This season was by far my best in the seven years I've been in business. From what I gathered from most of my friends in the restaurant/hospitality business, it was a stellar season for most of them as well. By the looks of things, it seems the economy is on the path to recovery on the west coast of Florida.
But it was not only a remarkable season for me economically, it was also noteworthy in many other respects. I introduced many new dishes at the restaurant, increased my clientele base, made many new friends, and hosted numerous incredibly delightful events.
This year, I had the honor of being asked by John Matthews of the Bradenton Downtown Farmers Market to create a menu and cook dinner for the market vendors to show appreciation for all they had done this past year. I agreed to host it and made sure that everything I would be creating for this event would come directly from the vendors and, if not, it at least had to be grown or produced locally.
A few days after I committed myself to this dinner, the products started rolling in. A partial list of items included fennel from the King Family Farm, cherry tomatoes from Hunsader Farms, shishito peppers from Bob's Veggie Patch, spaghetti squash, white beets, sweet onions, Japanese eggplant and pork belly from locally raised pigs.
At the time of the delivery, I thought that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew, as I had not yet formulated a plan of action for all of these lovely items that were piling up in my kitchen. However, after opening up multiple bags and crates, washing everything carefully and just staring at everything for a while, the wheels began to turn.
I cut up the pork bel
ly and roasted it with potatoes, fennel and Florida sweet onions. I then roasted the beets, dressed them with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and champagne vinegar. The eggplant was stuffed with basil, sharp cheddar cheese from one of our vendors, and then simmered in fresh tomatoes. From that point on the menu took on a life of its own and just kept growing.
What I did was not so unusual. Most of the chefs I've met in Europe and many I know here in Florida have menus that are driven by what's fresh and in season.
Needless to say, the dinner party for 23 guests was a big success. It was by far my favorite event of the year.
What I'd like to share with you from that evening was what everyone told me was their favorite dish. The dessert! I created it with fresh Florida peaches and blueberries from King Family Farm.
Blueberry Melba with Marilyn's white chocolate macadamia nut toffee
1 cup of sugar (or more to taste)
1 vanilla bean split open or 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1- 1/2 cups of blueberries
1 bag of Marilyn's white chocolate macadamia nut toffee (see note)
Vanilla ice cream
Fill a small pot with water. When it comes to a boil, add the peaches for about 2 minutes.
Drain the peaches and place in cold water with a bit of ice to stop the cooking process.
When cool, the skin should pull off easily. Carefully cut the peaches in half and remove the pit. Put the peaches in a glass bowl and pour 3/4 of the sugar over them. Let sit for an hour. In the meantime put the blueberries in a non-reactive frying pan or pot. Add the remaining sugar and a 1/2 cup of water, let cook on medium-low heat until berries get soft. Strain through a food mill or a metal strainer.
Remove the peaches from the bowl with the juices. Add the vanilla and a cup of water and cook on medium for 10 minutes if peaches are ripe, or 10 minutes longer if they are still firm. Pull peaches out of the pan and place on a platter. Cook down the liquid and reduce by 50 percent. When syrup is cool, remove vanilla bean (if using) and pour syrup over peaches. They can be used immediately or refrigerated for 1-2 days. When ready to serve, put a scoop of ice cream in the center of each peach, drizzle with the blueberry sauce, and top with crushed toffee.
Note: Although the downtown market is closed for the summer, Marilyn still sells her award-winning toffee every Sunday at the Coquina Beach Market.
Chef Gaetano Cannata, owner of Ortygia Restaurant in Bradenton's Village of the Arts, can be reached at email@example.com.