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On Flavor and Intent

March 19, 2010

Here’s putting it all together: Crispy confit of Hidden Streams Farm pork belly over gingered pea tips and a sherry vinegar and shallot reduction with a sesame scented beet salad.  Next to the pork belly is a bruleed roasted peach with cardamom whipped creme fraiche.  This may seem like an unnecessarily long description for a dish, but these things are important when it comes to communicating the flavors in a dish and how all of them go together.  In this particular case, I made this dish at home for a couple old friends.  Of course, I didn’t have a printed menu, so I had to preface our meal with a description of what I was cooking.  I’ve only recently become a fan of this style of dish and menu description, especially in the fine dining circuit.  I think it shows transparency and the intent of the chef.  If you have a basic understanding of food terminology, you can surmise what a dish might taste (and look) like and weigh that against the chef’s execution.  The difference between your prediction and the chef’s execution is where the majority of the “wow” factor happens in a dining experience.

At work, I’m lucky enough to cook in a restaurant whose menu is descriptive and transparent, and changes daily according to what’s fresh and locally available.  We meet everyday to discuss what ingredients are in their flavor peak and what prep would be their best match.  We recently offered a Michigan apple-scarlet turnip cream soup with winter leeks and chili pepper oil.  In our meeting, a cook asked “Winter leeks?  Where the hell are the leeks?” not knowing they were blended into the soup.  Chef responded “They’re in the fucking soup!”  Our FOH Manager, who was across the room eavesdropping and polishing wine glasses, responded “Put THAT into the menu! …with winter leeks (THEY’RE IN THE FUCKING SOUP!!!)

I once saw an episode of Top Chef where a contestant described his dish as “Electric Venom Soup”.  This sort of (nick)naming tells you nothing of what the chef did to put his dish together.  The chef is accountable to no one or any methods – and yes, there are rules.  So, it’s a cop out.  The chef knows that, at worst, he can only be liable for culinary manslaughter.  It’s like sinking the 8-ball to win the game without calling your shot first…it’s slop.  This isn’t so much an issue of culinary rule-makers vs. rule-breakers, as some would like to think.  99% of cooking can be described and understood in scientific terms.  Even the guys who are seemingly “breaking the rules” of cooking, like Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adria, are not rule-breakers.  They’re rule-makers: chefs taking a more in-depth scientific approach to cooking.  They’re following the same rules of cooking that have always been there, and they’re expanding on them.  Bottom line: if you’re a cook who is honest about your skills and if you respect your guests (i.e. not expecting them to fall for “Electric Venom Soup”) leave the glammy names to TGI Fridays and tell us what the hell you’re trying to do.

Crispy confit of Hidden Streams Farm pork belly over gingered pea tips and a sherry vinegar and shallot reduction with a sesame scented beet salad next to a bruleed roasted peach with cardamom whipped creme fraiche.

Here’s the breakdown:  The pork belly has been confited (or cured and slow cooked in fat) then crisped, skin side down, in a pan.  Alone, this is a very decadent piece of pork so it needs to be “cut” with some acidity.  That’s why we bring in the sherry vinegar and shallot reduction.  With these two alone, we’ve managed to balance fat and acidity but the flavor profile is still pretty two dimensional and contrasty.  So, we introduce pea tips sauteed with ginger.  This creates a smoother transition between the fatty pork and the pungent vinegar reduction while adding an element of freshness from the pea tips and earthiness from the ginger.  The beet salad is mostly for color (red to compliment the green pea tips) but it’s also macerated to introduce a little sweetness and carry the nutty fragrance of sesame oil.  This fragrance expands on the nuttiness of the crisped pork skin while establishing an Eastern flavor affinity with the ginger.  The bruleed peach is a play on a classic pork and fruit combination, adding more sweetness in addition to the beet salad.  In addition, the cardamom creme fraiche is a play on peaches and cream while assisting in lifting any remaining heavyiness.  The cardamom in the creme fraiche connects with the Eastern flavor profile of the ginger and sesame.

…That was my intent, anyhow…

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