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Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mentor and The Protégée

A long career in the food world has brought countless pleasures, but none tops having been a mentor. Over the past years, several Amherst College students have asked if they could come and cook with me. Although each has loved the one-on-one lessons and sampling homemade rather than dorm food, I have been the real beneficiary. These young “foodies” have brought enthusiasm, curiosity, and a fresh new perspective into my kitchen.

Natanya Khazzam, one of these talented interns, decided to pursue a career in the food world. She settled in New York, enrolled in NYU’s Food Studies program, and worked for two star chefs, Daniel Boulud (as a PR assistant) and Marcus Samuelsson (on his website). Recently, she landed a catering job—a cocktail party for a well-known media personality who requested food that was fresh, local, and mostly vegetarian. The event was a huge hit, and when my gifted protégée called with details of the menu, I was stunned by the originality of her dishes. One appetizer, grapes coated with goat cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds, was a variation on one of my own recipes. Her interpretation was so clever that it made me realize that she was no longer a mentee, but a new colleague.

Here’s my original and Natanya’s variation. Mine has a cool, refreshing taste, while the adaptation offers hints of sweetness and deep wintry notes. Both take minutes to assemble, can be made far ahead, and would be just right to serve during the holidays.

Pistachio and Goat Cheese Grapes

1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) shelled pistachios
Scant 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, optional
6 ounces creamy goat cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped mint plus sprigs for garnish
20 green seedless grapes, rinsed and patted dry

Place the pistachios in a plastic bag and crush them coarsely with a meat pounder or a rolling pin. If unsalted, add a scant 1/2 teaspoon salt to the bag and shake to mix. Then spread them on a large dinner plate.

Place the goat cheese in a medium bowl and with a table fork combine it with the chopped mint. Scoop out about 1/2 tablespoon of the mixture and press it evenly over all surfaces of a grape. Then roll the grape for a few seconds in the palms of your hands until the coating is smooth and even.  

Roll the grape in the pistachios and place it on a large plate. Repeat with remaining grapes. (Grapes can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 15 minutes before serving.)

With a sharp knife halve the grape balls and arrange the halves on a serving tray. Garnish the platter with mint sprigs. Makes 40 servings.

Grapes Wrapped in Honeyed Goat Cheese and Pumpkin Seeds

1. Replace pistachios with toasted, salted pumpkin seeds (available at Whole Foods).
2. Replace mint with:
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon each dried thyme and dried crushed rosemary
Pinch of red pepper flakes.
3. Use a combo of green and red seedless grapes.
4. Use rosemary sprigs as a garnish in place of mint.

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