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Chef Talk: Stephen Cook at Carmel Cafe

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Stephen Cook at Carmel Cafe

Stephen Cook at Carmel Cafe

Carmel Café and Wine Bar (8433 Cooper Creek Blvd., Sarasota. 893-5955; carmelcafe.com), with its five hopping Florida locations, recently expanded outside the state and into Pennsylvania. Fans of the Cooper Creek hotspot will say the restaurant’s popularity has to do with the health-conscious Mod Med cuisine, which chef Stephen Cook proudly brings to Sarasota-Manatee’s patrons.

Did you know early in life that you would become a chef?

When I was in my twenties and struggling through college (studying architecture), I realized I should stick with what I know and love, and that brought me to the restaurant business. When I was 13, I started washing dishes at a family friend’s steakhouse. Watching cooks working on the line during busy periods, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. My mom was an inspiration, too. She goes to Carmel Café often and loves the food there.

Carmel Cafe is such a leader in Mod Med cuisine. What do you enjoy about preparing this type of fare?

For me, it closely matches the way I like to eat. My interpretation of Mod Med is food that comes from regions like Spain, Italy and Greece. The foods are prepared cleaner and less processed. In the warmer regions of the Mediterranean, many dishes are comprised of just a few ingredients of high quality and local origin.

Do you have a favorite item on the Carmel Café menu?

One of my favorites is the chickpea fry. Chickpeas are versatile to work with, just like eggs, and they are so simple yet full of amazing flavor and textures. The chickpea fry is a variation on a very old, traditional southern France recipe called panisse. As I chef, I also like to suggest wine pairings that bring out the best in the flavors of the dishes I prepare.

The restaurant is expanding rapidly. Why do you think the menu is so popular across the board?

We cook and serve people the way they like to eat today. People want clean, contemporary food that has culinary culture behind it. Having both small plates and entrées is really appealing to people. We change the menu seasonally, so there is always some new and interesting to discover.

What is the most challenging aspect of having a chef’s schedule?

The long hours, sometimes 12 or 13 at a stretch. Finding time for family, friends, exercise and even sleep are my challenges, but that’s the same for all chefs, I think.

MOROCCAN LEMON CHICKEN WITH QUINOA SALAD
By Chef Stephen Cook of Carmel Cafe

Ingredients:
For chicken marinade --
4 6-ounce chicken breasts
2 teaspoons lemon zest, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil (good quality, extra virgin)
For Moroccan olive broth --
½ cup onions, quarter-inch diced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons ginger root, minced
½ teaspoon saffron
½ cup manzanilla olives, rinsed (halves and whole olives)
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons coarse ground pepper
1 quart chicken stock or broth (no sodium)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon chicken marinade (from above)
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 teaspoons parsley, minced
For quinoa salad --
2 cups cooked quinoa
1 tablespoon chives, minced
2 tablespoons celery, diced
2 tablespoons parsley, minced
1 tablespoon mint, minced
2 tablespoons dried apricots, diced
2 tablespoons Cranraisins
2 tablespoons pistachios, toasted
½ teaspoon jalapeno, minced (flesh only, no seeds or seed veins)
1 teaspoon lime zest, minced
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons honey
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Method:

For the chicken marinade: In a medium soup pot, sauté onions, garlic, red pepper and ginger in the reserved chicken marinade until the onions are translucent. Add saffron and black pepper, and cook for two more minutes. Rinse olives in water and add to the pot along with the chicken stock. Reduce heat by one-third. Set aside until ready to cook chicken breasts.

Cook quinoa according to the package directions and cool quickly in the refrigerator. After quinoa is cooled, place remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl with quinoa and toss together. Place back in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

For chicken: Prepare marinade and reserve 1 tablespoon for broth recipe. Butterfly or pound chicken into thin filets. Add chicken breasts to the remaining marinade and refrigerate for at least four hours, or preferably overnight.

When ready to cook, heat skillet at a temperature hot enough to “dance” a water droplet across the surface. Add chicken breasts and cook to golden brown on both sides. When the chicken is almost cooked through, add the Moroccan broth, bring to a boil, and allow it to simmer for a minute or two. Remove the chicken from the skillet and slice into fingers, or leave breasts whole.

Place a mound of quinoa salad in the center of each plate and arrange the chicken around the salad. Pour the broth and olives over the chicken. Garnish with pine nuts and parsley.

 

 

Last modified: September 30, 2013
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