It was an odd invitation.
The gist of it: Join Chef Scott Pampuch at Corner Table to partake in a Muir Glen Tomatoes “Vine Dining” event. Even more briefly: Come hear the local foods guy pitch nationally distributed organic canned tomatoes.
So on Wednesday night, Pampuch hosted a throng of local food folks from a wide range of publications and businesses. A few joined him in the kitchen before the meal and watched him demonstrate the making of a sofrito, the creation of homemade tomato salt, and the cooking of a pancetta-based amatriciana sauce. (The sauce turned out to be the highlight of the meal, served as it was over delicate sofrito-stuffed fresh pasta ravioli.
At the heart of everything was Muir Glen’s 2010 Reserve canned tomato, the Meridian Ruby. Here are a few observations from the evening, starting with the kitchen demos and running all the way through to a memorable dessert.
1. “Local Food” Versus “Good Food”
The single most interesting part of the evening was hanging out in Corner Table’s kitchen, listening to Pampuch — a guy whose fans admire him as a sort of local foods demigod — explain his decision to become a chef ambassador for a nationally distributed brand of tomatoes owned by food giant General Mills.
The gig (which involves creating recipes, traveling nationally for press events, and participating in meals that show off the client’s product) was something that Pampuch agonized over. “I hadn’t had a canned tomato in a long time. I’d kinda had it in my head that they were all crap,” he said.
He tried the product before accepting the deal, ordering and tasting the “reserve” tomatoes offered through the Muir Glen Connoisseurs’ Club. He talked to his local farmers, some of whom were initially shocked, but who came around when he asked them: “Well, what’s in your cupboard?” Plenty of them, of course, had canned tomatoes; some had Muir Glen.
He also figured that if he could visit the farm where the tomatoes are grown and watch them travel from vine to can, he could get on board. That was doable — he and the other chef ambassadors for the brand traveled to California’s Central Valley where they checked out the tomato plants, chatted with the farm workers (in Spanish), and tried the product on the vine.
“The chefs they chose were great,” Pampuch said. “The first thing we all did when we got to the [tomato] field [in California] is walk to the field and reach down for a tomato, to take a bite.”
Working with Muir Glen, he explained, fit his ultimate agenda, which is good food. “Since we opened [Corner Table],” he said, “I’ve been emphasizing quality of product. I want more flavor — I want more quality.”
But most of all, he said, working with Muir Glen is a chance to bridge the often hostile worlds of big food and local food. “This whole food thing is a bunch of people standing on either side of a fence, yelling at each other,” said Pampuch.
(As a disclosure: the local / national split perspective is one I’m familiar with. I write about national fast food and shelf-stable products for Chow.com and contribute to a General Mills-run food site called Tablespoon.)
In order to get the Muir Glen event rolling, Pampuch said his team faced a very specific challenge: “The first thing we had to do is find a can opener.”
2. The Absurdity and Appeal of “Reserve” Tomatoes
Muir Glen does an annual roll-out of “reserve” tomatoes, canned tomatoes that have been hand harvested and sorted, selected for peak ripeness, and moved from vine to can in 8 hours.
If you’re going to eat canned tomatoes, these are a pretty good way to go. Spoonfuls of straight-up diced tomatoes, fresh from the can, went around the room twice during the course of the evening (the first taste was Fire Roasted Meridian Ruby, the second was plain Meridian Ruby.)
The tomatoes had an intense but naturally sweet flavor — not much acid at all, and an underlying richness. The fire roasted variety had a bit of smoke at the finish, but led with sweetness.
And while it doesn’t necessarily make sense for most people to regularly buy tomatoes that arrive by mail via a Connoisseurs’ Club, it’s interesting to see a major food label play around with an artisanal product like this — and to see a major local chef proudly incorporate that product into his cooking.
3. The Joys of Gastrique
Cook down the juice leftover from strained tomatoes, pair that with some sort of vinegar and sugar, and you’ve got a tomato gastrique — also known as “fancy ketchup,” according to Pampuch.
Pampuch’s gastrique was a bit player in the second course of the night, a substantial, almost burger-like lamb terrine topped with fresh potatoes, and accompanied by pickle relish, tomato salt, and mustard. Push a piece of the lamb through the gastrique, mustard, relish, and tomato salt, and the illusion of eating a (high-end) burger was complete.
4. Tomato Sorbet Can Pack a Punch
Pampuch’s tomato sorbet was the most entertaining single aspect of his complicated but charming (see below) dessert. I was expecting a delicate pinkish sorbet with a hint of tomato flavor. What we got was a gutsy red dollop of impact, profoundly tomato flavored, packing a massive (if cool and sweet) kick.
5. Mix-and-Match Dessert Can Work
If you’ve ever been a victim of an overwrought dessert, you know how wrong a multi-part final course can go. A little chocolate this, a little herb-n-berry that, a bit of caramel something else, and all of a sudden you’re at sea, wishing that instead of a complicated constellation of components, you were instead looking at an ordinary slice of chocolate cake.
Pampuch’s Olive Oil Cake had a lot of moving pieces: It was topped by strawberry-basil sorbet, tomato sorbet, a drizzle of balsamic, and a fennel tuile cookie. But as it turned out, all the components spoke strongly and worked well together, using the mellow, earthy neutrality of the olive oil cake as a base of operations. Cake + tomato sorbet? Absolutely. Balsamic + strawberry-basil sorbet + fennel tuille? Smashing. Tuille + cake + tomato sorbet? Hell yes.
The result of all these well-developed viewpoints (and a Mediterranean summer sort of theme tying all of them together) was that dessert was like a mixing board, with every possible combination of instrument resulting in harmonious gastronomic music.
