Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Different Strokes: The Art of Recipe Design

From time to time, I pick a dish from a magazine or cookbook and have my chefs dissect it, mainly as an exercise in teaching them my cooking philosophy. If they are going to design successful dishes for our menu, there are basic principles to which I require that the dish adhere.

Today I picked a dish from a highly respected magazine for professional chefs. I'm not naming names because it is not my intent to embarrass anyone. I'm not picking fault here either: this is only an exercise in thinking about my menu. Each chef has different ideas about his own menu and my comments here are about my menu, not about the menu from which this dish came.

The dish in question is entitled "Chardonnay Poached Maine Diver Scallops with Lobster Roe & Fava Bean/Squash Blossom/Ramp Succotash." I don't know whose title this is; certainly the magazine editors could have taken liberties with it. Also, I suspect that the accompanying photo was done in a studio and does not represent how the chef would have plated it.

The photo shows an oval plate holding three bay scallop shells. Those shells have a succotash of fava beans and yellow corn down, with a couple of red pear tomatoes and a poached sea scallop over. The three scallops are curved around a squash bloom draped like a discarded petticoat on the plate next to a puddle of orange sauce. Over the top of all is draped a poached green onion.

My initial reaction to the photo and to the title is that there is way too much going on in this dish. My constant mantra for my chefs is "Simplify. Simplify. Simplify." I think most young chefs go through a phase where too much is not enough. Only with experience comes the ability to step back from a dish and question each ingredient so that you can distill it to its essence.

My second reaction is that the dish is very hard to carry to the dining room and very hard to eat. From a server's point of view (which far too many chefs ignore), the scallop shells are resting on bare plate guaranteeing that they are going to skate around the plate as the server goes to the table. Where the chef put them is not where they are going to end up. A favorite trick of mine when working with scallop shells is to put a dab of mashed potato on the plate to glue the scallop shell in place.

From the diner's point of view, first there is the issue of this poached green onion. It surely must be cut to be eaten, yet there is no real estate on the plate where the customer can cut it. Second, I wonder how the customer is going to cut the scallops and the tomatoes without rocking the scallop shell boats.

Visually, the green onion adds confusion to the plate and the tomatoes stand out for being much larger than the succotash that they accompany. The sauce and the scallops might look a lot better if the sauce draped the scallops. Again, this is personal preference as are all these points that I make.

From a composition point of view, I don't understand what the tomatoes contribute to the dish. The squash bloom doesn't seem to add anything either. And, if I had lobster roe in hand, I'd probably serve it with lobster and not scallops. Moreover, if you have ever eaten a ramp, you know that it is an excruciatingly garlicky affair. Do you really want to pair a very subtly flavored Chardonnay-poached scallop with a hugely garlicky ramp?

But my biggest problem with this dish is its blatant disregard for seasonality. Let's review the availability of the ingredients in my area:

Scallops—mostly year round, unless the fleet has fished its quota
Tomatoes—August and September
Favas—May and early June
Squash blooms—late June through frost
Corn—mid-July through late September

In our area, there is no way that the spring ingredients can be at market at the same time as the summer ingredients.

Finally, one of my cooks posed the question that you are no doubt kicking around: "What would you do?"

Here are three off-the-cuff ideas:

1. Stuff the squash blooms with ricotta and scallop roe and lightly tempura them. Use the squash blooms as a base for the scallops with the sauce over the top. Garnish with micro-arugula to cut through the richness.

2. Purée the favas and put them down as the base for caramelized scallops (rather than poached). Put the sauce over and garnish with tiny fiddlehead ferns, small morels, and bits of crispy ramp.

3. Use a fresh corn (or even corn and baby Lima bean) risotto as a base for the scallops and sauce with a chunky vinaigrette of fresh tomato and cucumber. Garnish with small or micro-basil.

This offers a little insight into my philosophy of cooking, which is different from other chefs' philosophies. But that's one of the beauties of this world: different strokes for different folks.

No comments:

Post a Comment