Personally, I don’t paint or sculpt or photograph, but every
now and again I get a creative tinge in my brain, so I head for the
kitchen. And on a nightly basis, my
creative license there extends only as far as choosing between cooking a plain
chicken breast or a plain pork chop for my 9-year-old or between rotini or penne for my
5-year-old. But I’ve accumulated a bunch
of gorgeous coffee table cookbooks from some of the great contemporary chefs, and
while most of the time I just look at the pretty pictures of museum-quality
(visually, that is) food, occasionally I’ll dive in and try to reinvent a
fairly complicated recipe within the framework of my own limited time restraints
and skill level.
So my latest obsession is with Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook and one dish in particular: SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE
GEL, Black Truffle, Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise, and Manni Olive Oil (see image below © Jason M. Purcell). This is a visually stunning book, but its
insights into how a chef thinks and creates are what really grab me. And while many of the details are lost on me, what
does always fascinate me is the unexpected combinations and/or presentations of
familiar ingredients and flavors that chefs can arrive at. And “unexpected” might be an understatement
where this salmon dish is concerned.
“Bizarre” might be the more operative term (quite frankly, as it’s
pictured it would look a lot more at home in the Death Star’s cafeteria than on
my French-farmhouse dining-room table).
Now I don’t know when or if I’ll ever be in London, and even
if I am, I’m not sure I’d be willing to spend a semester’s worth of my kids’
college fund on dinner, so I figure if I’m ever going to experience this
particular taste sensation, then I’d best get to work on it myself. And while I’m sure that the recipe in The Fat Duck Cookbook works just fine, I
had to go about taking some liberties to make it work for me, not the least of
which was avoiding “the bane of the stagiaire’s existence,” namely, the
separating of grapefruit into individual cells for garnishing the plate. I went with segments. Problem solved.
A greater issue was the salmon’s liquorice gel, a key
component of which was a substance called “gellan LT100”, an ingredient that
will never ever be in my kitchen in
its raw state (though who knows how many of my kids’ snacks it’s already
lurking in). This took a little more
imagination, but a little brown sugar/anise seed coating on the fish got the
flavor there and searing it off hard in a grill pan achieved the dramatic black
visual effect. Vanilla mayonnaise? Instead I juiced a couple of oranges and
grapefruits and reduced the juice on the stove down to a syrup with a vanilla
bean and finished it with a dab of honey (think dreamsicle-yummy; I would put
this on ice cream). I drizzled that over
half of a soft-boiled egg with a couple of drops of truffle oil which I placed
on top of the asparagus. And voila! All the “bizarre” components were there:
salmon, “liquorice,” vanilla, truffle, asparagus, fancy oil. And all in less than an hour and without
having to learn any new tricks.
really. I’ll take pot roast and mashed
potatoes just about any day as, I’m sure, most Londoners do as well. But was it interesting and delicious and a
far cry from what normally hits the dinner table on a typical weeknight? You bet.
Will I make it again? Yep. (Just
without the truffle oil. That was a bit
too much, but make no mistake, this is a delicious plate of food.) It was (with a big assist from my “instructor”
Heston) something I could call my own and was for that very reason all the more
satisfying. And my point is this: if you
see a recipe or dish that piques your curiosity in any way but may seem a
little unapproachable for whatever reason (e.g. uncommon or bizarre ingredients
or combinations of ingredients, unfamiliar techniques, too time-consuming,
etc.), don’t be afraid to get in the kitchen and mess around with it based on
your particular tastes, time constraints, skill-set or whatever. Chances are you’ll not only get a good meal
out of it, but it will satisfy you that much more having put a little bit of
your own thoughts and personality into it.