Sizzling Summer

sizzling_summer

A Night in Gustare Oils & Vinegars’ Test Kitchen
Story & photos by Tom Dott.

Somewhere between the villages of Barnstable and Brewster my overly exercised imagination revved into high gear, and I started envisioning the evening’s “test kitchen”. I have attended casual recipe tastings before—for cookbooks and wine pairings, mostly—but the term test kitchen conjures up a sterile room, lab coats, metal tables neatly lined with funnels and measuring cups, and rows of beakers bubbling scents of vanilla, cardamom and lavender. So when the door opened upon an enchanting wave of horns and guitar strums from vintage Latin music, I was instantly put at ease.

Greeting me from the doorway of her home, just a stone’s throw from Main Street in the seaside town of Orleans, was Catherine Ferraresi, co-owner of Gustare Oils & Vinegars. I once met Catherine while shopping in her Chatham store, so while I didn’t know her personally, I knew her product well. What I did know about Catherine Ferraresi is that she and her husband and business partner, Dave, have a deep connection to Europe, and as I soaked in the echo of the Latin harmonies and gazed around the warmly-lit kitchen adorned with shimmering bottles of colored oils and pyramids of seasoning tins, I had the distinct feeling that this evening’s test kitchen was going to feel more like a journey.

Shortly after my arrival, the Gustare team started filing in through the kitchen door: Debra Mozill, the manager of the new Gustare shop in Wellesley; Chatham native and commercial scalloper Jennifer Kane, the Chatham store manager; and Leslie Gordon, who often rides her bike to her manager’s position at the Mashpee Commons location. Also joining us was Lisa Gouveia, an accomplished chef and sales representative for the Providence, Rhode Island-based Victoria Gourmet, whose seasoning blends and “origin spices” were recently added to the inventory of the Gustare stores, thereby creating a heavy hitting, one-stop-shop of herbs, oils, vinegars and spices. The Victoria Gourmet herbs and spices were to be an intricate part of the evening’s “Sizzling Summer Menu”.

After a few minutes of introductions and socializing, Catherine assigned each participant with a task: chopping, sautéing, peeling, deveining or grating. Leslie was in charge of the muddling. Muddled berry-jalapeño margaritas was the evening’s first recipe to undergo the scrutiny of team Gustare, and all agreed it was the perfect tone-setter. We gathered at Catherine’s dining room table for a taste, and a toast.

The cocktail had the foundation of a well-made, fresh margarita, but with an added summer sparkle of fresh raspberries and blackberries. After Lisa muddled the berries with slices of lime and orange, tequila and Cointreau were added—pretty standard—as well as a hit of heat courtesy of Gustare jalapeño balsamic vinegar—not so standard. The balsamic added a bright, clean dimension when comingled with the fruits. After a little bit of adding and subtracting of various fruit quantities, a perfectly original summer cocktail was born. If the contrast of the dark berry bits swimming in a wash of summer pastels wasn’t enough to turn any cocktail aficionado’s head, each glass was rimmed with Australian flake salt—pink in color and fluffy as a snowflake—which hails from the Murray River in the Australian Alps. The unique shade of pink is a result of the retention of trace minerals, we’re told, as I less-than-gracefully navigate my tongue around the edge of the glass.

Next in our sizzling summer recipe testing was a fresh flounder ceviche. The fish was purchased just hours before from Chatham Fish and Lobster, and the recipe, Catherine explained, was inspired by the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. The flounder was diced and mixed into a non-reactive bowl with shallots, lime, diced red bell peppers, scallions and fresh cilantro. Also mixed into the bowl—again for a bit of heat and a lot of brightness—was the jalapeño balsamic vinegar and…beer. I understood the vinegar concept, but beer in a fish ceviche completely threw me.

“My first thought was to serve this course with a small glass of a summer beer with a slice of orange perched on the rim as a declaration of the season,” Catherine explained. “Then I decided to add that sweet-fruity slightly-malty flavor to the ceviche to balance the citrus flavors and heat from the jalapeño.” That made sense. After the confetti of reds, whites and greens were served up elegantly in martini glasses, Trapani sea salt was sprinkled on to taste. This white, dry salt is cultivated from the northwest coast of Sicily, ground by stone wheels powered by ancient windmills and dried by the Sicilian sun. The result is a strong-flavored, coarse salt, which seemed to be the missing piece to an otherwise succulent puzzle. Catherine also passed around her moderately-heated harissa (red chile pepper) extra virgin olive oil for anyone who desired an extra kick.

