PART FIVE – LAYERS OF FLAVOR
My experiences working at Jack’s Firehouse were the most memorable of my 20 years living in Philadelphia. The deal I made with Chef Jack McDavid was simple – I would work one day a week without pay, if he would teach me three new things each shift. When I left and moved to Rocky Ford, he told me, “If you put your mind to it, you could run a restaurant one day.” I took that as a compliment and confidence builder that to this day, steadies me when confronted with the demands of managing a 55-acre working farm.
My analytical background served me well in the past. As I began adventuring into the culinary world it became clear to me from everything I read, the professionals I observed, and the impressions I got from a proliferation of TV shows that it was all about “layers of flavor.” More important, about being willing to do whatever it takes to develop those flavors.
Let me explain how I think about building the “layers of flavor” into my Tomato Pie:
--It was paramount to remain true to what a Delorenzo’s Tomato Pie meant to me. It’s all about the bread and tomatoes. The crisp (almost burned) artisan crust becomes the foundation layer of flavor to the extent that I do everything possible to ensure it remains crisp. That means isolating the dough from the juicy tomatoes with a thin layer of cheese, for instance, or not using even a drop of olive oil either in or on the dough until after it has been cooked.
--I prominently display the tomatoes in visible chunks, not in an indiscriminate layer of sauce, to visibly convey their importance.
--Many patrons in the South tell me “No garlic, please.” I nod affirmatively, but always proceed to spread a large clove of freshly crushed garlic on every dough I prepare for the oven. I follow this with a generous array of freshly ground black pepper. Never a complaint so far!
--Thin slices of cheese follow to seal the dough from the moisture of the tomatoes and meat toppings that follow. Meats, if any, are selectively placed, and then, always last, come the tomatoes. Then I quickly slide the pie into the awaiting oven. That’s it!
--Noticeably missing are the olive oil, mushrooms and spinach. I never apply olive oil while the dough is cooking (in the oven). No one wants a “burned” mushroom or spinach flavor from the extreme heat of a wood-fired oven, nor be the reason to remove a pie before the crust is perfectly cooked. I sauté and season the mushrooms and spinach to taste, ahead of time, to perfection! They are warmed by the pie as it cools down. (Again, I credit Jack for teaching me that all temperatures cook – both low and high ones. Whether I was cleaning squid in an ice-water bath to keep it from cooking, or recalling his story about how Japanese tuna fisherman quickly pull live tuna in with hand lines and then ceremoniously cut and bleed them, force a rod down their spine to immobilize them, and then flash freeze them at sea – all to preserve the essence of the tuna flesh – a most highly prized and costly product. All fish start to "cook," even at sea water temperatures, as soon as they die).
From this experience I concluded, “Why waste the heat of a cooling Tomato Pie? Let it warm the oil, mushrooms and spinach.”
--I generously apply olive oil with a squeeze bottle to the cornicione (edge of the crust) immediately after I remove the pie from the oven. An added benefit of this approach is that you never burn the roof of your mouth and ruin the pleasure of eating the rest of your pie. If desired, I sparingly add the mushrooms and spinach. Then I apply the salt, grated Parmesan, and (always last) torn basil. Done!
Simple but thoughtful steps mean that we are always building layers of flavor as we go. Oh, yes, one last hidden flavor: the delicious one that comes from the wood-fired oven itself!
Don’t think I was born knowing how to do this type of cooking. It took years of trial and error to decipher this culinary puzzle. Don’t be constrained by tradition and consensus thinking. Leap outside the box (a learned, but uncanny ability I have had through all of my life’s endeavors). Maybe this is why I became so attracted to the TV show “Mind of a Chef.” It helped me more clearly understand what food was really about – a metaphor for life itself. Without food there is no life. The quality of our food is integral to the quality of our lives.
As an educator, it was important to me to convey knowledge to the next generation, but it was even more important to give them the confidence they needed to succeed. “The answers are all there; learn to ask the right sequence of questions,” they told me in engineering school at Rutgers University in 1964. I credit the leaders, educators and friends I had along the way for shaping my “can-do” mindset.
Jack McDavid was the only chef I ever worked for, and to this day, I feel grateful to have had that experience. Thanks again Jack. You done good!
In my next posting I will discuss the wood-fired oven that I built so I could achieve the high temperatures needed to cook my ideal Tomato Pie, adding that "invisible layer of flavor."
It is aptly named, “A Field of Dreams.” Still lots to discuss, so see you again soon.