As an “experience teardown” I want to carefully keep track of how I go about coming up with a meal and how my excitement level and inspiration changes through the day. My goal is document (in nauseating detail) each step along the way to dinner. This also happens to be my favorite way to spend a Sunday.
gauge interest among friends
Time to get serious. I haven’t made fresh pasta in a while so I’m looking for either some kind of hand-cut or ravioli inspiration. I look through my old Chez notebook at ratios. I’ve also always wanted to make Apple Tart — I think it’s time to try it and with such amazing apples at the market, it pretty much makes itself. So I’m in search of that too. These are the memories + research stages. It’s also when I’m the most excited for the day ahead.
Okay, I have a rough outline of things to look for at the market. Right now it’s a weird mash of stuff but I think it’ll all be more clear once I see what is actually at the market… I like to call this the feasibility constraint. So, I’m considering the following dishes:
Fried mini fish + shishito peppers + fried capers with lemon
Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad [ The Art of Simple Food, 240 ]
Carbonara with fresh fresh thick cut noodles [ Canal House Cooks Everyday, 201 ] — duck eggs?
Roasted Pumpkin Soup [ Canal House Cooks Everyday, 189 ]
Simmered Gyoza with whatever I find [ Japanese Farm Food, 128 ] — hmmmm
Apple Tart [ inspired by Canal House, 174 ]
Smoked Duck Breast with celery root puree + dragon beans +… something else [ Chez Restaurant menu ]
Confit Duck Leg with polenta, some kind of pumpkin + mustard greens + baked spiced goat cheese [ Husk menu ]
Farmers market time. This is where all the fun inspiration and menu changes happen. It was a fairly successful mission but far less produce than last week. I’ll need to fill in the gaps at Whole Foods and elsewhere. I managed to get really sweet Gala apples for the tart, beautiful dark red pomegranates, more Fuyu persimmons, frisee, padron peppers, meyer and eureka lemons, yukon gold potatoes, romano beans, delicata, acorn and butternut squash, rapini (score!), new crop walnuts, garlic and herbs. Overall a pretty good haul totaling about $50.
The guest list is up to 5 but at this stage in the day and considering who the guests are (over-commited JPD students) it could change by this evening.
I’ve learned that I need to eat lunch in between shopping for food and cooking (or more shopping, in this case). Otherwise I get cranky and lose motivation. So I’m eating last night’s left over kung pao chicken that I made in our new wok on our wok burner. And watching Mind of a Chef. So much inspiration — writing down everything I want to try.
I watched Season 2, episode 5 on Preserving and serendipitously watched Sean Brock‘s Husk pastry chef, Lisa Donovan, make pastry dough. She says it’s best to keep the butter cold and in bigger chunks and smear it into the flour and add water as sparingly as possible. Once you need the dough together there should be tiny little “pretty” butter flakes visible in the dough. Noted.
Sean also jokes about how he’s a food “hoarder” and is always curing, fermenting and storing all kinds of weird stuff that allow him to expand his menus in ways that most chefs can’t. When he’s looking for that last ingredient or aspect to complete a dish he can just walk around the restaurant and look at the stuff he’s curing and storing, get inspired and try it out. I love that idea of being a food “hoarder” especially because the average eater would never think of eating something that’s been in storage or drying out or whatever for 6 months or a year! But the flavors get so concentrated and aspects of the ingredients are revealed that otherwise go unseen (or, I should say, un-tasted).
I’m reading up on pastry dough making methods before I go and get the rest of my ingredients — just in case there are some tips and tricks I can apply to my tart.
And I’m off to Whole Foods to track down the rest of these ingredients.
Back from procuring more ingredients. No tiny fish anywhere so simplifying the small bites to just padron peppers and possibly something else if I come up with it in time. Had to go to a second market to get non-frozen duck breasts and pancetta. Going to start with pastry dough, which is very intimidating to me and then move to pasta dough.
This is how I attempted to break up the next few hours of prep and cooking, after calculating out the ratios for pasta:
- make pastry dough using technique observed earlier in Mind of a Chef, form into block and refrigerate
- make pasta dough, wrap and let sit (this is my ratios sheet)
- boil water
- render fat from duck breasts
- peel and slice celery root and potatoes
- blanch potatoes
- saute celery root in butter
- prepare apples for tart
- roll out pastry dough – didn’t work so well with bottle instead of rolling pin
- arrange apples – in addition to cinnamon and brown sugar, added nutmeg because its a spice I love.
