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(From left to right) South Kitchen & Wine Bar chef Jermoe Watkins' veal burgers with grilled vegetables, Toro chef John Critchley's seared tuna with herb and lettuce salad, Marco Cucina Romano chef Matt Abdoo's fresh herb risotto, and Petit Robert Bistro pastry chef Kristen Lawson's tart and berries. (Globe Photo / Heath Robbins)
COOKING

Chef's Day Off

Four young chefs whose careers are heating up share their favorite recipes for those precious first days off of spring.

Restaurant openings are never glamorous for the chefs. The magic is in the crush of the dining room: excited patrons, proud investors, and even anxious owners. In the kitchen, the work is relentless - but it's not without its rewards. This time of year, spring is coming in through the swinging doors, being lifted off trucks and into walk-in refrigerators. Crates of fresh fava beans ready for shelling sit beside curly and bitter lettuces, slender asparagus spears, young leeks, sprightly fiddlehead ferns, tender cuts of meat, and plump strawberries.

So when it's time to take a break, to forget their starched whites, kick off their clogs, and spend a night at home with friends, even the busiest chefs aren't too exhausted to cook. They're tempted by the new abundance. Jerome Watkins, 35, co-owner and chef of South Kitchen & Wine Bar, which opened last September in South Boston, takes Sundays off but still cooks for his mom, Rosalee Watkins, and his son, "little Jerry." Veal burgers sizzle on the grill while a yellow-tomato salad bathed in olive oil rests on an outdoor table. "I let it sit on the patio and let the sun come down and warm it up."

Even the dessert course lightens its mood this time of year. Kristen Lawson, 26, pastry chef of the year-old Petit Robert Bistro in Kenmore Square, will continue to make her signature chocolate cake served with a little chocolate Eiffel Tower. But she's also been thinking about strawberries for spring, arranging them on a tart crust with a lemon curd filling. At the restaurant, the berries will look architectural on the golden curd. At home, she says, "they're heaped."

That's not to say that cooking at home is easier than it is in a restaurant. More relaxing, yes. But ordinary home stoves lack the intense heat of professional burners, and other elements are often missing as well. Matt Abdoo, chef de cuisine of the six-month-old Marco Cucina Romano on Hanover Street, laments, "I am used to working with good equipment, which I don't have" in the North End apartment he shares with two roommates. Still, Abdoo, 25, who loves "springtime and the new vegetables and produce associated with it," will be cooking fresh pea ravioli, cannelloni, and herb-flecked risotto at home.

These good cooks, of course, are never foiled by inadequate equipment. When he's not running the kitchen at Toro, the four-month-old tapas place in the South End, John Critchley likes to cook with girlfriend Justine Greim. "I love to grill and will grill practically anything," says the 28-year-old chef. In Critchley's third-floor Quincy walk-up, there are inconveniences. "The washing machine is right next to the sink, so we use the top of it as our drying rack for dishes. Our stove is electric" - most professionals prefer gas because it's easier to regulate - "and we do all our chopping on the kitchen table, because there is little counter space." That doesn't stop the Toro chef from making his own dry rubs for a backyard smoker, searing thick tuna steak in a skillet, or tossing a simplechopped salad with aromatic chives, mint, and lemon balm.

At his Braintree home, says Watkins, if you have "a good cast-iron pot, a good nonstick pan, you're in there. In the summer, you need a good grill." His is a Weber charcoal kettle. That's where his veal burgers, mixed with crumbled feta cheese and parsley, are cooked in warm weather along-side fennel, zucchini, and yellow squash, then served with sun-warmed golden tomatoes and arugula.

At Lawson's Brighton apartment, the pastry chef also has to use an electric stove - "which is annoying" - but she has good small equipment, she says. Every week, Lawson and her pal across the hall, Beth Bailey, who is a nurse, get together and cook. Bailey's boyfriend joins them, as does her sister. The two cooks never know in advance what they'll make. Lawson goes to the grocery store, sees what's tempting, and begins to form a menu in her head. Her springtime berry tart started with the fruit and evolved from there, with a rich butter crust and a tangy curd to nest them on. Once she's home in her kitchen, she starts baking, electric stove or no, for the guests across the hall - sometimes six or eight. "It's always a little crazy," she says. "A good crazy."

VEAL BURGERS WITH GRILLED VEGETABLES
SERVES 4

1 1/2 to 2 pounds ground veal
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 shallot, finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 egg
1 egg white
Olive oil (for sprinkling)
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thickly sliced
2 zucchini, trimmed and thickly sliced
2 yellow squash, trimmed and thickly sliced
1/4 cup torn fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow tomato, sliced
1 bunch arugula, stems trimmed (optional)

Light a charcoal grill without the rack in place.

