I will admit that I have a big soft-spot for John Dornback, the talented chef and owner of Basi Italia. Johnny was the chef for our last two Slow Food open air dinners and as well as cooking up delicious food in far from ideal circumstances (a folding table in a windy field), his enthusiasm helped to make each event both relaxed and fun. When I lost my job last year, I went to Basi for a commiseration dinner with a friend and Johnny insisted that both my dinner – and a strong drink were on the house. It was an act of kindness that made the world seem a much brighter place.
Basi, is a tiny Italian restaurant hidden in an alley in Victorian Village. Once you find it, you are rewarded with great food, a cosy atmosphere and in the summer one of the best patios in Columbus. From the first Monday in June you can enjoy the patio at lunchtime too.
Johnny was a last minute stand in for the North Market cooking class last week, but as we sat down to a class of bubbly and a beautiful plate of hors d’oeuvres you would never have guessed that he had only been given 24 hours notice.
We started by learning a dish that is one of of Basi’s most popular. The zucchini appetizer is so beloved that I don’t think they will ever be allowed to take it off the menu. It is a simple dish with but its one of those simple dishes that really works. Whenever people talk about Basi they invariably mention the zucchini appetizer.
If you want to try replicating it at home, here’s what you need: matchsticks of zucchini (these are cut by hand at the restaurant), sliced almonds, lemon juice (ideally meyer lemon juice when, and if you can find it), olive oil, salt, parmesan and fresh flat leaf parsley. The secrets are to use plenty of olive oil and to toast the almonds in the olive oil to flavor the oil before you add the zucchini. Once you get some color on the almonds, you add the zucchini to the pan and keep tossing it in the oil. You are just trying to warm the zucchini and not saute it, so it really doesn’t need much time. Probably the biggest pitfall is overcooking the zucchini. Salt to taste, toss in lots of chopped parsley and serve with parmesan. Johnny used sheets of thinly sliced parmesan but shavings would work fine too. The zucchini appetizer was well paired with a New Zealand blended white.
The main course was a salad, although the word salad seems insufficient to describe it. Steak, roasted corn, roasted vidalia onions, jicama, avocado, gorgonzola, green godess dressing, romaine, roasted cherry tomatoes and roasted fingerling potatoes. Lots of flavors but they were surprisingly harmonious on the plate. The roasted ingredients can be prepared ahead and then reheated just before you assemble the salad. The heat of the roasted ingredients wilts the lettuce and the jicama adds some crunch to the salad. Because there was oil on the roasted ingredients the dressing, made with pureed roasted shallots, cider vinegar, poppy seeds and honey, was almost oil free.
Johnny gave us a lot of advice on cookings steaks. Most importantly making sure that you bring the meat to room temperature before you try to cook it as this is key to getting a good sear. He used a spice rub (fennel seed, brown sugar, oregano, basil, mild chili and red pepper flakes) which also helped with the sear, and you could hear the ooos and aahs as people tasted it. Johnny used a large piece of sirlion and seared it for four minutes on each side before transferring it to a 450ºF oven fro 5-7 minutes. As well as bringing it to room temperature before you cook the steak, its also important to let it rest before you serve it. Johnny cooked the steak instinctively but also gave advice to those who rely on meat thermometers: Don’t forget that it will keep cooking after you take it out of the oven, so take it out before it reaches the desired temperature.
Dessert was a pineapple brulee with tiny meringues, and a buttermilk sauce. The sauce was made with a simple syrup infused with mint and ginger whisked together with buttermilk. Mint and pineapple is a fantastic combination and it was a light and refreshing summer dessert.
It was a great class, Johnny’s informal style of cooking with a focus on quality ingredients and simple flavors is both accessible and inspiring and his passion for cooking and life is infectious.