“I thought oysters with a pomegranate mignonette would be kind of fun,” said Long, when I walked into Tosca in Hingham one afternoon last week. The chef stood all in white behind the marble bar in the open kitchen presiding over a countertop covered with colorful foods. Behind him, smoke and steam wafted up as several cooks prepped the evening meal.
At first I thought there wouldn’t be much to a raw oyster dish to share with readers.
But, I was wrong.
Long treats each ingredient with such care that even a simple preparation becomes an education (and an inspiration) in good cooking. Mention something about food, and he’s all over it: a fount of enthusiasm and ideas about everything that has anything to do with food.
Turns out a mignonette is a simple sauce typically served with oysters. Long decided to flavor this one with pomegranate because the fruit is available this time of year, delicious, and festive.
Of course the chef hadn’t used a juicer, he’d mashed the seeds with a mojito mallet (actually called a muddler), then pressed the juice from the mash in a strainer.
As Long assembled the ingredients in a small stainless bowl, I gathered some of his comments.
Four tablespoons of ice water: “Ice water is an integral part of my world.”
Two tablespoons plain white vinegar: “You want the taste of the juice to shine.”
One tablespoon fresh minced thyme: “Buy one package for the holidays and use the rest for stuffing.”
A couple pinches of cracked black pepper: “You crack it with the side of a knife.” (“Really?” “Yup.”)
One tablespoon chopped shallots: “We dice them then run them under cold water for 20 minutes through a colander. We do it with all onions – the whole allium family. It takes away the mucilaginous film and makes them taste cleaner, brighter, better.”
One tablespoon raw brown sugar: “I prefer demerara, it’s a little more molasses-y.” But he didn’t have any.
Three tablespoons pomegranate juice: “I’d have 10 guys squeezing pomegranates all day for the juice if I could, it’s so delicious.”
After swishing the sauce all together, he let it sit.
Long has his way of handling oysters, too. He keeps them iced down in the sink for at least an hour prior to shucking to make them easier to open. He uses the sink so the melted ice can drain.
“You don’t want to drowned them, they’re alive,” he says.
After shucking, he keeps them on ice in a perforated pan, so they don’t get all wet.
We talk for five minutes about ways a home cook who doesn’t have a perforated hotel pan could do this.
“If there’s snow on the ground, you could lay them in a show bank,” he says, pretty seriously. (I’m imagining little structures I could build around them for protection from animals out there on the snow.)
The chef shucks an oyster so easily it doesn’t seem like a real oyster. He says the key is a razor sharp knife. Holding the bivalve in a folded kitchen towel, he tucks his blade into the little notch at the hinge end and slides it in and around one side, then the other, and lifts off the top. But, that isn’t the end of it.
Before severing the muscle that attaches the bivalve to the bottom shell, he swishes it in an ice bath.
“I tell people I wash them, and they go crazy, but it really works,” says Long, opening another oyster and rubbing his finger along the edge of the shell to show me all the grit that comes away.
“I insist that you bathe them.”
He then cuts the muscle and lifts the meat free to reveal a pool of oyster liquor beneath.
Setting them on ice, he spoons some pomegranate mignonette over each and sprinkles a few ruby-colored seeds on top, and we each have one.
They’re beautiful: briny, sweet, savory, exciting mouthfuls.
As we sit in the rich atmosphere of the magnificent, bustling restaurant for a few last minutes before Long has to hustle back to work, somehow the idea of left over shucked oysters comes up.
“Stuff and bake them,” he says. “I’m obsessed with the lost classic New England dishes like seafood newburg, lobster thermidor, anything with bread stuffing drenched in Dry Sack sherry. I love them!”
It’s tempting to conclude that attention to detail makes a great chef.
But really, what makes a great chef is attention to everything involved in the procuring, handling, preparing, and serving of food.
Whether it’s chasing down locally grown produce, dedicating a cooler to dry aging meats, or running water over shallots for 20 minutes, obsessive, passionate love and focus on food is at the heart of a chef’s talent.
And Kevin Long’s got it bad.
Follow Joan Wilder on Twitter.