Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Cooking Course with Chef Jason - Plant Restaurant Asheville: Risotto and Wild Foods

One of our favorite restaurants in the country (if not our top pick thus far world-wide) is Plant in Asheville.  I am not kidding when I say the Chef Jason Sellers is a culinary master.  His cooking is pure witchcraft and he has to be one of the most innovative chefs around.

We are so lucky to be within driving distance of his genius and we have often made the 2+ hour drive each way to just have dinner at Plant.  We recommend this restaurant to anyone coming anywhere near the Asheville vicinity.  It's so good that the first time we ate dinner there, we called at 10am the next morning to see how soon we could get in again.  Not kidding.

So when we read that Plant was going to be doing intimate (5 or so people) cooking classes on Saturdays we quickly jumped online to schedule our sessions.

And Jason did not disappoint.

The class was for Risotto and Wild Foods.  I love cooking risotto and have posted here a few times about making risotto at home. But I loved the idea of learning from Jason, seeing behind the scenes, asking questions in a small setting and, of course, the lure of what wild foods would be featured was pretty great as well.

Asheville has a lot of wild foods from mushrooms to greens to herbs - the best foodie culture in the South, I think - so it could have been anything!

The restaurant is small which makes it perfect to learn and host a group of this size. Jason cooked and spoke right in front of us and made sure we saw every step of the way. His interaction with the 6 of us was continuous and everyone was interested and engaged.

I was happy to find out that my techniques and philosophies about cooking were something that Jason shared.  Pretty validating for an untrained but enthusiastic home "chef"!  Plus we share a love of salt varietals, so no one say you can ever have too much salt!

Jason showed us some restaurant tips and tricks, including how to pre-cook the risotto for finishing later, and created two separate dishes from the base recipe.

The first risotto was with a nettle pesto (recipe below) and then the addition of crimini and young chicken of the woods mushrooms, topped with sautéed wild watercress.

The second risotto received the addition of an oven-dried tomato confit and was then topped with an herb and black pepper crusted tofu, which was amazing.  It was seriously some of the best tofu ever.

These dishes were paired with two amazing wines and we left there inspired and eager to try out our new insights at home.   I can't speak for the other "students" but I love to make risotto and do a lot, but I usually keep it pretty simple.  I think risotto is an amazing dish on it's own.  But Jason really inspired us to do more with it, which is the mark of a chef that truly loves to cook.

Afterwards we headed over to the new location of French Broad Chocolate Lounge and capped off our day with a variety of chocolate delights - a slice of the Theros Olive Oil cake, gelato, vegan truffles and rose sipping chocolate.

It was a beautiful day in Asheville filled with amazing food!

Recipe for Risotto and Nettle Pesto
(serves 4 - 6)

Jason mentioned you can make risotto from a number of grains but worked with classic Arborio.  He mentioned a more hard to find rice, Vialone Nano, and now I'm eager to find and test that out.   He used their own, made in house stock as well.

1/4 olive oil (make sure it's not a blend, he used extra virgin)
1 1/2lbs short grain white rice (e.g. Arborio)
2 1/2 oz white onion (1 small), chopped small
3/4 C of wine, room temperature (pinot grigio used)
6 - 8 C stock, kept hot
2 tsp salt, to taste  - sea salt or kosher preferred

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large heavy bottom pot with a wide base and mouth. Add the rice and stir to coat each grain. Cook for 2 minutes.  Add the onion (and 1 grated clove of garlic if preferred) and cook for two minutes until the onions become somewhat translucent. Add the wine and cook until it is mostly absorbed. Begin adding the stock, one ladle (1/2C to 1C) at a time, until the rice is just covered by the liquid. Using a wooden spoon, stir the risotto until the liquid has dropped below the surface of the rice. Continue stirring and adding stock one ladle at a time until the risotto is thick, creamy/starchy, and chewy, and has lost any chalky crunch.

Add in pesto (or confit, etc.) and serve.

We learned you can, before all of the stock is added, take the risotto and cool it by putting it spread out on a baking sheet and then storing it overnight, covered in plastic wrap. You can then "finish" it by bringing it up to a heat again and adding in hot stock.  This will enable you to prep it somewhat in advance and then only need to cook it about 10 minutes, for a party or dinner, etc.

Nettle Pesto
(yield 1 1/2 cups)


2/3 C toasted hazelnuts, skins removed, finely chopped
1 C blanched nettles, dried (not dry), roughly chopped
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley
zest of one lemon
2 big pinches of salt
3 Tbl olive oil

Combine the hazelnuts, nettles, garlic, parsley, lemon zest and salt in a small mixing bowl. Add the olive oil and mix with a rubber spatula until uniform. Adjust lemon and salt to taste.

Tip: the lemon zest will help keep the pesto bright.  You can add lemon juice later before serving, to taste.