Sunday, September 19, 2010

Working Through a Recipe - Wider Meaning

I wanted to spend some time and talk about working through a recipe, or really, being successful with cooking off someone else's instructions. I'll also tie it back to more general topics and to their sources. And I'll incorporate this into a narrative on the dinner party I hosted last night. On the menu were oysters, wild boar, sea urchin, salmon etc. Now wild boar isn't something I've cooked before. Another issue is that this was real wild boar, which means that they were free roaming feral hogs, that were harvested. I got a leg of one fedexed in from Broken Arrow Ranch. Check em out. Now I do know that wild boar tends to be leaner than the "wild boar" that is sold in markets in the area which are probably more fenced in pigs than anything else. Having no shortage of recipes via Google, I wanted a classic American preparation and not try to do some asian-y rendition of it.

So, I saw suggestions on using a classic pan dripping, onions, carrots, mushrooms sauce and felt that would do it right. How do you select a recipe? Well if you have more than one recipe, odds are that they're different for different reasons, and they all worked for a test kitchen at some point. So they're all right to a degree. Will it be right for you? I'll try to walk through how I think when I approach a dish that I haven't done before.

First, what is the focus of the dish? In this case, it's the wild boar. Everything else needs to support this. I make this distinction because most American feedlot steaks have very little flavor on their own. Which is why people sauce the hell out of it. And I don't blame the general public. I would do the same thing too if I were to make it palatable. If I were to serve something at a dinner party, it needs to stand on its own with perhaps a touch of salt and pepper. It needs it's own innate flavors. So buying good stuff is key.

So we have the boar, the focus of the dish, and the sauce that goes along with it. Next or at the same time, I consider the end result. How are my guests going to enjoy this? Individual plating? A single plate with that and other items? Family style? I chose family style because I was working solo and wanted to do individual plating for the oyster shooters, so this was left for convenience and to not make it a fussy dish. I also left this towards the end of the menu because the flavors were more intense; a good trailer for sashimi and more delicate bites. What I came up with, was pre sliced, bite sized pieces of the boar, in a long plate, with sauce covering the top. It was intended for a minimum amount of fuss for the guests.

The boar was originally intended to be roasted which would probably have been great too, however because I can cook sous-vide with the Polyscience, which allows for superior moisture retention, I chose that. So choose the method of preparation well. Play to your strengths when friends are coming, and to your weaknesses when you cook for yourself. Don't follow recipes to the T unless you're baking. If you get a sense that amounts are critical, use a kitchen scale. Don't even mess around trying to guess amounts. Usually the recipe will say if amounts are critical. Knowing how you're going to cook the dish is important, but knowing what tools you have available is even more important. Which is why if I teach a friend how to cook, we focus on individual techniques. My goal is not to show them how to work a recipe, but to give them tools so they aren't glued to a recipe.

Now for the sauce, I had to consider whether I could get all the ingredients. None of them were hard to source, but what if they were? Look at each ingredient and ask yourself what they contribute. This is really important because it's rare for me to be able to get all the ingredients for a recipe. Look at each ingredient in it's generic form. Does it contribute saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness? If you miss one, what are you going to do? Cancel dinner? =). Shit no, you're going to ball it up and crush things.

Within the sauce, I had guidance for varying amounts. And remember, it's worked for someone before, but ask why it WON'T work for you this time? That's important because natural ingredients are all different, contributing different amounts of flavor. Take salt for example. If I want to put in bacon, which I did, I have to consider how much saltiness that's also contributing. So, I have to hold off on any additional salt till the end when you would adjust before sending the plate out. Red wine was also another ingredient, which I felt was important, but the amount is incredibly variable. Wine in this sauce would contribute liquid volume, as well as lots of other flavors. Rule of thumb is to add it slowly, taste, and stop when you get the right taste. If you don't have enough volume, add a neutral broth like chicken broth (without added salt).

Some recipes will call for thickening of the sauce. To reduce risk, I like to isolate steps and thickening is a good example. If I know I will serve immediately, I'll just use a quick aggressive thickener like arrowroot starch. If it needs a glossy texture, I use tapioca starch. When the sauce's taste is pretty much to your desire, and you're close to serving time, do the thickening. The point I'm making is that you want to highlight each process in the recipe see what it's trying to accomplish. Do you have the skills to do so? If you don't, can you replace it with something? Is learning it something you can do right now?

Now for what I call "connected flavors," a real easy way to make sure your sauce supports the main dish, is to use the drippings from the cooked primary ingredient in your sauce. You can get technical and look up the "Flavor Bible" which is an outstanding reference. But just use the drippings in your sauce. Taste the drippings first to get a sense of how intense that flavor is. If you need more support, which I did, use some concentrated stock. If you need more savoriness which is tossed around with the term "Umami," know your heavy hitters. Mushrooms, anchovies, parmesan cheese, and others. These can be used in small amounts to increase the presence of glutamates. Savoriness was important here, because this dish was intended to be comfortable/homestyle, which I know I'm making it sound like it's not, but I have to break down the process for you.

I take my guests preferences very seriously and this is why I spend a lot of time thinking through each dish. While I love the fact that guests come to hang out with me, I want to make sure that I respect their prime real estate on their calendars, Friday or Sat evening. My way of doing so, is to build something that respects their sensibilities but places it's execution in my hands. And it's got to be done in a way that's friendly, and also demonstrates personality with it.

So as a review, I'll give you a few questions I ask myself when I cook:
What's your focus? What's the main ingredient?
Who's coming?
Have I tasted everything? Have I checked all components?
What's google say about it? Who are the pro's that are working with this? Can I find out how they think?
Is this fashionable? If so, are you really doing this for the right reasons?
What's my end result look like? Will I know when I get there?
Am I lacking in skills, equipment, ingredients? Do I really have to do things that way?
What can I do to use assets I already have?
Am I doing this with heart? Will friends look at what I've done and know it's unmistakably MY work, but with their guidance?
Will I screw up royally and love the fact that I tried?

Funny enough, while I write this, trying to wait out the effects of overindulgence while sitting by my window, I realize once again, the above has less to do with cooking, and more to do with general approach to doing stuff. And so my way of saying thanks for the guidance is to reveal those who have helped me. Who knows if it will change next year. I hope it does and I hope someone takes the time to correct me.

Focus comes from my executive coach, Michael Ker, asking me what my purpose is. Ingredients came from the Master Chef, Jason at Okoze who taught me the importance of the plate and the customer.

The audience comes from working in sales and the sales professionals I love working for.

Checking all items comes from practical pistol. Did I double, triple check that my gun was unloaded before putting it in the safe? Did I double, triple check that a round was in the chamber when I wanted it loaded? Did I have to think about this? If so, it's not second nature and it may need to be.

Studying the pros comes from hanging out at the archery store when I was small, never really having a formal coach, being forced to imitate. Doing things for the right reasons. Funny this comes from wearing cologne. Wear what smells good on you, not what's the latest. I love Bulgari Blue.

Recognizing a win comes from working in various jobs. If we don't know a win when we see it, is it even worth doing? The skills inventory comes from being forced to learn new stuff all the time from awesome, unorthodox internships I had in school.

Doing things with heart comes from violin teacher Lee Snyder. Someone else obviously wrote the piece, but are you playing passionately like it were yours?

And the last, screwing up royally but still loving yourself comes from girls I've dated and are still fantastic friends =). I'm just that jackass sometimes.

One of the things I find most important and satisfying is finding out how people that do things and act the way that I like, think for themselves, and from where they got their help. And so, by sharing how I think and got these questions, I'm hoping that this will humbly of course, be useful to someone.

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