Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Menu creation isn't for the weak!

Joe Carlin came in today for a little lecture on food and cookbook history in the US. Although he could be a little dry at times, I enjoyed the lecture and the sample recipes he brought along so we could see how cooking styles have changed.

As someone in the gastronomy program, I'm always wondering what others do with their interest in food. Some graduates, like the Modern Food Issues guy, haven't included their masters in their day job, but rather, keep it as a hobby. It would be wonderful to see someone who's done something with their degree.

Joe clearly had a formidable knowledge of food history, particularly in New England, and I think his enthusiasm for the topic was quite infectious. I'd love to start seriously collecting cookbooks, like he does, but from a different era or with a different theme. I would like to go to the Schlesinger Library for their book sale, too bad it's on the same day as the class final project!


This afternoon, however, we did get to see where culinary program graduates land. Nicki, a former graduate and kitchen assistant, came in today to help Jeff Fournier of 51 Lincoln teach the afternoon class. In fact, Nicki was recently promoted to sous chef. She seemed intense, but very sweet. I hope she does well.

We had a varied menu today, some items were classic and comfortable (pumpkin flan) while some where definitely a bit of a shock (watermelon steak). I was excited at the concept of the watermelon steak for sure, I think a lot of chefs try to do new and unusual things with food, but take away the essence of the ingredients in the meantime. I was hoping that Jeff's watermelon steak wasn't going to turn out that way, especially when he said that it would look like a tuna steak and taste a little like foie, two statements that don't really instill a lot of confidence in a consumer.

We started with the watermelon steak because it would take the longest amount of time. He chopped a very large watermelon into three large discs, trimming them off so they would sit properly in the hotel pan and cutting off the rind. After a little seasoning with salt and pepper, we just drowned them in cream sherry, butter and water and threw them in the oven for a few hours. I couldn't even believe how simple it was, but I wasn't sure what to think about the ridiculous amounts of butter we placed in the pan.

Once the watermelon started going, Jessica and I started to do the rest of the ingredients for the watermelon steak dish, including eggplant chicharonne and confit cherry tomato. I liked working on the eggplant because I was introduced to a lot of new ideas, like a chicharonne, which is basically deep-fried slabs of pork (like bacon). Applying the same cooking method to an eggplant was fun and resulted in a very different tasting vegetable. After cutting the eggplant into large wedges with little incisions in the meat, we tossed them with sliced onions and sazon, a sort of Mexican spice mix (which is probably mostly MSG), and roasted them off so get rid of as much moisture as possible. Once most of the water was cooked out, we would be able to throw them into fryer and crisp up the outside of the eggplant.

The tomatoes, I thought, were going to be similar to the tomato confit that we had made with Michael Leviton. The purpose of those were to really enhance the flavor of the tomato, especially useful when it was out of season. I thought those tomatoes turned out a little on the sour and tart side, rather than having the fullness of a tomato, and I didn't like them much. So I was pleasantly surprised when these turned out so well. I think the difference is that these weren't really much of a confit, really. They weren't cooked slowly at a low temperature at all. They were quickly sauteed and finished off in the oven, until the cherry tomatoes just started to burst a bit. The resulting tomato was full of juice and flavor and when you bit into it, the concentrated flavors exploded in the mouth. Really yummy stuff.

The other groups had worked on other recipes throughout the day and when all the mise was done for a recipe, Jeff would demonstrate it for the entire class. The first item we tasted that day was a bit of a glorified bar snack, which is not in anyway a bad thing. We started with BBQ rubbed and beer steamed shrimp. The rub, which was very intense and strong, made the shrimp a dark brown and red color that stuck to your fingers and worked really well with the light yeasty quality of the beer (which Jeff made a point of saying it had to be very watery beer, he used PBR). When they were done, they were so coated in spices they could have easily been mistaken for chicken wings. The shrimp was cooked perfectly (which, I gotta say, some chefs have overcooked their shrimp in this course) and very strongly flavored, which was somewhat balanced by the toasted white bread triangles on the plate (they also served as a great vehicle for sauce eating).

Next, we served up our watermelon steaks, which at this point had shrunken down making the watermelon actually look a lot like tuna steaks. Jeff carved up the steaks into wedges and pan fried them quickly, while I finished the eggplants in the fryer. Once plated, the watermelon, eggplant and tomatoes gave a great range of flavors on one plate, the bitter salty crisp of the eggplant, the juicy brightness of the tomato and the dense meaty sweetness of the watermelon. They were fantastic together, it was a great example of taking some very disparate ideas and combining them in a successful way.

I was really impressed that the watermelon still tasted like watermelon. While I was definitely weirded out by the watermelon steak being (1) warm and (2) savory, I was really pleasantly surprised that the essence of the watermelon had held up. It really was a watermelon steak, not a piece of watermelon with so much seasoning that it was mostly a vehicle for other more traditional steak flavors. I don't think I'll make it (or order it) but I'm glad someone out there really gets that doing creative things with food doesn't always involve making it unrecognizable.

My favorite dish of the day was the hanger steak with jalapeƱo jam. OH my holy goodness. That jalepeno jam was fantastic and something I would love to jar and give to friends. Jeff said that it wasn't the greatest because it hadn't had a chance to really come together yet and that it would be better after it cooled down entirely, but we were all huge fans of it anyway. The combination of spicy and sweet is something we've really had a chance to see in a few incarnations this semester, but this was one of the more inventive ones for sure. The best part was that the jam really compliented the steak and it felt like it enhanced the steak without over powering it.

The pumpkin flan was lovely, creamy and luscious with just a hint of the pumpkin flavor. They flipped out of the molds beautifully and were just perfect -- I don't think anyone was expecting them to be so good and we were certainly all very, very full by the end of the day.

Also, it was nice to see that the menu of items we were cooking today had an overall theme of Latin inspiration. The strongly seasoned and grilled-like taste with the cumin and commonly found spices in the shrimp, to the eggplant seasoned with sazon and inspired by chicharonne, to the jalapeno jam with the steak and finally to the pumpkin flan for dessert. It was clear the menu was thematic without knocking you on the head with the concept.

I think beyond the unusual application of cooking techniques and flavors we touched on today, we really learnt about keeping a menu similar yet different. It certainly something that Jeff successfully accomplished without having to compromise the very strong qualities of each dish. They worked well alone, but together, it melded into a really well constructed taste profile. I hope to be able to include the same vein of thought into my final project.