Fall harvest flavors, with a Mediterranean twist

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Harvest time calls to mind bountiful baskets of produce, meats, cheeses and other foods of the season. It’s nature’s way, or so it seems, of rewarding us for having survived another year.

But harvest time means different things in different parts of the world. Hire a chef from a country or culture not your own and you are bound to wind up with culinary interpretations that are unique and, in many cases, better than the same old roasted turkey, baked squash and apple brown betty.

That was our goal when we tapped Sami Fgaier, the chef in Madison-based Le Personal Chef, to create a harvest dinner for seven family members. Fgaier, who lives in Madison and has been working as a personal chef worldwide for almost a decade, grew up in Tunisia’s Kerkennah Islands, off the mainland coast in the Mediterranean Sea.

Harvest time in northern Africa yields a different array of foods than, say, northern Wisconsin. Fgaier’s task was to blend the best of both worlds in interesting and complementary new ways to make our event special.

Add to that the classic influences of Fgaier’s time spent at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and we knew we could expect a rich culinary experience seasoned with more then a dose of elegance.

An account of our evening follows — if you’d like to replicate it, we’ve included some of Fgaier’s recipes for you to test for yourself.

The Setting

The dinner took place in the formal dining room of our west side Madison home. Cocktail hour dovetailed with the fourth quarter of the Green Bay Packers’ victory over the dreaded San Francisco 49ers. 

In addition to Fgaier, his wife, pastry chef Chaima Sakka, and his assistant, Omar Guevara, arrived at 4 p.m. to help prepare the meal. Dishes were prepared in our kitchen using a combination of pots, pans, kettles, glasses, plates and utensils from Fgaier’s collection and from our own stock. 

The Opener

Utilizing a large, heavyweight cutting board, Fgaier served a charcuterie and cheese selection that was a meal in itself. Handcrafted uncured Creminelli salami and 2-year-old Black Label prosciutto, both from Italy, appeared beside Pave du Nord Herve Mons and Délice de Bourgogne, two distinctly different French cheeses — the latter of which was topped with quince marmalade. Handfuls of salted nuts, cornichons (little French pickles), Kalamata olives, pickled Cipollini onions and crackers rounded out the selection.

“The charcuterie and cheese board offered an array of flavors and textures,” Fgaier says. “I wanted to bring the sweet, spicy, sour, creamy, crunchy and mild tastes all together.”

Fgaier topped off the appetizer course with savory squares of crustless quiche made with Gala apples, Camembert cheese and caramelized onions.

The Dinner

Three types of homemade bread were served with European-style (aka high-fat) butter dusted with espresso salt crystals. Fgaier’s signature turchi, a blend of mashed carrots, roasted garlic, Italian parsley, olive oil and harissa (a North African chili pepper paste designed to be spread on the bread), inaugurated the formal part of the evening.

The breads and spreads led to a first formal course of Coquilles St. Jacques, prepared Normandy style. 

Large plates with single small cuplike indentations in their centers appeared with single large sea scallops nestled in a puree of carnival squash blended with Calvados butter, made with the French apple brandy, and accented with two leaves of a Brussels spout head. 

The U-10 scallops, so named because they weigh in at under 10 scallops per pound, were succulent and seared at the edge, with the squash providing subtle undertones that blended well with the surprisingly delightful sprout leaves.

The salad, served next, drew heavily from Fgaier’s Tunisian heritage. A blend of persimmon slices, pomegranate seeds, salted cashews, Medjool dates and Carr Valley Vanilla Cardona cheese were served on a bed of spicy arugula and dressed with a clementine and honey vinaigrette dressing. Each bite offered a different combination of bright, delightful flavors that teased the palate and pleased the senses.

In keeping with the meal’s quasi-European influences, those of us of age received an ounce of Calvados to sip as a palate cleanser.

The main course was duck à l’orange, a fall favorite. Prepared in the classic method, the lean duck quarters had been braised in white wine, citrus zest and Limoncello, then grilled to a golden brown. The meat was off-the-bone tender and the flavor profile clean, yet complex.

