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 the latest installment, renowned pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz brings her crew from Flora Bar and Cafe Altro Paradiso to make us a big-ass lunch, family meal-style.
Asking your chef friends to come and hang out in your cool rooftop garden is all fun and games until the skies open up like the apocalypse has arrived. Luckily, Natasha Pickowicz and her team of pastry chefs from Flora Bar and Café Altro Paradiso came fully prepared. Each one of them is decked out in waterproof jackets and wellies, ready to trek out into the storm with all the rain-or-shine attitude of the US Postal Service. Natasha herself has got heavy-duty Carhartt overalls on, looking like she’s ready to hop on a tractor and till our fields, and it occurs to us that we might have oversold just how “dirty” things get when people come to make a Dirty Work column.
“This is like my farmer’s cosplay!” she laughs, as she wipes mud from her hands onto her pant leg after picking carrots. She’s really getting into character today, and we’re here for it.
Natasha and her team came, like most chefs who visit us, to make something delicious out of whatever was ripe for the picking in our garden at the moment. But she brought in some backup because she’s not just cooking one or two dishes for us—she’s making lunch for the entire MUNCHIES crew. And unfortunately she has to do it with wet shoes now. (We were very grateful.)
The premise of the day is family meal. At Flora Bar and Altro Paradiso, Natasha’s team is usually responsible for making the food that the staff eats together while the kitchen and front of house get ready for dinner service for the night. Most restaurants call this “family meal.” In Natasha’s kitchen, they’re big proponents of using up whatever bits and scraps are hanging around in the walk-in refrigerator, and repurposing them into something that doesn’t look like leftovers. Because the staff deserves to eat tasty things, too—not just stuff that resembles cafeteria slop. She’s applying that philosophy today, bringing a few odds and ends from the restaurants and rummaging through our fridge (and garden), too, for inspiration.
The longer we’re outside getting drenched, and the foggier Farideh’s camera lens gets, the more goofy everyone feels. Natasha giggles like a little kid when she picks a short, stubby little nubbin of a carrot, and her sous chef Maya laughs as she chases shiso leaves that have been blown off of her tray by the wind. They don’t even have a plan exactly for what they’re making, they’re just harvesting a little bit of everything that looks good, until it looks like enough food to feed our whole staff. Nearly four full sheet trays worth of fruits, veggies, and herbs later, and we’re blessedly ready to head back inside.
Once the team is all a little less waterlogged, they huddle over a cooking station and make a game plan. Natasha will make a carrot and onion tart using leftover pie crust and some other odds and ends from the restaurant. Maya will use some sourdough bread dough to make some focaccia pizza-ish things with a mélange of veggies from the garden. Kirsten will use Natasha’s go-to scone recipe to make dessert scones with the plumpest, most beautiful blackberries our bushes outside have produced all season. Maureen, who works front of house (“I don’t cook, you don’t want me cooking, I’m in charge of just the beverages,” she said), is making “party water,” which sounds ominous because we all have to get back to work after this and can’t really get too tipsy, but we’re trusting her.
All of a sudden, there’s a lot happening at once and its hard to keep up. This is a well-trained, professional team, and even outside of their own kitchen, they figure out how to get to work, moving around each other with a sort of grace and precision that only comes from lots of time spent together in a hot, stressful kitchen.
Natasha rolls out the scrap tart dough they brought with them into an amorphous shape. (This is family meal, after all—it doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to taste good.) She spreads caramelized onion jam they have left over from a wedding they catered over the weekend on the bottom of the tart. She tosses some beautiful rainbow carrots and red onions that have been sliced but mostly left intact in olive oil and salt.
MAKE THIS: Carrot and Onion Tart
And because she is Natasha, what started out as a very rustic tart suddenly does have to be beautiful, as she arranges the sliced vegetables in such a way that the tart suddenly looks like abstract art, curling the edges of the tart in on the veggies, but sometimes letting the edges of the carrots drape over the sides like little tendrils.
Using some scrap goat cheese from our fridge, some eggs, and cream, she makes a custard of sorts that she pours over the vegetables, filling in the cracks and hollows in the tart. Into the oven it goes so she can attend to other tasks.
Kirsten is working, first, on scones that will get served for dessert. She’s using Natasha’s recipe for savory scones that they serve in the café, with more sugar. The dough is simple to pull together, and she forms them with a circular biscuit cutter on sheet trays, giving them plenty of room to expand.
MAKE THIS: Easy Scones
Later, the blackberries will be spooned over top, along with some crème anglaise, also left over from the weekend wedding, and fresh mint and thyme from the garden. It’s an addictive dessert, and we feel it would be dangerous to suggest to each such a decadent thing for breakfast, but if you’re feeling baroque, go for it.
Maya, meanwhile, is nibbling bits of all of the veggies they pulled from the garden to see what would work well together on sourdough pizzas, using the extremely bubbly and active dough they carted here with them.
She settles on zucchini and mint with ricotta, and another with a trio of different types of tomatoes and some extra fresh mozzarella we had hanging out in the walk-in. A few of them even get some squash blossoms and nasturtium leaves scattered on top.
They brought quite a bit of this dough, so she makes easily about five or six pizzas. (These alone could feed our staff several times over, so we’re very excited about the leftovers to come.) Making good use of our pizza oven, she shuffles them in and out on sheet trays until the edges start to blister and the bottoms look browned and cooked through.
Leaning on our pantry and a few things they brought with them, a few of the chefs work on a grain salad. They’re using up an assortment of grains they already had cooked in the fridge—barley and farro, mostly, but this would work just as well with quinoa or rice or freekeh. They make us of plenty of our cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, as well as basil and parsley. The test kitchen had some crumbled feta from recipe testing last week, so that’s going in too, along with a can of chickpeas. The whole thing gets dressed with a white wine vinaigrette and lemon juice.
MAKE THIS: Easy Grain Salad
“Party water is when we take all of the leftover fresh pressed juices from the night before and mix them together, and add sparkling water to it,” explains Natasha. “It’s like a spritz.” Today, the party water is a soft millennial pink, garnished with an array of herbs and edible flowers from our garden. (We might have also splashed some sparkling wine in there at the end.)
By the time our staffers start trickling in to the kitchen for lunch, all of the work is coming together, and makes its way to our giant conference table. We’re all exceedingly lucky and grateful that they’ve done all this for us, but Natasha says her team is just as lucky.
Everyone crowds around the veritable feast they’ve prepared, snapping pictures for posterity, of course, then quickly dives in. “This reminds us why we do what we do. We just want to cook good things for our friends, and spend time in the kitchen together making the best use of whatever we’ve got,” Natasha says, as a sort of toast before we all dig in.
We're hoping we can convince our Farideh, our culinary director and HBIC of all things that happen in the test kitchen, that we should instate a regular Monday MUNCHIES family meal. (Farideh, buddy—we’re still waiting for the calendar invite…)