Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In this edition, Aaron Crowder and Nick Perkins, chef-owners of Cervo's on the Lower East Side (Nick is also the chef-owner of Hart's in Bed-Stuy), make Mediterranean magic out of the simplest of ingredients.
Nick Perkins has his hands full these days, what with running the kitchens of two of New York's buzziest restaurants—Hart's and Cervo's, the latter (and newer of the two still-quite-young restaurants) along with Aaron Crowder. They're both taking a bit of a breather from the restaurant today to hang out in the garden with us and make lunch, and so their hands are still a bit full, only now with all of the sungold tomatoes and husk cherries they can possibly hold.
Usually, visiting chefs let us guide them through the garden, plot by plot, not wanting to stray too far from the people who know their way. But about ten minutes in to our garden tour, Nick and Aaron have wandered off in opposite directions, plucking cherry tomatoes and hot peppers at random to test their flavors. We're not entirely sure what they're even picking, but we're happy that they've found so much to put to use.
"Got some yerba buena," says Nick, referring to some mint he snipped from one of the many patches of it on the roof. We're not sure where that's going to fit into their Iberian-Mediterranean-accented repertoire of dishes today, but it sure does smell good. They're here at the absolute perfect time to harvest some of our little gem lettuces, and some tender, young castelfranco radicchio, plus some early heads of cabbage.
They end up picking nearly all of the ripe sungold and cherry tomatoes, as well as what appears to be roughly two quarts of husk cherries. (Aaron runs out of hands to hold them in at one point, and starts tossing them into a pouch he makes with the front of his t-shirt, like a little kid.) We've given them sheet trays to carry their hauls, and on them we also see plenty of basil, thyme, and oregano, plus kohlrabi, celery, leeks, peppers, and onions.
Back inside, they sit down at our conference table to strategize. They sit quietly for a few minutes, drawing diagrams and making lists and muttering to each other about toasts and salads and marinating things. Staying true to the Hart's and Cervo's style, they decide to make us two types of things-on-toast, and two salads. When they're ready to start cooking, they decide to share one cooking station, which seems to be a rather endearing tell about what their working relationship is like in their kitchens.
Nick gets started on the first of the toasts, which'll be marinated hot and mild peppers with husk cherries, and Aaron gets started on a cabbage Caesar salad. Nick slices a few peppers into rustic shapes—no juliennes or perfect dices here. He's keeping everything in pieces that will have some heft to them when spooned over olive oil-fried sourdough toast.
The peppers get sautéed in a bit of olive oil; then, in a heavy-bottomed pot, he sautés some garlic with red chilis, then tosses in about a pint of husk cherries, sans husks, to let them blister and break down a bit.
The peppers will get tossed in with the cherries plus more basil and lemon zest, then set aside to marinate more and to let the flavors meld.
MAKE THIS: Pepper and Husk Cherry Toasts
"Nothing we do is a lot of ingredients or technique, it's very simple—we just use good quality stuff," says Aaron. The "good quality stuff" he's referring to are the very nice anchovies that Nick is deboning as we speak, which will go into just about every dish they're making here today. (They're a staple at Cervo's, of course, which is a Spanish and Portuguese-inspired seafood concept, but they're also the salty fish of choice at Hart's, too.)
Aaron peels the tender inner leaves of a baby head of purple cabbage off, and carefully removes the thickest parts of the rib, because he's leaving this cabbage raw, and it will be just a bit too tough otherwise. Using our mortar and pestle, he mashes up microplaned garlic, minced anchovies, preserved lemons, salt, and olive oil to make a caesar-ish dressing. While he's doing that, Nick is frying some torn bits of sourdough in olive oil to make croutons. Aaron scatters thinly sliced onions and kohlrabi in with with cabbage leaves. The whole thing will get a generous amount of fresh horseradish root grated over the top for a punch of spice, and whole fillets of anchovy for an extra kick of umami.
MAKE THIS: Cabbage Caesar Salad
The second toast is going to be remarkably simple, just some blistered sungold tomatoes marinated with bronze fennel and basil on toast, with shaved bottarga on top, which Nick has underway in another pan.
When they're ready to serve this, Nick heaps the tomatoes up on top of the toast, then shaves so much of the salty cured fish roe overtop, you can barely see it. Like a tiny snowy mountain of bottarga and juicy sungolds. This riff on pan con tomate is something that Nick keeps on Cervo's menu as long as the tomato season lasts, and then in the winter, they cycle through other seasonal produce.
MAKE THIS: Sungold Tomato Toast with Bottarga
We quickly realize that there is far too much food being prepared than the current occupants of the test kitchen can consume, so we rally the rest of the MUNCHIES troops for a surprise lunch.
Briefly, Nick catches a moment of repose on our conference table while Farideh, our culinary director, snaps photos of all of their finished dishes. It's Aaron's day off, so we open a bottle of wine for him and let him celebrate a job well done. Chefs, you're welcome back in the MUNCHIES test kitchen any time.