Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Evolution of a Menu

Long post warning. This is the saga of the development and evolution of my latest tasting menu. Some of you might find it interesting to see the process that I go through in developing a menu. I might find it interesting too, because I've never really considered how I develop a menu before; I've just done it.

This post concerns the menu development process. I describe the dishes and give photos in another post.

November 5, 2008. A customer emailed me two days ago, inquiring about a custom tasting menu to celebrate his anniversary. I have just received answers to the questions that I sent him about his food likes and dislikes, allergies, etc. And we have agreed on a price for the menu. Armed with a price and some guidance about the food, I can now set about developing a menu.

I always start my menus by writing a list of ingredients or techniques that I might like to work with. As I was going through my day, I had my clipboard near me most of the time. When an idea would pop into my head, I would scrawl it down. Ideas never come singly to me; they come in rapid-fire bursts. I am more likely to write down seven things at one time than I am to write down a single thing.

You can see that this list is pretty random, but contains only things that are in season right now. When I put an asterisk by something, it means that I really want to do that dish, such as the tartiflette. The process of writing things down gets my mind going about dishes and presentations. There's a lot happening in my mind that you can't tell from this list.

November 6, 2008. For the price, seven courses seems about right to me. I always like an odd number of courses; an even number somehow feels wrong. Seven is a good number: I can show a lot of what I can do in seven courses and there's less chance of the customer getting bored. Have you ever been to one of those 4-hour, 13-course eating marathons when you were full by the fourth course? Yeah, me too, and I want to avoid that for my guests.

You can see here that I have sketched five courses in red and then gone back in black and blue and added two more courses and converted a first course, a salad with goat cheese truffles, to a cheese course just before the dessert course. And here on this draft, I have numbered the courses in the order that I think they should appear. At this point, I have pretty well decided on the structure of the menu: a soup course, four savory courses, a cheese course, and a dessert course.

I've also started to sketch some thoughts and amplifications about certain courses, such as using rose-fleshed fingerlings for the tartiflette, potentially making siu mai (steamed dumplings) from the rabbit confit, adding some cherry to the chocolate mousse to echo the kriek sabayon, making the risotto from fregola sarda instead of rice, adding mushrooms to the duck soup ravioli, and flavoring the duck soup with five-spice.

November 7, 2008. At this point, I put the menu into Word and printed it out. Things always look much different when they are printed. Here you can see that I changed my mind about the soup. I want it to feature parsnips and to have a cream base, so I no longer feel comfortable calling it cock-a-leekie.

And I was not comfortable with the cauliflower mushrooms in the ravioli, because I wasn't sure that I would have them in stock—the dinner got pushed back four days—but more importantly, with the introduction of five-spice, the dish has taken a Chinese inflection and black mushrooms are much more in keeping with that theme.

You can see that I have made minor tweaks, such as brining the rabbit loin to make sure that it won't dry out and adding Thai basil to the "risotto." I've also started making some notes about plating: a ring mold for the rillettes and round crème brûlée molds for the tartiflette. I've also made the goat cheese truffles a lot more concrete in this version of the menu.

And finally, I have decided that I want my guests to taste each of the goat cheese truffles in a particular order, from most savory to most sweet, as a transition from the savory courses to the dessert course.

November 12, 2008. I let the menu sit all weekend without looking at it and without thinking about it very much. I always find it extremely useful to get some distance from the menu before going back over it.

I did score some tart cherry juice at the farmers market on Saturday that I can use for the granita, so I will probably change that from blood orange to tart cherry. Today, I am just running through the menu to make sure that I either have all the necessary ingredients in house or on order. With the dinner happening on Tuesday, I'll need to make sure that the things with two-day order times get here on Friday. Saturday delivery is out with most carriers as is Saturday ordering with most vendors. So, that means many items need to be ordered today, Wednesday. It takes a lot of logistics to pull off something like this.

