Yesterday I wrote about going with Iliana Regan to forage frogs—the precise name is frog giggin'—on a golf course in Indiana, near where she grew up. It was three days before I got an e-mail saying that she would have a dish to show off. I wanted to see it—and hopefully taste it—because an essential part of the story, for me, was seeing how Regan took something that has roots in a childhood of hunting and foraging in semirural Indiana, and turned it into something reflecting her experiences in the world of fine dining—which most recently included attending the international Mad Symposium devoted to cutting-edge cuisine, and dining at Noma in Copenhagen.
What's interesting is how she flits back and forth between the most rarefied high-end dining and things that she grew up doing with no sense of a contradiction between them. Plenty of chefs are inspired by things from their childhood and the world they grew up in, but they tend to put a lot of professional technique and experience between themselves and that past. Regan seems to occupy both worlds unselfconsciously like no one I've met; she's constructed her restaurant and its commercial appeal to diners to allow her to work in her own world and in her own head, pursuing the memories and fantasies that appeal to her.
"I made a savory buttermilk custard, and these are little nasturtium berries that we got from Seedling Farms," she says, pointing to some little green balls of vegetation floating in liquid. "It looks like he just hacked them down, so I was really happy that even though we got these big huge clusters of them that don't look like they're in the best shape, we ended up getting all the nasturtium berries that are really nice. I made a dill pickle, pretty much exactly like the one Getty was talking about."
Next to the nasturtium berries are nasturtium leaves, which look very much like miniature lily pads. "I couldn't not do that," she says.
And then there's the frog legs. "These are pretty awesome," she muses. "Pretty big thighs, wonderful calf muscles, little toes . . ." But then she has to admit, "It's really probably better that Getty does the frog gigging. Because they're too cute. Even here, I made Luke [one of her cooks] clean a couple of them because they were still . . . moving a little too much."
She heats some butter in a pan and then lays a leg in the pan. "Last time I did it I just coated them with flour and sauteed them, but I wanted it to be a little bit more of a cleaner presentation. The flour can get kind of mucky," she says. She spoons hot butter over it for a few minutes, making sure it doesn't overcook. Once it comes out of the pan, she picks the biggest morsels of meat off the bones and sets them on a paper towel.
She takes a terrarium which already has a little puddle of the buttermilk in it, and begins arranging the meat and then the greenery inside it with tweezers. The last piece to go in is the furthest segment of the leg, including the foot and toes. "I like to put this part in, to be a little morbid," she laughs. She talks about her menus as "woodland picnics" sometimes, but occasionally you think that needs to be followed by "as staged by Wednesday Addams."
She arranges the greenery in the bowl. Besides nasturtiums pickled Getty-style, she has a deli cup of slightly cloudy liquid that she says is a cucumber fermentation, which she splashes over the greens, like a salad dressing. "When we tasted it earlier, we did think it needed a little more salt. We brined the legs a little bit, but with the cream and the fresh nasturtium, it needed a little bit more of a salinity to it."
After giving some frogs to Getty and to a couple of friends back in Indiana, and a few used in test runs of the dish, the original count of close to 20 was down to about eight frogs, so it's not a dish she's going to be serving to everyone—just to some special friends of the restaurant. "It tastes like—I don't know, it has the sweetness of crab meat, like a really nice piece of Alaskan crab, but not a lot of fishiness. What do you think?" she asks Luke, who's prepping something else nearby.
"You get a lot of earthy herbaceousness," he says. "Like you would expect out of a seaweed, you know?"
The last step is to place this terrarium inside another terrarium filled rocks and moss. "My idea for the presentation is, there's nasturtium as lily pads, but then I made it kind of like its natural habitat—moss, rocks, sticks, leaves, water. And the leg is kind of cool in it—like a skeleton."