It’s Spring: Mangoes and Mojitos is Growing Up!

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Happy Spring, Everyone!

We are coming upon the two-year anniversary of Mangoes and Mojitos, and I have a few things to share with you.  Through this blog I have developed a clearer path — protected by a canopy of elm trees — one that is sunny by day and illuminated by Chinese lanterns twinkling in the trees by nightfall.  Pretty, right?

A clearer path that is taking me to a better understanding of what it is I want to do with my life.  In this past year, I’ve had the good fortune to be a contributing “foodie” to the pages of BRAVA, http://bravamagazine.com/, Madison’s only monthly print magazine dedicated to celebrating the lives of women.  I am a published author (Yes!).

About seven months ago, I began a second blog: Town and Fork at http://townandfork.com/ where I feature profiles of local chefs and in my small way hope to honor those who work tirelessly and passionately to bring us good food.

A Learning Moment…..

Lately, keeping up with two blogs, which are essentially two branches sprouting from the same tree (me), has been making me feel a bit diluted and I realized that Town and Fork and Mangoes and Mojitos are one in the same.

So I am so happy to say that Mangoes and Mojitos has absorbed Town and Fork and I hope you are as excited as I am to enjoy the food stories of the men and women in white.  And be sure I am asking them for tips to help us become even better cooks at home!

Please enjoy my interview with Melinda Dorn, pastry chef of L’Etoile and Graze, Madison’s award-winning restaurants, as it appeared on Town and Fork last month.

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I met Melinda back in December on a frosty afternoon in the quiet dining room of L’Etoile.  This was before dinner service at the award-winning Capital Square establishment.  I was there to interview her for BRAVA Magazine’s Women to Watch 2014 (January issue).

The moment she comes bopping out from the kitchen wearing a baseball cap turned backwards and a stained chef’s jacket, I know that this interview is going to be fun.  It is in this same moment that I also begin to fantasize about what could be on that jacket.  Is it chocolate ganache?  Caramel sauce? A rich custard?  We sit down together amidst tables dressed in their crisp evening wear of white and shiny glasses.  The warm sun beaming through those magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows, glints off the silverware.  It feels special to be there; a private pass.

Recently nominated for Food & Wine’s Best New Pastry Chef of the Midwest, I ask Melinda how she had come to focus on pastry.  “I hate oysters!” she laughs.  “I thought, I’ll never have to touch an oyster again!”  Then, pushing her hat back off her forehead and bringing it back down into place, she says,  “I was meant to be a chef.  The industry grabs you.  It tells you”.

At the time of our meeting, she, along with Chef Tory Miller and other members of Graze, had just returned from New York City where they had been invited by the James Beard House to create a meal from appetizers to dessert with cocktail and wine pairings.  When I congratulate her, she beams over the Graze team’s Wine & Beverage Director, of whom, she offers, was the one who really shone that night.

Melinda believes that in order to become a truly talented chef and master of one’s craft, “you need to do something 2,000 times,” which is possible to accomplish when you work 80-hour weeks in the kitchen.  She makes her point by telling me she wore out two chinois this summer processing seeds out of raspberries.

As for being a woman in the business:  “I want to disprove what everyone thinks about women and pastry chefs.  We don’t have to fight each other.  We are good, strong.  I don’t ask for special treatment.  I take out the garbage.”

Her hopes for the future of her profession: “This idea of savory versus sweet needs to go away.  There is no separation.  We (chefs) are all the same.  We can be everything.”

Favorite desserts at the moment:  In her following response, it is clear that Melinda is expert at marrying both savory and sweet.

“We have a dessert that I am very proud to say is a collaborative effort between myself and my assistant.  It is a gluten-free chocolate cake (though you would never guess, its texture is consistently that of a chewy brownie fresh out of the oven) and is served with maple whipped mascarpone.  Rosemary olive oil caramel sauce is brushed on the plate and then we stencil dark chocolate leaves with sea salt as garnish.  Citrus segments which play exceptionally well with the maple are also present.  Still another ingredient which is never in short supply in a kitchen is carrots.  I love carrot cake.  I have one on the menu presently that is especially rich, with whipped fromage blanc cheesecake as a frosting.  It is served with a carrot and ginger frozen custard and is garnished with little balls of rainbow-colored carrots that are cooked in a brown sugar simple syrup with raisins and more ginger.  The sauce on the plate is a beet paint, which is a combination of well pureed beets, sugar, and cornstarch.  This puree also gets baked into a chip as a garnish.  Finally basil whipped cream and basil leaves garnish the plate.  It really works well with the earthy flavors and brings a little bit of spring to an otherwise wintry dessert.”

Melinda's CookbooksThe cookbooks Melinda keeps in the L’Etoile/Graze kitchen.

Melinda’s tips to the home cook: She has consistent success with Martha Stewart’s recipe for marshmallows.  Also, when coming up with new recipes, she and her staff rely only on cookbooks and top food publications like bon appétit, because these recipes are tested by professionals again and again for quality and consistency.