What's Your Signature: Chef's Corner Episode 2

What's Your Signature? | Chef's Corner | Episode 2

By Hari Pulapaka, PhD, WCMC, CEC
November 11, 2021

What’s your signature?
          The recently elected mayors of New York City and Boston are on record for their legislative agendas regarding the food systems in their communities.
          Here in DeLand, I’m not sure of what or where our long-standing mayor likes to eat, let alone local government’s deep perspectives and action plan for food access, equity or sustainability.
         I’m not suggesting apathy, only that I haven’t seen his thoughts about this topic be a point of focus. It’s entirely possible that I need to get out more.
         Meanwhile, for a moonshot, imagine a regionwide, centralized, food-waste-reduction plan with upcycling incentives.
         Leading up to 2022, it would be tasty to have clarity on the three DeLand mayoral candidates’ stances on West Volusia’s food system. Does a deliciously resilient food system enter their campaign conversations? What’s going well? What could be better? How do we get there?
         What’s your signature dish? As a chef, I cringe at the question, because I feel as though no matter how I respond, my culinary abilities and interests become stereotyped. I know, because I’ve had to answer that forsaken question at every network television food show audition. Of paramount importance in good cooking is the flavor of food. Flavor leads the way. “That’s my signature.”
         Does our city have a signature dish? Perhaps DeLand has had a signature, of sorts. It’s been over three decades since Mr. Terence Trent D’Arby, who attended DHS and sang with the DeLand High show choir the Modernaires, crooned Sign Your Name (No. 4 on Billboard 1988) and Wishing Well (No. 1 on Billboard 1988).
         But what of food “signatures”?
         About four years ago, after an open call and competition of sorts, an ice cream containing Italian meringue with honey, nougat and fruit confit on a red berries sorbet was named Orlando’s Signature Dish. The local ingredient being celebrated was honey. I’ve heard of Orange Blossom Honey, but not Orange County Honey.
        After much ado leading up to the announcement of Orlando’s Signature Dish, the nothing that followed demonstrates the fundamental flaw in thinking that the food of a place can be defined so.
       Returning to the question: Does DeLand boast a cuisine or dish that celebrates its place? Is it ingredient-focused? Can it? Should it? Does it matter? Undoubtedly, Visitors and Tourism Bureaus would love specifics, because it gives marketing a bullet point to highlight.

What’s Growing in Central Florida Now?
          After last week’s observation that late-summer holdouts continue to coexist with fall arrivals, we’ve seen a cold snap, some inclement wet weather, and a definite reiteration of a change in the season.
          Predictably, I’ve stirred a pot or two during the week. Root vegetables run the gamut of culinary characteristics in terms of versatility, universality and cross-utilization. While beets and carrots are making their way into the Central Florida markets, the fast-growing radishes are showing well.

Local Ingredient of the Week

          Ravanello (Italian), Alfajal (Arabic), Moolee (Hindi), Daikon (Japanese), and Mulangi (Telugu/Tamil) are just some of the words that point to the incredibly delicious and versatile root vegetable known as the radish.
          In the Brassicaceae family, radish has a long history of domestication in Asia and the Middle East — even prior to Roman times.
          Every morning, my wife makes me a whatever-is-in-the-fridge version of savory oatmeal and, often, it contains radish greens cooked in with chopped uncooked radish as a garnish. That’s because we seem to frequently have radish at hand.
          These days, radishes are in season. There are many varieties, and the really dramatically colored ones have attained lofty statures on fine-dining menus around the world.
          Conventionally grown radishes, like carrots and beets, contain a lot of soil and sand at the intersection of the bulb and the leafy tops. When you taste grit in your vegetables (or in your shrimp for that matter), it’s usually a sign of a shorter-distance supply chain, minimal processing, and a slight kitchen misstep. The first two are desirable and the last, an easy fix.

Global Spice of the Week:

          At approximately 29 degrees north latitude, DeLand is in equatorial line with regions of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Rajasthan (India), to name a few, and … wait for it … also the northern tip of the Red Sea, a seawater inlet of the Indian Ocean covering the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba alongside the Sinai Peninsula.
          The Red Sea is the planet’s northernmost tropical sea. This week’s global spice is inspired by the color red.
          In North America, the term “sumac” makes people raise their eyebrows with itchy concern because of its affiliation with poison ivy. Staghorn sumac, however, which grows abundantly in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, provides a brilliant red berry, which, when dried and ground, makes for one of the star spices of the culinary world. This is the sumac to which I tip my chef toque.
          There are several varieties of sumac, but the most common culinary variety renders as the imaginary offspring of lemon and paprika.
          Sumac is unique in the world of spices because it is acidic, fruity, earthy and fragrant, all at once. The flavor descriptor that best captures the gift that sumac brings to the food party would be “refined sourness.”
          It’s a small wonder sumac didn’t gain the heady status that black pepper did over centuries of trade and war. Perhaps it’s because sumac is native to the countries along the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where colonial powers sought to expand their empires via faraway conquests. Something about “the spice is greener on the other side.”
         Black pepper is native to South India — I will save that for a different column.

