It can begin with a drawing. The concept of a dish can evolve from the simple lines on a sketch pad. At times it can be interesting having an idea about how parts should come together while not knowing what the parts are. Here is an example of a work in progress.
We're still debating whether this will be part of a sweet or savory course tonight, but I'm leaning towards dessert. It's an orange pepper panna cotta. The butterscotch pudding I made last week used a burnt caramel sauce as one of it's flavor components. The burnt caramel sauce reminded me of a story from Walking on Walnuts, a fictionalized memoir of a NYC pastry chef. She wrote about the trials and tribulations of developing a burnt orange ice cream. When I noticed some fat, juicy orange peppers in the walk-in today I decided to juice them and use them to deglaze a burnt caramel. As the sugar melted into the pepper juice and turned a deep amber and orange hue, I decided to infuse the mixture into a panna cotta. We'll see how they turn out. The mixture was sweet and intense with surprisingly spicy notes from the pepper juice. If all goes well, you'll see the finished dish tomorrow and we'll post the recipe alongside it. I actually did record ingredients and procedures this time.
Today we had our macadamia nut demonstration. As Aki previously mentioned we are now able to prepare tastes for the guests of our demonstrations though we are unable to do cooking classes. What that means is we have a larger audience to share with, though the guests lose the intimate aspects of hands on cooking classes. It also takes more front end work on our part to make sure the demonstrations come off seamlessly, rather than being able to rely upon the students to do their fair share of the cooking.
Today also marked the first time I have been targeted by mechanical malfunctions. My microphone would not work. Some people may have found that as a blessing and Aki surely did as she was able to get a word in. However, trying to be heard in a medium sized auditorium over kitchen hoods and Aki is quite difficult without the help of a microphone.
In preparing today's demonstration we became more aware that we were on a ship. Ingredients are becoming harder to come by and we have had to make numerous substitutions as we redesign dishes. Though the limiting factors on board are also the exciting ones for that force simplification and spontaneous idea development.
With regards to pictures of the dishes, only one dish was photographed, though if I can ever figure out video and computers I may have more resources to draw from. Later on we shall post the recipe portion of the macadamia nut menu. For now here is Venison with chicken skin-coppa crumbs, papaya-green olive salad and macadamia nut and celery leaf puree.
I arrived first thing this morning, forgoing coffee and other necessities in order to fire up the smoker and work with smoked potato flakes. I encountered one small problem, no potato flakes in the kitchen. However, I have plenty of Lays potato Stax. I happily crushed a container of this potato crisp and introduced it to our smoker. A brief time in the Cookshack and the apple wood had permeated the chips nicely. The rest was just assembling the dish, crusting scallops with the smoked crumbled crisps and sauteeing in butter. The other accompaniments were what I had planned on yesterday, celery leaves and mozzarella gnocchi. The calamansi lime added a bright acidity to the dish.
I may even just have to serve smoked potato chips or popcorn at the bar, why not the smokers is still on.
In an attempt to feed ourselves amidst the heat we have sought chilled noodles in light broths with vegetables and seaweed. In looking to remove more heat from our kitchen, in conjunction with some beautiful tomatoes, we put together a light salad with shaved jalapeno, toasted nori rectangles, sliced onion, green olive oil and wine vinegar. Sure, we left out the noodles, but the tastes and flavors married happily and the toasted nori, a staple in our cold noodles became the secret star. Just had to share, the whole dish just made me smile.
Patricia Ryan Madson has written the book Improv Wisdom. She gets it (improvisation) and shares her years of experience with the art of improvisation in a pointed composition which even I can relate to. Furthermore, she applies improvisation to life; while I am currently still adapting it to the kitchen. Funny point is her approach to improvisation closely mirrors our approach in the kitchen; yes we do speak of culinary improvisation though it is validating to read someone else's well developed principles.
One quote from the book which ties into our everyday is "We are all borrowing heavily from the labors and efforts of others. But it takes another lens to view it this way--to see these amazing loans from the universe." In our constant search for creativity and ideas we often forget how much borrowing exists. It is the acknowledgment and honest acceptance of this borrowing which allows us to move forward, creating and expanding our horizons.
I have not seen nor eaten nor heard about smoked frog legs. I am sure they exist, I rarely have a new thought, but I figured what the heck, give it a shot. So, our frog legs arrived today, I cured them with onion, dill and salt. Tomorrow into the smoker to catch some flavor and then into a bag to gently cook. These frog legs arrived with backs intact; I am not sure how I will utilize them though a broth for a risotto or pasta sauce might be nice. More to come as the dish or dishes evolve.
