Judy Giglia

Chef Judy Giglia works with cubed watermelon at the farm to table salad class offered by the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. 

Students who showed up for the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival “farm to table” salad class July 24 expecting to see the same old same old versions of lettuce or spinach salads were in for a shock.

The first thing instructor Judy Giglia did was pull out a huge bowl of watermelon cubes and proceed to gently mix the fruit with feta cheese, fresh mint and basil, extra virgin oil and a dash of maldon salt topping the whole thing off with a balsamic vinegar reduction.

“It’s a play on caprese salad but instead of tomatoes we’re using watermelon,” she said. “This is as simple as it gets.”

Giglia said she was offering fresh takes on traditional salads. “It’s hard to eat heavy meals in the summer, and we’re going to eat what’s seasonal now.”

A guest chef up from Atlanta for the FSAF, Giglia started the morning of the class by shopping at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market. This was her second summer to visit Fairbanks, and she learned last year to get to the market early to reap from the harvest of fresh produce.

“We got there 15 minutes before they opened and left with a bounty,” she said.

The chef grew up in an Italian family in Rochester, New York. While earning her master’s in Tuscan cuisine from Apicius International School of Hospitality in Florence, Italy, Giglia became friends with Sean Walklin, now an assistant professor in the UAF Community and Technical College’s culinary program. He invited her to share her knowledge with interested Fairbanksans. She has traveled the world, learning from the industry’s leading chefs and absorbing information from different cultures as she went.

Giglia’s second salad was a concoction of raw zucchini and yellow squash. Using a mandolin to cut the vegetables paper thin, she cautioned the students that it can be a dangerous instrument but is handy for slicing. She mixed champagne vinegar, salt, freshly squeezed lime juice, an egg yolk, olive oil and grapeseed oil in a blender. As she mixed the salad with her hands she added freshly grated Parmesan cheese and chopped basil, then in the end added more Parmesan. “There can never be enough Parmesan cheese in this salad,” she said.

“Don’t ever use prepared lime juice,” Giglia advised. “That stuff is terrible. It’s tart in a strange, bitter way.”

When one of the students professed an allergy to oil, Giglia appeared genuinely stumped but patiently went to the trouble to make separate sauces for each dish.

On the third salad, the culinary school’s blender blew out and the professional chef seamlessly replaced the faulty machine with another one and continued her lessons. Her pinnacle dish was a carrot ginger salad with salmon. Giglia sautéed sockeye salmon filets in olive oil and said when cooking fish like that you have to stay attuned to what is happening so the fish doesn’t overcook.

“Sprinkle kosher salt on it as if it’s snowing, not like it’s a blizzard,” she said.

The thick dressing contained red onion, crimini mushrooms, radishes, carrots, fennel, crystallized ginger, olive oil, lime juice, white miso paste, sesame seeds, low-sodium soy sauce, sesame seed oil and siracha sauce. Once locally grown lettuce was tossed with the dressing, Giglia set a salmon fillet on each plate for beautiful and tasty results.

While munching their salads and having an informal Q&A with the visiting chef, students expressed delight in the unusual and delicious salads they got to try. One told the teacher, “I’m really excited about the three recipes you shared. I’m going to go home and try them, then I’m going to have guests over for a backyard party and this is the perfect menu.”

Nancy Tarnai, a freelance writer, has been dutifully sampling food in the name of journalistic research for the News-Miner since 1995. She can be reached at njtarnai@gmail.com.