Keep It Simple Stupid


Simple = Seagram Building :: Not simple = SF Marriott

How does one plan a menu?

It’s late in the day and I start to think about what’s for dinner. Something simple, I have a piece of Black Cod and a recipe for Cod with Red Wine Sauce. Good. EZ. Those green beans in the crisper are over a week old, I’ll do those with tomatoes. And I can do sliced fried red potatoes with a cipollini onion from the market.

I did that. Everything was real good, but there were real problems; conflicting flavors for one. And there was no way to serve, except on separate dishes, or one of those plates with three parts like you get in a cafeteria or the paper kind you take on a picnic. (I hurriedly served everything on one plate, disastrously.)

You see, each dish was a star and demanded its own presentation. The Cod was meant to be served in a puddle of the Red Wine Sauce. The Green Beans with Mediterranean Flavors (tomatoes and black olives) make their own sauce during a slow cooking. The fried potatoes are meant to have the fish course laid over them.
A menu should be organized with a star ingredient—in this case, the Cod—and a supporting cast, if you will—green beans tossed with butter and lemon would have worked. That way the starring Cod on its puddle of sauce would dominate a plate with a few green beans and a few potatoes grouped off to the side.

The thing is, many recipes are written to make their featured ingredient a star, whether meat, fish or vegetable, without the context of the other parts of the menu. So the Green Beans with Mediterranean Flavors would have a starring role alongside a piece of unsauced ham, for example.

In a restaurant, the entrée is the star and usually served sauced, with complementary vegetables off to the side or even nudging the entrée in an artful way. If you order an appetizer, that’s a separate course.

Alternatively, a meal can be served in courses, each course having its own character and plate and set of flavors. Recently we had some people over for dinner and served a first course of chilled red pepper soup (Donna Scala’s Zuppa Fredda di Peperoni), followed by Black Pepper Squid over noodles, accompanied by a Green Bean, Blue Cheese and Pecan salad on its own salad plate. That worked.

How come it is, at my age and with my cooking experience, I never thought about this before? Probably because now that I’m cooking daily and constantly trying new things I don’t see the dinner for the dishes, a forest for the trees kind of thing.

Julia Child said in her book My Life in France (which I heartily recommend),

“,no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing. This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook—try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

So, there’s a mistake and I learned something, and this blog is about sharing my cooking experiences. And I am having fun!

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