Chef heaps praise on bounty from his garden

April 17, 2002|By ROB KASPER

CRAIG SHELTON is a highly regarded chef. He was the sous-chef of New York's celebrated chef David Bouley and was an apprentice to French chef Joel Robuchon. His Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, N.J., near Princeton, is one of only eight restaurants in America that has been designated as a Relais & Chateaux gourmand restaurant. Two years ago, the James Beard Foundation named him the top chef in the mid-Atlantic region.

Yet, when he came to Baltimore recently, he talked at times like a farmer, singing the praises of his crops. He was here cooking for the 11th annual Great Chefs' Dinner, a $250-ticket affair that raised money for the Family Tree, a local nonprofit organization that fights child abuse.

Shelton, 41, is not only a chef, but also a gardener. As he stood in the kitchen of Baltimore's Center Club and watched his staff of 14 make elaborate preparations for a five-course meal that featured lobster braised in butter, salmon topped with caviar and baby lamb with sweet peas, he brightened at the mention of beets.

Shelton said he grew beets and an array of other vegetables and fruit in a 3 1/2 -acre garden on the grounds of the Ryland Inn. While acknowledging that the mere mention of beets causes some to conjure up repressed childhood recollections of being held hostage at the family dinner table by the blood-red vegetable, he nonetheless placed himself firmly in the pro-beet camp.

"Anybody who has bad-beet memories encountered the boiled, slippery kind cooked the wrong way," he said. The beet problem, in his view, is with the cooking technique, not the vegetable.

For the Baltimore dinner, Shelton slow-roasted the vegetable, a method that, he said, allowed the beets to put their best flavor forward. He cooked them for four to six hours in a low temperature (210-degree) oven. "If you roast them," Shelton told me, "they taste like candy."

Not quite. The beetroot salad with wild onions, blood-orange slices and marscarpone cheese that was the first course of my dinner had pleasing nutty notes. But I still would not mistake a beet, even a roasted one, for a Hershey's Kiss.

Shelton said that he planted his garden out of frustration. Back in 1991, when he took over the inn, he tried, without success, to get nearby farmers to supply him with organically grown fruit and vegetables. Turned down by the locals, Shelton and his staff began growing their own.

"We read a few books, planted a few things, made a few mistakes, moved on," Shelton said. Now the garden is under the watchful eye of a master gardener and produces organic fare for dishes fed to the patrons of his restaurant. In the winter months when the garden is dormant, Shelton is able to tap the now-abundant supply of organic growers who have sprung up in the area.

A native of Concord, N.H., Shelton earned a degree at Yale in microbiology before becoming a chef. A citizen of both the United States and France, he said he spent many years in France visiting his mother's relatives, including grandparents who ran a restaurant in Cognac.

"The independence of being a chef and the creativity of it appealed to me," he said. In addition to Bouley and Robuchon, Shelton worked for a number of chefs in the United States and France before buying the Ryland Inn.

It was Bouley, he said, who showed him how to braise lobster in butter, a technique now popular with many top chefs. Shelton explained how the technique worked. The lobster is parcooked, dipped briefly in boiling water, then the meat is removed from the shell and the bare lobster is cooked in a warm, seasoned, butter bath. "You use gentle heat, about 225 degrees for 20 minutes. The butter infuses the lobster," Shelton said. "It is wonderful."

After tasting the dish, I heartily agreed. The lobster was remarkably moist and sweet. Sadly, Shelton said the technique doesn't work on soft crabs. He has tried.

The lobster was served with stir-fried baby asparagus, which won my vote as the outstanding vegetable of the evening. Grinning like a proud father, Shelton told me the knockout asparagus had come from his garden.

Shelton used an intriguing cooking technique to prepare the salmon. He dropped small pieces of Scottish salmon, vacuum-sealed in plastic bags, into vessels of 112-degree water. The salmon-in-the bag method had two advantages, he said. First, it was efficient. He and his staff were cooking this meal for 350 people, course by course. Dunking the salmon for a few minutes in warm water is a good way to get the job done.

Secondly, he liked the moist, never-overcooked texture the cooking method gave the fish. I loved the flavor of the Scottish salmon, especially when I added a dot of the Iranian caviar to my forkful of fish. The texture did not bother me, but several of my fellow diners took a few bites and announced that the salmon was "too raw" for them.

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