This islander takes cooking, but not himself, very seriously
When foodie John McNatt first made grilled romaine for his teenage sons, they looked crestfallen at being offered a barbecued vegetable instead of a juicy steak, he said.
“But once they tried it, they wanted it every day,” McNatt said. “Lettuce loves smoke and it has since become a family favorite that both my sons, who are now grown, and my grandchildren enjoy.”
McNatt was born in Houston, but his family moved to Galveston when he was a kindergartner. He jokes he missed out on the born-on-the-island or “BOI” badge by five years. The owner of an eponymous general contracting company specializing in architectural work, McNatt can walk down The Strand in Galveston’s downtown and identify many buildings with windows and doors fixed by his firm.
Food has long been a passionate hobby for McNatt, who has competed in local barbecue cook-offs and national general cooking competitions, presented cooking demonstrations, and has commercial-grade appliances and equipment at his home.
McNatt loves picking the brains of local and national chefs, and regularly delights friends and family with everything from specialty international dishes to home-made sausages, dry-aged meat, rillettes, pâté and terrines.
“I really want to extend my charcuterie skills to making homemade salami and want to try cheese-making next,” he said.
Whether he’s working with meat, seafood or vegetables, good cooking techniques and honoring the flavor of the food is of paramount importance to McNatt, he said.
“It annoys me when people say they don’t like vegetables,” he said. “I ask, ‘Have you tried them fresh and not from the can?’ You can have the most incredible flavors if you honor the essence of your ingredients.”
McNatt remembers his father, who was the cook of the house, making hearty comfort meals, he said. When he had his own family, he bought a “Joy of Cooking” cookbook and set about making beef Wellington.
Inspired by the results, he bought “La Technique” by French-born, American Chef Jacques Pépin, and worked through the book page by page.
Unfortunately, he lost the book in Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008.
“But years later, my wife surprised me with tickets to an author talk followed by a meet-and-greet,” he said. “Seeing Jacques Pépin was the only time in my life I’ve been starstruck. I remember my wife turning to me and saying, ‘breathe.’”
His love of cooking influences many aspects of his life. For example, vacations are all about food.
“We will plan all the restaurants and markets we want to visit and then we’ll say ‘Oh, we’re in Philly and we’ve only got one day left, we better see the Liberty Bell.’”
A visit to Lyon, France, is on his bucket list because he loves the focus on fresh, local food, and how the community is built around buying, preparing and enjoying delicious meals.
Although McNatt has advanced mastery of many techniques, he continues to learn new things and he tries not to take himself too seriously, he said.
“I still remember going into Maceo’s one day and asking them for basil chiffonade, not realizing it was a way of cutting the basil, not a type of herb.”
Grilled Hearts of Romaine with Sautéed Gulf Shrimp and Roasted Red Pepper Coulis
For the grilled romaine:
4 hearts of romaine lettuce
2 tablespoons of freshly picked thyme
Fresh cracked pepper
For the shrimp:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ pounds medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Old Bay or just salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon freshly minced garlic
3 tablespoons butter, cubed
Minced zest of 1 lemon
Juice from lemon
For the red pepper coulis:
3-4 large red bell peppers
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large shallot, finely diced
¾ cup white wine
Salt and white pepper to taste
For the grilled romaine: Cut romaine lettuce lengthwise keeping root end intact and discarding any wilted leaves.
Heat outdoor grill to medium high.
Lightly drizzle the cut side of each lettuce half with olive oil. Season with thyme and cracked pepper using a small pastry brush to work the seasonings into the layers.
Grill face side down until there’s a little char and the leaves are warm, flip for a few minutes just to warm the backside but not to make the lettuce limp. Cut the root end off just before serving, cut-side up.
For the sautéed shrimp: Heat the olive oil in a large fry pan over medium heat, add the shrimp and garlic, sprinkle with seasoning. Reduce heat to low cook shrimp for 1 minute. Quickly flip each shrimp and add the cubed butter evenly over the shrimp, not disturbing again for a minute. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice, toss to coat. The shrimp are done when they’re no longer opaque.
For the roasted red pepper coulis: Grill the bell peppers over a gas burner or under a broiler, turning with tongs until all skin is blackened. Transfer to a paper bag to steam for an additional 15 minutes. Core the peppers and chop into ½-inch dice. They should be limp and cooked.
Add the olive oil to a sauté pan over medium heat, then add the shallot. Once the shallot is translucent, add the peppers and white wine, reducing until more than half of the liquid is gone.
Transfer to a blender or food processor, purée, season to taste, then transfer back to the sauté pan, passing the mixture through a medium sieve. Keep warm or hold in the refrigerator for several days.
Assembly: Place two grilled lettuce halves on a plate. In front of the lettuce, pool some of the red pepper coulis and top with the sautéed shrimp. Spoon some of the lemon butter sauce from the pan on top of the shrimp.
McNatt recommends getting creative. He adds grated Parmesan cheese, salt-cured egg yolk, aged balsamic vinegar and lemon zest.