On my prep list today were mignardises, those little bites that come with the check to help sweeten the blow. Usually we do some sort of miniature cookies or chocolates, just one for each person. I personally love these tiny treats but have been daunted by them at many fine dining restaurants. The problem is that by the time they arrive I am sated and thus face the options of missing out or making myself sick. Frankly, most people look at you oddly if you ask to take them home and unfortunately these beautiful little indulgences often don't live up to the hype. There's nothing worse than giving yourself a stomachache for something that tastes like sawdust. One of the first things that I did this morning was pull out some butter to soften to room temperature. I do this almost every day because it always comes in handy sooner or later. Today was no exception as the butter on the counter drew my mind to shortbread. Pancakes earlier in the week left maple syrup on my mind, which of course led to Vermont, New England, johnneycakes, and then cornmeal. Truthfully, my mind almost always wanders in that particular direction, but today I was inclined to follow it. Shortbread seemed like a good mignardises for tonight's menu. Normally I would use maple sugar but we were all out, so I decided to play with the syrup and see what happened. It was early enough to change gears if it didn't work out. I started whipping my butter in the mixer and drizzled in some cold syrup. It took some time to come together, at least partially becuase I used cold syrup, and although it finally started to get light and creamy there was still some definite separation of butter and syrup. The final bits did not want to come together. Frowning slightly I glanced around the room and noticed the bin of sugar. Perfect, the additional graininess could be just what was needed to homogenize things. I added a few tablespoons and things came together as planned. I figured that I would need about 2 1/2 cups of flour for the amount of butter I was using. Normally I would use 2 1/4 cups but with the extra maple syrup I decided to go with a bit more. I substituted 1/2 a cup of cornmeal for flour and threw in a 1/2 teaspoon of salt for flavor. I mixed the dry ingredients together and added it all to the fluffy, sweet butter. Once the dough formed, I wrapped it, chilled it and let it rest for half an hour. An old kitchen trick is to flatten out the dough before chilling to make things easier when the time comes to roll it out. I rolled the dough out to about a 1/4 inch and cut out my cookies to the size of a quarter. Baked them at a 300°F convection for about 6 minutes until they were golden brown. Once they were cool they were delicate with a grainy, crispy crunch from the cornmeal and the slightly nutty, aromatic sweetness of the maple. It was a complex mouthful for such a small bite, and the perfect ending to one of our meals.
Maple Cornmeal Shortbread 8 ounces sweet butter (we use Strauss Organic) 1/2 cup grade B maple syrup 2 tablespoons sugar 2 cups flour 1/2 cup cornmeal 1/2 teaspoon salt
Whip butter with syrup and sugar until light and fluffy. Combine fours and salt and add to butter mixture. Stir until just blended. Flatten out dough, wrap in plastic and chill for at least 30 minutes. Roll our dough and cut into desired shapes. Bake at 300°F convection or 325°F oven until golden brown (approximately 6 minutes for 1/4 inch thickness, adjust as necessary for larger cookies).
The first egg dish, besides my breakfast, turned out to be completely different than anything I wrote about earlier. A country dish emerged. We made a porridge of romaine lettuce and black leg ham and served it with the slow cooked goose egg yolk, wrapped and then broiled in Iberian Black Leg Ham fat. Simple, just ham and eggs with a bit of grassy bitterness from the lettuce and a few drops of lemon juice to cut the richness. This is a dish to serve two, maybe more people. Present it tableside and then serve onto smaller plates. The texture of the slow cooked goose egg yolk is like a runny fudge which enriches the porridge like consistency of the romaine. The dish is rich and decadent and carries the flavor of the ham, something we wanted to highlight.
We fired up our recently deprived smoker today and in went peanuts. We were given some raw Texas peanuts and figured why not smoke them. Well, I think the idea also came from the peanut butter and bacon combination and all the current talk of Elvis on the television. Ideas and thoughts bounce around in my head and out pops smoked peanuts. These were raw shelled nuts and took on the light hickory smoke nicely.
Now a few thoughts for their use: peanut butter and puree, soup, a lighter froth, ice cream, a fine crust, salt and sugar sanded nuts, vinaigrette.
Further thoughts include dusting crustaceans with the smoked peanuts and serving them with a fortified wine sauce (port, Madeira, sherry in equal parts reduced to a syrup) along with wheat berry fricassee. Also, we will use them in a pad Thai of calamari or giant squid noodles with mints, chili and black lime. Roasted pork belly, pickled banana, maple vinegar, mallow root puree and horseradish-lime condiment.
In order to be able to handle, work with and understand ingredients we continue to expose our palates to as many flavors and tastes that we can get our hands on. By expanding the knowledge base of ingredients and thus combinations our abilities to improvise and adapt in the kitchen become more polished and rehearsed.
