Justin Lo, food writer, dons a toque and joins some of the city’s most inspired chefs in their own kitchens for an intimate look at New Haven’s food scene.
“It’s all about heat,” Claire Criscuolo instructs me, removing her pinky finger from a giant steel vat of tempered yogurt she prepares in-house at Claire’s Corner Copia. She follows a simple recipe taught to her by a Lebanese woman: “It’s real easy, and you know what goes into it.”
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Criscuolo gives the warm mixture a careful tasting — once it’s finished cooling, it will be just perfect to use in fresh smoothies, seasonal fruit soups and yogurt parfaits. In another part of the kitchen, a giant mass of dough is kneaded into miniature baby loaves, while an earlier batch reaches a state of crusty perfection, releasing a perfume of yeasty goodness as it bakes up in the oven.
While baking fresh bread each morning and preparing homemade yogurt from scratch might seem unnecessarily laborious to most chefs, Criscuolo has been doing things this way for her entire life. Though working with fresh, organic and fair-trade ingredients generally means having to cut into profits and invest additional hours in the kitchen, Criscuolo’s decision is a no-brainer for this dedicated food educator.
“Sometimes you have to make decisions that you just know are the right thing to do,” Criscuolo says, explaining why she now cooks with more whole wheat grains and pastas and has eliminated trans-fats altogether from the menu. “There is a lot to be said about taking responsibility for the food you use.”
For Criscuolo, more than half the battle begins at the dining table, by educating people to be more responsible about what and how they eat. Criscuolo and I share a moment of foodie bliss in recounting a recent article in Gourmet magazine by glorified food editor Ruth Reichl: Reichl’s article exposes the pervasive cultural basis behind the myth that children are naturally pickier eaters than their parents.
Remember those all-too-familiar kids’ menus offering grilled cheese and fudge sundaes at a restaurant serving up steak tartare and warm chocolate soufflé? The belief that younger diners cannot appreciate the samefoods as the more seasoned gourmand is an old myth, and raising awareness of this misperception is a necessary starting point for a larger revolution in food culture, Criscuolo tells me as she transfers the yogurt mixture into a plastic tub. (Claire’s does not offer a kid’s menu.)
“What got us into this mess was not sharing and spreading information,” she says, her apron full of oyster mushrooms, carrots and potatoes for a tasty wild mushroom and soy chicken pot pie. “We food people have a wonderful opportunity to educate people — introduce them to acai berries, goji berries; teach them about the health benefits of green tea. Everyone deserves to eat well.”
Criscuolo and her staff are committed to repairing this disconnect between the kitchen and the dining table. Her work with Common Ground High School in New Haven is just one of many ways in which the restaurant attempts to educate the community at large. Students participating in the Common Ground program grow fresh, sustainable summer produce to supply the restaurant. At the summer’s end, Criscuolo prepares a special meal for the program’s participants, using the fruits of their labor.
Outside of the restaurant, Criscuolo is also a food columnist for the New Haven Register, part of the same effort to raise awareness of the way people eat. She chuckles as she recounts how more and more locals come up to her in the grocery store just to show her what they’ve got in their shopping baskets — it’s a strange offshoot she’s all too willing to accept if it means that people are now taking a more active role in managing their food choices.
Criscuolo continues stirring a pot of Marsala wine and stock to which she has added the oyster mushrooms and garden vegetables. The base for her pot pie is nearly finished; she extends a spoon in my direction and invites me to taste. The marriage of good white wine and the meatiness of the potatoes and mushrooms are a perfect lesson in the importance of starting with quality, healthful ingredients. With dishes like these, I have some trouble understanding how Criscuolo ever has any difficulty convincing diners to eat seasonally and eat well.
After 31 years, Criscuolo and her staff are optimistic that many professionals in the restaurant industry have also started to recognize the merits of educating customers to develop a greater respect for the many flavors and textures of earth’s bountiful harvests, though we will probably never bid adieu to kids’ menus entirely.
“This is a wonderful year for food,” Criscuolo says. “So much is happening. So many groups are passing on this theme of better food, food the way it was. And, young people are taking more responsibility for sharing this information. There is a food revolution kicking up again across the country.”
Recipe: Simply Marinara Sauce
Criscuolo says proudly, “People ask me if I did a lot of cooking as a child. And, I say, ‘No, I did a lot of eating as a child.” This foodie’s appreciation for food has not diminished, in spite of the many years she has spent as a chef. She continues to appreciate the flavors of very simple and plain dishes her mother used to make for her growing up, one of which is a simple marinara sauce served over a plate of pasta.
1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, sliced
1 35-ounce can San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes in juice (squeezed with your hands)
1⁄4 cup white wine
6-8 basil leaves
1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over low-medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for about three minutes, stirring frequently, until golden brown. (Do not let the garlic burn or the sauce will be bitter.) Add the tomatoes, the wine, the basil, pepper flakes, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Cook at a simmer, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes, until the sauce has reduced slightly. Taste for seasoning. Makes 4 cups. Serve over pasta.
Profile: Claire Criscuolo, Owner (Claire’s Corner Copia, Basta Trattoria)
Favorite Ingredient: Summer heirloom tomatoes, because their delicious flavors make them so versatile — perfect for use in salads, sauces, oven-roasting, pizza and pasta toppings, or just for eating fresh.
Favorite Dishes: Cauliflower tomato sauce over angel hair pasta, a very simple dish her mother used to make for her when she was little.
Goals: “To do more to try to help get fresh food in areas where they don’t have fresh food in New Haven”
Memorable Quote: “Education is paramount to changing the way we think and the way we eat — our ideas about food and our respect for food. That’s really what I try to do.”