The art of menu-planning
It's T-16 days here at hardtack. I'm gearing up and I'd like to share with you the process of planning for and executing the provisioning for this trip. First theoretically and then, in later entries, practically.
I've been in this profession for over 10 years now and this is truly a unique experience for me. Countless times I've balanced the elements in a single dish, considering its placement alongside other items and its role on the plate as a whole. I've then extended that balance to the entire menu. But this menu-planning exercise involves a level of complexity that has been a positive edge-pushing challenge for me. Because not only do I need to balance a dish and a set of courses, but they need to balance with that day's other meals, and then...one step further, with the meals the days before and the days after. The entire 21 days of meals need to have a cohesiveness. Of course, we could just eat hardtack every day.
The other thing I've had to keep in mind is that there are really only 3 places to stock up on food. Here in Seattle, in Nanaimo, BC in the first few days and then in Ketchikan, AK for the last 2-3 days of the trip. The freshness of our food will need to be preserved for as long as possible and when that is no longer feasible, I will need to apply all my skills to turn that pantry into something delicious. Because I can tell you that, short of fresh fish, I have heard that finding fresh produce in this area is harder than hardtack.
Another important factor for me to keep in mind is that all exotic ingredients must be loaded up on the boat in the next week or so, here in Seattle. What happens if I forget something here in Seattle? Either I suck it up or I'm forced to walk into a tiny British Columbia or Alaskan coastal town market and say, "um, excuse me..good day! Can you tell me where I can find smoked Spanish paprika? Oh, I see. Surely you have a little touch of ground sumac? Right. Wasabi tobiko? Truffled sea salt? Serrano ham? No, that's quite all right...I'll take those pringles, some beer and that bear jerky." In fact, that might be the best thing. I've talked the talk of eating local...it's time to walk the walk. Bear jerky pot de creme anyone?
As a private chef and cooking instructor, menu planning and teaching about menu planning is a big part of my job. So what's in a menu? And why do I choose to include some things and not others? I tend to focus my menus on what the season has to offer as well as on ingredients I can find locally. So, the first question that pops in my head is: What's in season? I find the answer to that question before writing or advising on a menu. I developed a website that answers that question for any of you chefs or home cooks that are located in the Pacific Northwest. Answering the "what's in season" question accomplishes many things at once: it features food at its prime, cuts down on shipping out of season food from all over the world and matches, not so surprisingly, what people crave at different times of the year.
In the cold, rainy winters here in Seattle, it is the slow-cooking braised dishes with root vegetables and meats that make the rain seem almost quaint. And then, as a kid, I remember summers, in the heat of August, my grandfather would bring his salt shaker out to my grandmother's garden. Bare-chested, little blue shorts on, house-shoes, he would stand in the New Jersey sun and eat the biggest, reddest, most delicious tomato out of hand.
Once I know the seasonal ingredients, I then check in with clients about their favorite ingredients, ingredients to avoid, allergies and health concerns. I often ask them about what cuisine appeals to them or to name their favorite restaurants. At that point, your creativity comes into play as you work with the season's ingredients and use them as the focal point, using herbs, spices, curry pastes, rubs, etc...to present an authentic or authentic with a twist take on the cuisine in question. Once we've settled on a cuisine, I determine the style of service: buffet, plated, family-style, indoor or outdoor, casual or formal? Is the meal going to be served all at once or be a multi-course affair? How many courses?
No matter the service style, one of the most important aspects of menu planning involves the concept of balance. The best way to explain how to balance a menu might be by way of first showing imbalance. I love to tell the sordid tale of my brother and my early experiments with pastry-making. Our father would purchase some Double-stuff Oreo cookies and on the D.L. my brother and I would systematically scrape the filling out of the middles and form what I dubbed "the snowball". We would offer up the tops and bottoms to our older brother who liked them and then, with our dirty, grubby little fingers, we would take a knife to the snowball and divide it in half. We'd sit and watch T.V. while eating our bounty. It makes my teeth chatter to even think about this right now, but I think it raises a good question. What was my father doing buying us so much junk food? No, that's another, different question. My point is that all that snowball needed was a well-made dark chocolate ganache to perfectly balance the sweetness of the white filling.
Clearly, there is no accounting for taste. The most important rule to follow is the rule of one's own taste buds. If you like a certain combination, you should go for it.
