1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes

Can a home cook learn anything from the supercomplicated cookbooks of the world's most celebrated chefs? We asked Timothy Taylor to dive into the deep end and then throw some dinner parties for friends.

PART 1: Hmm... I realize I need a week just to plan a recipe!

Chef Daniel Humm of 11 Madison Park is Swiss. His meticulous restaurant sits atop the New York food chain, up there in the clouds with Thomas Keller's Per Se. His approach is continental/experimental; his insalata caprese consists of two sodium alginate--formed spheres—one of mozzarella foam, the other of tomato water—and tastes like insalata caprese.

Humm writes in 11 Madison Park that he does not experiment for the sake of experimenting, but almost everything I looked at involved preparations and ingredients I'd never heard of: apple snow, celery cream, daikon vinaigrette, basil gel, candied olives. I chose a two-course menu: langoustine with celeriac and green apple, followed by John Dory poached with citrus, daikon radish, and olive oil. Obeying the manifesto of the local, I swapped West Coast spot prawns for the langoustine and West Coast halibut for the John Dory. I believed these were approachable dishes, the appetizer essentially a ceviche, the main course evolved only modestly from dishes you might find in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I quickly discovered, however, that both were deeply complex and involved.

Lesson one: Read the recipe, say, a week before you intend to cook it. By the time I'd done my shopping and prepared a work plan—there were a dozen pages of itemized tasks taped to my kitchen cabinets at one point—I realized I had, at minimum, 48 hours of work ahead of me. The appetizer involved making a fish fumet as well as juicing three dozen green apples and freezing the seasoned juice overnight. The main course required dried citrus to be made from grapefruit and blood oranges, another 12-hour preparation.

Not all of these advance preparations worked perfectly. Citrus pieces left in my low oven overnight weren't dried; they were petrified. The celery oil simply would not separate from the celery water and solids no matter how many hours I strained it through paper towels. I left it to cool overnight on a windowsill and extracted the oil with an eyedropper my wife had to run out to the drugstore to purchase. Twenty-four hours of effort for three tablespoons of product. This is where apprentices and line cooks come in mighty handy.

After 24 hours, I also had celery cream, a citrus beurre blanc, pickled daikon radish, blanched and shocked edamame beans, and a daikon vinaigrette. The final plating came together fairly easily. If you can endure, or even enjoy, this level of prep, and if you plate very precisely with one eye on the book's gorgeous photographs, Chef Humm will make you look like a pro at the table.

I learned a valuable lesson from Humm: The elements of a complex dish may taste odd alone, but when they come together on the plate, magic happens. Alone, the celery cream was cloyingly rich and sweet. With fluffy apple ice folded in, it was beautifully balanced. The daikon pickle was so unpleasantly pungent I put it on the back porch until serving time. But when it was gently fanned out over the fish—which is poached in a thickened chicken stock strongly seasoned with garlic and thyme—the pickle cut the richness of the dish and harmonized with the beurre blanc and vinaigrette.

What does a cook live for but the reaction of his guests? They raved. They loved the intense combinations of flavors. Spot prawns with celery and apples: light, refreshing, salty, tangy, and sweet. And very pretty, too, all swirled with shades of green and that flash of pink from the shellfish.

As for the halibut, one guest actually said: "That might be the best thing I've eaten in my life!"

 
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