Typically, Thomas Piche Jr., director of Sedalia’s Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, isn’t afraid to try his hand at unusual recipes and enjoys shopping locally for ingredients.
“Rightly or wrongly, I’ll try anything,” he said recently while making an Italian puttanesca sauce to be served with 24-inch long mafalda pasta.
“This puttanesca sauce, you can get every ingredient in Sedalia,” he said. “It’s a highly flavorful sauce, it only takes an hour to make. This is one of my most popular recipes and everyone seems to love it, even though it’s really flavorful.”
He said he finds cooking in the Midwest more challenging than on the East Coast, but he searches out ingredients.
“I love our farmers’ market here, I shop in every store in Sedalia and normally I have good luck. I have really good luck in Columbia at the Hy-Vee, on the west side, and World Harvest — that’s a godsend. It has Asian, Middle Eastern and Italian and some European things as well.”
Although Piche finds most of the ingredients needed for recipes, he misses being able to find endive and broccoli rabe, a green leafy vegetable typical of Southern Italy, easily.
“These are the two things I can’t find. On the other hand, it’s made me more adventurous. I’ve made more eggplant since I’ve been here than ever.”
Imam bayildi, made from the versatile eggplant, is another dish he prepared for evening guests.
“It’s like a baba ganoush, it’s in that family. You can serve it on pita or crackers. I think you could also plate it with some pita bread and olives on the side and some feta cheese.”
Piche, who lives in a downtown apartment, arranges ingredients on his stainless steel prep table, also bought locally. In his kitchen, he is surrounded by ceramic collections of former Syracuse University professor Henry Gernhardt, obibe ware created by Sedalia artist Alan Weaver and Syracuse China, a restaurant ware from the 1950’s.
He’s always had a penchant for cooking but his style and expertise has evolved over the years.
“One of the first things I ever made, I was a freshman in college. It was my parents anniversary and I made a steak and kidney pie. I was like 19.”
Much to his dismay the kidneys were tedious and odorous to clean and cook — it’s something he’d never make again — although his mother, Veronica Piche, disagreed.
“My mother still talks about it,” he said. “I couldn’t eat it, but they liked it. We’re kind of adventurous eaters in our family.”
Through trial and error, he’s also learned many lessons on presentation and flavor.
“There have been some lovely errors,” he added.
Piche remembers once making fancy appetizers for a function using an olive tapenade served on bread and large black olives piped with a horseradish cream. The results were striking, but the flavor not so much.
“The New York Times had just done an issue on black and white food, so I thought I’ll do some black and white hors d’oeuvres, but I used the wrong olives. It was beautiful. The guests would look at it and say, ‘It’s beautiful,’ then they’d take a bite and make a face. For weeks after, the host said he found little bits of bread and olives all around the house and in the plants.”
Growing up on Long Island provided many opportunities to experience various culinary influences.
“In the city, I think it’s such a melting pot, you’re exposed to a lot of foods,” he said. “We knew Italians and my grandfather was Irish but he grew up in a part of New York called Yorkville and he was exposed to the German culture; he picked up the German language. And my great-aunt had an Italian boyfriend; they’d have artichokes dipped in butter and he’d make espresso.”
When the family eventually moved near the Canadian border, the food traditions took a rural turn.
“I love collard greens, kale and mustard greens,” he said. “Vickie (Weaver) just gave me a big piece of venison, so I’m going to make venison chili. And there’s a lot of variety of meat here. You can get tongue, and tripe and smoked jowls and the beef is always good.”
Similar to the two- and three-dimensional artwork Piche oversees at the Daum, he believes cooking is an art form.
“I think it’s a gift I have,” he said. “I can read a recipe and understand it. I can tell if it’s going to be good or not or if it needs to be changed.”
Although he accepts the challenges of most recipes, one in particular is intimidating.
“The recipe I really want to make does scare me,” he said.
“You take a whole chicken, and bone it, and remove the skin in one piece. You take all the meat and add spices and cognac, boiled ham and pistachios; grind it all up and form it into a ball and place it in the skin and bind it in cheese cloth.”
When the dish is baked and done, it is served buffet style in wedges.
Julia Child’s complicated, time-consuming chicken melon recipe is not far from Piche’s mind. His eyes light up when he talks about the recipe.
“...I’ve always wanted to make it, it’s my dream. But I need to be with someone who knows how to do it,” he said.
1 large eggplant
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 green pepper, diced
1 large onion, diced
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Dash crushed red pepper
Half eggplant lengthwise. Slash both cut surfaces. Sprinkle with salt and allow to drain, cut side down, in colander for one hour. Rinse well. Fry face down in one-tablespoon olive oil until browned, about five minutes. Place face-up in shallow baking dish.
Sauté onions, green pepper, tomatoes and garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil until softened, about five to 10 minutes. Add spices and sugar, cook five minutes. Smear sauté on cut eggplant.
Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Scoop from skin and serve room temperature.
Serves four as an appetizer.
Recipe courtesy Tom Piche
Insalata Bianca (All-White Salad)
2 fennel bulbs, tough outer leaves discarded, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced crosswise
2 Belgian endives, stem ends trimmed, cut
lengthwise into julienne
12 radishes, ends trimmed and thinly sliced crosswise
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 garlic cloves, peeled and put through garlic press
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese shavings
Combine all ingredients except the Parmesan cheese in a large bowl and toss well.
Serve on a large platter with Parmesan cheese shavings scattered over the salad.
Serves six as a side dish.
Recipe from “Cucina Rustica,” by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman
Spaghetti alla puttanesca
1/2 cup olive oil
1 can (2-ounces) anchovy fillets, undrained
4 garlic cloves, crushed
35-ounce can plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano), drained
2.5 ounce jar capers, drained
1/2 cup kalamata olives, chopped
Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti
Grated Parmesan cheese
Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat. Briefly sauté garlic and anchovies, using a spoon to mash ingredients. Add tomatoes, capers, olives and red pepper to the saucepan. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat and simmer uncovered for one hour. Use spoon to break up tomatoes as they cook. Season with black pepper, to taste. Serve over spaghetti and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Serves four.
Recipe source:“The New Basics Cookbook,” by Julee Russo, and Sheila Lukins.