In our ever-expanding world of global flavors, every region seems to have its day. French, Italian, Asian and fusion—each has dazzled diners and lit up the foodie firmament for a while. But what about South American food? Close as that continent is to us, many Americans know next to nothing about the cuisine. The popular impression seems to be that it’s little more than rice and beans, too crude and too spicy for the American palate.
At a recent dinner party at Lakewood Ranch, a fortunate group of guests learned just what a misconception that is.
The guests were members of the Tour Moves On of the Vineyard Society, a complicated name for what’s a simple mission: enjoying fantastic food and wine with like-minded friends. Founded nine years ago by retired investment banker John Biddinger and capped at 30 members—many of them from Laurel Oak, where Biddinger and his wife, Marjo, reside—the club meets for four dinners each year, each one with a different culinary theme. For this dinner, Biddinger, a gourmand who has studied at Le Cordon Bleu in both London and Paris and dines out with his wife, Marjo, about 20 times a month, and chef Jeremy Hammond-Chambers, who is cooking all the club’s dinners this year, decided to focus on South American cuisine.
Hammond-Chambers relished the assignment. “Most people in America associate South American food with Mexican cuisine, and they are not anything alike,” he says. “The cuisine of South America is vibrant, healthy and amazingly diverse. And it’s not particularly spicy or hot. It’s characterized by simple, clear authentic flavors, and each country offers something new and different from the country next door.” For example, Peru has strong Asian influences; Argentinean cuisine has been shaped by Italian immigrants, who added pasta to the local diet; and Chilean menus reflect an abundance of fresh seafood rivaled only by Australia.
Chambers built the dinner menu around some key elements in South American fare: chilies, corn, cilantro, beef, fish and pork. “But I’ve added flourishes and some surprises,” he explained as he prepped for the banquet, which was cooked and served in London Bay Homes’ Avena model in the Lake Club at Lakewood Ranch. (Consider it delicious niche marketing: The upscale guests were introduced in the most pleasant way possible to the model home, designed as an over-the-top Mediterranean farmhouse, with 8,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor living space.)
Among the chef’s flourishes: sprigs of beets blood herb garnish in the ceviche, a white truffled fava bean purée served with braised short ribs of beef, and a specialty Colombian bread made with yucca flour and mozzarella and manchego cheese. He also chose rabbit and quail, the first traditional in Brazil and the second often associated with Uruguay, making an empanada with palm oil in the pastry and featuring rabbit meat smoked over applewood and a salad with more South American staples: dates, apples, cashews and cilantro.
Such flights of gourmet fancy are nothing new for the 36-year-old chef, who has cooked professionally in his native Scotland and in England, Canada and the United States, where he worked for über-chef Daniel Boulud in New York He moved to Sarasota with his wife, Jules, last year, and his company, Innovative Dining, now specializes in private dinners and cocktail parties.
The guests arrived at 6 p.m. to find two 16-foot-long, side-by-side tables, styled by Andrea Rogers of Party Chic, set with vivid South American textiles and raffia-wrapped wine bottles. The South American wines were chosen by Biddinger and supplied by Winebow. (The company always provides the wines without charge for the club’s dinners, and most members reciprocate by purchasing some of the vintages they’ve been introduced to that evening.)
After sipping sparkling Spanish cava in the grand salon, the guests sat down to the first of eight courses, quinoa croquette with fresh anchovy and saffron aioli. Three hundred wine glasses and two hours later (“Men won’t stay put more than two hours, no matter how extraordinary the food and wine,” Hammond-Chambers confides) they polished off the dessert, tres leches with pineapple, and raised their glasses of Brazilian pineapple cocktail in a heartfelt toast to their founder, the chef, and the flavors of South America.
wine: Juve y Camps Cava Brut Reserva de la Familia (Spain)
Quinoa and Parmesan croquette with aji amarillo aioli
wine: Terranoble Sauvignon Blanc (Chile)
Equadorian squid, avocado and yellow tomato ceviche
wine: Nieto Senetiner Chardonnay Reserva (Argentina)
Chupe de camerone con chorizo
wine: Terranoble Carmenere Reserva (Chile)
Braised rabbit empanada with chayote, date, cashew and cilantro salad
wine: Nieto Senetiner Bonarda (Argentina)
Quail asado, crispy corn arepa and wild mushroom escabeche
wine: Nieto Senetiner Don Nicanor (Argentina)
Malbec braised short rib of beef with fava bean purée
wine: Cadus Malbec Reserva (Argentina)
Tres Leches with cachaça macerated pineapple
(Classic Latin dessert)
Brazilian Pineapple Cocktail
4 oz. Pitú Cachaça (Brazilian rum)
2 oz. pineapple juice
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons simple syrup
1 cup crushed ice
2 pineapple wedges (garnish)
Combine rum, pineapple juice, lemon juice and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a cocktail glass over crushed ice. Garnish with a pineapple wedge.
London Bay Homes’ Avena model is in the Lake Club at Lakewood Ranch. The home, which has been furnished by Naples Romanza design group, is priced at $2.25 million. For information, call 907-9088.