After the usual personal questions about how I got here, how we got started, whether I spoke Spanish on arrival, how many nights a week… etc., the most common question I get asked is, “how do you come up with the dishes for your menus?” It’s often obvious from the way it’s asked that there’s just some sort of either disbelief in my (or perhaps anyone’s) ability to come up with ideas every few days, or, a strange idea that I must have some sort of superpowers in the arena of menu design. But the truth is, ideas for dishes come from wherever ideas for anything come from. A mix of experience, observation and inspiration. And sometimes, like writer’s block or the equivalent in whatever someone else’s field is, I sit there staring at a blank screen with nary a thought in my head.
So what to do? I have a few tricks to just get the ball rolling, and last week’s menu fell prey to the blank page. And so, I turned to pages, specifically from a few favorite cookbooks. Now, I wasn’t designing a menu by simply finding five recipes and reproducing them, but the idea was to use the books as inspiration. So I plopped four books in front of me, pulled up a random number generator on my web browser, and proceeded to pick a page from each. So, let’s see where that took us….
Page 1054 of my Larousse Gastromique offered up an entry for “a la” Tahitienne, basically a cured fish dish that’s similar to ceviche, but with the addition of coconut milk. By the end of the menu planning things were looking a little protein heavy and I decided to make it a vegetable dish, similar to the vegetable ceviches we’ve made in the past. Into a large bowl with slices of roasted tomato, palm hearts, diced avocado, julienne of roasted red bell pepper, shaved mushrooms, diced cucumbers, fresh fava beans and scallions, and then I dressed the whole thing in a vinaigrette made from lime juice, roasted garlic, olive oil, coconut milk, salt and pepper. Vibrant, fresh, delicious!
Page 406 of Felipe Rojas-Lombardi’s The Art of South American Cooking landed me on a vegetable version of Locro, the classic stew of the Andes based on squash and corn. I wasn’t overly enamored of his version of it, a little too basic, but we’ve made vegetable locro in the past, so that made for our soup course: sauteed some onions, garlic, chilies, cumin, smoked paprika, salt and pepper in a little olive oil until soft. Then added in diced sweet potato and squash, tomatoes, sweet corn cut off the cob, and cracked, dried white corn. Topped it up with vegetable stock, added a couple of bay leaves, and cooked it for about an hour. Served up with a relish of black olives, red onions, and jalapeños in olive oil and red wine vinegar with a little salt and white pepper.
As I said in my earlier post this week, I’m working on getting our a lo macho sauce just right, and back to the same page in the Larousse and the entry for Tagliatelle. To add a little zip to the presentation and flavor I made cilantro and green peppercorn semolina tagliatelle. The sauce – onions, red bell peppers, garlic, merquén (Chilean smoked chili), cooked down in a little butter, then added in fresh oregano and thyme, diced tomato, and a couple tablespoons of flour to toast off and thicken things a little later on. Into that, white wine, cooked until evaporated, then shrimp stock, cream, and pureed rocoto chilies. Simmered it a little, added in the shellfish (shrimp, mussels, octopus) and fresh shelled peas, cooked them until done, finished with a little chopped cilantro.
Diane Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico was next on the stack, and page 376 showed up with her version of a Pepian, a mildly spicy sauce made with squash seeds, which, conveniently, I knew I was going to have from making the locro above. How perfect was that? Into the oven with the squash seeds, a cupful of sesame seeds, and the seeds and veins out of four ají panca, the dried, smoky Peruvian red chilies. When lightly golden I ground them to a paste and then added in a little cinnamon, clove and garlic, and sauteed the whole mixture in a little duck fat. Then added chicken stock and the deseeded dried chilies, and cooked to reconstitute them. Pureed the whole thing and reserved it. For service, sauteed chicken breasts to crisp up the skin, then added the reserved sauce, covered the pot, and let them simmer away in the sauce, which thickens up beautifully as it cooks. Served over a mix of wheatberries cooked in chicken stock, tossed with roasted carrots and thick yogurt. Garnished with parsley and thyme.
And, finally, a book from friend and former mentor Nick Maglieri, Chocolate, and page 305, which took me to a show-stopper of a dessert, a gorgeous chocolate Paris-Brest. First off, individual sized ones rather than cutting portions of a large one, and it’s a classic choux paste recipe, just like you’d make for profiteroles or eclairs, piped into two concentric circles as a base and a third filling resting on the gap above. A few slivered almonds pressed into the top to toast as it bakes. Out of the oven, sliced open so the steam can escape and not turn them all soft and mushy. Instead of the hazelnut and chocolate mousse or buttercream filling that is classic, I went with one of our old favorites, an almost vegan mousse – basically equal parts by volume of unsweetened cocoa, honey (the non-vegan part, you can use something like agave syrup if you have access to it to make this vegan), and avocado, with just a splash of vanilla paste and a little added espresso powder. Chilled that to set it, piped it into the choux rings, dusted the whole thing with powdered sugar. Done.
And sometimes, that’s how a menu gets planned.