When you order a pizza or grab a burger for dinner, that’s sustenance, pure and simple. But, when you want something more from your meal, it pays to look to the experts. There’s a reason we pay top notch chefs a premium to prepare dishes for our enjoyment. But, what goes into an expertly prepared restaurant meal? This series focuses on the techniques that elevate cuisine from humble to haute at restaurants across the city.
When you cook a carrot, why not cook it in carrot juice?
It was a question that stayed with me long after my conversation with Chef Justin Carlisle ended. After all, it made so much sense. Why use a technique that pulls flavor out of the carrot, rather than enhancing the flavor it already has?
The notion isn’t exactly rocket science. But, it’s part of what we pay for when we sit down to enjoy dinner at an area restaurant where the chef has been trained in the finer points of cuisine.
"For me, in my personal style, one of the things I use to build the necessary trust factor with my guests is to rely on elements of familiarity in every dish," Carlisle says. "I'm pulling in elements of classic home cooking, but elevating them to a level the diner may not have seen before using techniques like dehydrating, roasting and burning, or caramelizing."
Carlisle says that, when he’s creating dishes, he often approaches the process in the opposite way you or I might.
"Most people start with the ingredient," he explains. "But, for me, I can’t look at what the main ingredient is, or I get fixated on it. In a beef dish, I get fixated on the beef. So, I start with the flavors I’d like to incorporate – salty, sweet, sour."
For Carlisle, that means looking to seasonal ingredients and moving forward with balance in mind.
"You look at what you’re trying to achieve," he says. "And you choose the technique from there. Often it’s about trying to create different flavor profiles – salty, sweet and sour – with the same ingredients."
In the early spring, when local asparagus is still weeks away, that often means focusing on humble root vegetables, like celeriac.
"It doesn’t make sense for me to have a celeriac dish where I’m going out and buying eight other ingredients to make it work," he goes on. "So, I have to look at what I have. How do I take celeriac and make it salty, sweet, and sour?"
It’s a thought process that chefs take seriously. It’s about appreciating the innate qualities of a given ingredient – like celeriac or beets – and contemplating ways to intensify those flavors.
Carlisle, who is known for his intricate preparations, says that for root vegetables in particular he’s developed a fondness for baking them in a salt meringue.
"I create a basic – but heavily salted – meringue," he explains. "I put it around the whole vegetable, and as it bakes slowly in a 400-degree oven, a crust forms on the outer portion."
This technique carries with it a variety of advantages over simply boiling the vegetable in salted water, or steaming it.
"You want the vegetable to keep its integrity," Carlisle says. "I want to season and steam it. But when you put it in a steamer you’re losing more flavor. Likewise, when you blanch it, you lose so much that you can’t emphasize the true flavor."
Instead, he explains, while roasting inside of meringue, the crust insulates the vegetable, forming a protective barrier. As moisture from the vegetable is released, the pores of the vegetable simultaneously open up to accept the seasoning of the salt. When the vegetable is cooled and the meringue removed, the resulting vegetable is tender, its flavors are intensified, and it’s ready to be used.
Why use a salted meringue versus simple salt roasting?
"For me, flour and egg white salt crusts are too dense and too close," Carlisle explains. "I want it to almost have a sense of breathing. The meringue has a higher liquid and air content, so, it allows the temperature of the oven to enter through the meringue and linger on the vegetable, but escape as needed. It also ensures that the finished product isn’t overwhelmingly salty."
The technique, he says, can be used with any root vegetable from beets to carrots to rutabaga.
In the case of the celeriac, Carlisle uses the saltier exterior of the meringue baked vegetable and purées it with caramelized white chocolate, adding a sweet element with a silky mouth-feel that originates from the fat in the chocolate. The purée forms the base of the dish.
He then takes the inner portion of the celeriac, cuts some of it into discs, and creates a small hollowed out bowl with what remains.
"I serve the tender discs on top of the purée, along with the hollowed out celeriac, which I fill with trout roe," he says. "I use celeriac leaves on top and I add shaved pickled long beans for color, spice and acidity."
It’s a process few home cooks would attempt. And yet, in Carlisle’s deft hands, the finished dish is a tribute to the vegetable itself – earthy and sweet – capturing its nutty celery-like essence alongside its smooth, starchy texture and fragrant leaves.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.