Food expert looks beyond labels
By Jan Norris
Palm Beach Post
October 13, 2005 Thursday
We talked with Ted Allen, the food consultant on the Bravo show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He's making his first visit to Palm Beach as part of the Bon Appetit Wine and Spirits Focus in November.
Q: What are the hottest trends in entertaining right now - things you're beginning to see everywhere?
A: Wine-tasting parties. I'm doing one tomorrow night. I'm not talking about any sort of a placemat with circles, or anything like vertical tastings. These are for family and friends, tasting three varietals or three different houses of the same varietal.
You can do a little flavor profiling. Go to the grocery store and buy different veggies and fruits, and cut them up and put them into wine glasses. Then your guests can sniff them and put a flavor or food to what they're tasting in the wines.
It's a fun way to entertain, and gives people an activity. It's going over well in my circle of friends.
Q: Other trends you're seeing?
A: Using herbs in unexpected applications. We're seeing a lot of herbs used in cocktails and at the bar. The mojitos and caipirinhas probably were the progenitors of that trend, but you'll see them in several other drinks as well. Basil in bloody Marys, and beyond. I like that a lot because I'm really big into herbs.
Q: What three elements might elevate a party to a Palm Beach level in your mind?
A: Definitely everyone is going to dress to the nines. That's a given.
Number two, I love great service; at a spectacularly perfect event, a great formal dinner where everything and everyone is perfectly turned out - watching truly gifted waiters is a joy.
None of that has to do with pretention; it doesn't have to be stuffy or anything like that.
And, I think your guests; interesting mixes of people - that's important.
Q: What's the biggest mistake most hosts make when trying to entertain to impress someone?
A: I think the biggest mistake is trying to impress someone. That said, we all want it all to be perfect for our guests.
So I'd say, the biggest mistake is doing too much at the last minute. Trying to do complicated things like foods that have to be flambeed at the table, or things that require cooking after the guests arrive.
I'm a big fan of the oven, and a big fan of doing as much in advance as possible.
Your guests don't enjoy themselves seeing you sweating and slaving over the food or rushing around to pull it all together. It makes them uncomfortable. Basically, they're there to be with you and socialize - not watch you work.
Q. What about having some help?
A. Cooking as a hobby is a great luxury for most people. A lot of people just eat to live. They're cooking for their family or just getting food on the table.
For them, I can't think of anything much more fun than having help and getting out of the kitchen to enjoy their guests.
I had a birthday party here at my loft for some friends; there was nothing better than hiring someone just to make the drinks. Pay a college kid $100, and that's one more thing you don't have to worry about. You have more time to spend with your guests.
Q: Name three foods to always have on hand to make an instant party.
A. One: Champagne.
Two: I'm a big fan of store-bought puff pastry. It's a perfectly acceptable packaged food - have you ever tried to make it? It takes hours and days. And it's truly not that much better than what you can buy frozen.
So I make baked puff-pastry cheesesticks. I love to use aged Gouda. They're really easy, impressive and fun to make - you just roll out the dough, sprinkle it with cheese and roll out the other half on top of it, cut it, twist it and bake it.
I also do them with a little herbs -- thyme or rosemary.
Three: Keep some cooked, peeled, deveined shrimp and one of the imaginative cocktail sauces from Ojai Chef in Napa Valley on hand. I love their sauces.
Another quick thing I had recently that I love are grape tomatoes, scored, soaked in vodka, then dipped in kosher salt. These were wonderful - and so easy.
Q: What one thing bugs you the most at cocktail parties?
A: I hate it when the music stops. Dead air is a painful thing at a cocktail party.
But the thing that bugs me the most is the guest who won't stop talking. It's difficult when there are a lot of people who monopolize the conversation and talk and talk and talk about themselves. They don't know how to ask questions. The gentle art of conversation is one not practiced by everybody.
Q: What about a quick centerpiece for a party table?
A: I leave the tabletop work to the other people, for the most part. But I think nothing is more beautiful than food itself. Things that are natural, clean and rustic: here at home, we do a bowl of lemons or just one or two blooms that are striking.
But nothing tall. I hate having to look around anything to see the others at the table.
And I like solid white plates. Big, oversized white plates. That puts the focus on the food, and when you're serving beautiful food, that's all you need.
Q: You seem grounded and un-chef like in your approach.
A: I'm not a chef; I'm not a sommelier. I got into this as a journalist - I had been writing for Esquire for some time, and before that, I was the restaurant reviewer for years for Chicago magazine.
I call myself a "concierge." There's an audience I'm hoping to reach that's a little newer to food, perhaps, and has a curiosity about food and wine. They want suggestions, and ways to learn that aren't intimidating.
I appreciate good food, but I'm not a food snob - I love a good hot dog.
Q: Where's the best hot dog around?
A: The best I've had lately was at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. And it was a New York hot dog! A Hebrew National All-Beef hot dog. It was just great. I really don't eat them often enough to say what's the best in New York City.
Q: So if you weren't doing this wildly successful TV show, what would you be doing?
A: My great love is writing for magazines, and though I don't have as much time to do it, I love it. I have a cookbook coming out this month (The Food You Want to Eat, Clarkson Potter), and I'm hoping cookbooks might be my next act. I hope to be traveling, gathering inspirations for foods and reinterpreting them for people.
Allen will be in Palm Beach, along with a number of food celebrities, at the 16th Annual Bon Appetit Wine & Spirits Focus Nov. 4-6. For tickets or information, go to www.bonappetitfocus.com or call (888) 34-FOCUS.
You can buy farmed salmon all year round and it is one of your better bets for freshness. But wild salmon from Alaska, Washington and California is definitely more flavorful, and it's available throughout the summer almost anyplace with FedEx - which is to say, anyplace. Cook 'em if ya got 'em.
Pan-roasted salmon with sweet tomato vinaigrette
For the vinaigrette:
1 medium shallot, sliced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon nonpareil capers (the tiny ones), drained
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the salmon:
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 to 2 pounds salmon fillets, with skin (about 1 1/2 inches thick at the thickest point)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425.
Make the vinaigrette: In a medium bowl, stir together the shallot, vinegar, capers, tomatoes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let that stand while you cook the salmon, then stir in the 1/3 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup canola oil, parsley, basil, cumin, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper.
Heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large, oven-safe frying pan over a medium-high flame. Sprinkle the salmon with the 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. When the oil is hot, add the fillets, skin side up, and cook, without messing with them at all, until they move easily when you shake the pan, about 3 minutes. If you pull them off before they're ready, the browned layer will stick to the pan and you'll lose the beautiful crust. Now turn the salmon and stick the pan in the oven. Roast until just cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes.
When the salmon is cooked, remove it to serving plates with a spatula. Add the vinai-grette to the pan, put it over medium heat, and bring just to a simmer, stirring with a wooden spoon to pick up the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Cook until the tomatoes soften, about 2 minutes. Spoon the sauce over the salmon and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
WINE PAIRING: Fruity Barbera or Verdicchio for the tomato vinaigrette.
From Ted Allen's new cookbook, The Food You Want to Eat, Clarkson Potter.