Personally, I don’t paint or sculpt or photograph, but everynow and again I get a creative tinge in my brain, so I head for thekitchen. And on a nightly basis, mycreative license there extends only as far as choosing between cooking a plainchicken breast or a plain pork chop for my 9-year-old or between rotini or penne for my5-year-old. But I’ve accumulated a bunchof gorgeous coffee table cookbooks from some of the great contemporary chefs, andwhile 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 afairly complicated recipe within the framework of my own limited time restraintsand skill level.
So my latest obsession is with Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook and one dish in particular: SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICEGEL, Black Truffle, Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise, and Manni Olive Oil (see image below © Jason M. Purcell). This is a visually stunning book, but itsinsights into how a chef thinks and creates are what really grab me. And while many of the details are lost on me, whatdoes always fascinate me is the unexpected combinations and/or presentations offamiliar ingredients and flavors that chefs can arrive at. And “unexpected” might be an understatementwhere this salmon dish is concerned. “Bizarre” might be the more operative term (quite frankly, as it’spictured it would look a lot more at home in the Death Star’s cafeteria than onmy French-farmhouse dining-room table).
Now I don’t know when or if I’ll ever be in London, and evenif 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 thisparticular 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, Ihad to go about taking some liberties to make it work for me, not the least ofwhich was avoiding “the bane of the stagiaire’s existence,” namely, theseparating 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 keycomponent of which was a substance called “gellan LT100”, an ingredient thatwill never ever be in my kitchen inits raw state (though who knows how many of my kids’ snacks it’s alreadylurking in). This took a little moreimagination, but a little brown sugar/anise seed coating on the fish got theflavor there and searing it off hard in a grill pan achieved the dramatic blackvisual effect. Vanilla mayonnaise? Instead I juiced a couple of oranges andgrapefruits and reduced the juice on the stove down to a syrup with a vanillabean and finished it with a dab of honey (think dreamsicle-yummy; I would putthis on ice cream). I drizzled that overhalf of a soft-boiled egg with a couple of drops of truffle oil which I placedon 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 withouthaving to learn any new tricks.
Now, was this the best thing I’ve ever cooked? Notreally. I’ll take pot roast and mashedpotatoes just about any day as, I’m sure, most Londoners do as well. But was it interesting and delicious and afar cry from what normally hits the dinner table on a typical weeknight? You bet. Will I make it again? Yep. (Justwithout the truffle oil. That was a bittoo 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 moresatisfying. And my point is this: if yousee a recipe or dish that piques your curiosity in any way but may seem alittle unapproachable for whatever reason (e.g. uncommon or bizarre ingredientsor combinations of ingredients, unfamiliar techniques, too time-consuming,etc.), don’t be afraid to get in the kitchen and mess around with it based onyour particular tastes, time constraints, skill-set or whatever. Chances are you’ll not only get a good mealout of it, but it will satisfy you that much more having put a little bit ofyour own thoughts and personality into it.