Thursday, April 9, 2009

Evolution of recipe ideas

As most people here know, I usually don't follow recipes. Mind you, I own a zillion cook books and I read recipes the way that some nerds read comic books, but it's mainly for general concepts and ideas. I might like the way that one recipe recommends a sauce, but think that the rest of it is crap, and think about a completely different way to take it and go with a random idea. To sort of illustrate the process that goes on in my mad science lab of a brain, I'm posting up a bit of a work in progress.

Basically, I wanted to make a dish with a general Italian sense of style using three things in particular.
  • Fresh asparagus (it's so in season it would be a crime not to eat it often)
  • Pungent & garlicky bruschetta (Italian toast basically)
  • An egg, preferably poached (cooked in liquid just slightly under the boiling point)
Now, my first day of tinkering resulted in hit or miss stuff. My egg fell completely apart in my poaching liquid! Disaster! I had forgotten to swirl the water before adding the egg, and also forgotten to add a little bit of acidic liquid to my water, which helps to denature the proteins in the egg and make them semi-solid like we like. The swirling helps to more or less wrap the egg up in itself as it cooks, so it stays together instead of becoming a whispy white cloud in your pot.

In my frustration, I opted instead for an over-easy egg. Bad idea on two fronts. One, it ain't poached like I want it, and two, I really suck at flipping over easies. Broke the yolk, ranted and raved, and moved on. Can be eaten, just isn't pretty.

The asparagus was a simple affair, and I wanted nothing more than to just pan fry about five stalks of the stuff in maybe a teaspoon or two of olive oil. To that I'd accompany some very thin slivers of garlic clove. Now in this iteration I added them a little early to the pan. Garlic is a tricky thing. Heat changes its flavor profile dramatically. Raw or lightly cooked, and it's very pungent and a little peppery. Cooked more and it sweetens a bit. Beyond that and it gets a bit bitter. If you like that skanky, flower-wilting effect that only the first category provides, you want to add the stuff just a minute or two before removing the pan from the heat. It doesn't need much to flavor everything around it.

The bruschetta in my case was a bit of thick-sliced baguette (quiet you big babies it isn't important whether the bread is Italian or French, just as long as its crusty) that I blitzkrieg'd through my oven's broiler on the high rack. If you remember my Pecorino Toscano cheesies from the cacciatore posting, the high rack gets a huge blast of heat down onto your food. You're essentially grilling in your oven. The only thing you're not getting is a little bit of the charcoal or wood smoke, which is okay. It's best on the grill for sure, but this is convenient and still very tasty. Eyeball those like a hawk and when they look good and golden brown on top, yank em. Take a clove of garlic or two and chop in half. Now pretend its an eraser and you're erasing something you've written on the toasty top of the bruschetta. You scour the entire surface with the garlic, which is going to slowly start to disintegrate from the chafing the toast is giving it. Once you're garlic'd up, you top with extra virgin olive oil, and I went with a few flakes of fleur de sel (fancy pants sea salt) and thin slivers of red bell pepper.

I still suck at plating but I like to pretend I can do it!

It tasted great, but I felt a little meh about it. For one, that damn egg was making me mad. I don't want an over easy (and a bad one at that!) in my pseudo-Italian hodgepodge. Over easy is appropriate for a lot of things in my head, but here it's a cop out. No, that wouldn't do. Hell or high water I'd poach me an egg.

Also the red pepper tastes awesome, but its kinda blah when in raw slices. Also it didn't really do anything on that bruschetta except fall off when I went to eat it. No, needed to change that somehow. Still, the arrangement was good on the asparagus, and even though the garlic was a little overdone, it tasted great. In fact, it all tasted very nice, but that's only part of the equation. My wife may never understand my Rainman-esque obsession, but I find a particular zen in being able to not only get food to taste good, but also to feel good in my mouth and look good. Sometimes I get this to work.

This is getting places! I made a few little changes and improved my experience for the most part. I finally got my poached egg, which was a tricky jerk about wanting to stay on that bruschetta. I think the real estate is a little bit high for the egg's liking, and I think thinner bruschetta would make it happier. It would also make it easier to cut with the flat of a fork when I bleed that yolk into the toast. And believe me buddy, you'd better do just that.

I also traded the regular extra virgin oil with one that was infused with rosemary, which was paired with a tender shoot of rosemary from my garden for garnish. A falling back to my comfort zones perhaps, but I love rosemary with my bready experiences and I regret nothing.

The red pepper? That went in the pan with the asparagus, adding sort of a little ribbon effect to the intertwined stalks and definitely making a pretty contrast of colors in the veg. White garlic? Green asparagus? Red bell pepper? Italian nationalism worked for pizza margherita's backstory so I might as well have fun with kitsch right?

The poached egg took two shaves of Manchego, which is a really hard and savory goat's cheese. It's similar to Parmesan and other hard fragrant cheeses, but I think the flavor is a lot brighter and helps to say "Hey here's some fresh stuff in here".

I smashed two or three peppercorns with the flat of my knife to sprinkle on the egg, and fleur de sel went on the veg.

In the end, it made an improvement, and an evolution in my menagerie of half-assed ideas. Can I improve this further? Probably! Why shouldn't all recipes be works in progress anyway? With evolving tastes happening at all times, I think saying you can't continue to tinker with your ideas is an act of unforgivable hubris. Create new things, eat them, and make them better next time. You'll usually succeed.

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