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Reinventing Museum-Quality Food at Home, Can It Be Done?

Personally, I don’t paint or sculpt or photograph, but every now and again I get a creative tinge in my brain, so I head for the kitchen.  And on a nightly basis, my creative license there extends only as far as choosing between cooking a plain chicken breast or a plain pork chop for my 9-year-old  or between rotini or penne for my 5-year-old.  But I’ve accumulated a bunch of gorgeous coffee table cookbooks from some of the great contemporary chefs, and while most of the time I just look at the pretty pictures of museum-quality (visually, that is) food, occasionally I’ll dive in and try to reinvent a fairly complicated recipe within the framework of my own limited time restraints and skill level.

So my latest obsession is with Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook

and one dish in particular: SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL, Black Truffle, Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise, and Manni Olive Oil (see image below © Jason M. Purcell). This is a visually stunning book, but its insights into how a chef thinks and creates are what really grab me.  And while many of the details are lost on me, what does always fascinate me is the unexpected combinations and/or presentations of familiar ingredients and flavors that chefs can arrive at.  And “unexpected” might be an understatement where this salmon dish is concerned.  “Bizarre” might be the more operative term (quite frankly, as it’s pictured it would look a lot more at home in the Death Star’s cafeteria than on my French-farmhouse dining-room table).

Now I don’t know when or if I’ll ever be in London, and even if I am, I’m not sure I’d be willing to spend a semester’s worth of my kids’ college fund on dinner, so I figure if I’m ever going to experience this particular taste sensation, then I’d best get to work on it myself.  And while I’m sure that the recipe in The Fat Duck Cookbook works just fine, I had to go about taking some liberties to make it work for me, not the least of which was avoiding “the bane of the stagiaire’s existence,” namely, the separating of grapefruit into individual cells for garnishing the plate.  I went with segments.  Problem solved. 

A greater issue was the salmon’s liquorice gel, a key component of which was a substance called “gellan LT100”, an ingredient that will never ever be in my kitchen in its raw state (though who knows how many of my kids’ snacks it’s already lurking in).  This took a little more imagination, but a little brown sugar/anise seed coating on the fish got the flavor there and searing it off hard in a grill pan achieved the dramatic black visual effect.  Vanilla mayonnaise?  Instead I juiced a couple of oranges and grapefruits and reduced the juice on the stove down to a syrup with a vanilla bean and finished it with a dab of honey (think dreamsicle-yummy; I would put this on ice cream).  I drizzled that over half of a soft-boiled egg with a couple of drops of truffle oil which I placed on top of the asparagus.  And voila!  All the “bizarre” components were there: salmon, “liquorice,” vanilla, truffle, asparagus, fancy oil.  And all in less than an hour and without having to learn any new tricks.


Now, was this the best thing I’ve ever cooked? Not really.  I’ll take pot roast and mashed potatoes just about any day as, I’m sure, most Londoners do as well.  But was it interesting and delicious and a far cry from what normally hits the dinner table on a typical weeknight?  You bet.  Will I make it again? Yep.  (Just without the truffle oil.  That was a bit too much, but make no mistake, this is a delicious plate of food.) It was (with a big assist from my “instructor” Heston) something I could call my own and was for that very reason all the more satisfying.  And my point is this: if you see a recipe or dish that piques your curiosity in any way but may seem a little unapproachable for whatever reason (e.g. uncommon or bizarre ingredients or combinations of ingredients, unfamiliar techniques, too time-consuming, etc.), don’t be afraid to get in the kitchen and mess around with it based on your particular tastes, time constraints, skill-set or whatever.  Chances are you’ll not only get a good meal out of it, but it will satisfy you that much more having put a little bit of your own thoughts and personality into it.

If you're cooking adventurously and need help identifying an ingredient or technique, go to Cooking 101 on