Spring into Taste

Chef Clay Conley offers seasonal tips for home cooks

Along with his partners in Buccan Group, James Beard Award-nominated Chef Clay Conley owns and operates the fine-dining establishments Buccan and Imoto in Palm Beach. This past January, he opened Grato, a more rustic but no less quality-controlled Italian restaurant, in West Palm Beach.

Chef Clay Conley

Known for creating innovative farm-to-table meals with seasonal, local ingredients, Clay Conley enjoys sourcing his produce from the nearby Palm Beach County farms. In particular, he says, “At Grato, we use tomatoes quite a bit, as you can imagine, [which] in Florida are at their peak come spring. We use small, sweet jasper tomatoes and basil from Green Cay Farm and large heirlooms from Walt’s Heirloom Farmhouse Tomatoes.”

Grato in West Palm Beach

One of the best ways to truly appreciate such wonderful heirloom tomatoes is as nature intended: raw. The acidic juiciness of them pairs best with a variety of cheeses, either new and soft or aged and crystallized, and herbs that vary in pungency and intensity. Thus, for his simple but tasty Heirloom Tomato with Herbed Ricotta Crostini, an architecturally constructed salad, Conley piles on the wedged, tri-colored heirloom and halved cherry tomatoes over a pool of loose ricotta cheese curds, which incorporates a freshening mixture of chives, parsley and basil, alternating them with crisps of bread and curls of greens. He and his team, which include executive chef Jeremy Shelton and chef de cuisine Mike Chavez, then garnish this appetizer with chips of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which add notes of caramel and umami; dress it with white balsamic vinaigrette; and finish it around the edges with squiggles of sweet, dark balsamic for a spring treat that is as vibrant on the palate as the season itself is to the senses.

For consumers who wish to emulate his purchasing methods and his recipes, Conley offers the following: “Green Cay offers a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, which is a way for the public to buy locally grown food, create a relationship with a farm, and help to keep small farms in their community. Walt sells his tomatoes to consumers at the West Palm Beach Greenmarket.”

Grato’s heirloom tomato salad

Try Green Cay’s and Walt’s tomatoes with Conley’s easy-to-follow recipe below, which is a favorite on the menu at Grato.

GRATO’s Heirloom Tomato Salad, Herbed Ricotta, Basil by Chef Clay Conley

Tomato Salad:

1 pint of jasper tomatoes, halved
2 large heirloom tomatoes, cut into wedges
½ cup White Balsamic Vinaigrette (see recipe below)
2 oz. shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan)
24 large leaves of basil, torn (substitute any fresh green)
1 cup Herbed Ricotta (see recipe below)
Focaccia toasts (see recipe below)
Balsamic vinegar (Fig balsamic is preferable)

Marinate all tomatoes in white balsamic vinaigrette. On the base of the plate smear herbed ricotta. Top with tomatoes and some vinaigrette. Add cheese and basil. Break toasts into random shapes and place on salad. Garnish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Serves 4

Herbed ricotta:

1 cup ricotta cheese
1/8 cup chives, chopped
1/8 cup parsley, chopped
1/8 cup basil, chopped

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and paddle/whip for one minute. Makes about 1 cup

White Balsamic Vinaigrette:

2 shallots, minced
1 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
2 cups extra virgin olive oil

In a bowl, combine all ingredients except oil. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk in olive oil. Makes about 3 cups

Focaccia Toast:

8 very thin focaccia slices
Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Brush slices of focaccia with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Bake until crisp. Remove and allow to cool. Serves 4