How Chefs Roll takes you inside the kitchens of local chefs to see how they roll with seasonal flavors, their favorite ingredients and how they prepare them for their restaurants.
CINCINNATI — The kitchen is his stage, and Mike Florea knows how to work it. At Maribelle's Eat + Drink in Oakley, the kitchen is wide open to the dining audience, and Florea puts on the kind of theater you can eat.
It started two years ago when Florea saw "Knife Fight" on television. He wanted a similar after-hours rowdy cooking contest for local chefs as a way to build camaraderie. He drew up the rules for his version of the contest, Food Fight, and posted the event on Facebook the next day.
“I thought only 20 people would show up, and it’s just going to be me and my buddies getting drunk and cooking against each other,” Florea said.
To his amazement, 120 people — not all chefs — came. The ninth Food Fight goes down on Feb. 1 and is expected to be the baddest one yet.
Don’t expect high drama from the chef himself, though: His inked forearms belie his soft-spoken and thoughtful ways. In the historically cutthroat world of restaurants, Florea has been busy building a supportive community of chefs.
Recently, Florea brought me into his kitchen to demonstrate his use of his favorite seasonal ingredients. When I arrived, his mise en place (organization of tools and ingredients) was already done and standing at attention: ribbons of Swiss chard, tarragon chimichurri, pickled cranberries, fried sage, roasted walnut, thinly sliced radish, unsalted butter, cream, butternut squash and rendered fat. In the very back, I spotted what looked like ears.
"What are you making today?" I asked. "Crispy pig ear with chard salad," Florea replied. He would build the dish with pureed butternut squash, a salad of crispy pig ears and Swiss chard dressed in chimichurri, punctuated with mini flavor bombs of pickled cranberry and fried sage.
Florea already had poached the butternut squash in heavy cream, unsalted butter, salt and pepper. "Poach it until fork-tender, about 20 minutes," he said, as he lifted the pot off the stove. He proceeded to blend the poached butternut squash into a silky-smooth puree.
As he held up a pig ear, he said, "You have to burn the hair off," referring to the fine hair on the ear. Florea picked up a butane torch and shot the flame at the offal. The hair crackled into thin air, wafting a burnt sulfurous tinge. (Folks, if you attempt this at home, it's best to do this way before your guests arrive.)
Once Florea was satisfied the ear was free of hair, he put it alongside others in a pan. "We take a blend of rendered pig and duck fat – aka liquid gold,” he paused with a smile, “and pour over the ears. Then we wrap this in foil and let it confit for about six hours at 300 degrees.” (Confit refers to food that has been slowly cooked in fat over low heat.)
He stuck the pan in the oven and pointed to a small mound of cooked pig ear on the table that already had been cut into strips. “This is approximately one ear," he said.
Florea dunked the pig ear strips in the deep fryer to crisp them up, and a torrent of spitting hot oil quickly ensued. Then he flash-fried the (less temperamental) Swiss chard strips until crispy and proceeded to toss both the chard and crispy pig ears with tarragon chimichurri. (Chimichurri is a green sauce with Argentine roots, typically made with garlic, vinegar, oil, chili flakes and herbs. Florea adds fresh tarragon and dill to his.)
It was time to put it all together. Using an offset spatula — the kind bakers use to ice a cake — Florea lightly smeared the butternut squash puree onto the "plate." (In this case, the plate was a dark piece of slate.)
The salad of crisp ear and chard went on next, quickly followed by walnuts, pickled cranberries, thinly sliced radish, lemon zest, fried sage and sea salt. The finished plate looked like Christmas, with the playful red cranberries peeking out from the dark green salad.
The lemon zest alerted me to the imminent party of flavors and textures. The Swiss chard was a wispy preamble to the hearty strips of pig ear. While crispy on the outside, the strips were all chewy and fatty on the inside.
The pickled cranberries and garlicky-tangy chimichurri nicely balanced out the richness of the protein. The rest of the ingredients — fried sage, walnuts and radish — added crunch, flavor and freshness to the dish. One bite, and I wanted to celebrate the holidays all over again.
Before deep frying the pig ear, make sure it has been adequately cooked until the cartilage is soft. Otherwise, you will end up with something too chewy to eat. Florea offers another tip: “It’s all about the fat, salt and acid. That’s the balance I put on any plate.”
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO.com. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation and a former chemical engineer. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.