Remembering legendary chef Charlie Trotter


The culinary world lost a hard-driving, visionary chef last week. Charlie Trotter’s namesake restaurant put Chicago on the food fast track with his fierce commitment to sourcing and using only the finest local and seasonal ingredients before this became mainstream. Mostly self-taught, he was driven by objectives of flavor and purity, and this passionate focus took him all over the world to cook in some of the best kitchens. He was a perfectionist behind the scenes as well as on the plate. I once heard that if you worked in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, when you were done with a knife, you were required to wash it, dry it and return it to its storage place before proceeding to the next step. He once said that to be the best, “you’ve got to be so focused and obsessed on what you’re doing that it’s basically all you can think about. If you were any more concerned or obsessed it would almost be perverse.”

In the mid-1980s, chef Trotter introduced an all-vegetable tasting menu. Longtime vegetarian patrons Michael and Roxanne Klein from California pushed him to add more raw items to his menu, which led to Trotter’s collaboration with Roxanne Klein on the cookbook, “Raw.” This book contains stunning photos of their creations, most of which demand advanced preparation and attention to details. A few of the less complex recipes are here for your delicious experimentation.

“Raw” notes that cooking foods above 118 degrees destroys natural enzymes that aid in digestion and other metabolic functions. Techniques such as juicing, dehydrating and blending are used to elevate taste, textures and aromas in amazing ways that are well worth the effort.

Watermelon salad

The simple name belies a complexity of texture and flavor; serves 4.

2 cups chopped red watermelon

4 pieces red watermelon, each 3 inches square and 1/2 inch thick

12 longans, peeled, pitted and cut into eighths

1 cup assorted microgreens such as shiso, basil and chervil

4 teaspoons freshly grated horseradish

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Celtic sea salt and fresh ground pepper

Using a high speed blender, process chopped watermelon until it is a medium-bodied liquid. Allow juice to settle, about 10 minutes. A thick layer of froth will form on top. Place the 4 watermelon squares on a work surface and top each with a single layer of longan pieces, covering tops completely. Place a square in the center of each plate; arrange microgreens over longans. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the grated horseradish over greens. Drizzle olive oil around each plate and spoon some of the watermelon froth around the plate and over the greens. Sprinkle remaining horseradish over watermelon froth and top with a little salt and pepper.

Corn, jicama, Asian pear and cucumber salad with avocado puree

A lively combination of flavors to refresh on a hot day, this salad has a lot of ingredients but comes together fairly easily; serves 4.

Salad:

1/4 cup brunoise*-cut jicama

1/4 cup sweet corn kernels

1/4 cup brunoise-cut, skin-on English cucumber

1/4 cup brunoise-cut, peeled Asian pear

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

4 teaspoons fresh squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon minced jalapeno chili

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

2 teaspoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

In a bowl, combine all ingredients except salt and pepper; toss, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

Avocado puree:

1/2 avocado, peeled and chopped

2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lime juice

1/4 cup filtered water

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

In a blender, combine first 3 ingredients; puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Lime vinaigrette:

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

4 lime segments, cut into thirds

Whisk together the lime juice and olive oil in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper; stir in the lime pieces.

Spoon a vertical line of puree on the center of each plate. Spoon 2 more lines intersecting the first. Spoon some of the salad to the left of the intersecting points; drizzle vinaigrette over salad and around plate. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley, mint and lime zest if desired.

*Brunoise is a small dice.

Pineapple gelato with star fruit sauce

Light and rich at the same time, this combination explodes with flavor; serves 4 to 6.

Gelato:

2 cups chopped pineapple

2 tablespoons coconut milk

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon maple syrup

1/8 teaspoon fresh squeezed lime juice

Seeds from 1/4 vanilla bean (optional)

In a high-speed blender, combine all ingredients; process until smooth. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions.

Star fruit sauce:

2 star fruit, cut into bite-sized wedges

2 tablespoons local raw honey

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

In a high speed blender, combine half of the star fruit wedges, the honey, and lemon juice; process until smooth. Pour into a bowl, add remaining star fruit wedges, and toss to coat.

Place one-fourth to one-sixth of Star Fruit Sauce on each plate. Put quenelles (small spoon-shaped ovals) of gelato over the sauce. Serve immediately.