It’s funny how sometimes — when I am parsing through the constellation of flavors, taste experiences, ideas, and the heated happenstance in the moment of inspiration behind a dish — even I get lost in the thicket of sensual memories & reveries behind the particularity of why I made such a thing.
Tomato “Oscar” is a lovely example of the tangled webs woven by the why a chef would dream up such a old & new dream. I’ll drop off a lineup of competing threads that were swirling at the point of inception. Of course, given that my memories are now a decade later after I invented Tomato Oscar at The Delachaise in the Summer of 2007, this takes me on a trip back….
First, however, I should answer the question of “Chef, what the heck is a Tomato Oscar?”
In the luxe pantheon of cuisine, Oscar dishes bring together crabmeat (or there’s a crawfish variation, too), asparagus, and Béarnaise as a lofty topping. I had always heard of Veal Oscar as the primary version, and the notion of replacing veal cutlets with a thick filet of a summertime beefsteak tomato is where my leap of faith began.
Let’s leap now into my chef’s notebook from behind the scenes of how I decided to run with my evolving ideas for Tomato Oscar.
*the early end of Creole Tomato season by the end of June plays a huge yet easy to overlook role, because in other places the local tomatoes are just showing up in July and August but due to our swampy infernal miasma in South Louisiana our tomatoes have an early, brief season….which led me to choose yellow tomatoes to be the feature star for the rest of our torrid summertime tomato feasts.
*my lifelong love for fried green tomatoes certainly is the secret anchor of my desire to fry tomatoes in a skillet. I definitely got this affection for fried green tomatoes from my Mom, who when she met her 2nd husband-to-be when they were neighbors at an apartment complex in Athens, GA as he admired her little tomato plants growing on the patio, “Well, you’d better like your tomatoes green because you’ll never see any ripe ones from any of these!”
My love for green tomatoes inspired me to create a green pistachio crust for these yellow beefsteak tomatoes….
*this daredevil chef loves to pick a challenge! In this instance, my decision to make “a panéed tomato” from a crust of pistachios, breadcrumbs, roasted garlic, and a little olive oil truly qualifies as a “cunning stunt” because if you peek at the crusted side too soon you can wreck the appearance you aim to achieve with a soggy or falling apart crust, but if your skillet is set too hot it’s just as easy burn the nuts and breadcrumbs.
Of course, one of the abiding joys of my tasks as a chef is that cooking is such a sensually mindful occupation. Tomato Oscar upside down frying in a skillet gives me the sensual data I need in a blazing telltale moment’s notice: I can see the GBD (Golden Brown Delicious!) emits a ring of goodness in a properly browned crust from underneath the tomato. Also, the skin around our slice of lovely tomato usually sloughs off, another visual clue.
The conceit of Tomato “Oscar” is to treat the slice of beefsteak tomato as if it were a cutlet of meat, to sear it for the GBD on the crusted side yet to leave the tomato medium to med-rare and “pink” in the middle. I want my dining guest to be able to slice this panéed tomato into wedges and bite size morsels that can carry the weight of the asparagus, the copious crabmeat, and the sauce to her hungry mouth with the tomato remaining intact on the fork all the way.
*reviving an old school dish with a modern, playful sensibility. “Oscar” as a style of dish hails from the Belle Époque Era of fine dining in opulent hotels and the transatlantic steamships crossing the seas, like the Titanic, when Auguste Escoffier reigned as the king of cuisine, especially before the onset of World War 1.
Unfortunately, making Sauce Béarnaise in a small kitchen run without any hope of Escoffier’s brigade system and without churning out the volume of fare required by a transatlantic steamship is pretty much an impossibility. A bustling steakhouse is one of the last bastions of Béarnaise, and unless the kitchen is a brunch specialist where a proper Hollandaise is maintained on the daily, making Béarnaise everyday for 10 or fewer plates of an Oscar dish is about as sensible and self-inflictedly doomed as Vatel waiting on his fish shipment.
When I first made Tomato Oscar a decade ago at Delachaise, I had scored some outrageously beautiful orange-infused olive oil from Sicily along with some blood orange purée, so conjuring a gorgeous aïoli from these magnificent ingredients that would last for a few days in a squeeze bottle seemed like a fairly extravagant upgrade over the traditional béarnaise. Back then I warmed the crabmeat, against my better instincts, since the blood orange aïoli was kept chilled.
