Tasting Memories: A ‘Fluffy’ Recipe from the Inn at Little Washington

For a summer weeknight meal, a happy accident becomes a family-favorite salad of ham, arugula, Parmigiano, apples and pine nuts

Tasting Memories: A ‘Fluffy’ Recipe from the Inn at Little Washington
The salad's airy presentation earned it the nickname "the Fluffy;" chef Patrick O’Connell sports his signature Dalmatian-print apron in a 2004 Wine Spectator photo shoot. (Bill Milne)
Jul 6, 2020

Even in quarantine, there are fun coincidences that transport us across time and space. Our grocery-delivery service recently double-shipped us prosciutto, so my wife suggested that I make the salad from a 2004 menu I worked on with Patrick O’Connell, chef and owner of the Inn at Little Washington, a long-time Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. Then my colleague Gillian Sciaretta interviewed him about his recent plan to use mannequins—each with a name and backstory, and glass of wine, of course—to enforce social distancing in the restaurant’s elegant dining rooms.

O’Connell is a singular man. He is charming and irreverently funny, but also dead serious about food and hospitality. My visit might have been my first such trip for the magazine, and I felt the weight of having to deliver. He made it easy, speaking at length across a range of subjects, generous with his time and spirit. He gave good quote, as journalists like to say, though sadly some of the best were too outrageous for print.

The inn was a rural gas station in a sleepy Virginia village when O’Connell and ex-partner Reinhardt Lynch bought it decades ago. Over time, they built it into a wine and food destination with a character like no other place in the United States. Like its creator, it celebrates its quirks and delivers total sophistication and comfort. It’s distinctly American and also somehow its own commonwealth. Everyone looks great in the dining room. Service is perfectly accommodating and unobtrusive. The food is elegant and refined but happy-making. The wine list is bonkers. When guests ask to see the amazing kitchen, where Gregorian chants are played all day, they are led by a server wearing choral robes, swinging a lit censer, then received by O’Connell in his signature Dalmatian-print apron.

The salad I mentioned was a mainstay in my house for a while, as was the cauliflower puree in the scallop recipe. Not for nothing did the restaurant staff call it “the Fluffy”—the ingredients are twisted together delicately and piled airily on the plate. It’s a great first course, but, with bread, it also makes a good weeknight dinner in summer. (Funnily, it is directly echoed in a salad recipe by Nancy Silverton in our July 31 & Aug. 31, 2020, double issue.)

O’Connell and I matched it with a Viognier from France, the François Villard Vin de Pays de Collines Rhodaniennes Les Contours de DePoncins 2001; in the story, I say they sort of filled in gaps in each other. This time we had an Assyrtiko from Greece, the Mitravelas Estate 2019, which effectively played ping-pong with the dish, working as a contrast.

And yes, you will notice that I used prosciutto in place of country ham. I recognize the virulence of this crime. O’Connell has proudly used American ingredients sometimes perceived as humble and was an early champion of country ham. I am an unabashed lover of the stuff and have featured great examples in the magazine, probably more often than European hams. But I had prosciutto I needed to use. I apologize. I’m begging you: Please don’t tell O’Connell—he will smite me with his papal ferula.

Shavings of Ham with Parmigiano, Apples and Pine Nuts

Courtesy of chef Patrick O’Connell

  • 1/2 pound block of best-quality Parmigiano cheese
  • 12 very thin slices of ham (preferably Virginia country ham, but can substitute prosciutto) cut into wide ribbons
  • 1 ripe apple, halved and cored (unpeeled)
  • 1 bunch baby arugula, washed and stemmed
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Cracked black pepper to taste

Using a vegetable peeler or cheese slicer, shave the Parmigiano into ribbons. Intertwine a few ribbons of cheese and ham on each of six plates to form a small, fluffy mound. Using a mandolin or sharp knife, slice the apple as thinly as possible. Add a few apple slices to each mound of cheese and ham. Over each plate, toss a few leaves of baby arugula, sprinkle pine nuts and drizzle extra-virgin olive oil. Garnish with cracked black pepper. Serves 6.

See the full 2004 menu, including recipes for sesame-dusted Maine diver scallop on cauliflower puree, and panna cotta parfaits

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