Jean-Louis Palladin Professional Work/Study Grant Recipient Jose G. Ramirez-Ruiz

Jose G. Ramirez-Ruiz, the first recipient of our Jean-Louis Palladin Professional Work/Study Grant and a Per Se alum, traveled to a tiny town in the Spanish region of Catalonia to learn from a chef named Oriol Rovira. The excerpt below is from an essay he wrote describing his travels.

At nine sharp, I showed up. The kitchen was just beginning dinner service, and I was ushered to a table. The meal that was to follow was one of the most astonishing meals I have ever enjoyed in my life: astonishing because of its simplicity and lack of pretense. It wasn’t avant-garde, whimsical, or promising any fireworks; there weren’t even white linens on the table. It was, however, simple, humble, and spoke volumes more than any other meal has.

The first course was nothing more than wedges of tomato garnished with basil leaves and flowers, accompanied by strips of bacalao (salt cod), all dressed generously with fine olive oil and balsamic vinegar. So simple, yet the star of the plate was really the tomato itself, the best I’ve ever eaten in my life: large and meaty, sparsely seeded, and bursting with deep flavor. The secret? Oriol insists there is none. His tomato is a variety called the pit de monja (in Catalan, “nun’s breast,” referring to its shapeliness) from the Marmande family. Tomatoes from this family are distinguished by having their seeds close to the skin and a meaty heart. To Oriol, it is the best tomato, and now it is for me, too. Days later, Oriol would explain that the there are many other great tomatoes, perhaps just as good as the pit de monja. The main difference, he was quick to point out, was that his was picked at its ripest point and eaten immediately, an advantage that he enjoys and that many others cannot. One less day and it would have been a totally different tomato.

The next course was presented in a small, lidded pot. I lifted the lid cautiously, and my nostrils were happily assaulted with two dominant smells: a porky broth and a medley of fresh vegetables. Zucchini, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, beans, fingerling potatoes, and daikon bobbed merrily in the potent broth. My kitchen training has programmed me to serve vegetables of bright color and to blanch them each in their own pots of blanching water. I found out that this dish broke every single one of these rules. The vegetables were all young and therefore small in stature, and each tasted purely and simply of itself despite swimming in a richly flavored pork broth. It could not have been any better. The seemingly simple pot of vegetables in broth was in fact a complex symbiosis: vegetal, elemental, and earthy, while also full-bodied, round, and meaty. A perfect marriage.

The third course was the meat course. And by meat course, I mean an entire, thick-cut porterhouse steak. The garnish: garlic and olive oil–marinated piquillo peppers. Oriol explained proudly that this steak was from his own cow, and aged for 56 days. The meat has a unique deep red, almost purple color when raw and the fat, instead of white, is a bright yellow. This steak was served very rare, a color that would probably send most Americans running from their seats. But the meat demanded to be tasted in its most unbridled form. Simply wood fire–grilled, it was just amazing—far superior to any meat I have ever eaten back in the States. The fat had softened to a melting consistency, and the meat was just barely caramelized on the outside, retaining a maximum of its juices within.

The piquillos Oriol served had been preserved the previous fall, according to a combination of traditional and new methods. The piquillos were picked at their ripest point, brought to the kitchen and then roasted until they blackened. They were cryovac’d whole and then frozen, skin and seeds intact. This, he pointed out, would help them retain structure and flavor. To use, he thaws out a bag of piquillos, and continues by peeling, seeding, and finally marinating the peppers in a garlicky oil. The final touch is a sprinkling of coarse salt.

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