“For years, a down-home sensibility with an obsession for quality and seasonality was the backbone of Hastings’ concept. But amid the hoopla, Hot and Hot has in some ways become Haute and Haute.”
–Eric Velasco, “Success Has Not Spoiled Hot and Hot Fish Club”
Chris Hastings is, by all accounts, one of the most prolific chefs on the Birmingham food scene. He’s won awards, been featured on television, and bested Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America (my personal favorite of the overly dramatic Food Network cooking competitions). Although he owns two other restaurants in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, the Hot and Hot Fish Club is his longest-running—it opened in 1995—and most popular establishment. Eric Velasco, when reviewing the restaurant, was pleased to find that Hastings’s growing fame “has brought new maturity to the menu while the food continues to be inspirational.”
Velasco primarily focuses on Hastings’s ability to innovate classic dishes, describing “whimsical” pork and beans featuring pork loin and cornbread sticks, steak and eggs reimagined with Wagyu steak, roe, and quail eggs, tomato salad decorated with corn, field peas, fried okra, and bacon, and an okra basket adorned with “garlicky chive aioli.” Although he remarks on the slow service and small portions, it is clear that Velasco is in awe of the creative dishes as he compliments their artistic presentation and fresh ingredients.
Surprising dishes, like the ones Velasco describes, are thrilling to me; I love finding new uses for ingredients and combining cuisines. I like deep fried sushi rolls with cream cheese, Hawaiian pizza with Canadian bacon, and Korean pork tacos. For that reason, I was very excited when my boyfriend (who works at IBM) introduced me to Chef Watson, a computer that invents new recipes.
Using the same Watson technology that won a game of Jeopardy!, IBM created a program that uses the chemical composition of ingredients to suggest new combinations. Entering an ingredient, item, or cuisine style into Chef Watson’s website will provide you with potential recipes, complementary ingredients, and recommendations for new combinations. The recipes are almost entirely created by Watson, although chefs have reviewed them to adjust some of the techniques.
Although I am lucky enough to have access to a free copy of the Chef Watson cookbook, this was my first foray into actually cooking from it. Inspired by Velasco’s description of Hot and Hot’s Spicy Gazpacho, which “roared with flavor,” I turned to Watson’s own Spicy Tomato Gazpacho with Ginger.
There are two primary “surprise” elements in this recipe. The first and most obvious is the inclusion of ginger. Gazpacho is a traditional Spanish cold soup of tomatoes, cucumber, and other fresh vegetables. Ginger, of course, is an East Asian root, featured in a plethora of Japanese dishes. However, the fresh heat of ginger blends perfectly with the crisp, refreshing flavors provided by the vegetables. Second, the leeks and tomato are sweated with sherry and oil before being combined with more fresh tomatoes and other ingredients. This method adds a rich depth to the usually bright flavor of gazpacho.
While extreme cuisine purists would scoff at the unusual combination (and probably the inclusion of technology and chemical breakdowns in the recipe creation), I am of the opinion that our expanded knowledge of ingredients offers us opportunities to develop new flavors and delicious recipes. And I’ll bet Chris Hastings would give my gazpacho a chance, even if it can’t stand up to his own.
Watson’s Spicy Tomato Gazpacho with Ginger
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup leeks, rinsed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 large beefsteak tomato, cored and chopped
4 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
12 ounces cherry tomatoes
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped
4 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
½ cup water
salt and pepper, to taste
1 avocado, pitted and chopped
1 tablespoon dill sprigs
croutons (can be made with bread, olive oil, and salt & pepper)
- Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and season with salt. Cook, stirring often, until softened (5-7 minutes). Add the sherry and cook until almost completely reduced. Add the beefsteak tomato and ginger. Cook, stirring until the tomato just begins to release its juices (about 2 minutes). Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- Combine the leek mixture with the cherry tomatoes, cucumber, jalapeño, balsamic vinegar, and water in a blender and purée until very smooth (about 2 minutes). Season with salt and pepper, and thin with water as necessary for desired consistency.
- Serve cold, topped with the croutons, avocado, and dill.
––By Carissa Schreiber