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The Pearl Café's Walker Hunter has your salad
On the final Saturday of the season at the Clark Fork River Market, Walker Hunter is on the prowl for Brussels sprouts. Hunter, a 33-year-old chef for the upscale Missoula restaurant Pearl Café, scours the farmers markets every Saturday for the restaurant's evening specials. Sometimes he's looking for particular ingredients, but mostly he's looking to see what's in season, in order to spark a meal's design.
Hunter is a kinetic guy with sleeve tattoos and the kind of rebelliousness that gets young, adventurous chefs onto reality TV shows or in profiles in The New Yorker—the kind that fuels tell-all memoirs of life in the kitchen trenches.
"You all out of Brussels?" he asks a vendor.
"Steven has some," the vendor says. "I didn't have any today."
Hunter knows many of these farmers by name and chats with them along the way. We finally find a few Brussels sprout stalks among the market tables, which are overflowing with mushrooms, squash, onions and carrots—a surplus from a late growing season.
"When you're working with the seasons, you're always at that intersection of two thoughts," Hunter observes. "It's what is available and what is desirable...When we're coming up with specials, it's always, 'Is this dish making sense?'"
Hunter finds another ingredient at Charlie Hopkins's mushroom table. Hopkins just sold his last lobster mushrooms, but he has lots of chanterelles.
"Even better," says Hunter. "There's not much you can't do with chanterelles."
The fall salad Hunter is planning will be used as a topping on quail, but it can also be eaten as a salad dish.
The final, main ingredient is pea shoots, something usually found at Missoula markets in spring. This year they're available at several tables with the typical fall fare. And so this salad isn't just a tribute to fall, it's a reflection of this particular fall.
"To have pea shoots and Brussels sprouts side by side, it's a gesture to what this year's been like," Hunter says. "Everyone was bitching in June because there weren't any sun-ripened tomatoes. But now it's late and we still have pea shoots. This salad is really a way to do a fall thing but lighten and brighten it a little."
He carries his market goods into the back door of the old brick building where Pearl resides and starts preparing the salad. (I have to document the recipe; chefs like Hunter go by instinct, not a formula.)
Hunter learned the basics of line cooking when he was 16 at Steve's Restaurant, a family-style, from-scratch joint in his hometown of Rumney, N. H., in the foothills of the White Mountains. He learned efficiency and multi-tasking, but not technique. "It was short order," he says. "Flip, chop, press, microwave, plate, ship."
While he was in college at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, Hunter cooked at Red Hook Brewery, where he had more time and leeway to be creative. By the time he came to Missoula to get his MFA in Creative Writing, he says, he was beginning to learn how to approach cooking intuitively. He spent time talking about technique with fellow chefs who were seasoned at top restaurants in Missoula such as Red Bird and Scotty's. Then he learned the ropes from Pearl owner Pearl Cash and from Ryan Smith, whom he now cooks alongside.
There are restaurants that offer a broad range of familiar food to entice everyone. At Pearl, where specials often are built around seasonal and locally raised ingredients, there's what Hunter calls a contract of trust. Customers expect the chefs to take creative license.
That contract can be broken on either side. Chefs don't always read their customers correctly, as when Hunter—who says he likes trashy food because "I'm kind of trashy"—tried to do a fancy version of fish and chips: halibut with a cornmeal crust and truffle salted potato rounds. No one bought it.
"That was one of those situations where I thought I was being clever and whimsical," he says. "But it went down in flames."
And then there are the customers who want to swap ingredients rather than try what a chef has put together, or they're dismayed when, say, a chanterelle-and-Brussels-sprout salad is a topping on fish. That's fine, says Hunter—he respects that—"but ideally, what we do is present people with something they didn't know they wanted, but they trust us enough to know they will enjoy it."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hunter has voluminous opinions about salad, although they might more properly be called feelings. Still, in this recipe (see sidebar), there is ample room for choice. The chanterelles and Brussels sprouts are combined with butter and infused with sprigs from sage, rosemary and thyme. The pea shoots, celery root and apples are tossed in right before serving, to keep them crisp. But you could forego the pea shoots and just make it a vegetable side. You could replace it with wilted kale and chard to give it a hardier texture. You could sprinkle cheese over the mushrooms and Brussels sprouts, broil it and make a vegetarian entrée.
As designed by Hunter, this salad, as a piece of a larger fall meal—even a Thanksgiving meal—does what all good salads do: cleanses the palate. Holiday meals are heavy by design. A good salad is light and acidic.
"If you just sat down and tried to eat turkey and gravy, turkey and gravy," he says, and pauses. "It'd be fine, actually. I could do it...It wouldn't be very hard at all. But it's not the full experience of a meal."
And then he comes out with this pronouncement:
"Today is just a kick-ass fall day. This is the kind of day I want a pie. I want a roast. I want a casserole. And a salad that embraces what we have around here. There's only so much you want shipped over here from France when you can find something that represents what it means to cook that food here and now."
Walker Hunter's roasted-chanterelle-and-Brussels-sprout salad with cider vinaigrette
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large pan over medium-high heat, melt butter and add chanterelles and Brussels sprouts along with herbs and two crushed garlic cloves. Let cook on stovetop until browning begins (about 3 minutes). Transfer to oven and roast uncovered for 15 minutes or until the mushrooms and Brussels sprouts are browned and tender. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature. Discard herbs and garlic.
For the vinaigrette, reduce the apple cider by half, leaving approximately 1/4 cup. In a blender, add reduced cider, cider vinegar, shallots, garlic and mustard. Blend on high while adding oil in a slow, steady stream to emulsify. May be made up to three days in advance and refrigerated.
Immediately before serving, toss Brussels sprouts, chanterelles, greens, apples, red onion and celery root with vinaigrette. Finish with shaved Pecorino if desired.
• For vegan diners, you can omit the Pecorino, instead roasting the mushrooms and Brussels in oil.
• Add sliced bacon to the roasting pan for more meat-oriented diners.
• This salad works as a great side for roasted or grilled meats, especially duck and pork. It's also delicious with salmon or trout.
• Check your local grocery for "poultry blend" pre-packaged herb bundles, which usually contain the necessary herbs for this recipe at an affordable price. The Missoula Community Food Co-op offers a vegetable bag for $15 that contains many of the ingredients for this recipe, fresh and local; contact them for availability, 728-2369.