Recipe of the Week:
Sumac Roasted Radish, Radish Green & Peanut Pesto, and Charred Tomatoes

          Looking for a seasonal side dish for the holidays? Consider this recipe or a variation.
          The recipe works just as well with beets with tops and carrots with tops.
          A note about carrot-top pesto: It’s been done, and every version I’ve had required a significant amount of acidity to cut through the chlorophyll-laden earthiness/bitterness of carrot tops.
          Radish tops, on the other hand, have a more distinctly subtle and refined flavor. Carrot tops have other applications (see upcycling moonshot).
          This recipe may also be served as an appetizer, hors d’oeuvre, or amuse bouche – a moose what?! I’m not sure if the tradition continues, but when I was running a restaurant, every guest, every single day received a chef-crafted small bite to start the meal. That’s so much more thoughtful than bread and butter, in my humble opinion. It also serves as a vibrant laboratory for culinary experimentation with a daily endgame.
          In this dish, the acidity in the lemon and tomatoes, in fact, highlights the natural sourness of the sumac. The flavor network would have something to reveal about this observation.

Servings: 4

16 medium-sized red globe radishes with tops
1 tablespoon sumac
12 grape or cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup toasted peanuts
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1/4 cup fresh parsley or fresh cilantro or fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
1 tablespoon grated pecorino Romano cheese (optional)
juice and zest of 1 lemon
salt, to taste

  • Separate the radish bulbs from the tops, leaving about ¼-inch of stem on the top. This makes for a more elegant presentation. Coarsely chop the tops, and hold.
  • Coat the radish with half a tablespoon of olive oil, some salt, and half the sumac. Roast in a 325F oven on a baking sheet for 45 minutes, moving them around once for even roasting.
  • While the radish is roasting, cook the tops with garlic in the remaining olive oil for 5 minutes on medium heat.
  • Transfer the cooked greens, most of the remaining sumac (leaving a small amount for garnish), peanuts, crushed red pepper, lemon juice, lemon zest, and parsley to a food processor, and blend until somewhat smooth. Add the cheese at the end if you are using any.
  • On high heat, cook the tomatoes in half a tablespoon of olive oil until they darken in spots but don’t break down. This takes about 2-3 minutes. Add a touch of salt and hold.
  • Serve the roasted radish family-style interspersed with charred tomatoes. For a more chefy-presentation, slice a few radishes vertically while leaving others whole, schmear and dot pesto on the bottom of the plate, place baby parsley (or cilantro) leaves in gaps rising out of the composition, and add a sprinkle of pecorino (optional) and a dusting of sumac.

NOTE: My father-in-law Mr. John Clark always refers to me by “Hey Chefy.” And I’ve been told that I’m his favorite chef. I’ll hold on to that. Check on the folks you love.

Why is the Chef in a Corner?
          After spending well over a decade in my little restaurant kitchen fully immersed in getting sh!t done, I’m ready to bust out of my corner.
          Each week, I will pass judgment on a segment of food news that may or may not be interesting, shed light on a seasonal (for us) food ingredient or two, and dream up some minutiae about a spice I love and think you should, too.
          In true elitist fashion, I will share a recipe with you, because academia is in my blood and academics think everything they do or say is supremely relevant and important.
          I am here to champion the worth of food while fighting for flavor and the people who help provide food on our tables. What percentage of Americans eat at the dining table these days? It has been on the decline for the past decade because by many measures, “the kitchen ate the dining room.”

Photo Credit: Hari Pulapaka
About Chef Hari
Hari Pulapaka Chef's Corner
Hari Pulapaka

By Hari Pulapaka

Hari Pulapaka is a full-time, tenured Associate Professor of Mathematics in his 22nd year at Stetson University. When he is not teaching undergraduate Mathematics, cooking, speaking, or writing about food, Hari serves as strategic advisor on matters of sustainability for Postelsia and is a Chef/Partner for Enroot.

Learn More about Hari