Last week, I had the pleasure of photographing the January event hosted by Fresh Starts Chef Events, a project to support Homeward Bound of Marin, a homeless shelter in Marin County, California, providing food, shelter and job training for those in need. This month’s event was a farm to table dinner, hosted by Laurie Figone and featuring Chef Tony Najiola of Central Market in Petaluma, California. Central Market was opened in 2003, and focuses on the bounty of the region, including that of the restaurant’s own organic farm, Muleheart Farm, where everything from pigs to turkeys and vegetables are raised and grown. Even our dinner began with a selection of salami, olives and cheese, which Chef Najiola shared were from his own “babies,” whom he loved “every step of the way.” Talk about true farm to table!
Chef Najiola was born and raised in New Orleans, the great grandson of a Sicilian vegetable farmer and began his career working at a restaurant at the age of 17. At 21, he moved to Manhattan, and by 27 he had his first executive chef job at the restaurant, Village Green. In 1991, he became Chef at Brasserie Savoie and then Executive Chef at Ernie’s in San Francisco. He was also Winery Chef at Ravenswood in Sonoma County. In April 2003, he opened his own restaurant in downtown Petaluma, named Central Market, a farm-to-table restaurant focusing on rustic California-Mediterranean cuisine, where almost everything is made in house, from scratch, daily.
Chef Najiola shared that the food at his restaurant is “food you’d make yourself” and “good, honest cooking.” He never cooks at home and doesn’t even have a refrigerator or stove in his kitchen. He had the audience captivated with his wonderful stories, authenticity and great sense of humor, sharing that he’s from New Orleans, where they could care less what the rest of the world eats. Regular customers of his restaurant claim that he comes out of the kitchen most evenings to say hello to each of his guests.
Dinner for the evening began with a delicious Winter Citrus Salad with Fennel, Red Onion and Feta Cheese. I do love a good salad, so this was my favorite dish of the night! Chef Najiola taught that feta often gets a bad rap for being too salty, but that soaking it in water for about 20 minutes will desalinate it and leave it soft and creamy. This method had a such a great effect on the salad — not salty at all and very creamy — a great tip!
The main course of the evening was Chicken Bomba - a giant meatball stuffed with Bellwether Farms Ricotta Cheese and served with crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, thyme, oregano, and olive oil (which Chef Najiola called his “second favorite beverage”). The chicken bomba on his menu came about after a desire from customers to have chicken breasts. Chef Najiola quipped about how at a restaurant, one has to serve chicken breasts. “Why go to a restaurant to eat chicken breasts? But people do, which means we’re left with all these legs.” So, they decided to make meatballs with the leg meat. Ironically, the dish became so popular that now they’re stuck with all these extra chicken breasts!
Chef Najiola mixes the ingredients for the meatballs and then forms them by hand. He uses his thumb to make a hole in each one.
He makes a hefty 6-ounce size meatball and livens the dish up with a variety of herbs — mint being one of his favorites to brighten up dishes. He recommends not to chop the herbs too finely, but rather to tear them for better flavor, especially basil, which turns black when it is chopped.
The ricotta cheese filling is then placed in a parchment paper cornet (or pastry bag) and piped into each meatball.
The chicken was served with a mouthwatering side of Basil Mashed Potatoes, Stewed Sweet Peppers and Sugar Snap Peas. The whipped potatoes were delicious with the basil — I’ll definitely be making these at home!
Dinner was topped off with a Baked Fuji Apple Cranberry Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream, which Chef Najiola describes as a simple, rustic dessert.
The crumb topping is made by mixing butter, flour, sugar, cinnamon and cloves with your hands until you have pea-sized pieces of butter and the mixture looks like wet sand.
He includes butter in the filling, adding, “Why limit butter to crust?” The filling is packed down well, so that none of the crumb crust ends up in the bottom of the ramekins.
The students of the culinary school presented this crisp in a unique way by turning the crumb topping into a crispy, buttery cookie — a fun presentation and really tasty!
Stop by next month for February’s chef event with Nutritionist and Chef Cheryl Forberg of NBC’s Biggest Loser, who will be sharing recipes from her book, Flavor First. In the meantime, enjoy this delicious recipe for Chef Tony Najiola’s Winter Citrus Salad!
Winter Citrus Salad with Shaved Fennel, Red Onion and Feta Cheese
Makes 6-8 servings
For the salad:
3 lbs. navel, cara cara or blood oranges, peeled with pith removed
1 cup shaved fennel, sliced finely with mandolin
2 cups wild arugula
1/2 cup shaved red onion, sliced finely with mandolin
1/2 lb. french feta cheese, soaked in water for 20 minutes to desalinate
For the vinaigrette:
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons chopped oregano
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons chopped mint
salt and pepper
1. Slice oranges 1/2-inch thick, and arrange on a large platter with overlapping slices.
2. Dress oranges with vinaigrette, and allow to marinate for 30 minutes.
3. Top with red onions, and season all with salt and pepper.
4. Toss arugula and fennel with small amount of vinaigrette, season with salt.
5. Scatter arugula mixture over oranges.
6. Top with crumbled feta cheese.