Saturday, January 28, 2012

Vegetarian Chef's Tasting

This is a tale about letting go.

Last evening, we cooked a 5-course vegetarian tasting on a relatively slow Friday night, slow enough to let me take photos, something that I was unable to do all during the fall when we were so busy.

I was really happy to have this opportunity to do a vegetarian menu. Getting away from the meat-centric menu really frees my mind, removes constraints about how dishes are usually prepared, and gives me freedom to just do what I am feeling.

I loved each and every dish on this menu and I think we did a great job of putting the ingredients that we have now in dead winter on a plate in a creative and inviting and (most importantly) delicious manner.

While we were very pleased with the end result, the journey in getting there wasn't all that simple. Some menus just write themselves; this one did not. Over the past few years of designing menus, we have come to understand that simplicity is better than complexity, flavor trumps presentation, and if it doesn't feel right, it isn't. In short, we've learned to let go of pet ideas if they don't fit. There's always another day, another menu, another opportunity to try out that new idea.

A potato cake. This menu almost got derailed by a simple potato cake. For some reason, the Ecuadoran potato cake called the llapingacho insinuated itself into my conscious brain and wouldn't let go. From there, it was an easy enough leap to a full Ecuadoran menu. Over five or six days of brainstorming, we found ourselves putting dishes on the menu simply because they were Ecuadoran, not because they highlighted our local ingredients and not because we had a flavor profile that we were trying to express in a finished dish. This is not the way to design a successful menu. If a dish doesn't speak to you as a chef, discard it and move on.

I finally heeded the warning bells that were gently dinging in the back of my brain and punted the whole Ecuadoran menu save for the llapingachos that sent us off seeking the elusive red herring. At this point, we freed ourselves to get back to highlighting our local ingredients such as Jerusalem artichokes, rapini, and Fairy Tale squash.

As the menu started forming, all of us collectively said about the same time, "I'm not feeling the peanut sauce on the potato cakes." So we struck the traditional peanut sauce and that freed us to strike the rest of the Ecuadoran seasoning (achiote and cilantro) and just to retain that singular characteristic of the llapingacho that makes it stand out in the world's pantheon of potato cakes: the grated cheese in the cake itself.

And that is the lesson to take from this menu: learning to let go is hard but necessary. Don't force it. Keep it simple and distill it to its essence. Feel it and do it.

And now on to the photos.

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup. We have a super abundance of Jerusalem artichokes in our cooler just now and they are a natural for soup. They bring an almost inimitable silky appealing texture to soup. The downside is that they can bring a dull and listless grey color to the party as well. To mask this, we added a tiny bit of roasted red pepper for an orange hue, but not enough to flavor the soup. Too much of a silky soup can really bore your tastebuds, so we had to bring some acid to the party, which we did in the form of a roasted red pepper and goat cheese mousse. The acidic goat cheese is just the thing to keep your palate refreshed. Paired with a lemony Spanish Albariño.

Yukon Gold and Two Onion Potato Cakes. Here are the llapingachos that started this whole menu, made from local Yukon golds with a grated three-milk (goat, sheep, and cow) cheese, green onions, and caramelized onions. To reiterate the cheese, we have sauced these cakes with a warm cheese and beer sauce, using the same cheese as in the potato cakes and a very hoppy amber ale to give the cheese sauce a touch of hoppy bitterness to keep it from being cloying. The green sauce is a green onion cream that brings a cool acid bite to counterpose the rich cheese sauce. Paired with Chilean Pinot Noir. This could have easily paired with a white wine, but the customer's preference is red wine.

French Onion Soup Bruschetta. Not really sure where this dish came from except that we were probably cold on the day that we brainstormed this and wanted soup to warm us up. This is an exercise in reimagining a classic soup. We took the soup and puréed it to become the sauce for the plate and put the onions on top of the croustade rather than under it. High cuisine? Not. Delicious? You bet. Paired with a medium-bodied, lower acidity Willamette Pinot from Yamhill-Carlton.

Rapini "Wellington." Again, I don't remember the genesis of this dish. With three of us throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks, creating dishes is a very crazy process. In any case, we decided to showcase our beautiful local rapini as a quasi-Wellington. I learned long ago that wrapping wet ingredients in puff pastry is a big fail, so we baked the puff separately and then topped it with the lightly bitter rapini, a duxelles of black trumpet mushrooms, and then a bit of herbed soft cheese to help marry the spicy earthiness of the mushrooms with the vegetal bitterness of the rapini. In the South, we always serve vinegar with our braised greens. The plate sauce of porcini stock and balsamic vinegar finished with a hint of cream (to round out the vinegar's tang) is a nod to that. Paired with a very high end Argentine Malbec.

Fairy Tale Squash Flan. Eat your vegetables! There's probably no more sinful way to eat your squash than as a silky flan flavored with cinnamon and maple syrup, and garnished with gianduia, crème anglaise, maple syrup, gianduia powder, a chocolate cigarette, crispy salted phyllo, and a pumpkinseed brittle flavored with pimentón and sea salt. Paired with a 10-year old tawny Port.

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