In my world, brunch has a lot going for it. Breakfast foods are some of my favorites, but I am not a morning person; with brunch I can sleep in and still not miss breakfast. Yeah, buddy. By adding a few lunch-style dishes to the traditional (and often fancified) breakfast fare, brunch keeps me from getting my mealtimes off track. And given that I tend to enjoy brunch to the fullest — my fullest, that is — I am usually good to go until dinner. What’s not to like about that?
This past year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium closed with a fantastic brunch sponsored by the McIlhenny Company, known to aficionados of hot sauce as the maker of Tabasco brand products. The featured chef for the closing culinary performance of the weekend was Alon Shaya from Domenica restaurant in New Orleans. He didn’t call it a brunch, though — it was much more than that — it was a Sicilian Immigrant Reverie. The menu was inspired by Sicilian immigrants who lived in New Orleans around the late 1800’s, who took ingredients they knew from home and paired them with foods that they may have experienced for the first time in Louisiana. That’s a lot of thought to put into a brunch.
As I reviewed the menu I soon realized I might need a lesson in Sicilian dialect to be able to translate what I was eating. About half of the nine items on the menu contained at least one word I had never seen before. Of course, not being able to pronounce a few things did not in any way prevent me from trying them, and in the end my plate was clean, of course. And some were easier than others. For example, I know what a Coal Roasted Sweet Potato with Sorghum Butter and Rosemary should look like, and it was actually the second orange root vegetable drizzled with sorghum and butter that I’d been served in as many days. I enjoyed that combo so much I repeated it with butternut squash at Thanksgiving. The Porcini Mushroom and Heirloom Tomato Frittata with Mississippi Goat Feta was also pretty easy to pick out, and just as easily devoured.
The next group added a further degree of dialectical difficulty. It started with the Cotechino Sausage with Braised Collard Greens and Tabasco Potlikker. Cotechino turns out to be an Italian sausage which includes pork rinds as one of the ingredients. The rest was familiar — I’m good with collards and potlikker. The Cane Sugar Prosciutto Cotto with Warm Gorgonzola Bread and Arugula also fell into this category. I had seen Prosciutto around but I wasn’t sure I could spot a Cotto on a crowded plate. I have since learned that it is a cooked variety of Prosciutto, an Italian dry-cured ham. I suppose this was like the fancy cousin of a ham and cheese sandwich with lettuce — just way better. I thought I’d come up against another Sicilian challenge with the Narragansett Creamery Ricotta with Date and Pecan Pesto. Then I figured out that Narragansett was a place on another island by the name of Rhode, not Sicily.
Slightly more challenging to decipher was the Roasted Mangalitsa Porchetta with Tabasco Chow Chow. As I ate it that morning, I simply enjoyed it in my linguistic ignorance. Later I did some research and found out that Mangalitsa is a breed of pig, and Porchetta is an Italian pork roast stuffed with herbs. Sounds simple, right? Maybe I’ll whip out a porchetta for dinner tonight.
Perhaps the most intriguing dish of the brunch was the Squid Ink Gnocchi with Crab, Bacon, Poached Egg and Tender Herbs. On one end of the color spectrum, it doesn’t get much whiter than a properly poached egg; on the other extreme, squid ink is pretty doggone black. This dish was chock full of black gnocchi, with little chunks of crab and bacon floating around in the sauce. The poached egg added color contrast, texture and even more richness. I’ve eaten some odd-looking things in my day, and this stark black-and-white bowl of little pasta knobs ranked right up there with the oddest. But once I got past the visual, I have to admit that my first experience with squid ink turned out to be a good one.
Dessert was a mix of old and new — literally. One of the items gracing the plate was a little round cake called a Torta Antica 1920 — described as a Chocolate Almond and Rum Tart with Coffee and Chicory. According to my Italian translator friend (Searchio il Googlio) Torta Antica means “old cake”. But 1920? There must be a longer story behind this one. My story: scrumptious. Beside the old cake was another brother from the cake family, this one flavored with pumpkin. It was seriously moist, served in a small jelly jar, and garnished (here’s the “new” part) with sage, honey, and thin little piece of crispy ham.
My assessment after completing the brunch came down to essentially two conclusions. One, Tabasco should sponsor more reveries. Two, if they ate anything like we did that morning, it must have been good to be a Sicilian in New Orleans in the late 1800’s – too bad they would have had to wait until 1920 for dessert.