In the Eye of the Beholder

2014.Jun.11 Wednesday · 2 comments

in Casa SaltShaker

I’ve never taken an art class in my life. Okay, not totally true, I’m sure we had some sort of art classes in kindergarten and first grade, but I mean a real art class. I signed up once for a drawing class at the local Y when I was in college – I turned in my first attempt at a pencil sketch of a tree or something like that. My recollection, which may be a bit warped by time, is that the teacher burst out laughing and suggested that maybe my talents lay elsewhere. I didn’t go back.

So it’s a bit of a sore point in my life – not something that I regret or rue or anything of the sort, but while I can look at something artistic and make a vaguely formed assessment that “it’s pretty” or not, my sense of composition tends to end about there – it’s part of why I make take a dozen or more photos of the same scene – I love digital – just hoping that one of them comes out giving me the sense that it’s a decent picture. All that leads up to, relevant to this post, “plating”. I’ve read the books, I’ve worked with chefs who have a strong artistic bent, and I try, but much of what works out in that regard is either happenstance, or repeatedly trying things out until something elicits a positive response.

When I get criticized, and it regularly happens, for the lack of finesse in my plating, it’s a bit of a downer. I cook. My sense of artistry is in flavor, not in the way the plate looks. On a personal level, I’m just as happy with the look of a TV dinner as I am with a fancy, aesthetically composed plate – I don’t really care as long as the food tastes great. That applies to whether it’s eating out, in, or my own creations. But I wouldn’t care to begin to count the number of critiques I’ve gotten by email or in online fora that begin with something like “if you paid as much attention to plating as you do to your ingredients/flavor combinations, you’d have a winning formula” or “we eat with our eyes first, so when it doesn’t look amazing, it makes it not taste good.” Really?

Sorry, but my brain just doesn’t work that way – I get it intellectually, but it simply doesn’t register, the ideas don’t occur, when I’m putting food on a plate. Nevertheless, I try. And let’s face it, we’ve all sat in front of a gorgeous plate of food at a trendy restaurant only to find ourselves wishing there were a subtle way to spit the food out into a napkin when we dig in. Which would you prefer? I know which one I do.

So – on to this last week’s dinners and some playing around with the way things look…

Leading off were two dishes we’ve served numerous times before – our salmon carpaccio, sort of a Mediterranean ceviche, for which I refer you here; and then our hummus soup, here. I’ve carefully selected versions that turned out, pretty.

Calamarette Bakhlava
Calamarette Bakhlava
Next up was our calamarette bakhlava, which got a bit of an overhaul. The earlier edition of the dish came out really attractively, here. But the flavors weren’t where I wanted them. It was too plain, too simple. The part that stayed the same – the calamarette themselves – though I couldn’t find the little baby ones so I went with small ones and changed the portion size to one per person – I do think it’s likely more attractive with the littler ones. I wasn’t overly fond of the sauteed onions and crispy rice noodles underneath – so I changed over to a leek confit, which gives far more flavor, and went with a finer noodle, rice vermicelli, deep fried and served over the top. It gives the dish height, but it also hides away the squid-let, hmmm…. I wanted to emphasize the seafood character, so I added in a second sauce in addition to the chili caramel, a puree of the tentacles, slow cooked until tender and then pureed with an egg yolk, some soy sauce, and some squid ink. Love the flavor, but the look is a bit gritty. You can see the two different ways I tried plating it on different evenings. Oh, and a dusting of leek ash. Neither plating calls out to me with “pretty” like the earlier version, but both were delicious, far more so than before.

Chernia with artichoke puree
This, I was just happy with from the start. It builds on yesterday’s post with the cauliflower steak dish. Instead, I cooked fillets of chernia, a type of sea bass, with the same spice mixture and the spicy artichoke puree, as well as the brussels sprout leaves. I was going to do the little deep fried cherry tomatoes but thought that much as I like them, the dish needed something more vibrantly red – so I just deep fried the tomatoes without crust. Maybe a combination of the two?

Carrot Trio
Carrot Trio
Our dessert was a trio of carrot sweets – a carrot cake, a carrot cheesecake, and garjarela, a slow cooked spiced carrot “candy” of sorts from Indian cuisine. Below, a pistachio crumble (thank you Gary Meghan, from Masterchef Australia, for that one). Above, whipped cream. Two different platings, neither of them overly attractive in hindsight, but the raves on the flavors came through from the guests. Other than the organization, the only other difference is that the first version, I left the crumble just roughly hand-crumbled, while in the second, I blitzed it in the food processor to get a finer crumb. After the fact…

Carrot Trio
…it occurred to me that the plate was just too crowded, and very few people finished the whole dessert, it was just too much. So what about smaller portions – in cylinders, or cubes – don’t judge by the roughness, I was using leftover scraps and playing with trying to get the composition to work, so they’re molded into cylinders by hand rather than baked/cooked into those shapes which would be smoother and more even. I like the general trend, but now, it occurs to me after the fact, that it might be nicer looking if I laid the cylinders down, more or less side by side / / / kind of like that, with just a little space between.

I guess I just have to live with that there are going to be naysayers who feel that the aesthetics are as or more important than the taste. Or I’m going to have to go full on retro, buy a bunch of TV dinner trays and present the food that way – see how that goes over. Because I don’t think my right hemisphere is going to suddenly kick in with a burst of artiness.


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