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.