In glancing back at the menu today, I noticed that the second course, the duck soup ravioli, has gone totally Chinese in flavor and concept, so why continue to work the ravioli metaphor? Let's just make wontons and be done with it.

Also, I got some experience with Idiot Fish over the weekend and I am no longer sure that filets are the way to go with that fish. That whole dish is the weakest on the menu and I may want to revisit the entire thing. But I'm going to give it another day or two of rest before I come back to it. I may just sous vide the fish.

November 13, 2008. Today, now that the basic components of the menu are on order and before I get busy for the weekend, I want to bring the menu into something nearing its final state. So, I am going to look at each dish very critically with an eye to composition, plating, and transition to the next course. This menu is very unusual in that the customers do not drink, so I don't have to worry about wine pairings.

In looking at the soup course, the breast of guinea hen added nothing; it was there merely for the gee-whiz factor: "Cool, guinea hen!" This is something that I have learned as I have become older, to pare a dish to its essence. Adios guinea!

The wonton course is spot-on; today I am merely amplifying my thoughts on garnish and flavor harmony.

The fish course still bothers me. I've decided to sous vide the Idiot filets because they are so fragile. Sous vide is French for "under vaccuum." I'll put the filets in a vacuum bag with some lemon-infused oil, remove the air, and very gently "poach" the filets in about 135-140F water. The broccolini that I had written on the prior draft of the menu was just a placeholder for "needs some color contrast," so I have decided to go with a little blood sorrel, whose tangy lemony flavor should echo the Meyer lemon in the fregola risotto. Whew, no more clumsy and useless broccolini on that plate! I asked myself whether the fregola risotto would be too rustic for the fish, but on reflection, I want the chewy rusticity of the fregola to contrast with the silkiness of the fish.

I'm happy with the tartiflette and mostly so with the rabbit trio, save for the juniper-cured confit. I need to focus on presentation and flavor harmony. I'm not convinced that I will understand this rabbit course until I actually taste the confit on Tuesday when I finish cooking it.

November 14, 2008. So, here's where I am today. The rabbit and duck confits are in the cooler curing, and the rabbit is braising for rillettes. I've decided on an Asian pear confit (hey, I just scored some chestnut honey at the market; that will work great in the pear confit) as a garnish for the rillettes. The rabbit confit really bothers me ("leek-tied bundles" is just so lame). Perhaps I'll plate a raviolo stuffed with confit? Not a terrible idea. And we can fry the raviolo after cooking it to make it crispy, to give some additional textural contrast between the silky confit and what otherwise would be limp pasta. Bear with me, thinking out loud as I type.

November 18, 2008. And here's the final menu. I made a few last minute tweaks. Meyer lemons were outrageously priced, so I used standard lemons in the risotto. And I added sauces or other garnish to each of the rabbit dishes. Other than that, the menu remains pretty much as it was before the weekend.

Creamy Parsnip-Leek Soup with Chive Oil and Parsnip Latke

Five-Spice Duck Soup Wonton with Green Onions, Soy- and Ginger-Braised Black Mushrooms, and House-Cured Duck Confit

Lemon-Oil Poached Filet of Idiot Fish
on Lemon and Thai Basil “Risotto” of Fregola Sarda; Blood Sorrel

Tartiflette—Rose Fingerling Potatoes, Virginia Slab Bacon, and Onions Baked under Réblochon Cheese

Trio of Rabbit Preparations:
Prosciutto-Wrapped Brined Loin with Pan Sauce
Crispy Raviolo of Juniper-Cured Confit with Juniper Salt and Gin Beurre Blanc
Rillettes with Asian Pear and Blood Orange Marmalade

Trio of Goat Cheese Truffles:
Pickled Peach and Cajun-Spiced Pecans
Cranberry and Walnut
Blood Orange and Candied Fennel Seed

Sour Cherry Granita; Cherry-Chocolate Mousse with Kriek Sabayon

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