I’m a fan of Sarah Grueneberg from way back, so when I heard she was going to teach a cooking class near my home, I had to be at the table.
Other students knew her as the finalist on Bravo’s Top Chef show who had the whole city of Chicago rooting for her (a New York City interloper won the contest but just barely).
I knew Sarah as a chef I could count on for a well-informed interview on Italian ingredients or cooking. Sarah is from the Texas Gulf Coast, so I’d also collected some of her killer sports-watching snacks for a magazine piece.
But all of that was on the phone. I’d never laid eyes on Sarah and was startled, arriving at Rolling Pin Cooking Emporium, to see how young she is–just 31 years old. By her own description, Sarah chafed at the tedium of high-school classes and jumped for the culinary life at the earliest opportunity. By age 22, she was the youngest-ever sous chef of Brennan’s and from there moved up the ranks at Spiaggia, Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant, to become executive chef.
We were here to watch Chef Sarah power through a menu that started with insalata pantesca–named for Pantelleria, a Sicilian island known for its capers as well as for black lava landscapes and dome-roofed dammusi. In Sarah’s version, layers of potatoes are lavished with an herb-caper pesto, crabmeat and heirloom tomatoes.
Next she launched into slow-roasted pork rib roast drizzled with a fine balsamic vinegar and served with Barolo risotto. And to finish, honey panna cotta with honey salted caramel.
I loved tasting Sarah’s food at last and, along the way, savoring the opinions and chef’s tips she tossed out. A sampling, in Sarah’s words:
- Tarragon is my new favorite herb. And balsamic vinegar…it’s the next steak sauce. Whatever you do, don’t cheat on the quality of ingredients like balsamic and olive oil.
- It’s a brave person who dared eat an artichoke for the first time.
- For a deeply flavored broth, roast the bones. Once the liquid comes to a boil, drop in ice cubes to lock in the proteins and avoid skimming so much.
- Cut roasted meat too soon and it will definitely freak out.
- Roasting vegetables in the pan juices of the meat you’re serving–that’s going to be a winner every time.
- For virtually seed-free lemons: Cut wedges off the lemon at right angles, leaving most of the seeds in the core at the center.
- As an Italian chef told me, properly made panna cotta should jiggle like a woman’s breast.
- Where’s my honey? (probably referring to the Tupelo honey used in the panna cotta but possibly to Sarah’s cute fiance Jaime Canete, sous chef for the evening)
Okay, back to to Sarah’s insalata pantesca. For more of her cooking, think about making your way to Chicago for a meal at Spiaggia.
- 1 pound Yukon Gold or other boiling potatoes peeled
- Sea salt
- ½ cup loosely packed basil leaves plus more to garnish
- ¼ cup fresh tarragon leaves
- ¼ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
- ½ cup almonds toasted, plus more to garnish
- ¼ cup salt-cured capers rinsed, plus more to garnish
- Good-quality extra virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound pasteurized crab meat picked through
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes preferably heirloom, halved or quartered
- Juice of 1 lemon
- ½ pitted Castelvetrano or other Mediterranean olives halved
Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and season with 1 tablespoon sea salt. Add cold water to cover by one inch.
Over medium heat, bring the water to a simmer and cook the potatoes until just tender (avoid overcooking; they should have a bit of resistance). Remove potatoes, cool and slice in wedges or half-inch rounds.
In a blender bowl, combine the basil, tarragon, parsley, almonds and capers with 1/3 cup olive oil. Blend until pureed but a bit chunky. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Toss the crab and tomatoes with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
Mix the potatoes with the pesto. Arrange on a platter or individual plates. Spoon the dressed crab and tomatoes on top. Garnish with basil leaves, olives, almonds, capers fried in olive oil and a few grindings of black pepper.