“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
– Seneca, 1st century Roman philosopher
Let me start by saying that I had a huge amount of fun in the kitchen this weekend, and it started me thinking…. Things are about to change a it here at Casa SaltShaker. Oh, no worries, we’re not going anywhere or doing anything stunningly different. But, we’re going on five years of operation as my primary occupation, and if you lump in that before that, I spent ten years in NYC and most of the first year here doing something similar every other month or so, that adds up to a lot of dinners. And virtually every one of them had “a theme”. And I know people have gotten attached to the themes, and some have them produce a flood of requests, of the “I have to come to your Towel Day dinner” or “I can’t possibly miss the Swaziland Spectacular” variety. But they also have had their detractions, with (and I realize that these are likely people I didn’t want in my home anyway) comments like “I don’t eat Jew food” or “The idea of Filipino cuisine makes me nauseous”.
But of most importance, to me, is that I’ve been cooking professionally a good part of my life since 1974. Oh, I’ve had my forays into other things – I worked as a medic for a few years, I processed words as a temp at law firms while I was in grad school, I sold and appraised real estate, and part of my restaurant career was not in the kitchen, but as a sommelier. Still, I’ve got a solid twenty years spent in one sort of kitchen or another, cooking for customers. And, the themes are, to be honest, starting to feel a little restrictive. It’s been fun exploring the cuisines of the world with nigh on 400 different menus that I’ve come up with over the last five years and around 80 in the dinners before that, involving the dishes of a good percentage of the world. And sure, I play in the kitchen and make my own versions of things, I don’t necessarily produce traditional dishes – but to get to those, I have to make the traditional ones first and then experiment – and that takes a lot of time that while interesting, keeps feeling like I’m reverting to square one as I take on learning dishes of yet one more country’s fare.
So, while all well and good for a jack of all trades, generalist, family practitioner sort, I want to start specializing. And, in particular, to spend that time experimenting in the kitchen not with yet one more dish from Vanuatu, Burkina Faso or Wyoming, but with ideas that percolate through my brain from all that experience, from the experiences and creations of other chefs, or simply from the ether. So, starting with the new year (since I have themes already committed through the end of the year), the themes are gone. At least for now. Instead, I’m going to play in the kitchen and, hopefully, have as much fun as I did this week. And just as hopefully, come up with some dishes, or twists on dishes, that you all end up enjoying just as much. And for those of you who participate in Casa S vicariously, perhaps a fun look at the processes that go into coming up with something new and interesting.
Two of the dishes that I was happiest with over the last year were actually quite similar. A tomato tarte tatin and an eggplant tarte tatin, respectively made as an appetizer and a dessert. They also wowed the people who tried them. And I was thinking about ratatouille a couple of weeks ago and suddenly thought, why not? So here, a tarte tatin (if you’re not clear about what makes them different from other tarts – the “filling” is first caramelized in butter and sugar classically, in this case with a bit less sugar and then the addition of salt and fresh black pepper; and then it’s cooked upside down – with the filling on the bottom and the crust atop, to be flipped out onto a plate for serving) made with tomato, eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, garlic and shallot.
I’ve made various guises of a cream of fennel soup over the last couple of years – cold, room temp, hot. With and without potato for body. Even without cream. And with varying garnishes from boiled or fried chickpeas to falafel to avocado and tomato, to pasta. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to me previously the natural match between the chowder-like texture with that vibrant anise flavor, and seafood. So here, a base of fennel, white onion, garlic, leeks, potato, fennel seed, star anise all simmered together in water, then pureed, strained, and seasoned with salt and white pepper. Into that, fried chickpeas and briefly sauteed clams and mussels. Next time I might even “beef” it up a bit with a mix of more fish and shellfish, essentially a fennel based seafood chowder.
This started out from a dish I read about in New York Magazine called Baby Artichokes With Capers, Sumac and Pine Nuts. The mesh of flavors was delicious, and I wanted to do something different with the idea. So here, a risotto made with shrimp stock and crushed sumac berries. Towards the end I mixed in sliced artichoke hearts and small shrimp. Then finished it with a shaving of trebolgiano cheese, an aged, lightly crystalled cheese in the same style as Italy’s grana padano, but, to the best of my knowledge only made in Argentina (and by a long shot, this country’s finest aged cheese I’ve ever tasted, not to mention probably it’s most expensive and difficult to find), capers and toasted pinenuts. I thought it was pretty spectacular.
I don’t know if chef Peter Kuravita of Sydney’s Flying Fish restaurant was thinking “surf and turf” when he thought up this idea, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me – just a non-red meat surf and turf. I saw him make it, or actually coach some contestants through making it, on the recent Junior Masterchef Australia competition. I thought, now that’s an idea I have to try… Blue Eye Cod with Pumpkin Puree, Confit Chicken Wings and Scallop Mousse. And I did to the best I could here (the cod is different), and to be honest, it was good, but missing zip. I think of the food at Flying Fish as having a lot more zing to it with his background in southern Asian cooking. Plus, it has lots of fiddly bits that make it difficult for one person to produce in a kitchen like mine for twelve people all at once. So, I simplified it a touch, and ramped up the spice a bit as well. The cod itself, simply oven roasted with a drizzle of oil, salt and pepper. The pumpkin puree – butternut squash cooked down with leeks, garlic, pink and szechuan peppercorns, then pureed with a little cream and seasoned with just a touch of salt. The scallop mousse, sauteed celery and shallots in butter, added the scallops, and then pureed them with a bit of cream cheese and a splash of vinegar, then salt and white pepper. And, the chicken wing drumettes, confited in duck fat with garlic, bay, peppercorns, thyme and salt, then drained and briefly browned in hot oil. Assembled and served. Down the middle a line of pumpkin seed salt – roasted the squash seeds until toasty and brown and then ground them with coarse sea salt. I think it worked brilliantly.
Back in 2002 I had the opportunity to participate in the Gay Games in Sydney – an opportunity that came up because Passport magazine asked me if I’d cover the games, as well as the food and gay travel scene in both Sydney and Adelaide. I jumped at the chance, especially with all expenses paid by one of Australia’s tourism bureaus and Qantas airline. It even gave me a chance to see my rarely seen brother who lives just north of Sydney. And, to revisit with some chefs whom I’d met either on my first visit to Sydney back in 1993, or during my time working in restaurants in NYC. One of those was Luke Mangan, whose restaurant Salt was located in the hotel I stayed in the first few days of my trip. I had a delicious tasting menu that concluded with a fascinating dessert of a licorice parfait with lime syrup – not two flavors I’d normally associate. But that combination has stayed, lurking, in the back of my mind for the last 8+ years. I leave you to look up the original, it’s posted all over the internet.
The one thing I did remember was that it had a vaguely grey color that did throw me off slightly. Dessert shouldn’t be grey. Actually, for the most part, food shouldn’t be grey. And besides, I don’t really like black licorice candy. I know, I know, how could I not. But I don’t. The red stuff either…. Taking a cue from the pastry program I’ve been over this last year (coming to an end – one more class tonight, final exam next Monday, and that’s all she wrote… what’s next?), I thought about different presentations, and also what other flavors combined well with licorice and lime. First, I changed the licorice to a more broad anise flavor profile, and with a bit of experimenting, came up with poppyseeds as a great match. So, the final dessert, a poppyseed pionono, or jelly roll sponge cake, wrapped around pastry cream that is infused with crushed licorice root, star anise and fennel seeds (the milk is infused before making the pastry cream), and a simple syrup flavored with lime zest and juice, plus a few chopped up bits of fresh lime segments and some powdered sugar atop. Completely awesome. Really.
Can you tell I’m more excited about working this way?