Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The perfect meal?

Our challenge for final project was to make a three course meal in three hours out of anything we want. We were given a list of items that we would be allowed to use out of the kitchen's pantry, but any additional items we wanted to use had to be purchased with our own money. I was reluctant to rely on many of the items on the list because I was going towards the end of the day and there was no way to be certain if the items I would need would still be there and in the full amount that I would need for my recipes.

The menu for my final day was something that came from a variety of sources, but more than anything I wanted my menu to be a reflection of who I am and a little bit about my life thus far. I thought about trying out various dish ideas that I'd thought up during the class that had a bit of the East-meets-West. I'm reluctant to use the word fusion because I feel that the term has proven to be a dirty word in the food world as few restaurants have executed successfully on the concept. I hoped to find a way to meld more classical preparations and techniques with the flavors and tastes that I'd been used to growing up in Asia.

One of the first dishes I'd ever thought up was a twist on the classic beef wellington (or the Indian lamb saag, depending on how you look at it). I thought about how most times Indian curries are eaten with a bread like naan or rice and wondered if it would work if the dish was deconstucted and reconstructed in a different way. My idea was to use wrap a boneless rack of lamb (or a lamb tenderloin) in a puff paste and serve the lamb wellington over a bed of the saag, thereby incorporating all the elements of the lamb saag dish but in a new way that felt new but familiar. Finally, I thought to finish it with a touch of sweet mint oil to kind of tie back in the British flavor and intent.

I really fell in love with the idea of this dish because it spoke to me. I liked the intermingling of British and Indian ideas on one plate, the kind of commentary it provided on the way Indian curries have become such an overwhelmingly popular facet of modern British culture. I tried to construct an entire meal from this very basic idea. Having been raised in Hong Kong and being able to experience the British rule and eventual handover to China, the idea of British influence and colonial life has played an important role in my life. I came up with the idea of a menu called "Rule Britannia" which incorporated dishes from several past colonies, a kind of play on the idea in food form. But structuring a meal around such an intensely flavored and heavy main course proved difficult to me and I wasn't sure how best to execute it.

I did actually think of a starter (sort of) course that would have fit the theme of "Rule Britannia," but while the political and social reference would have worked fine, I don't think the flavors would have given me a complete meal, taking away from the ultimate experience. I'd wanted to include a dish that would represent Hong Kong and my immediate thought was to include a dish I would call 'dim sum.' It would be small (one bite) servings of all my favorite Cantonese (or Chinese) dishes that would traditionally be served as main courses. It was almost like a tasting menu of Chinese food, including a Chinese soup spoon of Cantonese-style steamed fish, a single serving of Peking duck, and a chicken 'lollipop' stir-fried with dried Sichuan chilies.

Although I'd love to try and make this one day, I knew that this would prove to be too much and not work well together. Not to mention that I still would need a dessert that fit my theme. From here, I decided to make my menu simpler, cleaner and less complex. I wanted the title of each dish to be short and self-explanatory. I dislike the idea of having to read an entire description of a dish, it should be easily summated in a clever title. I was committed to the Peking duck and felt I should include it on my menu at any cost, so using this I began to hash out the rest of my menu.

I wanted to serve a main course and a dessert posed the problem to Jason, who promptly recommended several impossible dishes. After a few more, he came up with a gem of an idea: Chinese egg custard tartlets. I found this a little strange (because he doesn't care for them) but really attached myself to the idea rather quickly. Of course, my main problem was that I'd never made them before, but given that I'd never made Peking duck before, I wasn't opposed to complicating my life that tiny bit more.

The idea of the main course came, luckily, from a classmate. Just a week before when some of us had stayed behind at Eastern Standard to eat lunch, we started to talk about what we wanted to make for the final project. I mentioned I was thinking about making Chinese food and Jenny said that she'd made hong sao rou the night before from a cookbook that she had written by a Westerner translating recipes from her Chinese cook while living in Asia. I'd heard of this book before and was immediately curious. I asked her to forward me the recipe, partly in hopes of being able to use it for the final project but also to make at home (this was a favorite of mine growing up, but was limited to special occasions because of my mother's perpetual dieting).

To be honest, I'd thought about making this dish, but didn't have a recipe I knew of and had no way of finding out a family formula. My mother was certainly a good cook, from what I can remember, but she never enjoyed being in the kitchen. She hated it and preferred to stay as far away from the stove as possible, so clearly, going to Mom wasn't an option. I am grateful that I now have a recipe I like enough to make it for my own mother, if she ever dares to eat it.

The weekend before the final project, the menu was really coming together in my mind and I had been able to pick the brains of the visiting chefs and get some ideas on how to execute my dishes. I shopped for all my ingredients the Friday before the final project and bought enough that I would be able to practice twice over the weekend and have food for the actual final.

Using Kevin Crawley's menu idea from h'orderves day, I decided to confit duck legs instead of roasting a whole duck. I knew there would be no way for me to roast an entire duck in three hours and it almost felt like a moment when life intervenes to give you the answer, the day Kevin showed up and made us quick confit duck legs for profiteroles. I'd never made a confit of anything before, but since I'd also never made traditional Peking duck before, I figured it was a wash.

I bought the buns, I admit, and never had any intention of making my own. The bread would have been impossible to make in the time allotted and, well, I just didn't care to make it. I easily could have used flatter tortilla-like pancakes (as is traditionally served with the duck) but wanted something more filling because my Peking duck would be more meat (and less about the skin, which is, again, traditional). The fatty texture the duck meat would have because of the confit, would be, I felt, too much against the rather flavorless tortilla thing. Also, personally, I love those buns.

