Sunday, March 10, 2013

Huh? Menu? What?
The Fine Art of Composing a Menu
As a chef, I cook. But you know where I also spend a good deal of time? In front of the computer designing menus and creating recipes. I seemingly spend as much time in front of the computer as I do in the kitchen. But you know what? Putting together a menu can be a blast.

But, for many it's labor. Raise your hand if you ever feel bewildered, flummoxed, intimidated, like you just want to go sit in a dark closet and hope that the dinner invitations got lost in the mail.

Let's make it fun, shall we?
  • First off, what do you like? Be selfish for a moment.
Okay, I'm going to come clean, I don't like salmon. In fact, I hate salmon. I don't like it smoked, broiled, grilled, cured, canned, or made into mousse. So, am I going to invite guests over and make salmon? No. I put my foot down. As a chef, I will serve cured salmon if requested but that's it. I won't prepare it. Don't ask.

You've got to put your heart into what you're cooking, AND make it taste good. I'm going to get all airy-fairy here and say food takes on the aura of the cook. A discontented cook makes discontented food for potentially discontented guests. Guests feel, see and taste the love that you put into food. Remember the movie Like Water for Chocolate?

Before a plate leaves the restaurant kitchen and hits the table, any chef will say "does it taste good?" If I'm serving salmon, how am I supposed to know?
I make food that I enjoy eating, cooking, shopping for, and thinking about.
  • What will your guests like? Are there any dietary considerations?
I make an Ēostra (Easter, but more pagan) dinner every year for friends. I have a dry erase board in the kitchen. I'll change the names to protect the innocent. Frank: no spicy food, nuts, or dairy. Fernando: no eggs. Philomena: no gluten, bananas, or blue cheese. Felicity: no jello molds, the texture creeps her out. Phil: no oranges, peanuts. I'm on weight-watchers.

It was a little bit of a balancing act, but not impossible. As a joke, Fernando wrote and the board attributes he finds unattractive in people. I'll leave it at that.  
Know your audience.   
  • Think seasonally.
What's available? What's economical? What are you craving? At this very moment it's cold,  8 inches of snow on the ground, my dachshunds are napping in the sunshine. I want food that is going to make me feel cozy and warm and like a dachshund napping in the sun. Last night during a blizzard I made pozole with pork, chili peppers, colorful bell peppers, and hominy. I toasted corn tortilla strips to garnish the soup. The food smelled good, was pretty and colorful, hot and tasted good. We had a fire in the fireplace. Friends came over. It was cozy.

Think locally. What's growing in these parts these days? Not much. A fresh heirloom tomato salad is not what I'm craving. My partner in life, bless his heart, brought home a bowl of cut tropical fruit from Costco the other day. It had been flown up from South America. Most of the fruit had no taste, what taste there was wasn't.   
  • Think regionally.
I love the attention foodies are paying to "farm to table" and "local purveyor" food. It's great on many levels. But, that's not what I'm talking about here. The easiest menu to put together might be an Italian menu, or a Spanish menu, or a French menu. Think regional dishes and also ingredients. Let's go with saffron. A Mediterranean ingredient. I could build an entire menu around saffron even though maybe only one dish will have saffron in it. Saffron, common to Spain, as are oranges, and almonds, seafood, game meats, cured chorizo, and smoked paprika. Ready? Go.

France. What region? Provence, along the Mediterranean? Here come's saffron again. Or Parisian, or Loire Valley? How about a French country truck stop (some of the best food), or a five-star Parisian restaurant? Oh, a bistro might be fun.   

  • Think courses, even if you're serving everything except dessert at the same time.
Serving in courses is fun. And let me tell you, the French got it right when it comes to food. The French typically create a line-up of courses that not only compliment one another, but also aid in digestion. A meal may begin with an Amusé: a little nibble to amuse the taste buds, usually something salty served as guests arrive. Then there might be an Entrée: the entrance to the meal or the hors d’oeuvres, maybe a soup or soufflé. And then, ready for this? Perhaps an Entremet: a palate cleanser such as sorbet!

Recently I ran a French home cooking party. The guests were delighted to try new things including having the Plat Principal, the main course, BEFORE the Salade. Why? the salad aids digestion. I served the salad with the Fromage: (cheese). In a restaurant, a cart is brought to the table with a variety of cheeses made from cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk. The cheese actually helps break down proteins. Then, there might be Le fruit: The sugars in a piece of fruit create enzymes, also aiding digestion. Followed by Dessert and coffee: maybe but not always

  • Combine complimentary ingredients.
Some ingredients are just meant to be married. There's a book called Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. Pick out an ingredient. Okay, I pick asparagus, it'll be in season soon enough. The authors list 36 food items to pair well with asparagus. Most are no surprise: butter, hollandaise, lemon. But some make me think, huh! And most make me say out loud "Wow, that sounds good!" 

They recommend cooking methods: boil, grill (YUM), and steam.

They give you recipes: Asparagus-Pistachio Soup Avgolemono, Grilled Asparagus with Olive Bread Crumbs and Olive Oil, Green Asparagus Soup with Morels.

  • Above all, have fun! 
As I often do, I will end with the words of my hero, Julia Child:

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”  

"I always give my bird a generous butter massage before I put it in the oven. Why? Because I think the chicken likes it -- and, more important, I like to give it."
And my favorite:

"Learn how to cook -- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all have fun."


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