However, this version now at Revel flips the script a little differently. What remains the same is the pistachio crust made with breadcrumbs, roasted garlic, and olive oil, and the grilled asparagus. Now I’m not heating the crabmeat but preparing it with a vibrant lemon + fresh oregano + scallion ravigote, I have the mouth coating embrace of a luxurious sauce that amplifies the crabmeat’s flavor, and I can spend the energy to finish “a la minute” a stunning beurre blanc showcasing grapefruit and basil, forging ahead from the old school to the moderne.
*Making a beurre blanc to order is the kind of kitchen hack that is truly a cunning stunt, the kind of thoughtful cost containment strategy that is also artful and useful for the home cook. The classic butter sauce depends upon a careful reduction of an acidic ingredient, usually a white wine, with an infusion of aromatics. Normally, a beurre blanc is kept at a similar barely warm temperature as a hollandaise, and they are both notoriously difficult sauces to bring back the second day, as the emulsion is kept quivering & tensile in the warm suspension of fats and acids commingling. Once chilled, it’s a crapshoot to bring em back to their delicate scrumptious ways, and honestly never as good as the original effort.
You can, however, hack a beurre blanc by arresting the reduction when it’s somewhere between halfway to 2/3 of the way complete, before the reduction begins its final descent into turning into the treacly sticky sauce superglue that will cling to the melting fat of cold butter sloughing off molecule by molecule in a hot saucepan. I pull off the reduction at that 2/3 of the original volume and let it infuse and cool off for 15 minutes to maximize my aromatics giving it up, then strain.
Now you can finish a dish with just a smaller amount of the reduction, like a few tablespoons if so desired, that are quickly taken down to sticky and mounted with diced cold butter swirled in a small skillet, and save the rest of the reduction for later. You could even freeze the reduction in ice cube trays until hard then keep it labeled in a freezer bag.
This kitchen hack lets me cut down on wasting a beautiful beurre blanc, and it’s quick and easy to make 1–6+ orders of beurre blanc that I can keep warm for a little while unobtrusively. Because of the extra coagulation of the eggs in a hollandaise or Béarnaise, the same hack doesn’t really apply without more risks and attention to whisking the sauce perfectly with warm butter. It is feasible to over and over again make small batches of hollandaise, but it really isn’t smart, but trust me when I share this beurre blanc shortcut that your butter sauce game is about to get a lot better and far more hassle free!
For this current version of Tomato Oscar now at Revel Cafe & Bar, I begin with 2 grapefruits, both the peelings (I save a little grapefruit skin to brunoise for the last second reduction mixed with minced fresh basil, salt and white pepper) and the juice, and an equal amount of white wine, about 8 cloves of raw garlic, 4–5 bay leaves, less than a tablespoon of fennel seeds, the stems of basil, and the tips of a couple carrots as an option if I’ve cut up carrots for another reason…I will reduce this heady juicy mixture over medium heat for about 25–30 minutes, then apply my cooling & straining procedure described above.
To finish the last second reduction of my Oscar sauce, I put a few tablespoons of the saved juicy business in a small nonstick skillet with a little heap of minced grapefruit skin and basil chiffonade, and set it to medium heat to reduce until treacly. Mount with small cubes of cold butter, and in less than a minute a sauce to please a king or a queen is now ready to serve forth!
*It’s good to pay homage to The Past, since we do stand on the shoulders of giants like Escoffier and the famous maitre d’ of both Delmonico’s and the Waldorf Hotel, Oscar Tschirky. Was the imperious Tschirky, who wasn’t a chef but nevertheless was the acknowledged mastermind behind the Waldorf Salad, and likely Eggs Benedict, too, who is the guiding name behind Veal Oscar? Or was it the last king of unified Sweden and Norway, Oscar II, who stepped down from the throne in 1905 so that both nations could peacefully implement separate parliamentary governments, and of whom it is said his favorite ingredients were crabmeat, asparagus, and béarnaise?
The record is surprisingly murky for whomever is the highness behind the name of these Oscar dishes, and whether King Oscar II of Sweden or “Oscar of the Waldorf” as Tschirky is remembered, the dish still has the majesty to take a diner, and a chef who’s updated an Oscar to his fanciful necessities, on a voyage to blissful pleasures one seared GBD tomato at a time….
— Chris DeBarr/Revel Cafe & Bar/July 30, 2018