The test run resulted in VERY salty duck meat, so I adjusted the proportions for the second run cutting the salt by half and adding in 50% more sugar into the rub and it came out beautifully. I knew I that adding more sugar wouldn't hurt because the salty flavor from the hoisin sauce that is served with the duck and the blandness of the cucumber and bun would help balance out the rest. I also added slightly more scallions on the second run because of the fatty and full feeling of the duck and bread I wanted something to cut through it a bit and give it a freshness.

I played with a variety of different cuts of meat for the main and ended up not liking the way the meats would come out when they weren't so clearly layered with fat, so I stuck with the pork back. The first run through for the meat, the sauce came out more gummy and tacky in the mouth and gave it an unpleasant mouthfeel. On the second run through, I changed the proportions of dark soy and light soy to give it a slightly lighter feeling and it worked very well. Jason and I both thought it needed some kind of starch to help balance the dish that was traditionally served with rice, so I decided to add some taro root. I hoped to make a bird's nest on the day of the final project, but since I don't have a deep fryer at home, I made fried shredded taro just to see how the taste and texture would go with the pork. It was perfect and I think the nutty more distinctive flavor of the taro helped give some additional interest to the dish. I was very pleased with the dish on the second run and felt pretty good about things.

The last dish was something I had to kind of come up with on my own. I wanted to have a dessert which proved to be difficult since Chinese people don't eat a lot of sweets. And after choosing to do the egg tartlets, I wanted to be able to approach it differently because I wanted to keep with the "twist on" theme that was going through my menu, but also because I wasn't entirely convinced that I would be able to execute well on the tartlets.

It's difficult to ensure a crisp bottom on those tarts and I didn't want to run the risk of messing it up when it came down to it. I think the idea of separating the two elements came when I was reading up a bit on egg tartlets on wikipedia and remembered how good and popular the caramelized tartlets in Macau were. The final nail in the idea came from Jason, again, when one day he was helping me come up with ideas and said, "Well, isn't the thing filled with the eggy thing you brought home with the sugary top?" It was a flan, which, is essentially the same idea as a creme brulee, without the brulee. That's when I thought it would work for me to do a deconstruction of the Macau version of the tart and make an creme brulee and two puff paste cookies with rock sugar glazed onto it.

I did the first run on the Saturday before the project. I timed the entire thing to make sure I'd have enough time to complete everything. I ended up with an extra 30 minutes and felt confident that I'd have enough time to finish and plate everything. Based on this (and my immensely lazy attitude) I chose not to replicate everything again on Sunday, but rather just refine the recipes based yesterday's execution.

By time Wednesday rolled around, I was ready to go and brought in every little thing I would need for the project, right down to the salt and pepper. I didn't want to waste time having to scavenge for the ingredients and thought it would be better for me in the long run if I used all the same ingredients for the final that I used for the test runs.

Everything came together fairly well, actually. I was pleased with the way the duck came out in the end. I think they looked good and tasted pretty good. And most satisfying, I was finally able to do one of the dishes I'd been thinking about for so long. (One day, I'll get to doing that lamb wellington dish too.)

I thought the pork was a little overcooked and I know why. The timer I had going on my pork stopped after 30 minutes and I kept the meat cooking for 20 minutes longer than I would have liked. If anything, what I should have done is pulled the meat off the fire ten minutes earlier than I had at home to compensate for the discrepancy in the stove's BTUs. My home stove certainly doesn't have the same kind of power. Luckily, not every piece of meat was overdone (at least in my books, no one else seemed to complain) and I was able to serve exactly one piece of meat to each judge (six in total).

I tried doing the bird's nest but it wouldn't hold the shape I wanted it to hold in order to cup the pork and sauce. I started second guessing my idea of a bird's nest also because I was wondering if the sauce and heat from the pork would make the taro lose its crunchiness ruining the contrasting texture I was hoping for. In the end, I stuck with the presentation I had made at home and simply fried up some finely shredded taro root. I don't think it LOOKED that great, but I think it tasted pretty good.

Finally, the creme brulee and puff paste cookies.

The puff was a little dry, but because of the way I was using it in my dish, it didn't really seem to matter. I made two creme brulee to begin with and didn't like the way the first one came out, so I washed out a ramekin and redid one entirely from scratch. It came out looking much better. I think I'd over whipped the first one leaving the end result with an uneven surface because of all the air bubbles. The crust on the creme brulee came out beautifully as well. I think this was my favorite dish of them all. It was a genuine favorite of mine that really kept in theme of the whole idea of deconstructing/reconstructing and mixing flavors and techniques. I'm probably most proud of this idea.

In the end, I think my menu was extremely well received by the judges. I'd put a lot of thought and consideration in my menu's overall theme and made it a true reflection of who I am, where I'm from and my personal interests and cooking style. I think that my success was based mainly on how much of myself I put into the project. The criticisms I received were totally valid: I should have made my own buns, Peking duck is about the skin, I should have included some crisped skin, and, I should have tried to skim off some of the fat rendered out in my pork dish because after it cooled it was very visible and not that attractive. Going into it I recognized these were the problems with my dishes, so the comments weren't really upsetting, but rather reinforcing what I already knew.

Now for a moment of gloating:
- My beloved snooty Frenchman, JJ said of my creme brulee, "this was perfect, eh? Very good."
- Charles said of my duck, "this was a great idea, and something I'd consider serving at the club," of my pork, "great choice of cut and really delicious," and finally, "you were the first person today who gave us the right portion sizes." (Ironic, since I'm the fat one!)
- John offered to marry me (I'm not sure based on what, so I'm going to assume it was the whole thing)
- Michael, and this was a real shocker for me, wrote "YUM" on my evaluation sheet. I nearly passed out. Praise from Michael is a feat indeed.

Final (average) score: 5/5