“To me, this is much better than turkey,” he said. Perfect, I was looking for help with my Thanksgiving menu.
While politely cutting a manageable morsel and gently shoving it in my mouth, I thought to myself, “I could not agree more.”
I forcefully nodded in agreement being careful not to speak while chewing. Although I am not fully versed in Southern etiquette, I know enough to recognize when to hold my tongue, which eating utensil to use, and most importantly, when it is appropriate to hold my pinky up proudly.
The earthy, robust, local and organic portobello, oyster and shiitake mushrooms were transformed into an elegant and flavorful fete-in-my-mouth at the hands of John Watt, executive chef at Prego, one of Houston’s beloved trattorias.
Facing a silky toasted walnut red pepper sauce and somewhat calculated drizzles of salsa verde, I had to force myself to pay close attention to Watt's cooking technique as my taste buds have the ability to control my wandering attention span: I was eating.
Or was that the effect of the Pinot that found itself mysteriously next to the plate?
I had meant for John and I to discuss food. Specifically, I was looking for holiday suggestions from the vegan to the non-vegan and vice-versa. What to serve? How to prepare it? How to present it? And most importantly, will it please my fellow gourmands? But the conversation seemed to roam into another direction: Art, music and just about anything creative.
I thought I was artsy.
Chef Watt is no stranger to the art scene. Most recently, an appearance at Mildred’s Umbrella Theater’s gala forced him to break out the guitar, practice for a month and sharpen his singing skills.
“I played a lot of jazz when I was young,” John reminisced. “I also wrote music for Dracula, read music for the Alley Theatre, but really hadn’t done anything for a couple of years.”
After finding ourselves discussing the music of Mozart, Stockhausen, Bernstein, Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov, a little Miles Davis and Grateful Dead tangent sparked a memory of his time working at a music store and meeting Aaron Copland in 1980.
“Opera is something you can swim into and never swim out,” John laughed.
He is right.
At first, I thought this line of conversation was perhaps off topic for the task at hand. But considering the correlation between the love of the arts and the love of all things culinary, this duality emerges often in highly creative personalities. They are not so different.
“Like art, food takes you to all to all kinds of places,” John explained. “I might have a different relationship with a work of art 10 years from now. You become more discerning and you hone in on different subjects depending on what’s going on in your life.”
“My cooking philosophy?” John said, repeating my question, “I believe in keeping it simple, keeping the flavors clean, and using primarily high quality ingredients so you don’t have to do too much to them. A little like Mozart.”
I understood with precise clarity.
“I am not a fan of food that doesn’t make you feel good,” John explained. “I don’t understand why people dress up and eat food that makes them feel bloated even a week later. Italian food doesn’t have to be heavy to be comforting.”
Yes, there certainly is a comfort food movement that does just that: heavy, fattening and indulgent. But at Prego, perusing the menu, I notice a wide range choices, including an unusual large selection of veggie pickings.
“I remember in the '80s when we first started to see radicchio and arugula. Only a small amount would come in yielding just a few salads. Mâche would be available sparingly. I am happy that those ingredients are widely available.”
Much better than the canned white asparagus that was so popular then.
“In Houston, it’s common to have dishes center around a protein, and two sides. A lot of times, the same vegetables are repeated from dish to dish. I wanted more diversity.”
All the mushrooms I was in the process of eating, well, devouring, came from Kitchen Pride, an organic mushroom farm in Gonzales, Texas. And I could tell the difference. In handling them, you could feel the crispness and raw goodness from something fresh and perky.
“It is best to carefully research each ingredient and be knowledgeable of the true footprint," John said. "Although some places will label things as natural, there are some truths that are disguised. You have to make sure you read beyond the marketing materials to ensure you are getting the food whole at its source, and not the accompanying 20 or so chemicals.”
Chef Watt is currently working on eliminating dairy from some of his vegetarian dishes. Great (quite exquisite actually) Italian good eats and vegan food are not exclusive at Prego.
“It’s not about preaching what is better or worse," John said. "It is about good food.”
And good food it was. Simply cooked and beautifully presented.
From Chef John Watt’s kitchen to your Thanksgiving or holiday table, his pan-roasted organic mushrooms with toasted walnut-roasted red pepper sauce is a welcomed addition to any menu.
Pan-Roasted Organic Mushrooms with Toasted Walnut-Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
- 4-5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 4 portobello mushrooms, gills removed and cut into halves
- 16 shiitake mushrooms, tips clipped
- 16 oyster mushrooms, tips clipped
- 2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh garlic
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
- 1 teaspoon white wine
- 1 roasted red pepper, skin and seeds removed
- 1 tablespoon roasted garlic
- 1/4 cup toasted walnuts
- Sea Salt
- Cracked black pepper
In saucepan over medium heat, saute mushrooms with 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and diced fresh garlic until cooked yet still firm, approximately 3 minutes. Toss in Italian parsley, and season to taste with sea salt and pepper. Deglaze pan with white wine.
Toasted Walnut-Roasted Red Pepper Sauce: Puree together roasted red pepper, roasted garlic, toasted walnuts and remaining olive oil. Season with sea salt and pepper. Press through sieve to remove any lumps. Can place in squirt bottle for use and storage.
Salsa Verde: in a blender, emulsify together 1 tablespoon fresh garlic, 1 cup flat leaf parsley, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and sea salt & pepper to taste.
To serve, divide mushrooms among 4 plates, mounding in center of plate, and drizzle with salsa verde. Drizzle salsa verde on plate around the mushrooms.
Joel Luks offers vegan recipes, reviews and opinions at www.vegangoodeats.com
Watch Prego's executive chef John Watt make his dish for Joel Luks' Vegan Good Eats