On Saturday night, we did another of my tasting menus to celebrate a 60th birthday. I really enjoyed creating and executing this menu. Unlike some menus, it came together in about five minutes and I was off to the races. The customers requested something Moroccan and something Indian, which helped guide a couple of the choices. This post is not going to be short. I am trying to record some of my thoughts here for my own reference in the future. I think my cooking is getting much more refined, a bit more cerebral, and hopefully, more playful too.
Pennsylvania Dutch Dried Corn and Virginia Slab Bacon Soup. I've been playing with textures in food a lot more in the last six months or so and I wanted this dish to be a play on the textures of corn. Cope's Dried Sweet Corn is a product of nearby Lancaster County, PA and something that I have been experimenting with of late. It is sweet corn that is picked while still young and tender and then dried. The interesting thing about it is that it is equally good reconstituted or dried.
I wanted this dish to set the tone for the evening: at once comforting, playful, thought provoking, and interactive. The soup is classic Southern "fried corn" in flavor, comfort food par excellence. Fried corn in my family is when you render several strips of bacon and then slice fresh sweet corn into the bacon fat and cook it until it thickens, like creamed corn.
I laid out the garnishes along the plate, from the cup to the edge of the plate—smoked duck, chives, dried corn, duck cracklings (duck skin and fat rendered to crispy, crunchy awesomeness). Rather than garnish the soup directly myself, I left that to my guests for two reasons. First, there is no way to manipulate the garnishes without using your fingers. I wanted my guests to interact with the food, which should have a tactile component as well as the more usual components. I hoped that using their fingers would set the customers at ease and set the tone that while the food is serious, it should be seriously fun. And second, I hoped that the customers would experiment with the different flavor combinations and textures. And they did. The cracklings were a huge hit.
I paired this with a Virginia Viognier, an excellent pairing. I'm going to say this again for everyone to hear: we make the best Viognier in the world here in Virginia.
Crispy Fried Oyster. This dish is a play on the oyster theme, combining salsify (also called Oyster Plant) and oysters. I wanted to see if pairing them would be harmonious and more than the sum of their individual contributions. I poached the salsify and then set it in an aspic of Sauvignon Blanc and oyster liquor. You can see the salsify terrine better by following the salsify link just above.
I topped the terrine with a large fried oyster and a touch of micro-celery for flavor contrast. I set up a deliberate temperature contrast between the hot oyster and the cold terrine. The pairing went well enough, especially when served with a glass of the same Sauvignon Blanc as in the gelée, but I don't think it was memorable enough to repeat. The effect was kind of white-on-white, technically interesting, visually appealing, and tasty enough, but perhaps too subtle.
Huevos Rancheros. This is a dish that I really liked on a lot of levels. Huevos Rancheros is a dish that many of us know and love: a fried egg and salsa on top of tortillas. I really like to reimagine classic dishes with the same classic flavors, but with different forms and textures. Sometimes I want you to really think about what you're eating and what role flavor, temperature, and texture play in your perception of a dish.
The first thing I thought about was the tortilla. Gringos have a predominant preference for wheat flour tortillas rather than the classic corn masa tortillas that the dish is usually served on. I decided to play on this by using the form of wheat that we most often treat as corn: semolina. What do we mostly do with semolina, if we're not making pasta? Boil it up into a mush like polenta—think gnocchi di semolina or Cream of Wheat, which if thick enough resembles masa. And the pasta yellow color doesn't hurt in the trompe l'oeil effect either. So, I cooked the semolina fairly thick, spread it in a thin layer, let it set up, cut rounds out, and toasted them in a dry pan just like cooking tortillas on a comal.
Next: the egg. The small size of the dish required a quail egg, which I decided to poach rather than fry. I'm not a fan of crispy edges on eggs (maybe you are, but my mother made me eat them every day for years and now that I'm an adult, I will be damned if I eat another or inflict them on my customers. Mom, I love you, but no more eggs!).
Once I had the poached quail egg in mind, the thought of that runny, thinly encapsulated yolk got me thinking that I should mimic it with the salsa. So into the blender and a bit of reverse spherification magic and voilà, spherical salsa marinated in chorizo oil. I had to use just a touch of xanthan gum on the salsa to get it to mimic the texture of the egg yolk; it was just a wee bit too watery otherwise. A bit of rendered chorizo and a splash of pimentón sauce completes the dish.
The only thing that bothers me about this dish is the olive color of the salsa. In blending the salsa, the green cilantro, green onion, and green chile mixed with the red tomato to make a nice ripe olive color. But the cilantro and chile were critical to the flavor. Maybe I can figure out how to extract the cilantro and chile flavors some day and end up with a tomato-colored salsa.