- drain potatoes and puree in Cuisinart
- bake tart for 45 minutes
- attempt to roll out pasta dough failed — too dry
- wash Radicchio, Belgian Endive and Frisee
- add celery root to puree with milk and pulse puree
- pick out Pomegranate seeds
- slice pancetta
- grate cheese
- peel persimmon
- roast walnuts
- realized forgot to add cream to tart, added it in
- transfered duck to smoker box with Alder wood chips
- remove walnuts
At this point, I took a quick 5 minutes break to shower because I like to be clean for my guests. I then resumed cooking. I had my guests help me by picking parsley, snapping the ends off the Romano beans and peeling persimmons. I like when my guests are involved somehow with the meal and feel like they’ve contributed, even if its the smallest thing that allows me to focus on something else for a few minutes. Even having one guest dress the Romano beans side was great because another guest asked a few times how they were cooked and dressed and was surprised to find out it was just lemon, salt and oil.
- remove tart from oven — 8:15 pm
- pound garlic
- render pancetta
- remove pancetta, wipe out pan and sauté rapine with garlic and hot pepper
- separate eggs for carbonara and create mixture with parmesan, pepper, pancetta
- boil more water for two kinds of pasta (gluten free and fresh papardelle)
- blanch romano beans
- drop corn pasta that takes 7 minutes
- drain romanos and toss with lemon, salt and oil
- drop papardelle
- reheat puree
- turn off duck and let rest
- reserve a bit of each pasta water, drain pastas and toss in egg mixture
- plate pastas and finish with parsley and cheese on top
- toss salad
- slice duck and plate family style with puree and rapini
- everyone finally sits down and to eat
Eating. Everything turned out pretty well. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t perfect with two different pastas and a few elements that were all cooked at the last minute and were only warm when we finally ate them. The best pairing of flavors was the smoky duck breast and the celery root and potato puree. My guests were pleased and didn’t seem to notice temperatures and when I asked, they bushed off the question, saying everything was delicious.
Dinner went at a fairly quick pace and by the end we were all full. One guest even commented that she thought she overate, which I attribute to serving things family style. I made enough food for about 10 and we ate almost all of it.
I plated the tart which was a bit dry because of the extra cooking time but not bad for my first attempt. The apple, cinnamon and nutmeg combination was pretty perfect.
We wrapped up with a quick dishes session and left most of it for tomorrow. Cooking alone, I was forced to use a lot of pots to boil and par-cook ingredients. Usually I wash most of my dishes as I go but tonight I had to move so quickly that I filled the sink. To me, that feels like a bit of a failure because I didn’t plan well enough or move fast enough.
Wrap-up & Learnings
7:45 am to 10:30 pm is a long day but not uncommon considering the time it takes to come up with a menu, research the methods, track down the ingredients and actually prep and cook a meal. There are many little disappointments on the way as well: not finding small fish to fry as appetizers, failing at making pasta dough, forgetting to add an ingredient here or there. All these things affect my perception of the success of dinner but in fact it is only I who knows about these failures — the inexperienced eater has no idea I’ve forgotten to add cream to my tart or pecorino to my carbonara, or even that my celery root puree is supposed to be piping hot. To them, each thing on the table is an element of the experience I’ve created for them and because they trust me, they believe everything is as I intended. So, beginning to understand a few things about myself and cooking:
- starting with way too many options is exciting and fun — it’s when I get to learn about all kinds of new things to make and recall old dishes I loved from the past
- some element of every meal is something I’m trying for the 1st time
- color on the plate is about as important as flavors on the plate
- sacrificing feels like failing
- sitting down to eat is the highest point of the experience for the people I’m cooking for–it’s when everything comes together–and yet often I feel like excusing myself and getting a breath of fresh air right as it happens
- I like watching others enjoy the food almost more than I enjoy eating it myself
- I love the ephemerality of the entire process — prepare one thing to immediately use it for another, paring down and combining many, many ingredients to produce 2 or 3 dishes.
- Cooking very cleanly, unobtrusively and with as few cooking tools as possible feels really good. Being messy almost ruins the experience for me but is maybe something I should try
- my high point is at the very beginning of the day, planning the entire meal, when anything is still possible
10/11 – 3 hrs
10/12 – 14 hr