But for those looking for more guidance I give some examples: What would pair well with a braised Moroccan chicken tagine, flavored with cinnamon, lemon, and green olives? There are some strong flavors going on here with a sauce that would do well to be paired with something to soak up the juices. Keeping within the cuisine I would suggest a cous-cous. The more heavily spiced, flavored and complicated the tagine, the simpler the cous-cous should be. If you add all sorts of different spices and ingredients to it, it may compete with the flavors you want to convey in the tagine. In this case, you're balancing these two dishes by letting the tagine be the star and allowing the cous-cous to play back-up. This is an example of matching a rich dish with a textural starch that has enough integrity to hold up to the main dish, while simultaneously balancing a strong flavor with a milder flavor.
Imagine, for contrast, pairing a very pungent spicy, strong puttanesca sauce with delicate handmade vermicelli noodles. In my opinion, not a good match. The delicacy of the noodles would be lost under the weight, spice and heft of the sauce. In this case, you need a pasta that can stand up to the strength of the sauce. Preferably you would choose a hearty spaghetti noodle, or a ridged penne to catch the bits of chunky sauce. I have found, when teaching, that engaging students' intellect and curiosity about the "why's" of cooking helps make it understandable, less mysterious, and ultimately more accessible.
Balance further extends to color, texture and shape. There are definitely times when I choose to present a dish in various shades of the same color, but in general a dish that plays on several colors will help whet someone's appetite. Similarly, a dish of all smooth things is less interesting on the eye than a dish that contrasts various textures.
The next thing I consider is flow. If I'm suggesting a multi-course menu, I like to teach my students about the rhythm involved with orchestrating a meal. How do we know what goes first, what goes next and how to finish a meal? In general, I like to structure a multi-course menu much like a wine tasting where you might start with a crisp, refreshing champagne, move to a light white, gradually working towards a heavier red and finishing with a sweet dessert wine. Start a meal with a heavy, heavy dish and the light delicate consomme that follows will be lost. I like to start meals with small bites that are pungent, often tart (which stimulates the appetite) and not too spicy. If the first thing a guest eats is an incendiary bite of chili, that delicate piece of fish will taste like chili. Often at the end of a meal or in the middle of a meal a sorbet will be served to cleanse the palate. This is a great technique to erase the past flavors, refresh oneself and then start anew with new flavors (not unlike the bite of bread between tastes of wine, or a sip of green tea between bites of sushi). Similarly, a salad served after a heavy main course can be refreshing and leaves the guest feeling lighter and less weighed down than if they finished with a braised dish.
Here's a sample multi-course dinner menu that I developed for a class to give you a sense of the things I've written about.
Early tastes of a Seattle spring...
- Pea pancakes with sorrel-chive creme fraiche and apple-smoked bacon
- Slow-roasted black cod with pinot noir-green garlic sauce, garlic candy and morels, served with roasted potatoes and spring onions with lemon thyme oil
- Shaved asparagus salad with fava beans, radish and borage flowers
- First of the season trio of local goat cheeses, rhubarb jam and fennel-pepper grissini.
In this particular menu, I start with a chartreuse pea pancake with a tart sorrel cream and a little sprinkling of smoky bacon. I have consciously balanced color (various shades of green reminiscent of spring) with flavor (sweet pea, tart sorrel, and smoky, meaty bacon) and incorporated flow by starting with a small bite that is light and doesn't overwhelm the other dishes to follow. The appetizer is followed by the roasted black cod, a rich, oily fish with a deeply flavored red wine-green garlic sauce. The fish is strong enough to hold up to the strength of the sauce (where the flavor of sole might be lost). The acid in the wine also helps to cut the richness of the fish and the butter in the sauce. The potatoes act as a foil for the sauce (and a perfect medium for soaking it up) and the candied garlic is just a touch of sweetness to play off the richness. Following is a palate cleansing salad that balances color (green, red, and blue) and texture (long strips of asparagus, rounds of radish and star shaped points of the borage flower). And lastly, in lieu of a dessert, a cheese course follows that is a rich lingering finish, with a tart sweet jam and a savory breadstick.
If you start with great, seasonal, local ingredients, most of the hard work has already been done for you: by the farmer, rancher, cheese-maker, or Mother Nature. Coax that deliciousness out of your ingredients by letting them shine and speak for themselves.
Next up: The Longest Shopping List of My Life
Interesting note of the week: The Seattle Times just ran this article about the rash of food blogs in our fair city and beyond. Looks like I've jumped on the trend, in typical fashion, about 3 years after the bandwagon left town. I'd like to send out a special congrats to Dana and Shauna, who were mentioned in the article. You can check their blogs out by following the links I have posted on the sidebar to the right. Another special thanks to my friend, the Grand Poo-bette of the culinary world, for introducing me to the world of food blogs. It's thanks to her that my bills go unpaid, my work remains undone, and all conversations with friends become "blog fodder". When I get a crazy look in my eye and start giggling to myself, consider yourself duly warned.