!” a four-week series for 5-8 year olds. Often, though, Mary will bring in a guest chef like Jake Rojas from Tallulah on Thames in Newport, and Chef Bob DiPietro from the Rhode Island Mushroom Company in South Kingstown. For this demonstration, she’ll be observing, and pairing the foods with wine that she’s chosen from Newport Wine Cellar to pair with the cuisine.
This class is demonstration-style, meaning that Chef Sai and his sous chef Lynn Andrade will be doing all of the cooking for us, so we just get to sit, eat and drink, and ask questions. The first thing Chef Sai does is to make the distinction between flatbread, a quick dough of flour, water and salt, and naan, a leavened bread that’s cooked in a tandoor oven. The flatbreads he’ll be making this evening can be cooked in a pan, or deep fried, and are versatile enough for any meal. Chef Sai mixes and rolls out the dough as he’s explaining this to us, and then surprises us all by placing the dough directly in a dry, hot pan. It cooks for a minute or two, then he grabs it and tosses it directly onto a gas burner on the stove to achieve a slightly charred finish. These he puts out for everyone to sample with a deceptively simple Tamarind Chutney (a sweet condiment) and a Mint Raita sauce (similar to a Greek tzatziki).
Next, Chef Sai takes the same dough, rolls it out, and drops it into hot oil to create deliciously crispy fried breads that somehow manage to avoid being greasy or oily. The secret, he explains, is the temperature of the oil, which he’s careful to keep from getting too hot. Sai pairs these with a spinach and white bean variation on Saag, a classic Indian sauce often served over rice. As he’s cooking, Sai explains how to stuff flatbread – you roll it out, add variations of potato, carrot, radish or spinach with whatever spices you like, then reform it into a ball and re-roll. Once they’re cooked, you can freeze them and reheat whenever you feel like having one – like for breakfast tomorrow morning, maybe.
796 Aquidneck Avenue, Middletown
Fine Dining Made Easy – A lesson in epicurean delights at Castle Hill in Newport
In the height of the summer season, a table at Newport’s Castle Hill is hard to come by, and one of the Adirondack chairs on the inn’s rolling lawn overlooking the bay is arguably the most pleasant place to have a cocktail in the entire state. While the kitchens can service 1,000 people a day during the busy time, in the off season, the staff can relax a little bit, and take some time to show off their gourmand sensibilities in a different way: like with March’s New England Epicurean weekend.
I arrive at Castle Hill early on a Saturday morning for a class with Chef Karsten Hart and Production Chef Jonathan Marston. People who have chosen to stay for the entire weekend (which includes a wine tasting, special dinner by Chef Karsten and a desserts workshop the next day) are just finishing up breakfast as Karsten entertains us with the story of how their outdoor kitchen came pre-fabricated in two halves and had to be delivered by boat to the inn. The group then heads for that same kitchen, where we find aprons, cutting boards and miniature recipe books waiting for us.
Like the food on the menu at Castle Hill, each thing that we’re learning about has several different components – “Pork and Clams” is actually a housecured pork belly strudel accompanied by littleneck stuffies and a dill-butter clam broth… and that’s only one of the three dishes we’re making. But first, we’re learning to shuck oysters. “Don’t make the oyster mad,” Jonathan says. “The more you mess with it, the harder it is to shuck.” After one quick demo, we breathe a collective sigh of relief at how easy the process actually is. I experience a lot of those “oh, it’s that easy” moments throughout the morning. We learn to make a Matunuck Oyster Gratin, those Pork and Clams and a Coffee Milk Tiramisu. Because there are so many components, each student gets to pick what he or she wants to work on. I choose to mix the strudel dough and to prepare the components of the tiramisu, but other people are chopping, mixing, stuffing oysters and shucking littlenecks, which even the pros in the room admit to having trouble with. It’s really comforting to have fine dining chefs admit a culinary weakness.
What’s great about this class is that both Karsten and Jonathan aren’t here to show us what to do, they’re both here to really teach us. They stop frequently to give us advice on knife skills, on layering flavors, on how to properly heat pans. It feels like we’re getting instruction not just in how to prepare these dishes, but in how to be better home cooks in general. “I taste ten times more when I’m cooking than an intern does,” Chef Karsten explains. “It’s how you educate your palate.” He also talks about kitchen tips he’s learned along the way – he’s so good at making strudel because he had his boss’s scary Austrian mother over his shoulder every time he made it at a former job. (For the record, he’s much nicer to us, even when someone – not me, I swear – flubs a strudel so badly it can’t be saved.)
After we’re done, it’s time to head to the dining room for our private wine tasting from the inn’s beverage director, during which they’ll serve us the food we’ve been prepping all morning. It’s amazing to have created things that are so complex, but are really very simple foods combined in innovative ways. “You don’t want to be unique through your gimmicks,” Chef Karsten tells us. “You want to be unique through your ingredients.” Those are words I’ll be taking home with me.
590 Ocean Avenue, Newport