In a bowl, combine the veal, feta, parsley, shallot, salt, pepper, egg, and egg white. Mix well. Form into 4 patties. Rub the patties with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

In another large bowl, combine the fennel, zucchini, squash, basil, balsamic vinegar, and the 2 tablespoons of oil. Wrap half of the grill rack with foil, leaving the handles exposed. Poke holes all over the foil and set the rack in place. When the coals reach cooking temperature, set the burgers on the foil. Set the vegetables on the side of the rack without foil.

Cover the grill and cook for about 4 minutes or until the vegetables are beginning to char. Turn the vegetables and burgers. Re-cover and cook for 3 minutes more or until the burgers are medium to medium rare (it's OK to cut inside to check). Remove the burgers from the grill. Continue cooking the vegetables, uncovered, until they are tender.

Arrange the burgers and vegetables on a slice of tomato on each of 4 plates. Garnish with arugula, if using. Sprinkle the arugula with oil, salt, and pepper and serve at once.

Adapted from Jerome Watkins

SEARED TUNA WITH HERB AND LETTUCE SALAD
SERVES 4

1 1/2 pounds fresh tuna (in one thick slice)
Peanut oil (for coating)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 head green leaf lettuce, finely torn
1 small red onion, halved and very thinly sliced
1/2 apple, very thinly sliced
Handful of fresh herbs (any combination of chives, mint, lemon balm, parsley, or cilantro), finely chopped
1/4 sweet white onion, very finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely grated
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sour cream

Heat a cast-iron skillet large enough to hold the tuna for about 5 minutes on medium-highheatoruntiltheskilletisveryhot.Rubthetunaonbothsideswith theoilandsprinklewithsaltandpepper.Searthetunainthehotskilletfor1to2 minutes per side. Remove it from the pan and set it on a cutting board to rest.

In a large salad bowl, combine the lettuce, red onion, apple, and herbs.

In a small bowl, mix the white onion, garlic, vinegar, salt, and pepper together until the salt dissolves. Gradually stir in the mayonnaise and sour cream until the mixture is smooth. Add a few spoonfuls of the dressing to the salad greens and toss well. Add enough of the remaining dressing to coat the greens and toss again.

Cut the tuna into 1/2-inch slices. On each of 4 plates, place a mound of salad greens, then fan tuna slices on top. Serve at once.

Adapted from John Critchley

FRESH HERB RISOTTO
SERVES 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup white wine
1 quart chicken stock, heated until barely simmering Handful of fresh herbs (any combination of basil, parsley, or chives), coarsely chopped 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese Salt, to taste

In a heavy-based casserole, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook over medium heat for 6 minutes, stirring often, or until the onion softens.

Stir in the rice and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add the wine, bring the mixture to a boil, and cook, stirring, until the rice absorbs the wine.

Add 1 cup of stock and cook the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the stock is almost absorbed. Continue adding stock 1/2 cup at a time and stirring, letting the rice absorb each addition before adding more. When all of the stock is gone, the rice should be tender and creamy but still have a slight bite.

Stir in the fresh herbs, butter, Parmesan, and salt. Serve at once.

Adapted from Matt Abdoo

LEMON CURD TART WITH STRAWBERRIES
SERVES 6

CURD (make one day ahead)
3 eggs
3 egg yolks
Juice and grated rind of 3 lemons
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8
tablespoon-size pieces
3 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

In the top of a double boiler, whisk together the eggs, yolks, lemon juice and rind, sugar, and butter.

In a small bowl, combine the milk and cornstarch and stir until the cornstarch is completely dissolved. Stir the milk mixture into the egg mixture. Fill the bottom of the double boiler with boiling water. Pour the curd mixture into the top of the double boiler and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, for 10 to 15 minutes or until the filling is silky and sufficiently thickened to coat the back of a spoon. Occasionally scrape the sides and bottom of the pan to prevent burning.

Remove the double-boiler top. Transfer the curd to a bowl to cool. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight.

TART AND BERRIES
1 baked sweet tart crust (9 inches)
1 pint strawberries, hulled and halved
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange
liqueur
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste

Set the oven at 375 degrees. Spread the lemon curd in the tart crust. Set the tart on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake the curd for 10 minutes or until the top is lightly brown. Leave to cool completely.

In a bowl, toss the strawberries with Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur and the sugar. Let them sit for 10 minutes. Lift out the berries, leaving the liquid in the bowl. Heap the berries on the curd. Serve at once.

Adapted from Kristen Lawson

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