The Dessert

The meal was capped with Honeycrisp apple and Bartlett pear mini-tarts topped with almond and cinnamon Chantilly cream and served with a blend of fresh seasonal berries. The tarts, prepared by Sakka, were delightful in their flakiness and sweet flavors.

With the exception of the charcuterie, on which we admittedly gorged ourselves, all the portions were modest in size, yet broad and appealing in their flavors.

The Last Bite

The best thing about fine cuisine expertly prepared comes in its ability to blend the flavors of continents and cultures in ways that make everyone happy. If global diplomacy were half as effective as Fgaier’s cooking, the world would be a more peaceful — or at least better fed — place.

Persimmon Salad

Start-to-finish: 20 min
Servings: 4

Ingredients:

2 cups of cleaned fresh arugula 

4 tbsp salted whole cashews 

4 tbsp of fresh pomegranate seeds 

8 pitted Medjool dates, cut in half

Juice of 4 small clementine oranges 

4 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil 

1 whole ripe persimmon, peeled 

4 oz Carr Valley Vanilla Cardona cheese 

1 tbsp of pure honey 

Salt to taste 

Start by making the vinaigrette. Bring the clementine juice to a boil, and reduce by half. Chill, then whisk in the olive oil and honey, adding salt to taste. 

Dress the arugula with the clementine vinaigrette and place in the center of plates. Add cashews, pomegranate, persimmon slices and date halves. Cut cheese into small pieces and add on top. 

Duck à l’Orange

Start-to-finish: 2 hrs, 15 min Servings: 4

Ingredients:

2 legs and 2 breasts of Mulard duck

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 cups of fresh squeezed orange juice

1/2 cup Grand Marnier

1 tbsp Limoncello

Zest of 2 oranges

1 cup dry white wine

2 bay leaves

5 whole toasted peppercorns

1 tbsp sea salt

2 tbsp unsalted butter

Season duck with sea salt and olive oil.

In a heavy cooking pot, sear duck meat on medium heat allowing the duck fat to melt and the skin to get crisp.

Once browned on all sides, add orange juice, white wine, Grand Marnier, Limoncello, zest of oranges, bay leaves and peppercorn.

Bring to boil then reduce heat and let simmer for about 2 hours until meat falls off bone.

Pull the meat out of the sauce and strain the sauce to get rid of the pepper corn and the bay leaves.Reduce sauce and finish with whisking the butter.

Pour 1/3 cup of the orange sauce on the plate, place the duck thigh or breast and serve with your favorite vegetable.

Start-to-finish: 40 min Servings: 5

Ingredients:

8 large fresh sea scallops 

1 sprig of fresh rosemary 

1 tbsp olive oil 

1/2 small carnival squash 

2 tbsp heavy cream 

2 garlic cloves 

4 oz Calvados, or other apple brandy 

Sea salt 

Pepper (both black and white)

4 tbsp unsalted butter 

Pinch of nutmeg 

Steamed Brussels sprouts leaves (optional)

To prepare the scallops, season them with salt, pepper and finely chopped rosemary. In a hot skillet, add 1 tbsp of olive oil. Sear scallops on both sides for one minute until nice and brown. Set aside.

Peel the carnival squash. Boil the squash in a pot of water with a pinch of salt and the garlic cloves for about 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender and ready to mash. 

Move the boiled squash to a bowl and add 1 tbsp. of butter, the heavy cream, salt and white pepper. Whip until smooth and creamy.

Bring the Calvados or other apple brandy to boil. When the brandy has been reduced by about two-thirds, turn off the heat and whisk in the remaining 3 tbsp. until reaching a creamy texture. Adjust seasoning with pinches of salt and nutmeg. To assemble and serve the dish, start by placing the squash puree on a plate. Place the scallops on top, and top the dish with the Calvados butter. Garnish with Brussels sprouts leaves if desired.