It is interesting to note that in order to improvise we must first have a rock solid base of not only fundamentals, but ingredient combinations and a knowledge of their inner self. In searching for the knowledge while exposing our palates we raise the level in which we may perform in an improvisational manner and thus hopefully improve dining experiences and allow ourselves to raise our culinary benchmarks.
I am continuously searching for a means to serve improvisational cuisine. I am drawn to sushi bars, the interaction and the serene pleasure of dining, ideally with the food being served shaped by the ingredients, myself, pleasures and reactions as well as the skills of the chef, the choices made and ability to act within a situation. It is these acts of improvisation which create dining experiences, seemingly tailored to me while still providing creative stimulation for the chef.
Now how to integrate these key points into an intimate dining experience revolving around a cuisine shaped by a multitude of ingredients, techniques and inspirations.
I know the marrow spoon is in safe hands, but it is not in mine. As I await its arrival to our kitchen bone marrow visions dance through my head like those of sugar plums at Christmas. No, not really, but the spoon, its origins, uses and fall from grace keep me focused on bone marrow. I truly enjoy bone marrow, rich and decadent, melting and creamy with flavors of meat. We have approached marrow from many angles: roasted and served in the bone--hence the need for the bone marrow spoon, as a gratin with mustard and lovage crumbs in a split bone, served from a roasted veal shank on grilled bread as a precursor to the shank, gently poached in a kombu tissane then inserted into tuna and presented as a tuna osso bucco, in hollandaise sauce and its derivatives to enrich it, smashed into potatoes in lieu of olive oil. So the spoon is more than a representation of classic cuisine--preparations and presentations. It is culinary flint and steel; it provides inspiration for ideas--it enables us to say yes and continue with our improvisation.
We came across an abundance of terrific broccoli and scooped it up with no uses planned. Our only thoughts were to utilize all of the broccoli, even the stems. For me, the stems were a waste. However, after a few discussions we came to the idea of cooking the meaty stems like artichokes a la greque; at last a good and fruitful use for a product I normally abhorred.
In the same time frame as our broccoli surplus a dinner was arranged with a collection of doctors. What a perfect use and means to explore the flavors and textures of broccoli in a multi-course menu.
We further explored improvisation in the kitchen over this past weekend. We had the pleasure of conducting an exploration of tastes and flavors (a cooking school) with one base rule, we would say yes. Aki and myself believe in an intimate setting with limited numbers inspiration and improvisations are weaved together.
In order to facilitate our process, we began with a few base recipes: egg yolk pasta dough, Guinness bread and pizza dough. After working through these basics the kitchen became an interactive performance with ingredients and the methods of preparation. Only one element was constant, the word yes. By saying yes and traveling down rarely visited culinary paths our kitchen became and improvisational theatre. And, at the end of the day, it was Aki and I who learned the most.
We made, created, were exposed to or discovered with the help and influence of our cooking contemporaries: stinging nettle and almond pesto agnolotti with animal farm ricotta cheese (thanks to diane and the cows), vanilla-soy and meyer lemon soft boiled egg mayonnaise, chorizo-black trumpet mushroom-aged gouda pizza, artichoke eggs benedict, smoked tomato-mushroom ragout, whole fish grilled on a bed of sugar cane, fig and dried cranberry compote with extra aged gouda.
There is and was more, but at the end of the day our success came by saying yes.
improvise: to make, provide or arrange from whatever materials are readily available
An existing repertoire and learned techniques, flavor bases and principles allow for open thought, changes, variations, extrapolations, leaps and falls. Failure allows for growth. It is the influence of science and more so proven culinary facts which then drive our spontaneity and allows for our freedom. If there are rules, than one can bend or break them. This is the evolution of our cooking such that the steps, influences, and methodology followed allows for this to happen. Rather it gives us the skills and the repertoire which enables us to act freely.
In order to express the direction our food is moving, I have been looking for a term or definition or phrase. While reading blink, by malcolm gladwell, a brief anecdote on improvisational theater struck a cord. We are, in the long and short of it, creating culinary improvisation. We practice to stay sharp, but are merely cooking ingredients making condiments, refining and trimming products such that when guests arrive their own preferences dictate or at least begin to shape the meals. Our purveyors make sure we begin with the best, if not why are we cooking, in order that we may be free to execute. And, as noted in the book, our improvisation works best and really synchronizes when we always accept each others offer. We may have a profusion of ingredients to work with though it is the person who gets their hands on it first who prepares it as they see fit; only working it into the menu later on where it ties in.
More to come for we believe this concept is key in the development of ourselves and our guests alike.
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