Near Restaurant's chef goes mano a mano with Buddha's hand | Key Ingredient | Chicago Reader

Near Restaurant's chef goes mano a mano with Buddha's hand 

Gaetano Nardulli prepares a "lemon with fingers" six ways.

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Spaghetti alla chitarra with Buddha's hand and bottarga

Spaghetti alla chitarra with Buddha's hand and bottarga

Julia Thiel

The Chef: Gaetano Nardulli (Near Restaurant)
The Challenger: Lee Wolen (the Lobby at the Peninsula)
The Ingredient: Buddha’s hand

Resembling a lemon with fingers, Buddha's hand is a variety of citron that originated in Asia and now grows in many temperate climates, including southern California. Its peel can be candied and the zest used like lemon zest, but the fruit has never become popular in the U.S. That's probably because no one can figure out what to do with it, Gaetano Nardulli theorizes.

"It's just not something that looks like you should be eating it," Nardulli says. "I think it's very intimidating when you look at it."

Unlike a lemon, Buddha's hand doesn't have any pulp or juice inside—it's all pith and rind. Nardulli says the flavor is very similar to a lemon's, but less bitter and acidic. He was first introduced to it in Italy, when a chef he was working for brought some back to the restaurant to experiment with. The only thing he's ever done with it, Nardulli said, is grate the zest on top of fish or pasta.

"We always see it just grated, and the more you eat it, the more you see that other things can be done with it," Nardulli said. "I didn't want to just use it one way."

He used it six ways, in fact: pickled, candied, and roasted, to start. He also made little batons from the pith; torched some of the rind to give it a stronger, nuttier flavor; and, of course, grated the zest on top of the pasta alla chitarra he made. Nardulli tossed the cooked pasta with olive oil, garlic bread crumbs, and the pith batons, then plated it on top of a puree of Buddha's hand that he'd roasted and then pressure-cooked until it was soft. On top of the pasta went all the other iterations of Buddha's hand, as well as grated bottarga (cured fish roe, in this case from gray mullet), which has a briny flavor that Nardulli liked with the acidity of the fruit.

"Although we put lots of garnishes on it, there's basically still only three ingredients to the entire dish," Nardulli said. "We just did it a few different ways."

He thought that all the preparations contributed to the dish. "You can taste citrus throughout every single bite, but it's never overpowering," he said. "It hits your mouth in different places—the roasted rind, the pith, and then the puree."

Who's next:

Noah Sandoval of Senza, working with chestnut flour. Nardulli said he chose the ingredient because "it's very versatile" and he thought it would be an interesting challenge for Sandoval, who makes only gluten-free food at Senza.

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