Leaving pink salt, jalapeño vinegar and windmills aside for a moment, it’s important to understand why a gourmet oil and vinegar shop might require a test kitchen. It all starts with the inspiration and passion of two people who work together as well as, well, oil and vinegar. Dave describes Catherine as a casual, but very creative culinary enthusiast who learned more about oil and vinegar products while attending cooking school in Verona, Italy, and himself as a food enthusiast and a semi-retired corporate marketing executive. While living in Europe for ten years, they appreciated how their village market offered taste samplings of freshly pressed olive oils and traditionally aged balsamic vinegars, and how there were always suggestions about how to use the products in daily food preparations. When Catherine and Dave returned to the U.S., they found that the bottled high-end products they purchased from the Italian neighborhoods of Providence and Boston did not match the tasting experience or expectations of what they had become accustomed to in Europe.

“So we found a reliable importer of high quality extra virgin olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars produced in Modena, Italy, and decided on the village setting of Main Street in Chatham on Cape Cod,” Dave explained. The couple later opened a store in Mashpee, and more recently off Cape, in Wellesley.

But what good is a 12-year aged bottle of fig, Sicilian lemon, peach or pomegranate balsamic vinegar if you don’t know the best way to use it? You can walk into Gustare, sample and purchase white truffle or porcini olive oil from Italy, a robust roasted sesame oil from Japan or a roasted walnut oil from France, but are you going to know how to best celebrate the flavors in each bottle? That is where the Gustare test kitchen comes in. Although there are no bubbling beakers, Catherine, Dave and staff work tirelessly to create recipes available to anyone who wants to delve into something a lot more special than the average store-bought bottles. The test kitchens are there to guide the culinarily adventurous through the means of simple recipe cards available at the three shops, and online recipes on the Gustare website www.gustareoliveoil.com.

The next dish up for tasting and discussions was Southwestern chicken fajitas. Catherine marinated the chicken in one of her extra virgin olive oils—“Hojiblanca”, boasting flavors of almond and apple —along with fresh lime juice and Victoria Gourmet’s pungent and slightly spicy Texas red seasoning.

As she worked her way around the kitchen, checking on staff at their individual stations, I was impressed by Catherine’s carefree spirit and energy, especially given the varied and dynamic menu. To be in her kitchen watching her taste the flavors and smell the aromas of dishes that just a few hours earlier only existed in her mind or jotted down on a piece of paper, was worth the drive alone—tasting it all was just a bonus.

As everyone dug into the fajitas, even the simplest accompaniments, like crème fraîche and guacamole, took on a whole new life with the addition of an inventive seasoning, a robust vinegar or silky olive oil. Lisa suggested a sprinkle of smoky paprika chipotle over the fajitas for those who cared to add a touch of mesquite. Everyone agreed it was a match made in Mesa.

A summer squash preparation followed the same theme of adding new sizzle to simple dishes. Tossing chunks of steaming summer and zucchini squash with sea salt created a summer pleasure all its own, but Catherine and crew cranked things up with a few simple add-ins. The citrus from the Gustare whole lemon extra virgin olive oil illuminated and intensified the fresh squash, while Mediterranean seasoning, an herb blend dominated by oregano and garlic, added character without tarnishing the flavor. The unusual ingredients reinvigorated familiar tastes and created a dimension that will leave dining guests exclaiming, “The squash is amazing! What was I tasting in there?”

For dessert, a summer fruit compote included culinary curve balls like apricot white balsamic vinegar, basil, cayenne pepper and sea salt. Catherine explained why she loves to entertain with fruit compotes. “They’re fun to make in every season with so many variations on a theme, and they can be made ahead which makes the kitchen juggle easier when entertaining.” This one included honeydew melon, nectarine, kiwi and various fresh berries. “Because apricot balsamic is a fairly new product in our repertoire I really hadn’t experimented with it much,” Catherine admitted. “I thought it would be flavorful, but wouldn’t overpower the selection of fruits in the dish.”

Debra asked about the last minute addition of Solmielato limone honey, cayenne pepper and basil. “The Sicilian honey helps soften the acidic edge of the vinegar and slightly thicken the sauce. I wanted to go more familiar and finish the compote off with a chiffonade of mint, but I’m not a fan of the texture. This is a very soft dish, so basil added the color I needed and rounded out the flavors. Adding a teeny pinch of cayenne pepper balanced all the sweetness in the dish…I’d like to think it’s a prediction of the sizzling summer ahead!” With the last bites of the compote finished off, the evening’s test kitchen was successfully completed, and everyone started cleaning up.

A sizzling summer. That was the theme of the evening’s test kitchen, and most of us who live on Cape Cod hope for just that: a blistering sun, hot sand and warm water. But as I drove home that night I realized that my summer is going to sizzle no matter what the weather. We love to go out during the season, but our favorite summer activity is to stay home and gather up some new recipes, invite some good friends over, break out the seasonings, oils and vinegars, and fire up the pots and pans. What better sizzle could you ask for?

Gustare Oils & Vinegars
425 Main Street, Chatham
4 North Street, Mashpee Commons, Mashpee
90 Central Street, Wellesley
www.gustareoliveoil.com

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