I’m not sure what I find more interesting: the fact that a local chef, that has built a reputation on emphasizing local foods and markets his restaurant as such, has changed his mind and feels that canned tomatoes from California(?) are suddenly good enough to fit into his culinary philosophy OR the fact that a corporate food producer’s marketing/PR event is being reported on without some basic questions being asked or answered.
Has the Chef changed his philosophy on local food? Will the restaurant start serving dishes that include canned tomato products? Will the prices drop is he’s not using “premium” or “expensive to produce” local ingredients? What was it that led to him changing his mind and allowing himself to promote canned fruit/veggies? Was it money? Was it really the fact that he got to see the big ag farm out west and meet the immigrant workers that are picking the tomatoes? If that’s the case, doesn’t that open up a lot of other “west coast” products? If the Chef is using “good food” products like Muir Glen, is it safe to say that he would also consider canned San Marzano tomatoes from Italy? How does he feel about the controversial lining found in organic canned tomatoes that may or may not leech BPT? Would it be better if Muir Glen bottled their premium tomato products to avoid that controversial lining (I think so)?
I don’t mind a chef that uses canned tomatoes, really I don’t. I actually believe in “good food” as well (with a preference to local if it is indeed actually better). I also use canned tomatoes but really try to use a higher end product, especially if I can find a glass bottled version. But the difference between me or say local farmers that may have canned tomatoes in their cupboards is that I have never promoted myself as a local foods ambassador. I don’t hold it against Chef Pampuch for wanting to make a buck but I hope that his reputation for being a local foods chef is dialed down a bit or at least re-branded.
I agree with Russ completely and he stated it better than I am able to.
I totally agree with Russ as well. I would only add another question: Why did Heavy Table have a writer who also writes for a website owned by General Mills site put this story together? It doesn’t feel very balanced when both the subject of the story and the writer himself receive money from the corporate organic producer in question.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore this site, and I actually appreciate that you seek out great food experiences in the Twin Cities, even when they don’t meet every criteria on a locavore’s checklist. I was a foodie first, locavore later, myself. But a little more probing would be nice in this case, because this seems like a sea change for Pampuch, one that’s worth being a bit more critical about.
Totally fair question, Alexis. The honest answer is that I didn’t put together that Muir Glen was owned by General Mills until after I arrived at the event. Ultimately, I got stuck choosing between ditching our coverage or writing it up and disclosing my contributions to Tablespoon, and went with the latter.
I want to try that tomato sorbet and the tomato olive oil cake. And by “try” I mean “eat,” not “make.” :)
Why wasn’t this under the headline of “sponsored?”
“Locavorism for thee, but not for meee.”
‘Local foods demigod’ Pampuch pimpin’ General Mills… I effing love it!
Or is it the other way around?
I totally agree with Russ observations as well. I also like the comment that General Mills actually may be the one doing the pimping. They are big business and are out to make money. So how do they cash in on more money- hit what people are willing to spend money on these days- Local and Organic.
I too do not judge Pampuch for taking the deal, that said I would question whether I would want to support his local food efforts when he is putting his efforts in a different direction.
Go Scott, Go! Scott is a relevant chef with a passion, credibility, and the guts to move forward with his convictions. Rather than cower in his kitchen, wring his ‘localvore’ hands over whether or not his every move will be accepted by the enlightened, he chooses to push and see opportunities for his business and himself as the gift that they are. To meet a risk, face it, arm wrestle it, and bring it out into the open for friends and critics alike takes courage. May the risks that Scott and Corner Table boldly face make way for more opportunities. It’s called hard work, people, and Scott abides. May his toil and leadership keep us in the Twin Cities guessing, and may it bring him much success.
Let’s all drink the Kool-Aid.
There’s nothing wrong with anything here, but the rationalizing is rather lame…, especially after a prior history of holier than thou preaching towards the “unenlightened” among us.
Greg H- sycophant does not equal charming.
HypoCritimus – huh? So I like the guy. How does that make me a sycophant? Also, why is it that when Heavy Table brings to light the good stuff and the good people in town the piece is accused of being sponsored? Bummer to be so cynical; staring at the sidewalk guarantees grey. Look up sometime and try blue – you may meet someone’s eyes as you do so.
I agree with Greg, and am weary of the armchair hating that seems to be appearing on some of the local food boards.
When I read of this event on The Heavy Table, I was rather surprised. Not armchair hatin’, but surprised.
Muir Glen uses BPA coatings in their cans. I find this rather ironic (and not in a good way) from a brand professing to be organic/granola/special. It’s pretty easily verifiable with a simple Google search. They’ve said several times they are phasing out the BPA. For quite a while now, I believe.
Can someone tell me these Meridian Ruby cans do not contain BPA?
Thanks for the response, James.
I ate at Corner Table Friday night, and to answer some of Russ’s questions, there was one item on the menu using the canned tomatoes. It was a gnocchi with sofrito and amatriciana sauce, and had an astrisk by it. At the bottom of the menu there was a note that said, roughly, “In recognition of the Vine Dining tour this dish uses Muir Glen canned tomatoes. Chef Scott Pampuch promotes home preserving and canning, but recognizes this product as an acceptable alternative.” I didn’t get that last bit right, but that was the jist of it. The rest of the menu was “normal” for Corner Table. I didn’t try the gnocchi.
I’ve worked with and for Scott for over a year, and was a local food novice when I started. Lesson One that Scott wants everyone to learn is this: think about the food you put in your mouth. Having learned this lesson, I have to ask, is knowing where your tomatoes come from (even if it’s from CA?) a bad thing?
One doesn’t become a locavore overnight. One doesn’t learn about sustainability in a week. IMHO, If Scott can introduce the average home cook to one product that’s of a much higher quality and transparent source than the grocery store brands most people buy, then he’s done a good thing.
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