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, Venezuelan chef Adriana Urbina rustles up the perfect accoutrements for a simple, fresh crudo from the MUNCHIES rooftop.
When chef Adriana Urbina and her sous chef visited us earlier this summer, they came representing De Maria, the buzzy and extremely pretty all day café in Nolita in Manhattan. Adriana inherited the kitchen from Camille Becerra, whose culinary skills were as much a signature as her highly Instagrammable aesthetic. (Also earlier in 2018, De Maria won the James Beard Foundation’s award for best restaurant design in North America, for its bright, airy space and modern, minimalist accents that drew the attention of fashionable diners who wanted to snag selfies in front of the custom neon-lit portrait of the Virgin Mary in the bathroom.)
Under Urbina's leadership, the kitchen maintained its focus on healthful dishes, pristinely presented, with perhaps a bit more of an influence from Urbina's own experiences working in kitchens around the world. She spent time working with renowned chefs in her home country of Venezuela, in Spain, in the Parisian kitchen of Alain Ducasse, then moved on to the two-Michelin-starred Atera in New York. De Maria has since closed its doors after a colorful yet brief 18-month stint on Kenmare Street, ending in August.
The dish she made for us—a scallop crudo with a garden veggie green sauce, brown butter, and turmeric-pickled kohlrabi—is something that could have just as easily been found on the menu at De Maria, or at her solo pop-up series, Tepuy. (The name refers to the tabletop-shaped mountain ranges of eastern Venezuela that contain a rich and diverse amount of flora and fauna.) In that dinner series, she tries to capture the spirit of cooking with all of the native flavors of her home country by incorporating local, seasonal produce into her dishes. When she visited us at the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen, we got a peek into what that menu development process must be like by letting her roam our rooftop garden and create a dish based on whatever caught her fancy that day from our own local "flora."
She arrived knowing she would create a crudo of some sort, similar to something she had on the menu at De Maria, she told us, but similar to something that is also still appearing on her Tepuy menus. All she’s brought with her are a few fresh, raw scallops, and a house-made creamy vegan cheese, similar to chèvre in texture, but made from coconut milk. (She says she hasn't ever seen a comparable product at the supermarket, but it's pretty easy to make at home.) Otherwise, our roof was her greenmarket for the day.
She starts with some perfectly ripe and adorably round kohlrabi, then moved on to raid our squash bed of a hearty amount of squash blossoms and some zucchini. (She’ll end up taking most of those blossoms back to the restaurant for an impromptu appetizer special.)
She pulls some young onions and Thumbelina carrots, and carefully snips a few edible flower blossoms and strawberries as she meanders through the raised beds.
Back inside, she gets started on the pickle first. She cleans and carefully trims the kohlrabi heads, then slices them thinly. Meanwhile, her sous chef has the brining liquid started on the stove: a mixture of white wine vinegar, turmeric, salt, and sugar.
She brings it up to a boil, then removes it from the heat and tosses in the sliced kohlrabi. Those will marinate on the counter while Adriana works. Next, she’s tasked with browning a few tablespoons of unsalted butter until it’s perfectly nutty and takes on a deep, rich color.
All in, it takes about six or seven minutes. It will have to cool down a bit before it can be used.
Next, Adriana starts to prepare a fresh, vegetal green sauce that she’ll use to contrast the crunchy, acidic pickle and the sweet, tender scallop. Into a Vitamix went the tender yellow tips of just one squash blossom, young kale leaves, the green tops of one carrot, the whites of one spring onion, and half an avocado.
She peels the skins off of one small zucchini and adds those, too, for extra color, then sets aside the inner flesh for another use. Lemon and lime juice, a splash of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste finish off the sauce, which she purees until it's entirely uniform and creamy. (If this were a gazpacho-style soup, it would be silky smooth.)
The only other real “prep” that needs to happen now is for the scallops to be sliced. Urbina says she knows that slicing fish can be intimidating, but all you need is a sharp knife and a steady hand.
To plate, Adriana arranges crumbles of her homemade coconut cheese in the center of a plate, then carefully dollops bits of the green sauce throughout. She layers the thinly-sliced scallop on top of that, overlapping their edges like fish scales, then drizzles the brown butter over everything.
Not to be forgotten are the pickled kohlrabi spears, which have taken on a vibrant yellow hue from the turmeric. Finally, a smattering of tender kohlrabi leaves, borage flowers, and miniature strawberries.
The whole bite is sweeter than you’d expect, with a creaminess from the coconut cheese and avocado in the green sauce that contrasts nicely with the crisp, tart kohlrabi. In all, it’s the type of dish that absolutely would whet the appetite at the beginning of a tasting menu at a Tepuy event. De Maria’s day in the sun might have come and gone rather quickly, but so long as Adriana continues offering her Venezuela-inspired dinner series, dishes like this will continue to keep New York diners excited for more. We’re looking forward to seeing what kitchen she lands in, for good, next.