Chef Elise Wiggins is here! I got to sit down and talk with Chef Elise of Panzano about home cooking, flavor profiles, and recipe development. Not only that, she shared a recipe with me, which I’m sharing with you, AND I got to taste one the dishes on the new menu. I know, right? Let me tell you, this woman is a force of nature. When I arrived at Panzano she was finishing up a staff meeting, talked to me while cooking through the lunch rush, and smiling for the video camera that was her next appointment. She is like her food, vibrant, approachable, and thoughtful. With a beautiful smile that lights her whole face, she was gracious and generous.
One of the first things we spoke about is her total immersion in cooking and food. She says she’s always known that she wanted to be a chef. One of her earliest memories was being held by her mom who was putting her little hands into cool cookie dough. The cookies they prepared made her family happy. Cookies = happiness. That’s what she was going to do, cook and make people happy. I asked her if she wasn’t a chef what would she be doing. She said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else and had never thought of doing anything else. She’s a cookbook junkie (like me) who spends her days off reading cookbooks, getting inspiration, and creating new dishes in her mind. There doesn’t seem to be much that she does that doesn’t involve food or cooking in some way. She’s out sourcing local ingredients and suppliers, leading cooking classes, or grabbing a bite at a favorite restaurant. Her current fave is really good mexican, other than Italian of course.
We talked about the restaurant menu. Looking the menus over, at first glance they’re very traditional Northern Italian fare. Until you look closer. Many of the dishes have ingredients that bring them a fresh, modern touch. There are emulsions, nages, and aiolis. There are entire gluten-free menus. They make sliders, of polpette. House made sausage, pasta, pancetta, and bread. Chef Elise goes to Italy each year to recharge and immerse herself in a different region of the country, learning, absorbing, gaining inspiration. She’ll revamp the menu at least 3 times every year. She cooks seasonally, locally whenever possible, organically. Panzano’s sustainable practices go from fair trade coffee to biodegradable, compostable take out containers and fryer oil that’s recycled as bio-diesel. Panzano is a restaurant you should get to know.
So, can we talk about the dish she made for me? Wow. It was OMG, close your eyes, little moaning noises good. It’s called Capesante. Pan seared sea scallops with polenta and a Mediterranean salumi salsa. Let’s break it down. Seared sea scallops, perfectly cooked, a little brown and crusted on the outside, tender and translucent on the inside. The Mediterranean salsa has a trio of olives, briny capers, sweet sun-dried tomatoes, and crunchy, fried bits of salumi. Grounding all of this is creamy, buttery polenta. It’s then finished with micro greens. There wasn’t one thing you could do to make this better. A perfect dish. Thoughtfully balanced between sweet and acidic, crunchy and soft, with all ingredients shining on their own while harmoniously playing together. I know you’re not supposed to use this word in food writing, but yum. YUM.
I almost forgot ! The recipe she gave me. It’s for Bolognese sauce. If you haven’t had a Bolognese meat sauce before you should try this. Yes, it has ground meat and sausage and milk. It’s rich and creamy, and you’re totally going to be craving this before you know it. Use a sturdy pasta that’s going to stand up to this sauce. A wide noodle like pappardelle, a twisty textured pasta shape would also be good. If you don’t make your own pasta, no worries, dried pasta will work just fine. You can find the recipe here.
The best advice she has for home cooks like us is, Know Your Food. Really know what things taste like. When you understand what an ingredient tastes like, how it feels in your mouth, then you can instinctively start pairing ingredients together.Want to know why you see lemon and rosemary together often in recipes? Taste a lemon, let it linger. Taste a leaf of rosemary. Yeah, they work, complementing and enhancing each other. There’s another layer to my “Taste It” mantra. Taste the ingredients before you start a recipe. Taste it as you’re making it. Taste it before you serve it.
Can you tell I was totally impressed? I’m pretty sure I’m gushing. I had such a good time talking with her. Her staff is great, and they were so helpful in making sure I was comfortable, and helping me get shots of their food. I’m going to make sure my friends, and that means you, eat at Panzano. Say hi to Chef Elise for me.