Note to those who would follow after me: you must reduce the quantity of onion significantly. My first attempt was a standard salsa whose flavor when blended was dominated by onion to the point where it became inedible. Crushing the onion in the blender turns it into a beast. Use 75% less onion than you would for a standard chopped salsa and lay way off the garlic.
I paired this with a light Sicilian Sangiovese.
Deconstruction of Bestilla. I just happened to see Mario do a version of bestilla on Iron Chef last weekend and I was thinking as I was watching that I could do it better. And when my customer asked for a Moroccan dish in the tasting, I had my chance.
Let me apologize for the crappy photo. Things were mightily hectic on the line when I took this and I got bumped every time that I took a picture. This is the only one that is halfway acceptable; none of the good low-angle shots came out. You try handholding a camera with a macro lens, flash off, stopped way down because of crappy lighting, on a screamingly busy restaurant line and see what your results are!
I wanted to play with people's notions of what constitutes a sweet course and what constitutes a savory course and Arab-inspired cuisine is wonderful at blending savory and sweet.
There is nothing unusual in the traditional chicken (I just couldn't get pigeons for this tasting) tagine that serves as the basis for my bestilla. But, rather than encasing the traditional filling in pastry, I decided to do a napoleon of layers of pastry and fillings. This would emphasize the crackle and crunch of the pastry that would otherwise be dulled by the steam from the filling.
In making the pastry, I layered pastry sheets with cinnamon and sugar and cooked them in the oven to the point of dark caramelization to give a bitterness to play against the sweetness of the chicken. I am already wondering what effect cocoa powder between the pastry layers would have. I sprinkled the pastry liberally with cinnamon and powdered sugar before assembling the napoleon.
The bottom layer of the napoleon is spinach sautéed with golden raisins, almonds, and red onions that were marinated in vinegar and sugar. The center layer is the traditional pulled chicken. The top is finished with the highly reduced sauce bound with eggs. I wanted a custardy effect rather than a scrambled egg effect so the eggs were whisked rapidly in the manner of classic oeufs brouillés.
I set a fruity Marlborough Pinot Noir against all the spices and flavors and it worked quite well.
Punjabi Lamb Kebab. There is nothing new or creative in this dish; it is quite simply classic Punjabi cuisine in the miniature. I marinated some shoulder of local lamb in my special lamb masala, garlic, ginger, and yoghurt for 24 hours, then grilled it. Lacking a tandoor, I grilled the miniature naan. The garnishes—raita, dhania chatni (cilantro/coriander chutney), and dal makhani (urad dal with grated tomatoes and special saunf masala)—are all typical. Nothing novel here, just solid good eats.
I chose a big Nero d’Avola from Sicily to stand up to the big flavors in this dish.
Hibiscus Crème Caramel. Sometimes I think that pastry chefs get carried away and lose sight of the tried and true desserts such as crème caramel whose silky custard is such a classic comfort food.
I brewed a tea of hibiscus flowers and loose black (Keemun Panda) tea with some dried cranberries to amplify the red color. Then I added sugar and cooked the tea into a syrup which you see garnishing the plate. The cream base, I steeped with more hibiscus flowers, and the baked custard, I topped with a candied hibiscus flower.
This was paired with a gorgeous pink Crémant d’Alsace, whose color echoed the hibiscus and whose strawberry, cranberry, and rhubarb flavors meshed elegantly with the matching hibiscus flavors—a perfect pairing in my book.
Seven Textures of Chocolate. And now just after I said that sometimes pastry chefs get carried away, here I go getting carried away on a chocolate fantasy. You should know that I am not motivated in the least by chocolate and pastry is not my thing, although I have a pretty deft hand at it. By choice, I don't eat sweets, so it is profoundly strange that I should labor so much over a single sweet composition, which you see here at low-angle running down the plating table.
You can see from left to right a three-chocolate mousse, three different chocolate bonbons, a streak of ganache paint, a straw of tempered dark chocolate resting on a cube of my sinfully rich and decadent Bête Noir, a quenelle of my quick fudge, and finally, an espresso cup of banging Mexican hot chocolate. I included the hot chocolate to help tease the chocolate-jaded palate back to life with a big hit of pasilla chile.
Can I just say in passing that I hate working with white chocolate? My hat is off to those of you who have the patience to work with it.
I paired this with a straightforward ruby Port, but a delicious local raspberry Merlot or a huge Amarone would have worked equally well, if not better.